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Shedding Light on the Political Situation

For more than two years, Kuwait has been witnessing a vicious cycle of recurring political disputes and struggles between the Parliament and the Council of Ministers (the Executive branch of Kuwait’s government). These recurring political impasses manifest themselves in a series of ministerial questionings, often followed by the resignation of the Council of Ministers and the reappointment of the Prime Minister at the head of a new ministerial team. This situation has recently escalated into a violent confrontation, with groups of protestors breaking into Parliament, forcing the Royal Family to dissolve the legislature and conduct early elections. As a result, the opposition now constitutes the parliamentary majority and, significantly, a prime minister has been nominated from a different branch of the Royal Family than has been customary. From the onset, however, disagreements between the Parliament and the Prime Minister arose during initial deliberations to form the government. Although the latter insisted on engaging members of the Parliament in the deliberations and membership of the Council of Ministers, the parliamentary majority objected to the final outcome.

Initially, it seems tempting to understand these events within the context of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ or a repercussion of the region-wide changes the Arab world has been witnessing in recent months. In reality, however, the situation is different. In fact, the contemporary political scene in Kuwait is a manifestation of the modality of political relations rooted in the country’s historical and political heritage. This modality allows for a significant degree of culturally constituted democratic practice within the confines of customs and traditions known and adhered to by Kuwaiti society. It is in this context of democratic practice that competition and political struggles are contained even if they appear to be severe and fundamental, or, as the media may wish to claim, ‘radical’ insofar as they promise to bring about fundamental political change.

To understand the contemporary political scene in Kuwait, therefore, we must examine the characteristics of Kuwait’s democratic traditions within their historical context and contemporary forms and investigate the factors that influence Kuwaiti politics today.

The modern-day State of Kuwait was established on the basis of a unique social contract between the various mercantile communities of the region with the al-Sabah family who settled in this part of the Arabian Peninsula in the eighteenth century. This social contract acknowledges a tribe’s right to migrate, settle, and resettle - a customary right agreed upon by the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula for generations. As a result, the al-Sabah family retained the right to rule on the basis of a consensual agreement between the various communities inhabiting Kuwait. This consensus, it must be noted, depended on a precarious division of prerogatives based on the qualities and characteristics of each. The al-Sabah family preserved this contract in Kuwait whereas their patronymic cousins, the al-Khalifa family, resettled in modern-day Bahrain where they became the rulers of the island kingdom to date. The discovery of oil consolidated and enhanced al-Sabah’s administration of the country ; however, this did not violate the agreed-upon contract, one founded on consensus, cooperation, and complementarity exercised through the notion of freedom of opinion and expression, between the various components of Kuwaiti society. These concepts, therefore, became a characteristic of contemporary Kuwaiti society on the various social, institutional, and cultural levels - from the family to the external and social interactions of the individuals and communities. Political practice is no exception. Politics in Kuwait is founded on precisely this notion of an individual’s freedom of opinion and expression, which then become the main mechanisms for social and political change.

Kuwaiti society has witnessed substantial intellectual, cultural, and social development since the 1950s as evidenced by the influence of pan-Arabist, Islamist, and Nasserist ideologies in the educated classes in Kuwait. Influences come most notably as a result of the educational scholarships that funded Kuwaitis’ studies abroad, especially in Egypt, as well as Kuwait’s reception of a large number of Arab, particularly Palestinian, migrant workers and professionals. Combined, these factors had a significant influence on public discourse and intellectual and scientific progress in Kuwait. On a practical level, these influences manifest themselves in the organic and active participation of Kuwaiti youth in the pan-Arabist and Islamist causes within a general environment of freedom of participation and association - often encouraged and supported by the rulers of Kuwait and the ruling establishment’s engagement with these causes. Since the 1980s, a wave of intellectual, cultural, and social shift towards Salafism has taken place - partly, in reaction to Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran. This wave, it can be argued, may have been driven or supported from outside Kuwait within the context of a regional power struggle, which has led to a degree of discomfort and tension in Kuwait which, in turn, has led to a surge of a subnational collective consciousness amongst Kuwaiti Shiites - a segment of the population which includes a significant number of capitalist businessmen and entrepreneurs. This tension has, at times, taken on the form of violent clashes, especially during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, however, allowed for the expansion of Shiites’ rights to practice their religious beliefs as a result of their active participation in the Kuwaiti resistance. Paradoxically, this increased the level of tolerance and coexistence among the different factions of Kuwaiti society, especially as Shiite practices ceased to be an unknown and misconceived set of rituals and, instead, made their way to the public domain. It must be noted that the moderation of Kuwaiti Sunnism and Shiism, alike, contributed to the expansion of tolerance and the enhancement of freedom of belief and practice - principles rooted in Kuwaiti society’s urban and tolerant heritage. This, of course, can be attributed to the mercantile mode of production which necessitates coexistence and presupposes consensus, as well as to Kuwait’s location on the coast and, thus, its historical and continuous interaction with various cultural civilizations and nations beyond the strict boundaries of modern-day Kuwait.

