Pushing the Limits: The Changing Rules of Kuwait’s Politics

Kuwait from above, Dec. 24, 2008 (Flickr photo by lin84 licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0).
Kuwait from above, Dec. 24, 2008 (Flickr photo by lin84 licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0).

In 2016, Kuwait faces a combination of domestic and regional challenges arising from looming uncertainty over succession, the decline in international oil prices and the threat from radical groups such as the so-called Islamic State. Each of those issues has the potential to bring an end to the relative political stability that Kuwait has enjoyed since its most recent legislative election in July 2013.

The risk for Kuwait’s ruling officials is that the intervening years of political calm have masked, but not resolved, many of the underlying socio-political and economic triggers of discontent that surfaced in 2011 and 2012 and could yet recur. Moreover, the Kuwaiti government has, in its domestic politics, increasingly echoed the authoritarian tendencies of other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states—behavior that clashes with the relative political openness that historically distinguished Kuwait from its regional neighbors.

Trouble in the House of Sabah

The six years between January 2006, when Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah became Kuwait’s current emir, and 2012, when legislative elections were held in both February and December, was characterized by prolonged and debilitating political instability and economic stasis. In total, five National Assembly elections were held in that time, and more than a dozen different governments rose and fell; in fact, the last year that a Kuwaiti parliament completed its entire 4-year term was in 2003.

The recurring patterns of contestation reflected in part the implications of a hybrid political system divided between a government Cabinet appointed by the emir and a popularly elected parliament. Those parallel processes mean that there is no mechanism to ensure parliamentary support for government proposals; as a result, the parliament often functions in opposition to government policy. The 2003 decision to split the previously combined posts of crown prince and prime minister introduced further volatility by allowing lawmakers to criticize the prime minister, something that was not possible under the old system, because criticism of a future emir is forbidden. Moreover, formal political parties are illegal in Kuwait, as is the case in other Gulf States. Accordingly, most political figures adopt resolutely populist initiatives that prioritize their constituents’ needs over national interest; political capital is gained through protecting economic rights against perceived government mismanagement or corruption, rather than through appeals to ideology.

The political opposition’s steady ascent after 2006, as well as its internal divisions, coincided with mounting factional imbalances within the ruling Al Sabah family, also known as the House of Sabah. As the opposition tested and exceeded the boundaries of permissible political activity, neither the House of Sabah nor the established political groups knew how to respond, making Kuwaiti politics at once dynamic, fluid and relentlessly unstable.

Years of political calm have masked, but not resolved, many of the underlying socio-political and economic triggers of discontent.

This period illustrates the kind of volatility generated when ruling family factional divisions intersect with politics, but also how the ruling family’s factional maneuvers could move far beyond the palace confines to feed into an energized public and political arena.

The roots of the instability stem from a brief yet consequential succession crisis that Kuwait experienced in January 2006 after the death of Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad Al Sabah, who had ruled as Kuwait’s emir for 29 years. Emir Jabir’s designated successor, the longstanding Crown Prince Saad Abdullah Al Sabah, was seriously ill at the time and medically unfit to rule. As concern mounted that Saad would be physically unable to take the oath of office, members of the Al Sabah family, along with the speaker of the National Assembly and parliamentarians, negotiated a transfer of power to Jabir’s half-brother, then-Prime Minister Sabah al-Ahmad.

The resulting concentration of power in one branch of the Al Sabah family, the al-Jabir branch, broke with nine decades of tradition dating back to Sheikh Mubarak the Great, modern Kuwait’s founder and ruler from 1896 and 1915. Until 2006, power within the ruling family had always alternated between the al-Jabir branch and the al-Salim branch, both descended from two of Mubarak’s sons who had each ruled as emir after his death. Having now ruled consecutively, the al-Jabir branch has cemented its position at the apex of the ruling family. Sabah al-Ahmad further consolidated al-Jabir control, and magnified the emerging imbalance in intra-family power, by naming another half-brother, Nawaf al-Ahmad, as crown prince, rather than designating a successor from the al-Salim branch. The move not only ensures that a third consecutive al-Jabir emir will succeed Sabah, but also signals that the next crown prince will almost certainly come from the al-Jabir branch as well.

