In Translation: Kuwait's political crisis

To change things up around here from the usual Egypt focus, I decided last week to look for something happening in a region we do not cover much here, the Gulf. The protests taking place in Kuwait are unprecedented for the region — they represent a revolt from inside a formal political system that in many respects was the most representative, if not wholly democratic, of the Arab Gulf — rather than a revolt stemming from outside it like the Bahraini uprising, where the Shia do represent a substantially under-represented community. I’ll let others do the explaining on the background of the current Kuwaiti political crisis, but one important aspect of this crisis is that it is being watched closely by Kuwait’s neighbors: in a sense, Kuwait may either serve as a model for controlled democratization in the Gulf or an argument against empowering the elected (or appointed) assemblies that begun to exist in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the last decade or so.

I chose an article from al-Hayat, the Saudi-owned London-based newspaper, that discussed this issue. It’s by Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi university professor often labeled as a “liberal” in the Saudi context — someone will no doubt correct me, but I find that label means that he was among the Saudis who were hopeful about the limited reforms of King Abdullah starting in 2005 but do not question the al-Sauds right to rule. The article is informative as much in its explanation of the Kuwaiti crisis as the implied lessons for other Gulf monarchies.

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Kuwait’s crisis: The National Assembly wants to be emir-maker

Khalid al-Dakhil, al-Hayat, 4 November 2012

The political situation in Kuwait has reached the utmost crisis. There are marches, clashes between protesters and the police, and MPs from the dissolved Assembly have been arrested. The political climate is tense, and has been marred by escalating political statements that raise a tone of defiance on all sides. The crisis is not new: it is only the latest chapter, which was initiated by the recent Emiri Decree amending voting mechanisms in parliamentary elections allowing voters to select only one candidate instead of four.

This move is rejected by the opposition – i.e., the majority of the dissolved Assembly – which sees it as an attempt to bring in an Assembly that is more convenient for the government. The government considers the decree as a way out of the crisis that is both fair and constitutional. Holding its ground, it has decided to hold elections in early December. Registration has begun in earnest for those who would like to run. Furthermore, the Interior Ministry has announced that it will not allow the opposition to hold its planned march, which was scheduled for Sunday. The opposition declared in turn that it is boycotting elections until the Emiri Decree is revoked, and not content to stop there, it resolved to put pressure on the government using the power of the street in the form of popular marches and conferences. Sunday is the planned date for the second march under the banner “Dignity of the Nation 2.” In the previous march, “Nation 1,” it was reported that approximately 100,000 people attended —a large number in proportion to the size of Kuwait’s population, which barely exceeds one million. Sunday will determine the course of the political crisis. Will the opposition maintain its stance and hit the streets in today’s march, or will it settle on canceling or postponing it? Will the government back down from the recent decree and agree to go back to the old election law? What will be the turnout for today’s march? How will the security forces deal with it?

It is a very tense moment indeed, and opens up on more than one possibility. There are many attempts to find an exit to the crisis, but the proposed exits seem to have as their starting point the revocation of the Emiri Decree, which means that the first step towards a solution must begin with the government’s backing down. There is no indication that this will occur (I am writing this on Saturday morning), and significantly in this context, the Democratic Forum has called for today’s march to be cancelled or postponed as a goodwill initiative. The scale of the current crisis indicates that the political system in Kuwait is entering a new phase. The democratic experiment in this small country has become accustomed to the mechanism of consensus, and clings to it in order to avoid crises and political flare-ups. Consensus within the ruling family, between the government and the National Assembly, and between the family and political and business interests within society. In the present crisis, it seems that the landscape is changing in an unprecedented fashion. The language of politics has changed, tending toward confrontation and conflict, and escalating demands. Many Kuwaitis complain that the scope of consensus is narrowing, and that Kuwait is entering a trial whose outcome is uncertain.

Nevertheless, there is consensus around the Al Sabah family and their right to rule. What needs to be done – people are saying – is to change the nature of the relationship with the family. There are demands to put an end to corruption, for a “constitutional emirate” and parliamentary government, and an end to using influence to skirt the law and the constitution. These demands may seem large, but the democratic experiment in Kuwait is now reaching the half-century mark. Over this period, the experiment has stalled, then tribalism, political Islam and sectarianism entered the mix as new political actors, and development came to a halt. Kuwait went from being “a model for democracy” in the Arab world and the Gulf to a model for a half-democratic mix with political and developmental stagnation.

