In 1962, when democracy was not even a dream in the Arab world, the Emir of Kuwait promulgated a constitution that introduced male suffrage, albeit with qualifiers. Since then, periodic elections have been held in the small but wealthy country (GDP per capita is $41,365).
Since 2006, women have been given the right to vote and to get elected. The last Kuwaiti parliament had four women Members of Parliament (MPs), including the formidable campaigner for women’s rights, Massouma Al-Mubarak.
This year, in the upcoming February 2 national elections, significant changes are expected to take place – with potential repercussions around the Arab world. This time, 23 women are contesting the 50 elective seats in the National Assembly. The 15 other seats will be filled by nominees of the Emir, who appoints both the Prime Minister as well as the cabinet, usually from among the nominated MPs. Thus, Kuwait has what may be called “a democracy with Arab characteristics.” The emirate in that sense serves as an example to Saudi Arabia on how political reform can be carried out in a way that retains the pre-eminence of the royal family. Should such incremental changes be denied in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, what will result are Egypt-style meltdowns in the coming years, especially if oil prices drop.
While the previous ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh Jabber, pushed the envelope on reform, his successor, Sabah Al-Sabah, has been more respectful of the Saudi model.
He has sought to guard the royal prerogative of formulating policy and deciding who should be tasked with implementing it. This has often brought his nominees into confrontation with MPs, many of whom have been calling for a Westminster-style system where the Emir reigns but the National Assembly rules. Some members of the Al-Sabah family have supported this unorthodox idea, calling for only the Emir and the Crown Prince to come from the family, with the other posts held by commoners. Presently the Al-Sabahs control not only the premiership but also the ministries of Defense, Interior, Foreign Affairs and Finance, besides other key posts including key diplomatic assignments abroad such as the embassy in Washington. It needs to be said that several of the royals are well-qualified, and have been successes in their tasks, despite their promotions being owed to bloodline rather than merit.
However, there is tension between the Emir and the elected MPs; consequently, his hand-picked Prime Minister Nasser Al-Sabah – who is also a nephew – resigned and was re-appointed no fewer than six times. The standoff has led to repeated mid-term polls – in 2006, 2008, 2009, and now in 2012 – a situation that needs to be resolved by the selection of a Prime Minister who can take the majority of the elected members of the National Assembly with him. That will create a healthy Westminster-style precedent.
Also under the scanner this election is the Sunni-Shia representation in the Kuwaiti parliament. At the moment, to avoid the election of candidates reflecting narrow sectarian or tribal interests, there are only five mega constituencies in Kuwait – each of which elects ten MPs i.e. the top ten in vote-share in each constituency. Of course, such a system cannot avoid sectarian and tribal influences, because like most other democracies in the world, members of a group are likely to vote en bloc for their particular candidate to ensure that she or he figures within the top ten. Apart from the Shia, the blocs within the Sunni MPs include religious conservatives as well as liberals. Fortunately, relations between the two are not frayed, the way they are in some other countries. The Al-Sabahs have ensured that Kuwait remains moderate, and a country where – for example – women are free to wear what they please, and to work where they like.
Kuwait is therefore an example for its more conservative neighbours. Although all three are hereditary monarchies, Kuwait differs from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in its treatment of the Shia minority. About 20% of the 970,000 Kuwaiti citizens are Shia, the rest being overwhelmingly Sunni. About a third of the Sunnis follow the Wahabbi strain of their faith, backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Unlike in Bahrain, where the Shia majority suffers severe discrimination and grossly inadequate representation in the agencies of governance, or in Saudi Arabia where Shias are treated as second-class citizens and deprived of representation in the middle and upper reaches of state agencies, in Kuwait there is no discrimination between Sunni and Shia, despite the ruling family being Sunni.
The Shia in Kuwait have improved their representation in the National Assembly by strategic voting – tending to vote en bloc for the Shia candidates most likely to do well overall in the constituency. Interestingly, this has led to constituencies where their strength has been disproportionately larger than their percentage share in the population. The First Electoral District, for example, has 38,000 Sunnis (including Wahabbis) and only about 32,000 Shia. But because of a higher turnout by Shia voters as compared to the rest, and their strategic voting for particular candidates, as many as seven of the ten MPs of the First Electoral district are Shia.
This time around also, they are hoping to maintain their numbers. Kuwait’s Al-Sabah ruling family has historically been far more advanced in its thinking than their cousins in West Asia, especially those in Saudi Arabia. However, 1962 was a long time ago, and the 2011 Arab Spring has made a second wave of political reform an imperative for Kuwait. Friends of Kuwait are looking forward to Emir Sabah Al-Sabah proactively implementing changes that will further expand democratic freedoms in Kuwait. Within the Palace, it is known that his eldest son, Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah (not the former premier), favours comprehensive reforms as do other members of the Al-Sabah family, especially the lady royals. Should Sheikh Nasser succeed in persuading his father, the Emir, towards further political liberalization, he will once again show that “Sabahism” is a far better model to follow than Wahabbism.
Kuwait is already a country where tribal or gender discrimination is far below the regional norm. Even the hitherto-ignored Bedouin (who are nomads with roots in Iraq and Saudi Arabia) are at the cusp of finally getting Kuwaiti citizenship. Christian churches are openly permitted in West-leaning Kuwait, but temples or Gurudwaras are technically not. However the latter exist within the cloisters of residential buildings, tolerated by the authorities, and provide spiritual succour to the more than half-million Indians working in Kuwait (most of whom are from Kerala).
Kuwait presents a valuable model for the sheikhdoms of the Arab world;
Hopefully the Al-Sabahs will retain their lead over the other West Asian royals by aligning Kuwaiti democracy closer to those of the more developed democracies of the world rather than the more rigid states of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
M.D. Nalapat is Director of the School of Geopolitics at Manipal University, and a regular contibutor to Gateway House.
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