That shift provided the volatile new ground on which royal family factional infighting intersected with oppositional politics, as other prominent al-Jabir members have now begun staking out their own positions in the competition for the crown prince position ahead of the eventual succession from Emir Sabah to Crown Prince Nawaf. As internal ruling-family tensions deepened after 2006, aspiring leaders sought to manipulate wider political factions as a tool to weaken one another. Whereas such machinations had previously taken place largely outside the public eye, the explosion of new media and social networking platforms created a vast echo chamber that amplified the potential impact of family feuds on public policy.

“election”Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah inside the National Assembly, Kuwait City, Feb. 15, 2012 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

This was the backdrop to the political gridlock that developed between 2006 and 2011, as the three National Assemblies elected in that period all failed to work productively with nine Cabinets that rose and fell with increasing regularity. Kuwaiti politics were thus on the edge of eruption well before the onset of the popular uprisings that broke out across the region beginning in January 2011. That moment, however, nevertheless emboldened popular contestation: Largely youth-led demonstrations gradually intersected with a wave of strikes and public outrage over leaked allegations of massive political corruption, culminating in the resignation of then-Prime Minister Nasser al-Mohammed Al Sabah in November 2011.

Predominantly tribal and Islamist opposition candidates secured a landslide majority in the February 2012 legislative elections that followed, collectively securing 34 of the National Assembly’s 50 seats. Four months later, amid high tensions between the opposition-dominated parliament and the government, the Constitutional Court annulled the election on a technicality, and reinstated the previous parliament, which had been elected in 2009. The decision sent shockwaves through the Kuwaiti political establishment, which were exacerbated when the majority of the lawmakers from the reinstated 2009 National Assembly refused to reconvene in August 2012 to signal their opposition to the annulment.

When the government finally announced in October 2012 that new elections were to be held in December, it simultaneously issued a controversial decree by the emir that changed the voting system, reducing the number of votes each Kuwaiti could cast from four to one. Opposition politicians and many members of civil society boycotted the subsequent elections in December, resulting in an overwhelmingly pro-government parliament, which the Constitutional Court once again declared void on another technicality in June 2013. In the resulting legislative elections in July 2013, the already fragile opposition coalition that had emerged in 2012 fragmented, and the outcome restored the previous, uneasy balance among Kuwait’s political forces that remains in place today.

Battling for Position in the Looming Succession

Although the 86-year-old Emir Sabah is in generally good health, his looming succession has exacerbated infighting among ambitious members of the al-Jabir branch. Because the Kuwaiti ruling family does not have a predefined order of succession, whether through primogeniture or other means, careful management and balancing of competing factions is required to prevent, or at least minimize, internal discord. Against the backdrop of an al-Jabir-dominated palace, Emir Sabah’s nephews have now entered a period of intense jockeying to succeed the current crown prince.

In order to appreciate the intensity and complexity of this power struggle, which has overshadowed Kuwaiti public life since 2006, it is important to understand the National Assembly’s role in the succession process. Kuwait’s constitution regulates matters of succession and stipulates that the National Assembly must approve the incoming emir’s choice of crown prince by a majority vote in a special session. Failing approval, the emir is required to submit the names of three alternative proposals to the National Assembly, which then makes a selection by majority vote. That process explains why it is so important for contenders for power within the Al Sabah family to build alliances in Kuwait’s legislature. Moreover, alliance-building by members of the ruling family extends beyond the parliament to include the mobilization of political and economic factions; allegations of corruption are common.

