The Kuwaiti patient | Haitham El-Zobaidi

The Kuwaiti political class realised that the new emir, Sheikh Meshal Al-Ahmad, would not accept the ongoing turmoil and the successive rounds of parliamentary elections and dissolution of the legislature as the country’s self-perpetuating reality. Political actors had ratcheted up the relentless crises to an unprecedented level. But Sheikh Mishal did not beat around the bush, describing their manoeuvres as a direct challenge to the emir’s prerogatives. His decision to dissolve parliament, suspend some constitutional provisions for a few years, and potentially reconsider a number of articles of the constitution, was inevitable as the only way out of the stalemate that had disrupted all aspects of public life in Kuwait.

It must be said that the opposition in Kuwait had been preparing for this for many years. It eventually reached the stage of encroaching upon the powers of the emir after gradually challenging the country’s authorities. It first held hearings where it questioned second-row ministers and heads of bodies with a quasi-ministerial structure. Then, it summoned influential ministers and other members who are members of the ruling family. Then came the turn of key ministers, the deputy prime ministers and the prime minister himself. On each occasion the opposition sought to break a new barrier. Meanwhile, legislatures continued to be re-elected with the same tribal and sectarian political make-up despite cosmetic changes.  The tone of the hearings would become increasingly harsher leading to the dissolution of parliament.

The ruling family thought it would eventually be able to contain the situation. There were influential figures in the royal family who enjoyed respect. The late Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad sought catharsis and healing in the measures which he took, hoping that events would turn for the better. The ruling family undoubtedly still remembers the difficult first months of the “Arab spring”. The situation was so delicate then that Arab Gulf leaders reached out to Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad offering their help to prevent the situation from dangerously spinning out of control as in Bahrain. Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad weighed in to defuse the crisis and enable the country to overcome the hybrid alliance between tribalism and the Muslim Brotherhood.

But time was not on the side of the ruling family and its ability to contain the situation due to divisions plaguing the family itself. Members of the political class from outside the ruling family invested in these divisions.  The opposite of what was desired eventually happened. Salafist, Muslim Brotherhood, Shia and tribal blocs emerged and attempted to use influential sheikhs from within the ruling family as supportive fronts for them. In the last years of the rule of the late Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad, conflicts grew due to a number of considerations including the emir’s illness and his leniency. The whole stand-off might almost have been reenacted during the short reign of the late emir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad, had it not been for the fact that the emir’s illness was so severe he delegated his powers to someone not known for his proclivity for bargaining: the then-crown prince and deputy emir and today’s emir, Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad.

Kuwaitis are disturbed by the realities of their country. Any of its citizens are bound to ask themselves: Did we gain anything in terms of democracy building from our development setbacks? The obvious response is: We have neither made development strides nor anchored democracy.

Kuwait is part of a region that has advanced along a fast track of profound and fundamental transformation. During a quarter of a century, countries with varying potential, in terms of oil and gas revenues, were able to reach high levels of development. Kuwaitis compare their own situation to that of the Emirates, the sultanate of Oman and Qatar. They now also see what political determination can achieve in a short period of time as has happened in Saudi Arabia. There are no valid excuses left as to why Kuwait was left behind. The Souq Al-Manakhstocks crisis in the 1980s and the Iraqi invasion in the early 1990s are history and cannot justify current woes. The Gulf countries that today lead the fast-track development process had embarked on that drive in the early 1990s. A country such as Qatar has emerged since the mid-nineties from a state of near financial bankruptcy to reach its incredible level of today. Kuwaitis see no purpose comparing their country to the UAE whose achievements have been more than exceptional. And then what about a country with medium capabilities like Oman? The contrast even there is stark. Whenever members of the Kuwaiti National Assembly debate any project, they can see how a similar project has already been completed in the fast-development track countries.

On the democracy-building path, woes are even worse.  The Kuwaiti oasis of liberalism has receded.  The supposedly liberal environment was meant to boost democracy. Instead, parliamentary elections turned into tribal and sectarian exercises in the distribution of spoils unrelated to democracy. A Shia voter elects a Shia candidate, while a Salafist voter elects a Salafist candidate and a Mutair tribe voter elects an Al-Mutairi candidate even if at face value that candidate represents the Muslim Brotherhood.

The political faltering has had a negative impact on the country’s economic performance, prompting chronic budget deficits and excessive borrowing from investment funds that were supposed to finance the projects of future generations from today’s oil wealth. There is no doubt that Kuwait is still a wealthy country by Arab standards, but it is an anxiety-ridden welfare state which needs continued government subsidies derived from oil revenues and investment funds.

This anxiety-ridden welfare state comes with its own social challenges. Kuwait today is not the top favourite Gulf country for foreign workers. The abuse of domestic workers has begun to harm the country’s reputation. There is recurrent sniping between Kuwaitis and Egyptians on social media over issues essentially affecting expatriate employees. Some of the exchanges are comical, such as Kuwaiti complaints about Egyptians causing the disappearance of onions from the shelves of the subsidised supermarkets.

The regional situation, from a political and sectarian perspective, is not in Kuwait’s favour. There are forces investing in Kuwait’s problems. The division of loyalties between political blocs and sectarian groups in Kuwait is clear. Various regional and international actors are trying to mark their presence to the point of engaging in turf wars. Sahat AlIrada (Willpower Square) protests put on display vying political forces according to their respective loyalties, even though all of them, whether in their Muslim Brotherhood or Shia manifestations,  serve the interests of Iran under the pretext of standing up for Gaza. Attacking influential Gulf and Arab countries from such pulpits is part of an attempt to prevent Kuwait from keeping up with the pace of change in the region.

The next stage for Kuwait will definitely not be easy. There will be no respite from politics and related problems. The political class, including the ruling family, will not be able to withdraw from the public spotlight while it rewrites this or that provision of the constitution and then return within a year or four equipped with a panacea that cures the stagnation that has periodically plagued the country for decades. Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad has diagnosed the “Kuwaiti patient’s” ailment. Now it is necessary to find a cure.

Before anyone cries over lost democracy in Kuwait, one should ask: how much has the country lost because of democracy?

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