Ahmad al-Khatib has been active for many years in the Kuwaiti opposition movement and was a member of Kuwait’s parliament until its dissolution in 1986. Al-Khatib attended the assembly of Kuwaitis in Jidda, called by the ruling Al Sabah, in October 1990. Fred Halliday spoke with him in London upon his return from that meeting.
How did the Kuwaiti opposition see the situation within the country before the invasion on August 2? The parliament had been dissolved in 1986, but in early 1990 widespread mobilization for a return to democracy occurred. How did the Sabah family respond to your demands?
They did not respond. They just organized elections for a National Assembly, a body with less power than the parliament, indeed with no power at all. The members of this Assembly did not even have the right to ask questions of ministers. There would be no power to legislate and no power to review the budget. It was all unconstitutional. Everyone knew that they did not want to restore the 1962 constitution.
In 1976, when they dissolved Parliament for the first time, they formed a committee to revise the constitution. They appointed the members of that committee, but even so it rejected the amendments they put forward to change the constitution. The same attitude was evident in the so-called dialogue which began this January, after the weekly demonstrations. It was a fake — they asked the people what they thought and then they could not stand what we said, so they arrested us. They did not give us the right even to stay in our diwaniyyas [men’s political salons] and talk. They were very arrogant and stubborn, and they tried to go on ruling us like a ruling family. After all that, the prime minister, Sheikh Saad, said that the people did not want to go back to the constitution, even though 90 percent of them told him they wanted a return to it. He was a liar.
Did you want changes in the 1962 constitution or just a return to it?
All we wanted was to return to it. We wanted no more than that. But the trouble with this constitution was that it was never implemented: The Al Sabah had, until 1985, their majority in the parliament and they passed laws that stripped the constitution of its essence. The constitution makes clear what the prerogatives of the Sabah family are, in clause 4. This says that the ruler has to be from the Al Sabah, and from its Mubarak branch, and there are three things he can do: He can appoint someone to take his place when he is out of the country — this is an unqualified power; secondly, he can nominate an heir, a crown prince, but this has to be ratified by Parliament and Parliament can refuse; and he can appoint or dismiss a prime minister — but on this, too, he has to consult Parliament and Parliament can refuse to accept the dismissal of a prime minister.
These are the sum total of the emir’s powers. He has no right to dissolve Parliament. Nor is there anything in the constitution that says that the prime minister has to be from the ruling family or that the main ministers have to be from that family. The constitution gives them these three powers, and a monthly allowance. That’s it.
Why was the 1985 parliament dissolved by the emir?
The reason was that it was the first parliament where the Al Sabah did not control the majority. We started to exercise our powers and they did not like it. In the first place we began to question the minister of justice, who was involved with the stock market collapse: He was from the ruling family; we also tried to remove the minister of oil.
Concerning the al-Manakh [stock market exchange] scandal, we appointed a member of Parliament to go to the Central Bank to see how they had managed the crisis. The government refused, but we insisted and went to the constitutional court, and the court supported us. That was a blow against them: We finally found out what the ruling family was up to.
In the 1985 elections did your group organize itself into a party?
We had a coalition of all parties, including the religious ones, and this was how we could muster a majority. That alliance is still working. It had a core of 30 members, with two others who sometimes sided with us. We worked together until they dissolved Parliament and we stayed there until the last day, when the Iraqis occupied Kuwait.
What was the attitude of people like yourselves toward the Iraqi border claims? Was this something that was discussed?
This was a long-running issue; it had been going on for ages. It was not really a subject that Kuwaitis discussed. It came and went. We knew there was a problem but the dispute was more about other issues. The Iraqis wanted access to the Gulf from Umm Qasr. But the Iraqi demands over the border, about oil, caught Kuwaitis by surprise. They did not know what was going on all this time, the fall in the value of oil that was hurting Iraq and the fact of our overproducing. This came as a surprise because ours is a secretive government and nothing has been published. A few of us knew what was going on, but not the general public.
What about the Rumayla oil field?
This is not a big issue. It can be discussed later.
Is there support in Kuwait for rediscussing the border issue?
I don’t think that any Kuwaiti is in the mood to discuss the border issue with the Iraqis, not after what they did — occupying, looting, killing. Not now.
Is there a sense in which people blame the ruling family for the invasion?
It is not an issue of blame. Kuwaitis were not well informed about these matters and I do not think most of them blame the government. What Kuwaitis question is the way they handled this. They were not prepared when the occupation happened.
Was there a sense that the Al Sabah manipulated the conflict with Iraq to keep power and prevent democratization?
Kuwaitis do not think there is a border dispute. They think the existing borders are ours and the Iraqis want something else. That is all.
The question now is how to resolve the crisis. The ruling family favors US military action. What is your attitude to this?
It is irrelevant what Kuwaitis want or say now. We do not have any say in all this. But I can tell you that we do not want a military solution. If we can get a peaceful solution, it will be better for all of us. A military solution will destroy Kuwait and will not help those of our people who are still inside. It will also destroy Iraq — not just the Iraqi army, but also the whole infrastructure of the country. That will be a loss. Iraq is an Arab country — it is not just a matter of Saddam. Today he is president; tomorrow he may not be there.
Is there room for any concessions to Iraq?
Not on territory. The Rumayla dispute should be treated like any other oil field shared between two countries. On access to the sea, it depends what they want it for. If it is for a port, there is no problem. If it is for military purposes, it depends what these are. If these are good for the Arabs as a whole, we would participate in it. If it is something specific for Saddam, that’s another matter.
Was an understanding reached at the October meeting in Jidda?
The Al Sabah still exhibit the same mentality. They must stick to the constitution. Kuwaitis are having second thoughts about what Kuwait should be after liberation. Some say the emir has a place but not the rest of the family; the government should be formed after an election and should contain no members of the ruling family. Some Kuwaitis accept that Saad should remain premier and Sabah foreign minister. Others say no. It is only natural that the whole government has to be questioned after this affair. It was not a small mistake, it was a catastrophe. The Al Sabah have to be accountable.
Do you think that women will now get the vote in Kuwait? So far the franchise has been restricted to some 62,000 males.
We tried to raise this issue in 1971 but the laws were not passed. However, if you now read the communiques being put out after the Jidda meeting and its emphasis on Kuwaiti women, because of what they are doing in the resistance, then I think that when we go back no one can say women should not vote. This is the prevailing mood now.