Current Crown Prince Nawaf al-Ahmad Al Sabah, 78, is expected to succeed his half-brother without controversy. Factional infighting has thus focused on the next heir apparent following Nawaf’s transition to emir. The two most prominent and ambitious contenders are nephews of the current emir: former Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al Sabah, who was ousted in 2011 but still enjoys support among Kuwait’s Shiite minority and the country’s established merchant families and business elites; and former Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahd Al Sabah, the son of a war hero killed at the outset of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Sheikh Ahmad draws support from Kuwait’s most powerful tribes and is closely associated with the political opposition as represented by the Popular Action Bloc, a coalition of liberal, tribal and conservative Islamist forces.

Nasser and Ahmad have each waged a long battle against one another, with seemingly little regard for the collateral damage. Their mutual rivalry has accelerated sharply since 2011. In June 2011, Nasser, then prime minister, prompted members of the National Assembly to aggressively investigate Ahmad, then deputy prime minister, over alleged irregularities in the awarding of $900 million in government contracts; Ahmad resigned to avoid appearing before the National Assembly for questioning over the allegations. Two months later, Ahmad’s allies leaked documents suggesting that Nasser and up to one-third of legislators were involved in another political corruption scandal, the largest in Kuwaiti history and which led to Nasser’s fall in late November 2011. Details of the allegations, which involved payments by members of the ruling family to parliamentarians in return for their support in the National Assembly, were not made publicly available. But they were consistent with claims of past practices in Kuwait.

As internal ruling-family tensions deepened after 2006, aspiring leaders sought to manipulate wider political factions as a tool to weaken one another.

In December 2013, Ahmad dramatically resumed his campaign to undermine Nasser, who is believed to be the emir’s preferred candidate for crown prince. That month, an anonymous post on Twitter claimed that Ahmad was in possession of a recording in which a senior member of the ruling family—never named but widely understood to be Nasser—was allegedly plotting against the government with another undisclosed senior political figure, presumed to be the former speaker of the National Assembly, Jassim al-Kharafi. Specific details of the recording were kept secret; the Kuwaiti government imposed an immediate and total media blackout to prevent any reporting on the issue.

In April 2014, the “coup tape” issue, as the incident was called, re-emerged after Ahmad repeated the allegations before the public prosecutor as a witness to the affair. His comments caused a public sensation, particularly on Twitter, during an already sensitive political moment: Firebrand opposition figurehead Musallam al-Barrak had created an opposition coalition in the National Assembly and unveiled a reform project that demanded full parliamentary democracy, a ban on government ministers voting in parliament, an independent judiciary and a revised criminal code. In that context, Kuwait’s public prosecutor, Dherar al-Assoussi, issued a gag order imposing a complete media blackout on the coup tape issue, which prompted five legislators to resign from the National Assembly in protest of their inability to question government ministers over the matter.

That political uncertainty ended in March 2015, when the public prosecutor dropped the allegations and Ahmad appeared on state television to retract his claims and make a public apology to the emir. It seems likely that Ahmad faced behind-the-scenes pressure to issue such a public mea culpa; just days before, he had accused the public prosecutor of ignoring key evidence, vowed to release further information regarding the allegations of the purported coup and political corruption, and claimed on Twitter that he “will not rest until those responsible are brought to justice.”

Although Nasser appears to have prevailed over Ahmad in the most recent round of their factional struggle, the coup tape incident provides a glimpse of what is likely to become an increasingly bitter dispute as Emir Sabah gets older and Kuwait moves closer to a succession. While Ahmad was apparently forced into a public climb-down from his allegations over the coup tape, there is no indication that he has given up his ambition to become emir, and he thus remains a threat to Nasser, his faction and the Kuwaiti establishment.

