On June 23 Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah survived a parliament vote of no confidence, the third opposition bid to oust him. Yet with another parliamentary challenge already in the works, Kuwait’s contentious politics are far from contained and have even spread beyond the walls of parliament. Earlier in the month, a rally of several thousand was held in Kuwait City demanding the prime minister’s dismissal. This was not an exceptional event, but rather the latest maneuver by a new force: youth movements taking to the streets to force a change in Kuwaiti politics.
The Kuwaiti youth share many characteristics with the region’s broader protest movements. Their chief complaint is corruption, the "political money" that, in their view, distorts the emirate’s governing institutions and threatens its constitutional order. Like the youth in Tunis and Cairo, they are working toward a more civic order, grounded in constitutional rights and realized through citizen activism. Yet while clearly in harmony with the uprisings across the Arab world, the movement predates them and is driven by developments in Kuwaiti politics and society which have brought the historically dynamic emirate to its current malaise.
The protesters are seeking unity at a time when Kuwait is wracked by division. Three confrontations predominate: a leadership competition within the ruling family; a constitutional showdown between the parliament and the ruling cabinet; and a class struggle between state-dependent civil servants and the commercial elite. The interaction among these leadership, constitutional, and class struggles — played out in the context of a historic oil boom and financial bust — has raised political tensions to the boiling point.
The dysfunction in Kuwait’s political system begins at the top with the ruling Al-Sabah. The problems within the monarchy became apparent in the 2005 succession when a standoff between two branches of the ruling family over the replacement for the incapacitated Crown Prince Saad Abdullah provided an opening for the opportunistic parliament to step in and depose him. The ultimate resolution of this intra-family power struggle came down squarely in favor of one branch of the royal family, which now holds all important posts save one. Nonetheless, this consolidation removed the balance between the two branches, and — significantly — moved the succession debate on to the next generation.
The competition among these future claimants to the throne has intensified with ill effects. First, the endemic leadership struggles have paralyzed the executive branch of government and seeded corruption through the bureaucracy, imperiling Kuwait’s future development. Second, the rivals have used members of the National Assembly as proxies, encouraging parliamentary challenges to weaken the other’s position within the cabinet. The competition between the prime minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmed al-Fahad reached unprecedented levels earlier this month when parliamentarians loyal to Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed withdrew their support from Sheikh Ahmed over a parliamentary grilling, forcing him to resign.
The open political warfare of ruling family members shocked a Kuwaiti public inured to government instability. The five years of Nasser al-Mohammed’s leadership have seen 11 parliamentary interpolations, forcing six resignations of the cabinet and the dissolution and early election of parliament three times. While the political opponents of Sheikh Nasser are convinced of his ineffectiveness and political corruption, at heart there is a deeper ambition: to advance Kuwait’s constitutional monarchy. Having already forced the concession of separating the prime minister position from the office of the crown prince, the opposition now seeks to establish the principle that the prime minister can be dismissed by parliament. The removal of a royal prime minister by popular action is an important step toward an elected prime minister and a genuine parliamentary monarchy.
The ability of the parliament to advance this objective, however, has been compromised due to their own internal divisions. The liberal versus Islamist competition that dominated the first decade of the reinstated parliament after Kuwait’s liberation remains, but it has been eclipsed by other social divisions. Prominent among them are urban-tribal tensions whose cultural character masks a strong class component as the late-arriving tribes, more dependent on state employment and subsidies, challenge the urban commercial elite. Sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite have escalated sharply, certainly over regional issues — Bahrain chief among them, but also due to the prime minister’s reliance on the urban Shiite vote to maintain his majority and his premiership.
Kuwait’s youth movement arose in response to this weakening of political institutions, both royal and parliamentary. In the face of this political dysfunction and in reaction to a creeping encroachment on civil liberties, they offer a straightforward message to the prime minister: leave. Youth activists have been criticized for the simplicity of their message and street tactics. Yet prominent activists in the movement describe this as a necessary first step. Political change requires a cultural change: to convince Kuwaitis that protests are a right. It is this conviction that drives their insistence on choosing the location of their protests in the commercial center of Kuwait City, a site with a historical connection to constitutional struggles of the 1950s. The government has countered by limiting protests to a park in front of the National Assembly where the first student protests, the successful campaign for electoral reform known as the Orange Movement, were held in 2006. The escalating tension between the defiant youth and the government is evident in the heavy police presence in the downtown Safat square and in the emir’s recent speech calling for order and the enforcement of the law.
In spite of their defiance, the youth movement cannot fully escape the political perils of Kuwait’s redistributive order. There are persistent rumors of their links to competing elements of the ruling family — rumors sure to gain more traction as a dissident member of the Al-Sabah just voiced his support for the protesters and even for a popularly elected prime minister. Others see them as being led by the opposition in parliament. These attacks on their independence surfaced in a protest in late May when youth activists shouted down the populist Kuwaiti MP attending their rally, evidence that some in the movement are worried about the co-optation that they see as endemic to Kuwait’s patronage-fed political system.
Their antidote to the "political money" that corrupts and divides Kuwaiti society is social solidarity. And the movement can indeed claim some success in bridging communities and drawing supporters from across the ideological divide. One former Muslim Brotherhood youth prominent in the movement spoke animatedly about his political transformation: "You can’t just look at everyone as potential converts to your Islamic program; you have to work with all elements of society as they exist." Still, the protests of today contrast markedly with the coed rallies organized by the U.S.-educated activists of the Orange Movement. There has been a pronounced shift toward the middle class and tribal Kuwaitis. Overcoming these cultural and class divisions remains a challenge.
Organizational cohesion is also a problem for the youth movement. On the eve of their high profile March 8 rally which sought to capture momentum from the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian street activists, the movement fragmented into two and later three separate organizations, falling out over personalities and tactics. Still, as Kuwait confronts the weakening of all its organized political forces, from the ruling family to its political societies, the logic of re-formation is a powerful one. The emergence of the new Kuwaiti youth movements should be seen as something hopeful: evidence that a capacity for change — or at least the desire for it — still exists.
Kristin Smith Diwan is an assistant professor of comparative and regional studies at the American University School of International Service.