Does the political crisis in Kuwait have a causal relationship with the “Arab Spring”? Not at all: it resembles, with all differences taken into account, the crisis in Bahrain. The Arab Spring has offered a different political framework for both of them, and perhaps given them additional momentum, but it did not cause either crisis to occur. In Bahrain, the roots of the crisis go back to the decades before the “Arab Spring,” while in Kuwait, it could be said that the stagnation and repeated crises persisted until the Arab Spring came along, changing Kuwait, the region and the world. As a result, the time for change in the experiment arrived – to develop it and not to overturn it. This, it seems, is what Kuwaitis are calling for.

The current crisis did not start days or weeks ago: it goes back to 2006, when the late Emir Sheikh Jaber III Al-Ahmed, and the late Crown Prince Sheikh Saad Abdullah were both ill at the same time. The crisis broke out after the Emir’s death, when the Crown Prince was unable to assume to role of Emir. A constitutional crisis emerged then in the form of a question: who will become Emir, the Crown Prince or Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed, who came after Sheikh Saad in the political hierarchy? With the death of the Emir, and the Crown Prince’s incapacity, there was no clear constitutional text governing such an exceptional circumstance. There was a hidden conflict within the ruling family and outside of it, between those who thought that Sheikh Saad should become Emir despite his illness, and between those who believed that the illness was a constitutional obstacle, particularly since the Crown Prince’s state of health is stipulated in Article 8 of the constitution.

There was near consensus with the National Assembly on one side, and most of the ruling family – the Al Jaber branch in particular – on the need to avoid a repeat of the impasse that the country faced during the concurrent illnesses of the Emir and the Crown Prince, and the choice of Sheikh Saad along with his worsening condition meant that the impasse would continue. In this case, the way out would take place either through Sheikh Saad’s abdicating his right to become Emir, which had fallen to him automatically, or through implementation of Article 3 of the Emirate Succession Law, which would sideline Sheikh Saad and entrust the Emirate to Sheikh Sabah. Seeing as no consensus was reached within the ruling family, it was only possible to implement Article 3 through the National Assembly, which gave the Assembly significant political heft for the first time in deciding the succession issue.

The situation was unprecedented, since the question of selecting the Emir had never been decided outside the ruling family. However, since no consensus had been reached, this was not possible, especially in the wake of the demographic change within the family in favor of the Al Jaber branch and at the expense of the Al Salem branch that Sheikh Saad belonged to. In a single moment, social sensitivities overlapped with constitutional requirements, and interests and balances within the ruling family overlapped with those on the outside. In the end, the issue required the intervention of the National Assembly – for the first time – as a party directly involved in deciding the succession issue.

The role of the National Assembly in selecting the Emir is stipulated in the constitution, but political custom has meant that, since the start of the constitutional experiment – for more than four decades – this role has not gone beyond rubber stamping what the ruling family has decided. Then these unprecedented circumstances arose granting the National Assembly greater scope to assume real responsibility in deciding who will be the Emir.

As a result, it could be said that Sheikh Sabah is the first Emir of Kuwait whose reign was born within the National Assembly, rather than from outside. The Assembly seemed an “Emir-maker” at the time, which granted it unprecedented political power. It is not at all an exaggeration to say that since that time, crises between the government and the ruling family on one side, and the National Assembly on the other, have been constantly escalating – over electoral districts, the political system, and interpretation of constitutional articles. This reflects a hidden political conflict between two sides: the Assembly trying to build on the political gains it made in 2006, and the government and the ruling family trying to place a limit on this political ambition. Here, as I have indicated, forces are driving the political process toward a constitutional Emirate, and a parliamentary government separate from the ruling family. All this favors the National Assembly’s growing power. In this framework, the role of political forces and actors comes into play: tribalism, sectarianism, political Islam and civil and liberal forces. What counts for the forces of change is that they want everything to take place with the existing political system, and not to overthrow it. As a result, change must take the form of a cumulative process, and not a political upheaval that puts everyone at risk. The region is going through a tumultuous phase, and needs much political wisdom and intelligence. There must be a rapprochement between a government resisting change, and an opposition pushing for change.


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,