Shiite beliefs and practices in Kuwait, for instance, do not convey the sense of sectarianism and self-isolation they may convey in other parts of the world. In fact, a significant segment of Kuwaiti Shiites do not emulate the scholars of Najaf in Iraq or Qom in Iran, but those of Lebanon - particularly, the tradition of Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, not to mention that a large number of Shiites in Kuwait belong to the Shiite sect only insofar as history and heritage are concerned, and are not overly sectarian. As a result, the ruling establishment in Kuwait has maintained a unique relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. This particular relationship between the two countries is a result of Kuwait’s precarious location in the geostrategic regional order as well as the importance and significance of Kuwait’s Shiite community in the economic domain at least. Likewise, regional powers weary of Iran’s expanding influence in the region are equally understanding of the country’s particular circumstances and its relationship with Iran.

Moreover, in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a number of families with tribal affiliations in the country resettled in Kuwait from neighboring countries. This demographic shift has had a significant impact on the country’s urban and civil social composition as society became more inclined towards tribalism in the political sense and Salafism in the intellectual sense. This manifests itself, for instance, in the situation of the Kuwaiti woman and her rights and duties.

Although these changes have not had a radical impact on the fundamental characteristics of Kuwaiti society and its unique social contract, they have had a significant impact on the practice of freedom and its mechanisms, which have changed in line with the natural development of any society.

Nonetheless, the extent to which political actors in Kuwait disagreed with each other and competed in Parliament remained confined to the bounds of the Royal Family, which retains its patrimonial role in society. Political disputes are, therefore, limited to confrontations between Parliament and ministers, the pressurizing of the Council of Ministers at the hands of the legislature, and, at times, the forced resignation of ministers or the entire Council of Ministers. However, modalities of opposition in Parliament in recent years are increasingly perceived as a principled objection to the choices of the political leadership as Parliament has become increasingly critical of the Prime Minister himself - not just members of his Cabinet. This forced the country’s leadership to replace the Prime Minister himself with another as opposed to the political leaderships’ traditional reshuffling of ministers and replacement of unpopular ministers and Cabinets.

To understand this shift in the dynamics of parliamentary opposition and its ability to achieve grander goals and objectives, it is necessary to examine the natural and generational changes the Royal Family - the central component of the ruling establishment - has undergone.

Modern-day Kuwait emerged as an independent, sovereign state at the hands of its founder, Mubarak al-Kabir al-Sabah (or « Mubarak the Great »), whose reign and sovereignty would be inherited by his sons as stipulated by the Kuwaiti constitution ; his heirs live on as the Royal Family’s four patronymic groups or families. As a result of the leadership and administrative skills possessed by members of the al-Jaber and al-Salem branches of the Royal Family, however, leadership of the Emirate has been limited to those two particular families, with an unspoken agreement whereby they alternate the positions of Emir and Crown Prince. Nonetheless, recent developments necessitated that members of the al-Jaber branch of the Royal Family occupy the positions of Emir and Crown Prince simultaneously, as well as Prime Minister.

Irrespective of the practical and tactical reasons behind the monopolization of these positions by the al-Jabers, however, discontent seems to have been growing amongst a segment of the al-Salem family, as well as some in the other two branches of the Royal Family who have traditionally been excluded from government for decades.

Given that the nature and dynamics of the relationship between branches of the Royal Family has in the past prevented the broadcasting of any differences in the public domain, branches of the Royal Family discontent with the current division of powers resorted to supporting sections of the political and parliamentary opposition in their competition with the ruling establishment despite significant differences in their intellectual and ideological backgrounds and aspirations. Inevitably, the involvement of these branches of the Royal Family in political disputes provided political actors and opposition factions with momentum and backing. Moreover, this weakened the ruling establishment’s ability to confront the opposition and their capability to enforce what it may perceive as the public good irrespective of political disagreements and opposition. In fact, the ruling establishment attempted to undermine the opposition and deprive it of its strengths by containing and coopting members of the two branches of the Royal Family that have traditionally been marginalized from government, which is evident in the latest reshuffling of parliament.

The analysis provided in this article is an attempt at understanding one of the factors that has determined and influenced the course and dynamics of politics and opposition in Kuwait recently. It does not, however, negate or deny other factors that may have led to the current situation. Undeniably, there are genuine demands for political and economic reforms. Moreover, contemporary Kuwait is not the Kuwait of past decades with its coherent familial units and simple social fabric ; it has witnessed, over the course of the past twenty years, significant changes intellectually, culturally, and demographically, not to mention the changes the country has witnessed with respect to the norms and modes of production, livelihood, and living standards. In addition to all of this, there are a number of vertical divides and cleavages amongst the different sectarian, intellectual, tribal, religious and capitalist communities over political questions and alliances, all of which are additional factors contributing to the complexity of the situation in Kuwait today. Combined, all of this necessitates a robust attitude in responding to change, handling eminent issues, and creating innovative government mechanisms based on the foundations and principles upon which the modern State of Kuwait is founded.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.