Kuwait’s democracy troubles Gulf Arab rulers


A new episode in the soap opera of Kuwait’s system began this week with an attempt by parliamentarians to force out the interior minister, who is a member of the ruling family.

The Sabah family that dominates the cabinet is expected to remove him rather than see one of its own face a public thumbs-down in a no-confidence vote set for July 1.

Last month the former British protectorate of 3.2 million — one of the world’s largest oil exporters — held its third elections in three years, part of a protracted tussle for power between the ruling-family and elected parliamentarians.

But the trend in the Gulf, from commentary in state-dominated media to official statements, has been to cite Kuwait — unique in its wide, free vote for a parliament with teeth — as an argument for more dynastic and autocratic rule.

The violence following Iran’s recent elections has also raised Gulf fears of instability, giving another reason for no change.

Islamist and tribal deputies stand accused of holding back government development plans by voting down legislation proposed by cabinet and seeking no-confidence votes in Kuwaiti ministers.

“In recent months there was a lot of glee and schadenfreude about Kuwait’s political problems. Many articles were written about the mess that Kuwait’s democracy had got them into,” said British academic Christopher Davidson, a Gulf specialist.

Gulf Rulers Avoid ‘Democracy’
Gulf countries often cite “khususiyya”, or special characteristics, to justify limiting popular participation in government and prefer to avoid the word “democracy”.

In 2006 elections to the Federal National Council of the United Arab Emirates, for example, less than one percent of the country’s native population was eligible to vote.

“Our leadership does not import ready-made models that may be valid for other societies but are certainly not suitable for our society,” Dubai ruler and UAE vice-president Sheikh Mohammed said in an interview in April this year.

Western governments, who back the Gulf ruling families, also look askance at the sight of Islamists spoiling plans for economic liberalisation in Kuwait or gaining a say elsewhere.

“The way things go are not encouraging with development (projects) blocked by deputies. Even Kuwaitis are embarrassed about their democracy,” said a Western diplomat in Riyadh.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef said this year the Gulf’s largest country at 25 million people had no need for elections to its advisory Shura Council, and last month the absolute monarchy delayed municipal council polls for two years, snuffing out for now a brief democracy experiment.

Islamists opposed to relaxing clerical influence were the main winners in the Saudi municipal vote in 2005, which was held after Western pressure to democratise. Now many Gulf Arab liberals look to the ruling families to protect them from the Islamists, who have popular support.

Saudi intellectual Abdullah al-Ghaddami said Western-allied Gulf governments would always brand the strongest opposition force, Islamist or otherwise, as an obstacle to progress.

“If we’d had elections 40 years ago the socialists and leftists would have won, since that was predominant then. Now it’s the Islamists,” he said. “Democracy cannot impose results that it wants. That’s another form of dictatorship.”

Sabahs Still Run Kuwait
Analysts and democracy activists say the wrong lessons are being drawn from Kuwait’s system, where deputies are seeking public accountability from ministers resistant to the concept.

Parliament does not form cabinets, and the prime minister, deputy prime minister, defence minister, foreign minister, information and interior are all in Sabah hands.

Assembly deputies are voted in as individuals since political parties are banned. The Emir has the power to pass legislation by decree and has suspended parliament three times, including for years on end.

Yet still government websites tout Kuwait as a “thriving democratic society with a democratic government”.

Turki al-Rasheed, a Saudi columnist who has observed Kuwaiti elections and ran a programme to encourage Saudis to vote in 2005, said ruling family members could not have it both ways.

“You cannot have royal protection and be a salaried employee,” he said, dismissing the idea that Kuwait set a bad example for democracy in the region. “We don’t want decoration, we want to question people who call the shots.”

He said the Emir and his prime minister should appoint ministers based on merit rather than on bloodline.

Whole cabinets have resigned rather than have senior al-Sabah members appear before the elected body, which triggered last month’s elections as well as numerous cabinet reshuffles.

Ultimately, in Gulf Arab countries it is the ruler, his family and their commoner allies who dispense with petrodollar revenues and decide the thrust of foreign and domestic policy.

“Kuwait is an enlightening example in the region and it should stay glowing despite the pressure that anti-democracy governments exert on it,” said Emirati blogger Ahmed Mansoor.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *