Democracy In The Gulf Cannot Take Place Overnight


Proponents have attempted to discredit the ruling families in the Gulf, and sell a Western model of governance to conservative Arab societies. The gap between the wealthy and the destitute in the region, they argue, contributes to the appeal of terrorist groups among the idle youth.

Popular political participation, they believe, would draw the idle youth to the bosom of the government, rather than insurgent groups operating on the fringes of society.

Opponents insist that a Western system of governance may not necessary suit the needs of Eastern societies. They also point out that the West has had centuries to develop a model, which works best for its own people, whereas the East has had to make quantum leaps to catch up with advancements in science and technology.

An achievement, which should not be downplayed, they say. While the seeds of terror must be eradicated, they concede, a hasty implementation of Western ideals might prove equally disastrous and fuel discontent.

With an elected majlis (parliament), Kuwait is considered a "semi-democracy" but critics say democracy has hampered the decision-making process in the country, with the powerful Islamist contingent blocking much-needed reforms.

Caution must also be taken not to disenfranchise the lower classes, says Ahmed Al Jarallah, editor-in-chief of Al Seyassah, a Kuwaiti Arabic daily, and its sister English-language publication, Arab Times.

"The semi-literate poorer classes might fall victim to the interests of the highly-educated classes, who will be the only ones to benefit from democracy," he said. "We don’t have a big enough middle class here."

Al Jarallah, who was the target of a letter-bomb assassination attempt last month, explains that while Kuwait is experimenting with democracy, a large segment of the population still depends on the government for basic necessities, such as food and lodging.

"It doesn’t mean we should stop asking for freedoms, but we should first develop the country, and then come up with a system that borrows from European governments, and at the same time, meets our own cultural needs," he said. "What we first need to do is enhance the private sector, so that the country is less reliant on oil revenue."

According to Dr Saad bin Teflah, who served as Kuwait’s Minister of Information from 1999-2000, democracy does not have to take place overnight.

"Let’s take the premise that the opposite of democracy is a dictatorship. Let’s also admit that Gulf regimes are not dictatorships, but not democratic either," he said. "By regional standards, Kuwait is a democracy. Although it is not what I would want it to be, everything is relative."

Even though women are not allowed to vote and there have been certain glitches in the electoral process, Dr Saad maintains that Kuwait is a country where "you can say whatever you want and get away with it".

"When we talk about democratisation, the process does not have to take place overnight," he said. "We don’t think people should jump into some form of bicameral constitutional monarchy… What we’re talking about is the gradual participation of the people.

Democracy is not just balloting. Less than 50 per cent in the US go to the ballot boxes. At the end of the day, we’re not just after the mechanical balloting and voting process, we are after the freedom of people to think and for people to establish a civil society.

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