Tightening the Lid on Dissent

The tensions over succession have spilled over into domestic politics, notably with a series of measures that indicate that the government’s tolerance for political dissent has been lowered considerably. An unprecedented 33 Kuwaitis were stripped of their citizenship in 2014 and 2015, a tactic Freedom House described as “a political tool against [the government’s] critics.” That crackdown has extended to the media, too. In April 2014, the Ministry of Information suspended the licenses of two newspapers associated with the opposition—and with Sheikh Ahmad—for publishing articles about the alleged coup plot. The government subsequently withdrew the licenses of two affiliated TV channels in July 2014, and revoked their owner’s citizenship; less than a year later, it canceled the operating license of three more channels. Simultaneously, the government passed a new media law criminalizing online dissent, and detained and charged dozens of activists with insulting the emir and “offending the constitution.”

The trajectory of Musallam al-Barrak, the prominent opposition figure mentioned above, since 2012 further exemplifies the evolving norms of political conduct and opposition in Kuwait in that time. Al-Barrak comes from one of Kuwait’s largest and most powerful tribes and commands a considerable power base among poorer, less-educated Kuwaitis who feel they do not benefit from the government’s political and economic stewardship. Upon his first election to the National Assembly in 1996, al-Barrak had already gained a reputation for shattering the “red lines” of permissible protest and voicing sentiments about the regime typically confined to the private sphere. By October 2012, however, in addressing Emir Sabah at a public rally against the changes to the voting system in Kuwait City, he declared, “Your Highness, in the name of the nation we shall not allow you to engage in autocratic rule . . . Your Highness, how do you want to go down in history? Do you want it to be recorded that under the rule of Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad, opinion formers were imprisoned?”

Days later, al-Barrak was arrested, prompting the largest street demonstration in Kuwait’s history and weeks of running battles between protesters and security services. Al-Barrak was charged with “insulting” and “undermining the status of the Emir” under a constitutional provision that renders the emir “immune and inviolable” from any criticism. In April 2013, he was handed a 5-year prison sentence but remained free on bail pending an appeal. In January 2015, the Court of Appeal reduced al-Barrak’s sentence to two years, which the Court of Cassation confirmed in May. Al-Barrak subsequently went into hiding but was finally arrested in June 2015, along with 13 of his relatives who were accused of helping him avoid arrest. Five days later, Human Rights Watch claimed that “al-Barrak was placed in solitary confinement in a prison ward usually reserved for death row prisoners, and was subsequently moved out of solitary confinement but only after he went on a hunger strike.”

The government’s tolerance for political dissent has been lowered considerably.

In the aftermath of Al-Barrak’s arrest, the grassroots campaign that had rapidly mobilized around him in the heady days of 2011 and 2012 quickly dissolved, exposing in part the vulnerability of the broad opposition coalition he had sought to create. It was one thing to unite against a particular individual or measure, such as Prime Minister Nasser al-Mohammed Al-Sabah in 2011, or the emir’s changes to the voting system in 2012, but quite another to agree on a common statement of goals and tactics. Thus, the unlikely coalition that assembled to boycott the December 2012 election—ranging from liberal political figures such as the veteran activist and former legislator Ahmed al-Khatib, to conservative tribal and Islamist groups encompassing both Muslim Brotherhood-linked and Salafi elements—subsequently fragmented and broke up, with the liberal and Salafi blocs announcing their return to parliamentary politics ahead of the July 2013 elections.

Two additional observations are pertinent. First, the cracks in Kuwait’s broad-based opposition movement underscored the challenges facing political actors in a context that disallows formal political groupings, and where platforms tend to reflect personal and populist, rather than ideological, agendas. The second is that cathartic incidents such as al-Barrak’s incendiary speech in October 2012 drove a wedge between hard-line proponents of drastic reforms that would curtail the ruling family’s position in politics, and more mainstream elements unwilling to contemplate such far-reaching measures. Al-Barrak’s March 2013 announcement of the creation of an opposition coalition, the Etilaf al-Muaratha, is a case in point: After the coalition demanded that the government be appointed by the parliamentary majority, rather than by the emir, ex-opposition legislator Al-Saifi Mubarak criticized the move as going too far, and claimed that up to 17 members of the coalition agreed with him.

