Monday, June 27, 2011

Kuwait: Perils Of Going Overboard

The never-ending saga of questioning against Kuwait's leading ministers has impeded nation's progress
By Abdullah Al Shayji
This is the era of the Arab Spring and the tsunami of uprisings sweeping many countries to eradicate stagnant policies that have been the staple of Arab political systems for decades. And at this time, the small demonstrations and growing demands of feisty and outspoken youth activists and opposition members of Kuwaiti Parliament for reforming the parliament is a novelty.
Kuwaiti Prime Minister Shaikh Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah continues to face mounting pressure from lawmakers and youth activists to step down. Opposition lawmakers and youth activists have staged demonstrations and sit-ins on four consecutive Fridays seeking the ouster of the prime minister — a first in Kuwaiti politics. This has led to a political deadlock which is harmful and undermines Kuwaiti interests. It delays legislation aimed at economic reforms and attracting investment to diversify Kuwait's economy away from oil, and to make Kuwait a regional hub for business and trade.
This led the Emir Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah to dissolve parliament thrice since 2006, and to form seven cabinets over the same period of time. This is unprecedented even in the Byzantine world of Kuwaiti politics.
I have highlighted the tumultous nature of Kuwaiti democracy in this space many times over the past three years. While it is true Kuwait's colourful politics sets it apart from the drab, colourless politics of many of its neighbours, the Kuwaiti malaise is becoming alarmingly harmful and putting off not only Kuwaitis but also those who admired the country's feisty politics.
Although, Kuwait has implemented the reverse of the adage "no taxation without representation", Kuwaitis are still not satisfied with what they have on their hands and demand more reforms and more oversight.
The prime minister has formed seven embattled cabinets, all targeted by a barrage of interpellations (questioning) mainly centred on his mismanagement. He personally was subjected to eleven interpellations over the past five years — a record number. He has just barely survived a close and gruelling interpellation, over foreign and security issues. He was accused of being lenient in dealing with Iran, which undermines, according to three MPs, Kuwait's national interests, and compromises its security while also endangering other GCC states. Some MPs labelled this interpellation as sectarian in nature.
A week earlier, the Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Shaikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah, a major power-broker in Kuwaiti politics, was forced to resign over simmering differences with the prime minister as a result of an interpellation against him and also due to a reported power struggle with the premier.
This was alarming, because it brought into the open cracks inside the ruling family itself. Last month, the Kuwaiti parliament's plenary session led to fisticuffs between Sunni and Shiite MPs over the two Kuwaiti detainees at Guantanamo. This highlighted sectarian tensions which have been simmering for the past few years.
Scathing address
This never-ending saga of confrontations, mayhem and questioning against leading ministers, including senior members of the ruling family, have brought Kuwait's progress to a screeching halt, quite contrary to what hopes the Emir had of the country becoming a major regional economic hub. Kuwait's politics continue to put off major investors. No wonder Kuwait is lagging behind other GCC states in attracting foreign direct investment. Finally, the Emir, who is veteran of Kuwaiti politics with over 50 years of experience, was forced to step in. In a recent scathing and poignant address to the nation, he did not mince words in his alarming critique of where this endless bickering and acrimonious relations is taking Kuwait and how it was derailing its democracy.
Shaikh Sabah stepped in to stop Kuwait from falling deeper into the abyss. He called for national unity and pleaded for an end to the internal feuding between the cabinet and the parliament and among different political groups and politicians.
In an unprecedented move, he criticised the MPs in public. He highlighted the recent spate of unsavoury incidents in parliament, like the use of derogatory words and statements by MPs and the fist fights. He warned that these "are very serious and harmful practices which are outside the framework of the constitution and beyond the requirements of national interests".
The Emir was clearly dismayed and fired his warning shot, declaring, "We are all concerned. Such behaviour [amounts to] overstepping the boundaries and undermining others' reputations and harming Kuwait's ties with ... friendly countries. What do they want with Kuwait and where are they taking us? This is intolerable and has gone too far and overboard." These are by far the most scathing words a sitting Emir has articulated against parliament in Kuwait's 50 years of representative politics.
The Arab Spring should not take away from Kuwait its proud achievements or tarnish its democratic legacy. Kuwait will continue to serve as an example for much of the region. These are the pangs of democratic development. Eventually, Kuwait will emerge even better off and more resilient than before.
-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 27/06/2011
-Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the Chairman of the Political Science Department at Kuwait University

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