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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - April 25, 2013

by Michael Peel and Abeer Allam

Thousands of men in traditional white robes marched confidently past a vast security force base on the outskirts of Kuwait City, only to halt at the crossroads marking one of the facility’s corners.
The talk in advance of this protest against a five-year prison sentence just handed down to Musallam al-Barrak, an opposition leader, had been of heading for the jail where he would be taken to serve his term. Now people were melting away fast, with just a few staying to watch as a small hard core of youths lobbed stones towards a distant row of parked vehicles that may have belonged to the security forces.
“Let us not burn all our cards in one night,” declaimed another opposition politician from an ad hoc podium at the junction, capturing the majority’s cautious mood.
This vignette of hesitation and fragmentation on April 15 said much about the wider state of Kuwait after a year of unprecedented protests, parliamentary upheaval and intensifying pressure to get the country’s oil-rich but sluggish economy moving.
Demographic change, regional turmoil and increasing unease about the nation’s failure to diversify significantly beyond its finite energy wealth have left many Kuwaitis uncertain about the future. While the country’s rulers are not facing an uprising aimed at toppling them, there is a growing anxiety that its regionally unique system of semi-democracy is coming under increasing strain from the divergent interests of a growing population.
“It’s a question of fear,” says Shamael al-Sharikh, a writer and women’s rights activist, who described the intense debate in her own family about whether a contentious opposition boycott of parliamentary elections in December was a principled stand or a contributor to chaos. “People are afraid Kuwait is going to be lost.”
The protest over the verdict on Mr al-Barrak for saying he would not allow autocratic rule by Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the emir, marked a revival of street demonstrations after the quieter months that followed the opposition election boycott. Tens of thousands turned out initially in protests last year but the numbers dwindled over time, amid violence and arrests that activists say have run well into the hundreds.
The opposition movement has drawn together disparate forces of tribespeople, Islamists and young professionals who – for now – share an interest in campaigning against corruption and for greater representation. While Kuwait has a parliament with lawmaking powers and relatively wide latitude for criticism of public figures, the emir is still the ultimate authority who appoints the prime minister from his own family. Under the constitution, personal criticism of him can be punishable by jail.
One big driver of political change is the increasing activism of the fast-growing population of descendants of the bedu who roved the deserts of the region before the oil industry took off following the second world war. Members of these tribal groups are campaigning against what they see as historic exclusion from the political process.
The political battles come as the country makes tentative moves to escape the economic doldrums, with the central bank forecasting that growth will fall from 6.3 per cent in 2012 to 1.9 per cent this year. While Kuwait developed its oil reserves earlier than other countries in the region and was a cultural leader, it now lags behind after the long period of lost development that followed the physical and psychological damage inflicted by the Iraqi occupation of 1990-91.
Kuwaitis complain of a lack of foreign investment and below-par health and education services, while parts of Kuwait City have a threadbare look that belies the country’s status as one of the 10 richest in the world. Government officials point to a series of new laws aimed at making foreign investment and industrial development easier, although many analysts say judgment on these should be deferred until it is clear that they have been implemented.
Two big infrastructure projects – the Az Zour North power plant and the Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad Al-Sabah causeway – seem finally to be going ahead. But bankers say the authorities are unlikely to have completed more than 30 per cent of an estimated KD31bn ($109bn) five-year development programme by the time it ends in a year’s time.
Many Kuwaitis still live a pampered life of state handouts, with public spending ballooning as subsidies in areas ranging from electricity to basic foodstuffs run into many billions of dollars a year.
Most people work for government, enjoying higher wages than in the private sector and greater benefits.
Mohammed al-Mubarak al-Sabah, minister of state for cabinet affairs and a member of the ruling family, blames a parliament where he says MPs lack a strategic vision and are too concerned with lavishing largesse. “We have a parliamentary system that acts as a trades union, because 94 per cent of the electorate are employed by the government,” he says.
Critics of the government retort that the 50 MPs are hamstrung by the undemocratic facets of the system, notably its ban on political parties. MPs cannot organise and thus their incentive is to campaign solely on the direct interests of their constituents.
Tensions came to a head when the emir last year cut the number of candidates each voter could choose from four to one.
That skewered the tribal politicians’ traditional tactics of organising themselves into slates and giving each other tit-for-tat support.
The rule change triggered the election boycott by the opposition. It had won the majority of seats in polls in February last year after ousting Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, the former prime minister, in November 2011, and exposing corruption allegations against his cabinet and pro-government lawmakers. The constitutional court is due to rule in June on whether the rule change was legal.
The ruling will be the latest of a series of flashpoints in a country where the strength of the arguments raging is in part a sign of the system’s ability to accommodate debate.
At the same time, the democratic sheen that many Kuwaitis have long pointed to with pride is being tarnished by what Human Rights Watch, the international campaign group, says are prosecutions of activists “solely for expressing peaceful criticism”.
Most striking of all is how Kuwaiti politics is becoming increasingly angry and dislocated, with a combative opposition opting out of the process and a ruling class seen as talking to and of itself.
“We have a new generation who are worried about their future; they do not trust the government or the parliament,” says Yousef al Ebraheem, an adviser at the emir’s headquarters.
“We are facing stagnation and serious development issues and we are on a very dangerous path.”


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