These structural weaknesses presented the government with several avenues to address protesters and peel away layers of the opposition movement through a combination of targeted outreach, dialogue and repression. Led by the emir, senior members of the Al-Sabah family reached out to the leaders of the major tribes that had boycotted the December 2012 election and secured their pledge to return to the political arena, thereby detaching a major component from the opposition bloc. The tribal leadership’s decision to end their political boycott was driven in part by the desire to rein in youth in the tribal-dominated districts of Kuwait City who had been involved in running skirmishes with the security forces in early 2013.

In addition, the government launched a more targeted series of initiatives to reconnect with youth who sought greater political representation. These included meetings among younger ministers, members of the Al-Sabah family, Kuwaiti bloggers and online activists; the formation of a National Youth Council giving youth a platform to express their concerns; and the launching of the “Kuwait Listens” campaign, which reached out to younger Kuwaitis, and the creation of a National Youth Council to give young voices a public platform to express their concerns to senior policymakers and members of the ruling family.

The Double Bind of Economic Reforms

The sharp fall in world oil prices since mid-2014 has lent urgency to public policy debates in Kuwait and other GCC states over revenue-raising measures that would boost non-oil income, reduce vulnerability to volatile energy prices, and alleviate rapidly mounting fiscal pressures. In October 2015, Emir Sabah, addressing the opening of parliament, warned that government revenues have dropped by 60 percent, compounding the need for government spending cuts and further economic reforms. He appealed to legislators to rally behind government initiatives to stabilize the economy. At the parliament’s opening in October 2013, Prime Minister Jabir Mubarak Al Sabah had similarly cautioned that the Kuwaiti welfare system was unsustainable, a warning that went unheeded at a time when oil sold for more than $100 a barrel. Two years on, however, the Ministry of Finance projected the first budget deficit in 15 years—$27 billion for fiscal year 2015-2016—bringing an end to more than a decade of double-digit surpluses.

Against this backdrop, the government has started to propose cuts to energy subsidies, a leaner public-sector wage bill, and corporate and sales taxes, which will require parliamentary approval to become law. Government ministers hope that the more cooperative relationship they currently enjoy with the National Assembly will cushion the political sensitivity of economic reforms. But even if the government manages to avoid a political firestorm, Kuwaiti citizens remain fiercely protective of their access to free public services and heavily subsidized utilities; government efforts to cut diesel subsidies in 2015 triggered public outcry, and many legislators subsequently presented themselves as populist defenders of citizen interests against the government.

In seeking to implement subsidy reforms and raise revenue, Kuwait must navigate a far more challenging domestic political environment than all other GCC states bar Bahrain.

Kuwait’s policymakers therein face a dilemma: While the urgency of the fiscal pressures facing the country is clear and widely recognized, any hope of passing reforms must be tempered by the thick streak of populism that runs through Kuwaiti politics. In the absence of legalized parties, populist initiatives constitute the most effective way for legislators to gain public support, either by providing services and jobs to constituents or by posing as defenders of the nation’s wealth against perceived government attempts to squander it. The fact that many of the government’s currently proposed initiatives would involve cutting back on spending or imposing additional charges and fees magnifies the likelihood that many members of the parliament will engage in populist grandstanding and prioritize individual gain over appeals to the national interest. In that context, political opposition to measures that risk inflicting economic pain on voters could quickly escalate into a full-blown crisis for the government.

Accordingly, government policy has moved forward with excessive caution, particularly compared to the raft of subsidy reforms, price increases and incipient moves toward greater taxation in other GCC states. Although the Ministry of Finance convened an internal working group to consider the rationalization of subsidies shortly after the 2013 election, it has yet to publish its findings and recommendations. In response to an August 2015 report in Al-Rai—Kuwait’s oldest newspaper with close ties to the business community—that the Finance Ministry was contemplating imposing taxes on luxury items and tolls on highways, and extending corporate taxes to all companies in Kuwait, domestic and foreign, Finance Minister Anas al-Saleh reiterated that the government has no plans to impose taxes on individuals. Al-Saleh added that the government wouldn’t make a decision on subsidy reforms until his ministry had received the results of a study into the potential consequences of lifting fuel, power and water subsidies, without giving a timeframe. In March 2016, the Cabinet announced it had approved a proposed 10 percent tax on corporate profits on all companies in Kuwait. The increase, however, is still pending parliamentary approval, and no timeline was given for its implementation.

