By: Nathan J. Brown*
Exclusively written for RI insights
Kuwaitis have often prided themselves on the relative openness of their society and political system. In a region characterized by harsh authoritarianism, sham elections, and lawless rulers, Kuwait has had a relatively free press, regular competitive elections, a parliament with real powers, and a constitution that is viewed by the society as its own creation rather than merely codifying the whim of a ruler.
In the past years, as that openness has led to paralysis on some important policy questions, the system has come under stress. But the greater danger may lie in an external environment that has suddenly placed enormous strains on the system.
Any direction that Kuwaitis look, they see security threats, sectarian conflicts, ideological battles, and looming (and actual) military confrontation. Worse, those threats are not merely external in nature but play into some of the divisions within Kuwaiti society—divisions that the open political system has helped manage but that now lead Kuwaitis to differ deeply on what their country’s interests require.
The rise of Iran, the confrontation between the Islamist camp and the axis of the Egyptian-Saudi-Emirati regimes, sectarian conflict in Iraq, internal struggles in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Bahrain—all these have sparked not merely horror but also differences among Kuwaitis based on their own religious or political orientation.
Two developments have accentuated those issues in the past year. One is the relative decline of the United States as a regional power. Between 1991, when the United States spearheaded the liberation of Kuwait, and the Obama Administration, the Americans were the undisputed dominant diplomatic and military power. But having overreached with the occupation of Iraq, sponsored a failed Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and seen key regional partners (such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia) decline in their willingness to follow US leadership, the Americans are no longer either willing or able to play such an ambitious role. In some ways, it no longer makes sense to talk of a regional “order” since the conflicts follow a confusing and shifting pattern.
Second, the sudden rise of Da‘ash has added to the strains on Kuwait. It is not that the issues Da‘ash poses are new—sectarianism, regional conflict, and radical ideologies were present along before Da‘ash was founded. But its forceful presence has united all these issues in a worrisome brew that spills over national borders, dominates discussions, disturbs alliances and alignments, and blends domestic divisions and external threats in a manner difficult to untangle.
In such an environment, can openness be a virtue? Do democratic elements disrupt a society’s efforts to manage external challenges and internal divisions? Can political rights take root when a basic human right—to live—seems threatened?
In fact, this question is not new. Kuwait answered it upon independence. The era of a pax Americana was the exception, not the rule. In the two decades after 1991, it is true that regional pressures were kept at bay and there was close to a consensus among Kuwaitis on critical security and foreign policy issues. But the first three decades of the country’s history as an independent state were different. The rise of Nasserism, the Iranian revolution, the struggles among Arabism and Islamism—all these were played out not merely outside and across Kuwait’s borders but within them.
The Kuwaiti constitution itself was born in the aftermath of a severe challenge to Kuwait’s sovereignty: the Iraqi threat to annex the country in the wake of its independence. Those who founded Kuwait as a sovereign state disagreed on much, but they came together on a vision that political inclusiveness and openness were building blocks of unity and therefore a key element of national security. That formula was not always honored over the subsequent three decades, but it helped the country through some extremely divisive periods. When Kuwait disappeared from the political map of the world in 1990, it provided the basis for an impressive show of national unity that not only survived a short but brutal occupation but flourished afterwards.
The Kuwaiti answer to the question of how to confront challenges is the precise opposite of the answer of virtually every other regime in the region. To be fair to those other societies, they lack some elements that have facilitated the Kuwaiti approach: a generous welfare system; an external guarantor (weakened and withdrawn in some areas but still committed to Kuwait); a small population that means that members of different camps often are personal acquaintances and even relatives; and a slowly emerging but now strong sense of national identity. Given that history and those advantages—and the precedent of the 1960s—it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Kuwaiti answer, distinctive as it is, still applies today.