Elections in Kuwait are usually festive occasions, but in May 2009 Kuwaitis were frustrated. It was the third set of elections in three years, all coming after the emir dissolved the National Assembly because of confrontations between parliamentarians and the cabinet led by the ruling Sabah family. Kuwaitis across the spectrum of opinion are clearly fed up with years of political gridlock and the failure of government to clear the way for private-sector projects and to invest in the country’s badly worn infrastructure. The stagnation is particularly galling given the huge investments made in neighboring Gulf countries. There is a pervasive sense that Kuwait is in decline.
This malaise was movingly captured by the reappearance in public of the veteran opposition leader Hamad al-Jaw‘an, who was paralyzed in an assassination attempt in the wake of Kuwait’s liberation from Iraq in 1991. His decision to break his silence after nearly 20 years brought an overflow audience to the Sheraton Hotel to hear his emphatic plea for Kuwait to reverse course: “I am ill, but my country is more ill than I am.”
Still, while Kuwaitis concur that the country is on the wrong path, they are sharply divided as to why. Inside of Kuwait City one hears many complaints about “desertification” — referring not to the loss of arable land, but to the increasing influence of tribes concentrated in outlying areas upon both culture and politics. Tribes (“Bedouins,” the urbanites say) are condemned for their nepotism and manipulation of government services, and are blamed for both the erosion of individual initiative and the decline of national unity. The growing resentment of tribes by urban dwellers underpinned the call for change in the election campaign.
Yet the outer districts have their own vision of change. At a huge campaign rally of women in an amusement park near the oil town of Ahmadi, the energy was palpable, and not just because most of the women had a bevy of happy children in tow. As Kuwaiti social scientists have been saying for years, these relatively late-arriving citizens, most of whom were naturalized after Kuwaiti independence in 1971 in part as a ruling family strategy to dilute the influence of urban Arab nationalist movements, are becoming better educated and less willing to accept “service” candidates who deliver government jobs to tribal members in exchange for loyalty to the rulers. For one thing, there are fewer jobs and services to go around. These people may mobilize as a “tribe,” but their complaints are essentially economic and redolent with built-up resentment of the better-off urbanites (hadhar).
The democratically elected parliament gives them the perfect vehicle for pressing their economic demands. These demands have included blocking major foreign investment projects and large public-private investment schemes favored by the urban elite, but which tribal and populist MPs charge are tainted by favoritism for prominent merchants and loaded with kickbacks for the ruling family. Their successes to date go a long way toward explaining why many of the merchants who once championed Kuwaiti democracy have sided with those in the ruling family who push for a temporary — but unconstitutional — dissolution of the parliament.
As Kuwaiti politics polarize along these hadhar-Bedouin lines, the organized Sunni Islamist movements are starting to look like the odd men out. They once saw the “tribal” areas as teeming with potential recruits, and to some degree did succeed in “Islamizing” the tribes, but they have paid a price. Urban Kuwaitis increasingly see them as part of the “desertification” problem. Yet, as essentially urban movements, the organized Sunni Islamists can never fully embrace the economic grievances of the tribes, and so they are losing constituents to “independent Islamists” in the exurban reaches.
With further political fragmentation, even liberal Kuwaitis may come to regret the decline of the Islamist movements or yearn for something to replace them. Despite their drawbacks, the movements have been one environment where hadhar-Bedouin lines can be crossed, interests debated and some attempt at consensus made.
The words of a young woman at the Ahmadi rally, speaking defiantly through a black niqab, resonate: “They think we are stupid, but things have changed. My brother has a Ph.D. My uncle is a doctor. We know what is going on. If someone would create a movement for the future, I would go to work for them. But no one looks beyond the next election and the next big deal.” Her words oddly echo what one hears in the urban districts: The country is sick. Yet each blames the other: the corrupt merchant, the backward Bedouin. It is a divide that will have to be traversed if this tiny and politically dynamic emirate is to resolve its crisis of governance.