In seeking to implement subsidy reforms and revenue-raising measures, the government must therefore navigate a far more challenging domestic political environment than all other GCC states bar Bahrain, which also has a vocal parliamentary check on executive action. Policymakers in states such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE need only consider the public’s reaction to sensitive policies; in contrast, Kuwait’s activist parliament requires officials in Kuwait City to take into account the potential political backlash from legislators. Government officials thus find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place as they balance political stability against the need for tough economic decisions that risk galvanizing parliamentary opposition to government policy and putting an end to the current period of comparative political calm.

Blowback From Regional Upheaval

On June 26, 2015, Kuwait experienced its worst terrorist attack in three decades when a suicide bomber affiliated with the Islamic State killed 27 people at the Shiite Imam al-Sadiq mosque in Kuwait City. The attack, carried out by a Saudi citizen, aimed to inflame already high sectarian tensions: The bomber targeted the core of Kuwait’s Hasawi Shiite community, who hail originally from the al-Hasa region of Saudi Arabia, during prayers on the second Friday of Ramadan. Kuwait had not suffered such a grave attack since December 1983, when coordinated bombings hit the United States and French Embassies and the headquarters of the Kuwait Petroleum Corporation.

The al-Sadiq attack highlighted Kuwait’s vulnerability to blowback from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and underscored the close link between domestic social and political stability and broader regional upheaval. Both Sunnis and Shiites in Kuwait have taken advantage of lax government controls to send financial and logistical assistance to rebel and pro-government groups on all sides of Syria’s civil war. Well before the June 2015 terror attack, the sectarian fallout from these actions had disrupted Kuwait’s delicate sectarian equilibrium, driving internal tensions to dangerous levels. Just two days before the bombing, Faisal al-Duwaisan, a Shiite legislator, tendered his resignation from the National Assembly after a heated confrontation with Sunni Islamist legislator Hamdan al-Azemi.

“funeral”Thousands of Sunnis and Shiites at a mass funeral procession for 27 people killed in a suicide bombing,
at the Grand Mosque, Kuwait City, Kuwait, June 27, 2015 (AP photo).

Kuwait has, moreover, been heavily involved in efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and other support to Syria since the conflict began in 2011. At a state level, the country organized two United Nations donor conferences in January 2013 and January 2014, and has pledged more than $800 million in humanitarian aid to Syria. Kuwait’s stance contrasted with that of Qatar, which has funded and hosted the political opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and Saudi Arabia, which has sent arms to anti-regime fighters. However, unofficially, Kuwait also emerged as a pivotal player in channeling financial support to insurgents as well as humanitarian aid to rebel-controlled areas. A 2013 investigative report in The National referred to Kuwait as “the back office of logistical support” for Syria’s rebels, in large part because of the flows of private money and both lethal and nonlethal assistance directly to the warzones in Syria.

Many of Kuwait’s Sunni tribes consistently held fundraising events that evolved into loose competitions over which could raise more money for Syria. Unofficial fundraising was facilitated by Kuwait’s greater openness to independent organizations and charities than its neighbors—more than 80 are registered—and its very loose banking regulations, which make it an attractive conduit for transferring money to Syria with minimal risk of official monitoring. In particular, the absence of any terror-financing law crippled the Kuwaiti government’s ability to crack down on charitable donations and private funders who funneled money to extremist groups. That created a loophole through which money collected privately elsewhere in the Gulf, such as the UAE and especially Qatar, could be sent to Kuwait and then to Syria, often through third-party intermediaries in Turkey or Iran.

