Friday, May 16, 2008



By Kevin Stoda, Kuwait

Recently, the International Herald Tribune (May 6, 2008), published on its front page a story by Robert F. Worth entitled, “Democracy Becomes the Fall Guy in Kuwait”. Since on 17th of May, Kuwaiti voters are participating in national parliamentary elections, it is certainly an appropriate time to analyze Kuwait Democracy and how it is performing at this junction in history.

Worth began his piece on Kuwait democracy by citing the comments of Ali al-Rashed, who recently gave a speech during his campaign for the National Assembly of Kuwait, in which he said, “’Kuwait used to be No. 1 in the economy, in politics, in sports, in culture, in everything,’. . .‘What happened?’”
The focus of Worth’s article from that point on is about whether having too much democracy in Kuwait is really the reason why international investors and others do not bet on much progress in Kuwait in 2008. This is contrasted with the high levels of foreign investment and hope in the future found in the Qatar and United Arab Emirates, where Dubai and Abu Dhabi are located.

Neither Dubai, Abu Dhabi, nor Qatar have a particularly strong history of democratic development as compared to Kuwait, which was the first country among the small Gulf states to elect its own parliament nearly 50 years ago.

Worth writes that in recent times, “Kuwait has been overshadowed by its dynamic neighbors - Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar - where economies are booming under absolute monarchies. Efforts to reform Kuwait's sclerotic welfare state have stalled in its fractious and divided Parliament, and noisy scandals led the emir to dissolve the chamber last month for the second time in less than two years, forcing new elections yet again.”

Moreover, Worth notes that “despite vast oil reserves - the world's fifth-largest in a country smaller than New Jersey - many Kuwaitis complain that their bloated public sector has long neglected the country's public hospitals and schools. Problems with the power grid caused brownouts last summer. Although parts of Kuwait were rebuilt after the Iraqi invasion of 1991, much of it looks faded and tatty, a striking contrast with the gleaming hyper-modernity of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. There are few opportunities for private investment. A self- deprecating motto has gained currency here: Kuwait of the past, Dubai of the present, Qatar of the future.”


Having lived for over 5 years in the Persian Gulf, I feel that certainly the description of Worth’s on Kuwait being at once unbelievably rich and at the same time comparatively underdeveloped is often accurate.

On the other hand, I do not quickly fall into the fascist-, communist- or simply misguided- paradigm of blaming democracy for the country of Kuwait’s underdevelopment and mismanagement of the past 5 decades.

That would be like blaming democracy for the malaise in Egypt or even of the current Civil War in Iraq we are observing today. It would be like blaming democracy in America for the current regime’s mismanagement of society and economy at all levels.

In fact, Worth, too, admits that most Kuwaitis do not blame democracy for the country’s malaise and bad management, especially in the areas of (1) lacking economic investment in a variety of sectors, (2) the poor standard of health care in the richest per-capita country in the world, nor (3) the poor educational standards achieved at primary, secondary and tertiary levels to date.

Despite its many shortfalls, as one university business student, Nawaf al-Mutairi, has pointed out, "[But] we know democracy is our last hope. The problem is just that democracy is incremental.”

As well, there are some facets of society and some people in the ruling Sabah family who do not like parliament. The 1961 constitution had reduced the power of the Emir.
This distrust among some Kuwaitis and its parliament has been very strong at times.

In the last 47 years, the parliament has been shut down by the ruling family’s chosen Prime Minister on six separate occasions--and sometimes for many years at a time.
However, having parliament shut down by an unelected official says more about the lack of mature democratic development than it says about democracy being unworkable in this or any other Arab Gulf state.

In a nutshell, this is what I see as one of the problems that Kuwait needs to deal with and soon. The parliament, known as the National Assembly, has never wielded as much power as it needs to be able to oversee mismanagement in the ministries and other parts of government.

Nor has the parliament ever had enough clout to be able to stop the flagrant crony capitalism which stunts investment for the majority of people here and abroad—while filling up the pillows of a few wealthy and well-connected insider Kuwaiti wheeler dealers.

Unlike in other democratic lands, the Kuwaiti parliament can’t vote out the prime minister—who in Kuwait is chosen by the unelected members of the various factions of the royal family. In short, in these ways, the Kuwaiti system is not much different than the one which functions in Saudi Arabia.


