Ri Insights

Taking Stock: Between Rhetoric and Reality

By Geoffrey Martin

Rai Insights Contributor

Kuwait: The Kuwaiti National Assembly is coming to a close, at least that’s the rumour I hear. Probably sometime in late May. At the very least, election activities in political diwaniyas is visible, which is a sure sign that candidates are thinking about the next wave of political ballet and brinkmanship.

 

What have we learned about this last Parliament? I think it’s time to appraise the different political developments as we move forward into another election season.

 

This was the first parliament since the end of the ‘boycott’ movement. Opposition forces took part for the first time in two election cycles. The previous 2013 Assembly was notable because it was missing almost all semblances of previous parliaments – Muslim Brotherhood (HADAS), liberals, and many tribal candidates chose to withhold participation in an effort to force reform of the cabinet appointment system and the introduction of the one-vote-one citizen system (changed from a four-vote list system).

 

The boycott was an abject failure, at least as I see it. Little to none of the efforts yielded anything other than the fact that opposition forces were not involved in parliamentary politics at a time where subsidy reform was taking place; something they have ardently argued against.

 

The boycott, the lack of significant protests or dissent, and the relative “progress” of the government’s agenda in the 2013 Assembly served as a safety valve for accumulated frustrations that might otherwise have spilled over into serious protests, as occurred sporadically between elections since 2005. The election itself did much to defuse previous tensions, as the will and capacity to mobilize opposition forces in protests was virtually non-existent the act of participating was a boost to the opposition forces.

 

Because of the announced “end” of the boycott for the November 2016 Assembly, and the inclusion of many opposition candidates (at least half of parliamentarians), many insiders and outsiders deduced that there were greater chances of conflict with the government over privatization schemes, infrastructure delays and a return to more conflict; especially sectarian and related to divisions within Kuwaiti society.

 

Did this come to pass? Largely no.

 

As I mentioned in another article right after the last parliamentary election in late 2016, post 2012 the opposition lacked “cohesiveness as a group” due to a lack of general support among the wider Kuwaiti population, the rise of Salafi independents, youth candidates, and most importantly internal dissension within the Islamist blocs fracturing and diluting the solidarity of the Islamic political blocs in the political establishment.

Attempts to reinvigorate cross-ideological cooperation did not materialize after the election.

In my opinion the oppositions’ attempt to change the governments stance on various policy issues largely failed because a large segment of the Kuwaiti population was not supportive of violent or destabilizing means to effect political change; which is a hallmark of Kuwait civil society. This had led to a relative calm in opposition politics that may continue for the time being.

 

Musallam Al Barrak, former veteran parliamentary and considered by many to be the leader of that ill-fate opposition, was released after two years in prison last week. In a speech in Farwaniya to his supporters a few days after his release he clearly outlined this failure, noting that the opposition should work with the government and compromise with it, instead of confronting it. Barrak took a much softer line than in previous speeches arguing that the reconciliation should be the course of action between the government and the people and that rumours that regime change was the oppositions aim were false.

 

As far as parliament is concerned, while there was no cohesive opposition there were the usual hijinks from specific ‘characters’ that have become a norm in the Assembly, although with a slight twist this time. Safaa Al Hashem, the only woman in Kuwait’s 50-seat parliament, surprisingly became the mouthpiece for the increased resentment against foreigners (re: Egyptians, Indians, Bangladeshis mainly are the target of the ‘foreigner’ diatribe) by a large number of Kuwaitis in the country. She is among a growing chorus that argues that the government reduce or remove completely the handouts to the expats in the country. In an era where cheap oil is no longer a certainty or a reality, Al Hashem stated (in many statements including this one) that before “asking citizens to pay, the government should reform the population mix by levying taxes on foreigners.” She continued, saying “I won’t remain silent just to keep our boat sailing…Citizens would be willing to pay their fair share, but not when they know their money will go to pay for the others.”

 

This type of populist rhetoric is not uncommon in Kuwait politics. A friend of mine noted jokingly that some Kuwaiti parliamentarians could ‘teach Trump’ a thing or two about xenophobia. But what is unique about Al Hashem is that she is a woman, considered a nationalist liberal, and is also a target of sexism and discrimination by other members of parliament. During one parliamentary session MP Mohammad Hayef, refused to sit beside her because of the distinct odor of her perfume, which ran contrary to his beliefs, leading to a standoff. The contradictions in the political system are ironically apparent.

 

While there have been some parliamentary pressure to increase prices for expatriates since the start of this year, especially when it comes to the cost of drugs and other medical service as well as the increase in the price for dependents, the idea that the government will either put the full burden of the debt on expat companies or individuals through different types of taxes is a long way off. The country needs expats, full stop. But what the rise of Al Hashem does signal is an increased level of unhappiness among a segment of the Kuwaiti population (especially those from the urban class) that the current status quo cannot stand. How a policy platform could come to implement this plan is anyone’s guess, as expats outnumber Kuwaitis three to one and dominant the service sector and low-paying jobs that no Kuwait would ever work in the current social environment.

 

Long-standing MP Waleed Tabtabai was also in the limelight, being the center of attention when it comes to grilling the government on a virtual (and literal) pile of motions questions the accountability, transparency, and strategies of the standing government, leading to a virtual paralysis in implementation of any parliamentary bills.

