Kuwait has always been one of the most enigmatic Arab countries in the wealthy oil-producing region of the Gulf, with its combination of enormous wealth and dynamic political culture. It is showing again these days why it may be a harbinger of trends that we may see elsewhere in the Gulf region, as political contestation between the Sabah family leadership and many politicized Kuwaitis reaches a climax. Of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Kuwait has always had the most lively political sphere, with a feisty parliament that has had little real power, an animated press that is as well known for its sensationalism as its political vitality, and a political arrangement that sees the Sabah family rule with the consent of the rich merchant families that are the bedrock of the regime and the country.
Three significant new developments have taken place in Kuwait in recent years that are worth noting both for Kuwait and for their implications for all GCC countries.
One is youth activism, the second is the role of Islamists in the parliamentary political system, and the third is a novel willingness by some Kuwaitis to demonstrate in the streets and openly call for constitutional changes that redefine the power of the ruling family.
The most recent dramatic event was a massive demonstration two weeks ago in which tens of thousands of Kuwaitis took part in a “March of Dignity” that was motivated by their opposition to an emergency decree issued by the emir, Sabah al-Ahmad, to revise the electoral districts in a manner that weakened the opposition.
The police pushed back against the demonstrators to enforce a ban on such protests, resulting in some people being wounded. This followed a year of political turbulence that included anti-corruption demands by MPs and youth activists that had already forced former Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah to step down last November. The new parliament that was elected two months later was dominated by Islamists and opposition members, but another four months later it was dissolved by a constitutional court ruling.
As government and opposition groups jockeyed for position in the public sphere, the novel public demonstrations started to materialize.
Their clear intent to check the emir’s unilateral manipulation of the political system was bluntly reflected in the slogan they shouted – “We will not let you!” The rallying call is drawn from a daring public warning to the emir by an Islamist opposition leader at a protest before parliament recently, in which he addressed the emir and said the protesters “will not allow you, your highness,” to take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy.
More is yet to come as the opposition groups that include Islamists, nationalists, youth groups and others have called for another large demonstration in Kuwait City on Saturday. Most of the ruling families in the GCC will be watching Kuwait with the same concern that shaped their view of events in Bahrain over the past 20 months. In both places, citizens have demanded limited constitutional reforms from their ruling families, and have been met with hard putdowns, which further motivated opposition groups to press their demands.
The critical new element in both cases, but especially Kuwait, is the willingness of more than a handful of citizens to publically challenge the regime and even the ruler by name.
Also problematic for the Kuwaiti Sabah family is the convergence of several different opposition groups that did not formerly share a common agenda, including youth activists, Islamists, nationalists, anti-corruption groups, progressive forces seeking higher human rights standards and ordinary citizens who want their voices to be more equitably reflected in the parliament. Such demands for greater accountability of the ruling elite to their fellow citizens are partly enhanced by the current uprisings across the Arab world, and partly rooted in local grievances that have festered for years in some GCC countries.
When demonstrators first demanded limited constitutional reforms in Bahrain last year, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries sent in a small military force to make it clear that there would be no adjustment to the power structure in that island state. We will soon discover if Kuwait follows suit. Or, the emir of Kuwait may realize that meeting his own citizens’ limited and reasonable calls for political reform is a better route to stability and national consensus than the autocratic manipulation and recurring dismissal of parliament that Kuwaiti rulers have used for decades.
Beyond Kuwait itself, this situation is important because its underlying drivers are present in most of the other GCC countries, to some extent. There is no such thing as an Arab Spring that defines the whole region. There are, though, some – sometimes many – discontented citizens in every Arab country. Some have decided they will no longer acquiesce in the distortions, disparities and inequities that define their societies, and they have started to express their grievances in public, and directly to their rulers. In other words, the historic birth of the Arab citizen has started to spread to the Gulf.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by The Daily Star. He tweets @RamiKhouri.