Sunnis and Shiites in Kuwait have taken advantage of lax government controls to send financial and logistical assistance to groups on all sides of Syria’s civil war.

International pressure on Kuwait, particularly from U.S. officials, intensified in 2013 and 2014 as Syrian rebel groups radicalized and, in some cases, joined Islamic State forces there. In March 2014, U.S. Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen stated bluntly that Kuwait had become “the epicenter of fundraising for terror groups in Syria” and noted that a new financial-tracking unit set up by the Kuwaiti government in 2013 to investigate suspicious financial transactions and money laundering was still not operational. U.S. pressure also led to the May 2014 resignation of Kuwaiti Justice and Endowments Minister Nayef al-Ajmi, after Cohen alleged that he had a history of “promoting terrorism.” Al-Ajmi’s ministry also came under suspicion for allowing nonprofit organizations and charities to collect donations for Syrians at Kuwaiti mosques, which Cohen argued was “a measure we believe can be easily exploited by Kuwait-based terrorist fundraisers.”

The shock of the June 2015 suicide attack belatedly led to closer monitoring of suspected militants and their financial activity and a short-lived truce in the escalating sectarian rhetoric that had threatened to spiral out of control prior to the attack. Whether or not the National Assembly approves the Gulf Security Pact reached by GCC interior ministers in Riyadh in November 2012 is likely to be controversial. The pact has been kept secret from the public, but leaked drafts suggest it grants wide-ranging powers to the security services of all six GCC states to make cross-border arrests and detain people without trial. It is currently going through the committee stage in Kuwait, which remains the only GCC state that has yet to ratify it. But parliamentary approval remains unlikely, as lawmakers have argued vociferously that it violates the constitutional rights of Kuwaiti citizens. The speaker of the National Assembly is thus likely to delay the vote for as long as possible to avoid an early confrontation between legislators and the government. If managed badly, the balance between civil and political liberties and national security could become another flashpoint that undermines Kuwait’s fragile calm amid mounting economic uncertainty.

The Evolving ‘Rules of the Game’

Kuwait has long been the harbinger of political development in the Gulf, as patterns of contestation against ruling family power go back decades and predate the oil era: Popular agitation in 1938 for a legislative council in Kuwait soon spread to Bahrain and Dubai, demonstrating how, even then, demands for greater civic participation could spill over to less progressive polities in the region. What is significant today is the apparent lack of political consensus or vision for the next phase of development. Kuwait, like Bahrain and Jordan, is caught between increasingly entrenched interests clustered around ruling families, who instinctively suppress demands for meaningful reform and silence the energized public and political opposition forces calling for greater freedoms, accountability and participation in governance.

The historical legacy and framework of civic participation that developed in Kuwait during the 20th century has been a source of relative stability in connecting the state with society and absorbing and responding to political demands at critical junctures in the past. But in Kuwait, as in Bahrain, powerful new actors have emerged since 2011 that are less willing to play by or respect the traditional “rules of the game.” As a result, the carefully constructed parameters of permissible opposition are breaking down, even as the established political entities remain unsure how to engage with and work alongside these new entrants searching for a voice and a place within the political system.

Against that backdrop, the Kuwaiti ruling family and the political landscape at large have struggled to adapt to the underlying changes that have taken place in recent years concerning the rules of the game, the motivations and objectives of the formal and informal actors involved, and the very boundaries of the political arena itself. With a wide spread of actors representing multiple and frequently overlapping constituencies of both popular support and ruling family patronage, Kuwaiti politics are searching for a new equilibrium that can accommodate a greater range of issues and goals. Kuwait is neither an archetypal hereditary emirate nor a full-fledged pluralistic polity, and its current political climate sheds light on the challenges of political evolution within a hybrid system characterized by authoritarianism and openness, as well as increasing fragmentation and diversity.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is the fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London.

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