 

An honorable mention should also go to Abdulwahab Al Babtain, one of the youth members of Parliament. He was pivotal in the grillings of Sheikh Salman Humoud Al-Sabah’s, for Minister of Information and Youth, who resigned before he could be the subject of a no-confidence vote concerning the a failure to lift a 15-month international ban on Kuwaiti sports by the International Olympic Committee. His oratory style, and no-nonsense approach will likely be a trend in coming Assemblies, which will likely see a rise in the number of young candidates that diverge widely from the status quo politics of the old guard reactionaries in Parliament.

 

Moving past the rhetoric, what laws have passed in the current Parliament? Well not too much unfortunately. A lot of talk and very little action.

 

While the previous parliament passed 113 laws in its tenure the 2016 parliament only ratified two laws. One law that was ratified this January (first proposed in late 2015) was the lowering the age of minors from 18 to 16 years on. Anyone arrested at the age of 16 or 17 would be tried as an adult, and in some cases, could face the death penalty. The reason for this law passing is a perceived increase in violence among youths (several stabbing incidents at the Avenues mall complex instigated the push for deterrent laws), as well increased drug use (mostly meth), and undiagnosed mental health issues. The repercussions of this change in the law has yet to be tested but likely we will hear more about its implementation when there is an unfortunate bout of violence by youths.

 

The other law approved by the Assembly was the introduction of a treaty endorsing an extradition agreement between Kuwait and the United Kingdom. Although this law has been in the works for some time, the timing of its ratification relates in many ways to a specific individual, Fahad Al-Rajaan the former head of Kuwait’s Public Institution for Social Security (PIFSS) on the run in the U.K. until he was arrested on request of the Kuwaiti authorities. A Kuwaiti court sentenced Al-Rajaan last year to a 10-year prison term in absentia and an international arrest warrant was issued after he faced accusations including embezzlement of public funds, betrayal of public trust and money laundering relating to when he was in charge of the PIFSS. Money in excess of $100 million has been frozen by Swiss banks, although $190 million is still missing. His use of public funds to enrich himself, and the blatant way he took the money and left the country has been seen as a clear symbol of the scope and audacity of corruption in the country. This treaty will have far reaching implications as well, to catch other Kuwaiti and non-Kuwaitis with corruption cases against them that are also hiding in the U.K. and other parts of Europe.

 

So what key pieces of legislation did we see disappear from the limelight? There are more than a few (to put it mildly) but probably the greatest defeat for the current opposition was their failure to repeal the increase in fuel prices. Subsidized gas is one of the oldest benefits Kuwaitis enjoy and is an important symbol of the welfare state and the reduction of pricing will not likely occur, especially after the Courts struck down an attempt to question the constitutional legality of price increases.

 

The government is very aware that there is a need for differentiation of revenues for the state and that the current public sector welfare boon cannot survive the long-term implications of global energy price decreases. It is unlikely that any parliamentary coalition will be able to stop this programme, as the future of the country relies on reducing public sector spending, in some form at least. More importantly. I think is that regardless of your opinion on the quality of the government’s approach to Kuwait 2035 they have a specific strategy clearly. What does the opposition have? No such programme, merely just status quo politics that have no long-term solutions. This probably explains more than anything the declining support for opposition leadership in the last two years, when it became apparent they had no clear policy platform other than dissent.

 

Anyways I digress, what should we expect during the next election campaign? I have a few thoughts.

 

On one hand, I think there will be an increase of populist candidates, probably female who will mirror Safaa Al Hashem’s rhetoric and target the expatriate population as the root cause of many of Kuwait’s problems. This will have nothing but negative effects for the country and drive away the expatriates who assist in the running of the country. There is already a very negative atmosphere in Kuwait among the various expatriate communities, and this will do nothing but convince many that there is no future in Kuwait. This will only hurt Kuwait as it will lose the consultants, teachers, engineers, drivers, accountants, and couriers (mandoobs) that are critical for the function of the state and private sector.

 

The second, and equal phenomenon we will see is the rise of more youth candidates similar to Al Babtain in all Constituencies. This will have several notable effects in different constituencies. In the Fourth and Fifth Constituency particularly this will lead to a continued fragmentation of the tribal primary system and a rupture of the pro-government and pro-opposition tribal candidates. We saw this last election with the significant losses to the Mutairi tribe in particular. Along the same lines the Islamic and Salafi movements will continue to unravel likely because of the rise of divergent views among youth and the older generations. In the nationalist and urban camps in the First, Second, and Third Constituencies there is an increased struggle to get youths to actually participate in elections, as apathy and disinterest in Parliamentary politics especially above the 2nd Constituency are serious issues for potential candidates. No longer do the youth want or care as much about the protection of the urban core and political power in the same sort of urgent way that their parents’ generation did. It remains to be seen if new youth candidates will emerge to energize them.

 

The 2013 Assembly was dissolved by Emiri decree officially due to ‘security concerns’, although it was mostly about cuts to petrol subsidies and welfare to Kuwaiti nationals, which were extremely unpopular across a wide swathe of Kuwaiti society. I have no clue what will lead to the end of this current Parliament but there is a growing list of factors that will surely lead to an election this summer, barring some unknown calamity.

 

Governments calling for elections at such critical moments, this is a well-known and well worn path in many parliaments around the world, which postpone, sometimes permanently as David Pollock noted, the policy proposals in question.


* Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student at the University of Toronto and currently is a visiting researcher at the American University in Kuwait. He currently resides in Kuwait.


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