Saturday July 13, 2024

Watching Kuwaiti democracy

One of the oldest democratic experiments in the Gulf is about to undergo change. As Tunisia and Egyp

By Ahmed Quraishi
October 31, 2012
One of the oldest democratic experiments in the Gulf is about to undergo change. As Tunisia and Egypt experiment with their own versions of democracy, the Kuwaiti democratic experiment is being watched across the region. It is a test in how to balance stability and growth with the chaotic nature of popular politics. Kuwait’s emir, a soft-spoken liberal and internationalist, appears to have decided that growth trumps chaos and is introducing corrective measures. He wants to turn democracy from a liability into an asset.
Kuwait’s democracy is sixty years old. Its liberal-leaning constitution was promulgated in 1962. But in real terms, the ruling Al-Sabah family fostered popular participation eighty-four years ago, with the first elected local council in 1938 to help the Kuwaitis run affairs of their tiny city-state. As residents of a bustling seaport straddling major trade routes, both Kuwaiti rulers and people have been open to outside influences and encouraged education for men and women. Their relationship with religion has always been strong but never extreme.
The problem is that for the past quarter of a century, Kuwait has not seen a single major development project. The last university and public hospitals were built decades ago. Healthcare and education are deteriorating, the economy is stagnant despite the oil riches, and educated Kuwaitis are forced to find better jobs in Qatar and the UAE. This week, a daily six-hour power blackout will be seen in some areas of Kuwait, one of the richest nations of the world. Once a leader on women’s issues in the conservative Gulf, it now stands at number four out of six in providing the best environment for working women.
Kuwaitis blame their situation on official corruption and a chaotic, unstable democracy. Since 1992, the emirate has seen more than a dozen weak governments. Last week, political instability broke a historical ceiling as the emir, untouchable under the constitution, and his ruling Al-Sabah family came under direct public criticism by opposition leaders. This week, the government said it is searching for three Egyptians who entered Kuwait to help the opposition organise demonstrations against the ruling family. And the ratings agency Fitch warned on Monday that a surge in public unrest in Kuwait could threaten the country’s solid sovereign rating.
So what went wrong in the Kuwaiti democracy? Basically, Kuwaiti democracy has become a battlefield for powerful businessmen, ambitious politicians and wayward sheikhs who are fighting over the Kuwaiti bounty: 104 billion barrels in proven oil reserves, a monthly income from oil that runs into billions of dollars and a lot of money stashed in government accounts for public spending. These riches are also attracting regional players. Reports are rife in the Kuwaiti media about Saudi, Iranian and Qatari political meddling.
Until last week the Kuwaiti rulers have been reluctant to take corrective measures to stop democracy from going awry. Their reluctance stemmed largely from not wanting to be on the wrong side of an international trend that favours democracy and popular participation. In September, Kuwait’s independent judiciary rejected the emir’s one-person-one-vote proposal that was meant to limit the influence of organised politicians and political parties and allow more independent and educated Kuwaiti candidates to step up.
But the emir seems to have thrown caution to the wind and embarked on some measures to streamline democracy. He overruled the court decision and implemented the one-person-one-vote proposal. His democratic reforms include ending the practice of impromptu chaotic demonstrations. A large contained empty space on one edge of Kuwait city has been designated as the only place where politicians and civil society can protest.
A law has been introduced to protect whistle-blowers that expose government and political corruption. Newspapers and television stations feeding the social and political division have either been served warnings or had their permits cancelled.
These measures might help restore some credibility to the old Kuwaiti democratic experiment. The rulers of Qatar, Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi sneer at the Kuwaiti mess. With no democracy and booming economies, they have a reason to be thankful they did not follow the Kuwaiti lead in constitutionalism.
With elections four weeks away, Kuwait now has a chance to show its democracy can help it bridge the widening growth gap with other rising economies of the Gulf. The challenge for the Kuwaiti democracy is to strike the right mix: look more like Dubai and Doha and less like Iraq.