It's Not Just Conservative Islamists versus Liberal Reformers

The dissolution of Kuwait's parliament and the calling of early elections reflect developing social and economic fissures in the Gulf emirate, says Raymond Barrett

A Kuwaiti Parliament official reads a newspaper at the lobby of the National Assembly (photo: AP)
A Kuwaiti Parliament official reads a newspaper at the lobby of the National Assembly which has seen an unusual amount of disturbance of late

​​The dismissal of Kuwait's parliament on 21 May 2006 by the country's emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, brought an abrupt end to an unusually stormy week both in and outside the building. Overnight demonstrations outside the assembly by youth activists were followed by a walkout by twenty-nine of the body's fifty members of parliament during a crucial vote on electoral reform.

The emir responded by announcing in a televised address to the nation that he was using his powers under Article 107 of Kuwait's 1962 constitution to dissolve the assembly and call new elections (previously scheduled for summer 2007) for 29 June 2006. It was "a difficult decision that I had never wanted to take", the emir said, adding that "it was necessary to preserve national unity."

Three reasons for increased tensions

The ostensible reason for the assembly's dissolution – the fourth time this has occurred since the institution was founded in 1963 – was the MPs' failure to reach agreement on a draft electoral law to reduce the number of electoral constituencies from twenty-five to ten. However, the argument over electoral reform was also a conduit for three other issues that had increased tension between opposition groups, MPs, and the government.

First, the government-appointed cabinet had insisted that electoral reform was necessary to curb corruption and create a more open electoral culture, while assembly members in turn threw accusations of corruption at cabinet ministers.

Second, the move that appears to have sealed the dissolution was a request by three MPs to interrogate the prime minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, a nephew of the emir. Such so-called "grillings" are part of Kuwait's parliamentary procedure, and the barrage of questions from MPs often become heated and potentially embarrassing affairs for cabinet ministers. However, this was the first time in the assembly's history that a prime minister was to be "grilled", and even Kuwait's current reform-minded administration was not prepared to accept that a senior member of the ruling family would be subjected to the treatment.

Third, the nature of parliamentary politics in Kuwait feeds the present dispute. This is dominated by a number of interest groups, often based on religious or tribal affiliations connected to particular geographic areas in the territory.

Candidates "anointed" by tribal leaders

The term "tribal" here refers to the descendants of nomadic Bedouin tribes from the borderlands between present-day Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, who now form majorities in outlying areas of the country. As a result, candidates in these electoral districts are practically unassailable, as the candidates will have been "anointed" by tribal leaders before any ballot.

Moreover, the current twenty-five-district system has allowed for vote-buying targeted at the relatively small number of voters in some electoral constituencies. The government had vowed to eliminate this practice with its reform bill.

In marked contrast to the population of these tribal areas are the hadhar (city-dwellers), the descendants of Kuwait's first settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Wealthier, more influential, and more educated than their tribal counterparts, the hadhar would have gained significantly by the proposed changes to the electoral law. For example, 16,600 hadhar voters in one district would elect six MPs, while 49,650 tribal voters would elect the same number of MPs in another.

Intense popular dissent

The Kuwait Times quoted the MP Saleh Ashour dismissing the government's electoral changes at a public gathering outside the assembly on 20 May: "The government bill is unfair and racist. It discriminates between Kuwaitis. It gives 70,000 Kuwaiti voters twenty MPs and the remaining 250,000 thirty MPs. Is this fair?" he asked.

These differences in voter representation have helped to generate intense popular dissent, a phenomenon rarely seen in Kuwait. For once, many disparate elements in Kuwaiti society (Islamists, liberal reformers and youth movements) found some common ground on which to stand, making this opposition movement a more potent force than the government anticipated.

The student groups who demonstrated outside the national-assembly building were supported by many MPs; the local media also weighed in on the issue with many commentators labelling the government's proposal as blatant gerrymandering.

The cycles of reform

Kuwait has received much praise from western governments in the last year for its social reforms. 29 June will be the first parliamentary election that Kuwaiti women can both contest as candidates and vote in. Kuwaiti women were finally granted the right to vote in 2005, after various coalitions in the national (and all-male) assembly had blocked previous attempts by the former emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah (a half-brother of the current monarch) to enfranchise women in the country.

This is one example of how the ruling family, many of whom attend private schools staffed by western teachers and go to universities in Britain or the United States, are often more "liberal" than many sections of the Kuwaiti population. This is further evinced by the fact many female members of the al-Sabah and hadhar families eschew the traditional black coverings such as the abaya and hijab, which are commonly worn by female members of tribal or Islamist families.

Sheikh Sabah, the current emir, has been in power for only five months, following the sudden death of Sheikh Jaber. Already he has already introduced a host of reforms in the areas that appeal to Kuwait's western allies, from international investment in the oil industry to human rights.

Reforms and their limits

Sheikh Sabah was Kuwait's foreign minister for forty years, served as prime minister from 2003-06 and has a reputation of being a pragmatic reformer. However, such reforms have limits, especially when they affect the power relationship between the parliament and the ruling family.

Two aspects of Kuwait's current political tumult, then, are notable: the impulse to reform, and resistance to reform. The imbalances revealed by the proposed electoral law are indicative of a broader gap within Kuwaiti society, where a small number of individuals have greater access to wealth, privilege and career advancement than the rest of society.

The divisions that exist within Gulf societies are often simplified for western audiences – conservative Islamic groups versus liberal reformers. The political acrimony in Kuwait reveals the reality to be much more complicated.

There, as elsewhere in the Gulf, religious and political beliefs are both qualified and overlain by other factors that should receive at least equal attention: social class and inclusion, and access to economic and political power.

Raymond Barrett

© Raymond Barrett 2006

This article was previously published on openDemocracy.

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