On the other hand, very unlike in Saudi Arabia and in the various other emirates in this Gulf region, “The ruling Sabah family acquired its position not through conquest, but with an agreement among the coastal traders of the region in the mid-18th century. After gaining independence from the British in 1961, the emir approved a written constitution that sharply limited his power in relation to Parliament.”

For this reason, Worth rightfully notes, “In some ways, Kuwait is the most democratic country in Arab world, aside from Lebanon. There are Arab republics - in Yemen, Egypt, Algeria, Syria and Iraq - but despite their democratic forms, these countries have generally been more autocratic and repressive than the region's monarchies. Even in Lebanon, democracy is limited by a sectarian system of power-sharing.”

One Kuwait University Political Science Professor, Ghanim al Najjar, claims, “This ruling family is different from any other ruling family in the region ….They are part of the political process, not on top of it.”

Nonetheless, it is quite obvious to any political observer (esp. political scientist) that the Kuwaiti National Assembly has never had the constitutional tools to properly run the country and allow for more than the currently mediocre political and economic system, i.e. which 21st Century Kuwaiti’s have inherited today.

One of the favorite activities of ardent royal family supporters in and out of parliament has been to always blame the National for its own disintegration and failures.

On the one hand, this can be true.

For example, a very conservative parliament was elected in the late 1990s and again early in this decade. Suddenly, the public schools and all universities were made segregated by the new parliaments. In other cases, women’s working rights were curtailed, e.g. women were not allowed to work after 8pm in the evening

These sort of conservative innovations by the male-only parliaments up to now have, in fact, hurt all levels of education and economic development in the country by demanding, for example, two sets of teachers for the boys and the girls classes--as well as unnecessarily having required new sport halls and classrooms to be built all over the land. This requires some students at the university level to wait several years for required courses to be offered for his or her gender.

Other parliaments did other economically horrible and populist things, like having the state take over the debt of billions of dollars of debt from its citizens—some citizens who were already quite wealthy. [This kind of abuse happens in the USA and the UK, though, too. There have been debt forgiveness for Savings & Loans and investors in recent years which even aided Bush family members, like Neil Bush.]

The most recent time this debt forgiveness scheme occurred in Kuwait was back in the early 1990s, i.e. just after the Gulf War.

However, there were also representatives in the most recent parliament demanding 1000s of more dollars as outright loan forgiveness by the government in 2007 and 2008. [The emir opposed this plan.]

Worse still, many parliamentarian demagogues in the last (2006-2008) parliament, i.e. the one that the Emir closed down in mid-March, were also trying to get more and more money to simply give away to citizens for doing nothing at all. [I guess we would call this a tax rebate in the U.S.A. but Kuwaitis don’t pay taxes.]

Those same populist Assemblymen were doing these pork barrel maneuvers or simply attempting to humiliate members and friends of the royal family, i.e. who served in the Emirs cabinet, rather than taking on issues like (1) improving education,(2) increasing government spending transparency, and (3) creating a much better health care standard in this extremely wealthy oil state.


The problem is not democracy.

In Kuwait, the problem is a fear of changing the status quo in politics by calling for a new constitutional convention or even by calling for a new social contract.
On the other hand, America (where I come from) is also a land which in general is afraid of rewriting its constitution or nervous about the thought of calling out for democratic reform and advances through new constitutional conventions.

Therefore, while there is much to criticize in the functioning of Kuwait’s democracy today, it certainly does have the potential to improve itself.

However, risk aversion—fear of change—is the real malaise in a country where connections are everything. That is, many Kuwaitis say, “The ministers and those who work in the ministry’s currently are our relatives.”

Or, if they are outsiders, they say, “Perhaps we can join another tribe, and get more qui-pro-quo jobs for our families with the next National Assembly.”

In short, it is the short-term thinking of the current political-social and economic
culture that is bad for Kuwait.

Similarly, short-term thinking and planning are hurting America and its obvious need for reform in 2008 as well.


Worth, Robert F., “Democracy Becomes the Fall Guy in Kuwait”, International Herald Tribune (May 6, 2008), pp.1, 4.



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