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The Middle East Channel

Kuwait’s short 19th century

In a visit to Kuwait these past few days, it was no surprise to discover that the country was once more in one of its periodic waves of political tumult. The cabinet had resigned under a combination of parliamentary criticism and public pressure, a wave of scandals had forced the dissolution of the parliament, lawyers ...

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

In a visit to Kuwait these past few days, it was no surprise to discover that the country was once more in one of its periodic waves of political tumult. The cabinet had resigned under a combination of parliamentary criticism and public pressure, a wave of scandals had forced the dissolution of the parliament, lawyers and politicians tied each other in knots over whether the correct procedures had been followed, and the Kuwaiti citizenry prepared to be summoned to the polls for the fourth time in less than six years. But this time was a little different — in the current political crisis, all sorts of portentous precedents have been set. Demonstrators filled a public square shouting against the prime minister (a leading member of the royal family); a small number of them actually stormed the parliament building, and for the first time, a prime minister was actually brought down by intense popular and parliamentary pressure.

Is a new political order being born? Perhaps. The old one is fraying, but it is not quite clear what is replacing it. In some ways, Kuwait’s political struggles more closely resemble those of 19th century Europe than the ones taking place in Cairo or Tunis. Developments in the city-state have to be viewed in part in terms of the country’s own jerky political evolution rather than solely in a regional perspective.

Since the country was restored in 1991, Kuwait has undergone major political change. Kuwaitis have moved fairly quickly from a system in which the senior positions in the country were hand picked by a ruling family and placed outside of political contestation to one in which parliament has veto power over major policy decisions, senior royals can be brought down if they offend deputies, and the prime minister’s status as a leading member of the royal family no longer immunizes him from aggressive parliamentary questioning — to the extent that now a prime minister has actually been toppled. Politics has even found its way into matters of succession within the family. Until recently a new emir consulted only with his relatives before presenting his chosen successor to parliament for ratification. But the parliament was brought (unenthusiastically but unmistakably) into the last succession in 2006, and the downfall of the current prime minister will likely work some effects on who serves as emir in the future. While the ruling family still looms large on the political scene, it hardly acts coherently. Divisions and rivalries that were spoken of in hushed tones two decades ago are now on full public display, and no member save the emir himself is above what is sometimes ruthless public criticism.

Kuwaitis argue over whether they are passing through their own version of the Arab Spring. Those sympathetic with demonstrators tend to see events in a regional perspective. Those who worry that the struggle promises only turmoil and instability complain that Kuwait is hardly afflicted by the heavy-handed authoritarianism targeted by demonstrators, activists, and rebels in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. And indeed both sides seem to be right. Youthful activists sound like their counterparts elsewhere in their disdain for the old political forces, their focus on corruption, and their eagerness to shape their own destinies rather than defer to aging leaders. Yet, as Kristin Smith Diwan pointed out last month in "Kuwait’s constitutional showdown," the analogy is limited — those who speak in the name of the Kuwaiti people want neither the fall of the regime nor even the ruler; they want a constitutional monarchy.

And indeed, it is the stutter-stop moves in that direction that make Kuwaiti political struggles resemble those of 19th century Europe. In many European countries, parliamentary democracy did not come in a moment of sudden creation and certainly not in any moment of grand constitutional design but very unevenly out of difficult daily political struggles between monarchies and political actors claiming to represent the people in some fashion. The resulting system in some countries — in which a monarch ruled through ministers who were politically responsible to a democratically elected parliament — generally developed quite gradually through two processes. First, parliaments became more inclusive and democratic in their composition. Second, they wrested greater legislative prerogatives and obtained growing ability to oversee the work of senior political officials. Parliaments became less chambers for talk (as etymologically they should be) and more the locus for expression of popular sovereignty.

Like several 19th century European countries, Kuwait has a constitution (one that is now half a century old) that allows for, but hardly requires, such a gradual development. Through expansion of the franchise (first to various classes of citizens and then to women), parliament is no longer the preserve of wealthy commoners and an educated elite; it includes various elements of a surprisingly diverse social makeup. And the parliament has also slowly carved out a much greater oversight role. While what Kuwaitis sometimes refer to as a "popular government" — one that is formed only with the solid support of a majority and perhaps one headed by a non-royal — is still beyond the parliament’s reach. The downfall of the former prime minister was an unmistakable step in that direction.

But if Kuwait is replicating what has occurred in earlier European history, it is not doing so in an unadulterated fashion. There are two major differences between the Kuwaiti and European experience, one which makes the path less certain but the other which is likely to make whatever steps that are taken more peaceful.

The first difference is the weakness in Kuwait of political parties and strong ideologies. The battles among liberals, socialists, and conservatives that made European electoral politics so contentious find only pale reflection in Kuwait. There are, of course, liberal, populist, Islamist, and Salafi currents but most are organized around prominent individuals rather than strong organizations. And their electoral significance has actually declined in recent years — there is some rise in sectarian voting but most marked is the growing role of tribal identities in determining the preferences of many voters. With tribal structures having been converted in outlying areas to machines for the distribution of government benefits (a tendency Kuwait’s rulers actually encouraged in an effort to cultivate allies against feistier urbanites), tribe trumps all other political alignments. A few years ago, I asked a leading member of Kuwait’s Islamic Constitutional Movement (the closest the country has to a real political party organization), how the organization’s deputies caucused. He explained a robust set of procedures for decision-making that bound Movement members of parliament (MPs) on most matters but one –votes of confidence. When I looked confused about why an elementary part of party discipline in a parliamentary system did not work in Kuwait, he replied, "We could not ask a member to vote against a minster from his own tribe." In recent years tribes have become far more assertive and sophisticated in using the parliament to milk government benefits; tribal deputies have evolved from meek distributors of government services to noisy claimants on constituents’ behalf and some were deeply involved in the recent protest movement.

Thus a stronger role for parliament may not be a recipe for coherence but instead makes only for confusion as deputies resemble less a righteous crowd storming the gates of the government to demand that it follows the people’s will and more an arena where representatives scurry in various political directions searching for short term material gains for whatever group put them in office. It is therefore no accident that some of Kuwait’s radical reformers call for a system in which the country becomes a single electoral district where seats are allocated on a proportional basis to parties that run on ideological and programmatic platforms. And unless such a step is taken and has its intended effect (and it may not, even if adopted), Kuwait is likely to continue to have a political system in which liveliness is exceeded only by ineffectiveness, fragmentation, incoherence, and indecision.

But here we come to the second difference between Kuwait and the European path — while parliamentary democracy did emerge over time in Europe, it did so while passing through some detours, including revolution, civil war, and fascism. Deeply divided societies did not easily give birth to stable democratic mechanisms. And this is where Kuwait may be more fortunate. It has, to be sure, some strong divisions between Sunnis and Shia; between old and new money; and between a long-settled core and a more recently settled Bedouin periphery. But the benefits of citizenship are so strong that a sense of national identity keeps all divisions in check. Kuwaiti political differences are intensely expressed but the means used are genteel by regional standards. Even the most radical reformers admit that they can speak freely — there are no disappearances, secret detentions, or military trials. Egypt’s revolutionaries proclaimed that they all could be Khaled Saids. Kuwait’s reformers are each secure in the knowledge that they will never become one.

And so for all its messiness, Kuwaitis cling fast to the idea that they will always retain both a strong sense of loyalty to an emir (if much less to his whole family) and to a constitution that has served Kuwait longer — and shaped itself — to the country’s development, more than any other such document in the history of the region.

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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