The Arab Gulf has seen sweeping arrests of political figures to quell corruption. Even Kuwait has not been immune.
In October 2013, Kuwait’s Prime Minister Jabir al-Mubarak introduced his government’s agenda with a bombshell — that “the current welfare state to which Kuwaitis are accustomed is not viable.”  Government projections estimate that expenditures will exceed oil revenues in only a few years if spending continues at the current rate. Analysis by the International Monetary Fund confirms that this event could happen as early as 2017.  The following month, the government declared it would review $16 billion in annual subsidies on goods and services, a spending program that accounts for 22 percent of the budget.
I recently came across two accounts of Arab youth that fly in the face of conventional wisdom. One is Kristin Diwan’s issue brief on youth activism in the Arab Gulf states for the Atlantic Council, and the other is a documentary by filmmaker Jumana Manna on Palestinian “male thug culture” in East Jerusalem. The film is called Blessed, Blessed Oblivion.
In the New York Review of Books, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley imagine the results of the Arab revolts as the possible beginning of a reconstitution of the Ottoman Empire. They see the regional unrest as media-driven, with various partisans asserting their own versions of reality to mobilize popular support. Outsiders fumble for understanding as forces push back and forth, now winning and now losing. Some see Islamists as the only ones with moral standing, yet Islamists in power seem ready and eager to “compromise” with the West to attract money and space to pursue their domestic projects. Aside from the almost obligatory — and quick — nod to events in Bahrain and gerontocracy-ruled Saudi Arabia, the Gulf disappears from the conversation. The “non-revolution” Agha and Malley describe is centered elsewhere.
The Iran-Iraq war was fought entirely within the boundaries of the two combatant nations, but it was nonetheless a regional war. The war machine of Saddam Hussein’s regime was lubricated with billions of dollars in loans from the Arab oil monarchies, which were anxious to see the revolutionary state in Tehran defeated, or at least bloodied. Iraqi warplanes harried ships seeking to load Iranian oil at the Kharg island terminal and points south on the Persian Gulf coast. In 1987, the US Navy intervened to protect tankers and other commercial traffic from Iranian reprisals. These heated entanglements presaged the degree to which the war was to transform the political economies of many countries in the vicinity.
In a second-floor classroom overlooking a flowering courtyard filled with groups of students sharing textbooks and snacks, a young Yemeni woman in her late teens says simply: “[No political party] cares about us, or about the country.” The “us” to whom she refers are the other young women in the room, a group participating in an innovative program at the Girls World Communication Center (GWCC), one of many civil society organizations in Yemen dedicated to improving opportunities for young women in the poorest country in the Arab world.
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.
The May 2009 parliamentary election in Kuwait produced a number of surprising results. Occurring on the fourth anniversary of the achievement of full political rights for Kuwaiti women, the outcome attracting the most commentary was the victory of four female candidates. But there were other happenings of note. Doctrinaire religious candidates ran behind women in several districts. In fact, all of the “political groups” that function as Kuwait’s substitute for political parties did poorly on May 16, whether their orientation is center-left or religious. Even more telling is the fact that so many candidates, including several who had run as group representatives in previous elections, chose to run as independents.
Prosperous and possessed of a spirited parliament, Kuwait has prided itself on being a standard setter among the Arab monarchies on the Persian Gulf. With respect to women's rights, however, today Kuwait ranks just above Saudi Arabia. Kuwaiti women are allowed to drive and they occupy positions in public life ranging from secretary to second-level government ministers, but like their sisters in Saudi Arabia, they can neither vote nor run for political office.
When Kuwait's parliament reconvenes in late October, it will be facing a full agenda. Member initiatives include an ambitious redistricting bill and threats to interpellate at least two cabinet ministers. The government's wish list is equally contentious; it includes a wide-ranging privatization program and a proposal to confer full political rights on Kuwaiti women. Despite promises of enfranchisement in return for their highly lauded performance resisting the Iraqi occupation of 1990-1991, Kuwaiti women are still denied the rights to vote and run for national office.
In sharp contrast to the diplomatic ineptitude that has characterized the Anglo-American march to war against Iraq, military preparations have been systematic, extensive and inexorable. As the military buildup has progressed through the autumn and winter of 2002 and into the succeeding spring, the feelings of Kuwaitis about what virtually all see as an inevitable war have become more and more — ambivalent.
Over the last 50 years, a massive infusion of petrodollars enabled the new monarchies of the Gulf to engage in impressive experiments in counterrevolution. During the 1970s, King Faysal of Saudi Arabia attempted to preserve the traditional social hierarchy of his country by modernizing without industrializing. A decade earlier, the Shah of Iran staged a preemptive strike against demands for change by launching his own “white revolution.” Yet the most successful counterrevolution in the Gulf was the massive and successful program of the Sabah dynasty in Kuwait to preserve its power by building the region’s first modern welfare state.
Women’s groups, like all voluntary associations in Kuwait, are controlled and funded by the state. They have elected boards, written constitutions and paid memberships. Law 24 of 1962 governing the activity of associations — partially amended in 1965 and still in force — gives the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor full control and power over voluntary associations. The Ministry has the power to refuse to license an association, to dissolve its elected board or to terminate an association if it determines the group not to be beneficial to society as a whole or not to be abiding by its constitution.
Muhammad al-Saqr has been editor-in-chief of the Kuwaiti daily al-Qabas since 1983. Although he has a business background, the paper’s reputation for balance and accuracy has grown under al-Saqr’s leadership. Al-Saqr was detained and interrogated a week before he received a Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists on October 21, 1992 in New York. Avner Gidron, CPJ’s Research Associate for the Middle and North Africa, interviewed him the next day.
How do people in the Arab world get news they can trust?
Friday, May 24