This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 18/02/2011
Prospects for democratic reform appear to have gone up a notch across the Gulf states as the aftermath of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings continue to reverberate around the region. Meaningful change, however, will depend not just on shows of popular discontent but on the representative institutions in those countries taking on a much more significant role in challenging the government on the public’s behalf. Although generally regarded as feeble by international standards, the recent history of the parliaments in Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman highlights both the potential for and the challenges facing the development of participatory politics in the Gulf.
At one end of the spectrum, Kuwait’s parliament has long been the loudest and liveliest in the region. Established in 1963, it has gradually expanded its formal powers and increasingly challenged the emir and the government. For many Gulf politicians, it was a model to be emulated; for heads of state, it was a physical warning that they should proceed with caution.
The Kuwaiti parliament’s progress has been disrupted twice by lengthy dissolutions (in 1976 and 1986, each for half a decade), which revolved around the emir’s resistance to any further extension of the assembly’s influence. That cycle appeared to be repeating itself between 2006 and 2009, as the parliament pushed for the right to question the prime minister. After three elections in as many years, the matter was resolved when the prime minister appeared before parliament and duly won a vote of no confidence at the end of 2009.