Marc Lynch

Kuwait’s Moment of Truth

Last night’s violent clashes in Kuwait have brought its long-brewing political crisis to a dangerous point. It did not have to be this way, in a Gulf state that has long stood out for its robust public sphere, electoral traditions and vibrant parliament. But a series of unusually provocative steps by both the royal family ...


Last night’s violent clashes in Kuwait have brought its long-brewing political crisis to a dangerous point. It did not have to be this way, in a Gulf state that has long stood out for its robust public sphere, electoral traditions and vibrant parliament. But a series of unusually provocative steps by both the royal family and the opposition, in the context of a long-running battle over the powers of parliament and accountability for the royal family, have taken their toll and tempers are running hot. After months of growing popular mobilization and a complex crisis of political institutions, Kuwait’s political future suddenly seems deeply uncertain. 

Before it gets too late to de-escalate, the Kuwaiti leadership needs to offer meaningful political concessions, including standing down on its deeply controversial plans for a December election, relaxing its attempt to shut down public dissent, and allowing a greater parliamentary role in the selection of cabinet ministers. It seems to have instead decided that now is the time to crack down hard before things get out of hand. Its repressive turn and the galvanizing effect on a mostly moderate opposition offers a troubling echo of Bahrain’s brutal path … one which the Kuwaitis seemed uniquely well-placed to avoid, but now looms large. Kuwait’s long-developing political crisis is discussed in depth in the essays collected in today’s new POMEPS Briefing, "Kuwait’s Moment of Truth."

Kuwait’s problems have been evident for quite a while, as popular mobilization interacted with repeated efforts to assert parliamentary authority over successive governments appointed by the emir. Those political battles were moving ever closer to the royal family itself, particularly allegations of corruption (which last November drove the prime minister from office) and demands for parliament’s right to interrogate royal government ministers. The long political stalemate at the top coincided with the growing assertiveness of a wired youth movement, the troubling rise of a new kind of sectarianism, and the success of Islamists and tribal figures in the February 2012 elections. Indeed, I included an assault by regime security forces on dissident Kuwaiti academic Obaid al-Wasmi in my January 5, 2011 essay on the crumbling foundations of the Arab order – before the fall of Ben Ali, before the Egyptian uprising, and before most observers sensed the impending regional Arab uprising. 

Unlike many Gulf states, Kuwait’s current crisis comes within the context of a long-history of public, contentious politics. To its great credit, Kuwait has a long history of parliamentary politics, and its vibrant and creative youth movement has been active for over half a decade. Its experience with contentious and parliamentary politics, along with massive oil wealth and solid U.S. political support, should have left Kuwait better equipped to handle rising political turbulence. But the popular and parliamentary challenges to royal authority seem to have knocked the emirate off-balance. The arrest of opposition figure Musallam al-Barrak for his public warning to the Emir ("We will not allow you, your highness, to take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy.") and its ban on public demonstrations does not suggest a confident regime.

The popular mobilization in Kuwait should quickly dispel any notions of the Gulf being immune to the underlying drivers of the Arab uprising. The youth movement in Kuwait is every bit as wired, impatient and engaged as in other Arab countries — and has been active since at least 2006. Online activists and politicians besides Barrak have increasingly openly mocked and challenged the al-Sabah family, though going after the Emir himself marks an escalation. Last November, in an unprecedented challenge to the authority of the royal family, parliamentary opposition and popular mobilization — which included the shocking occupation of the parliament building by protesters — forced the resignation of Prime Minister Nasser Mohammed al-Sabah over allegations of corruption. The massive protest on October 21 was possibly the largest in the history of Kuwait. Opposition leaders are huddling to decide on a strategy after last night’s clashes, but do not seem inclined to back down as a wave of popular anger pushes them forward. They plan a major protest on Sunday, November 4, in defiance of the regime’s ban on public assembly.

After years of jockeying with its opponents, the regime has pushed back hard, in ways that look likely to backfire. In June, the emir suspended the troublesome parliament for the first time in Kuwaiti history; it was subsequently dissolved after the Constitutional Court ruled the February 2012 election void. The emir then unilaterally announced changes to the election law that outraged the opposition, which has declared its intention to boycott the elections called for December 1. The government banned public gatherings of more than 20 people, and warns of even harsher penalties after the violent clashes last night. It is also reportedly planning to prosecute international NGOs for reporting on its human rights violations and political crackdown. Barrak, the opposition figure whose arrest galvanized the recent protest, will reportedly be charged with undermining the status of the emir (he was released on bail pending his detention).

While the drivers of the tension in Kuwait have much in common with the other Arab uprisings, particularly the impatient and mobilized youth, it is important to keep local conditions well in mind. Many Kuwaitis support the regime against the opposition, and there is a long history of public politics to fall back upon. Crucially, this is not currently a mobilization for the overthrow of the regime. Most protesters want to see a constitutional monarchy and political reforms, not revolution. But the lessons of other cases — notably Bahrain — suggest that the Kuwaiti regime’s current course of action poses a real risk of radicalizing its opposition and setting in motion unpredictable popular forces. (Unconfirmed rumors such as those reported by Mohammed al-Jassim that Saudi and UAE leaders pushing their Kuwaiti counterparts to crack down only exacerbate such fears.)

Kuwaitis are proud of their parliament, angry about corruption, and determined to see greater transparency and accountability. Their demands thus far focus on such relatively moderate reforms. But it is unclear whether the regime can make such concessions. Parliamentary selection or approval of the prime minister and cabinet, rather than appointment by the emir, would fundamentally change the enduring logic of family rule in Kuwait. As Nathan Brown noted last December, "the old [political order] is fraying, but it is not quite clear what is replacing it." POMEPS Briefing 15, "Kuwait’s Moment of Truth," explains how we got here and what to expect next.

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

Tag: Kuwait