Wednesday, March 20, 2013

An Idiot's Guide to Politics in Kuwait

Image taken from Arab Times Online
This post is actually a re-written article that I'd saved earlier, as part of my "Idiot's Guide To.." series, of which there's only been one article published so far (!). I hope you enjoy it as much as I've written it.

As with everyone else, I've watched closely the developments that took place since the Parliment was dissolved, all the vote-buying, tribal primaries, storming of the House Of Parliament, storming the Al Watan TV Headquarters, the scandals, etc., I followed every rotten political trick that was ever implemented in Kuwait during the last 12 months,  and here's my piece of mind:
Kuwait's constitutional and electoral process is, at best, muddy. We're not a Constitutional Monarchy, since we're not a Kingdom. We're not a Republic, since our Emir isn't an elected official. We're not a Dictatorship since the Emir's powers aren't absolute nor supreme. We're not an Autocracy, since we have elected officials in both the National Assembly and the Municipality, not to mention, nor belittle, all other socio-political institutions.

So what are we? To answer that question, one needs to find out what makes up Kuwait's Political Structure.

1-The Al Sabah Family
Contrary to Western public perceptions, not all members of the Al Sabah Family are eligible to rule, or even to participate in Government. By and large, they are treated as equally as the regular Kuwaiti citizens, but with a few extra perks, commensurate with their status as members of the ruling family. Moreover, while they have the right to participate in the electoral process of Kuwait's political system, either as candidates or as voters, many of them do not participate, as a public show of neutrality and conformity to 'the will of the people'. Only the most highest and notable among them show up to vote, and  to date, none of them had actually taken any serious steps to run for a seat in Parliament.

Among them, and in accordance with the Constitution as well as tradition, only the descendants of Mubarak The Great are eligible to be appointed and confirmed as Emirs. That doesn't mean, however, that certain members of the family do not 'manipulate' events to suite their purpose. Rumours are abound that some previous and present MP's are actually supported and financially backed by some sheikhs, either for personal gains, for political ammunition against their opponents from within the family, or both! This resulted in many smear campaigns by and between the candidates during election times, in which the names of Sheikhs were passed around, but were - and remain to be -  never substantiated (or even corroborated) with any evidence that would hold in Court.

2-The Tribes.
The tribal elections (a form of primaries) that were contested-while a valid tool of democracy at first sight-have proved to be more threatening than the vote-buying dilemma that the government claimed to block. Voters pledging their allegiances to the tribe-not the state-have selected those candidates that they want in order to be represented. This effectively diverted their role as participants in a Civil Kuwait, a country that supports Democracy, to one that undermines it. Since the 'tribe' is not concentrated in one geographic area, it is likely that other members of the same tribe outside the political boundaries of Kuwait may resort to 'displaying their intent' to elect one of their favorites to represent their tribe within Kuwait's Political system, thereby exposing the state to outside interference, by definition!

However, considering that this activity entails hefty payments per candidate (to cover the PR costs, but later diverted to cover the Legal costs!) the paying candidate will be campaigning to his tribe's elders-not the tribe as a whole-as to his eligibility to represent his tribe in the Kuwaiti Parliament. It is mypoic to believe that once he reaches the parliamentary seat, he would have anything but the welfare of his tribe in his agenda; He didn't pay that sum of money to represent the interests of Kuwaitis of Persian ancestry-for example! But if his agenda does have an inkling of social equality, it would be tailored to accommodate Kuwaitis in general, and his tribe's members in particular. So, for example, should he be asked to vote for a bill that would combat environmental dangers in an area wherein little of his constituents would be effected, he would either swing left or right, or not show up altogether!

Tribalists feel a close attachment to their heritage, be it right or wrong, and practice their lives according to the values and beliefs of their fathers and ancestors. In fact, their ancestry and history play a large part in their attitude towards politics, society and openness. They are very traditional, and as a consequence, their tradition shapes their future outlook.From that context, they feel superior to people from other genealogies, such as  people from Persian or African descent, or other Arabs of no actual tribal association beyond serfdom or yeomanry.

3-The Salafis.
Then we have the Salafists. Wahhabi by breed, they rise above the petty bickering and Superior attitudes of the Tribalists, but are very close-minded when it comes to social freedoms and values. Concepts like the equality of the sexes and western values are not tolerated easily, unless a consensus is drawn from among their elders and leaders. They constantly strive to implement 'God's Rule on Earth', (sounds familiar?) and would dedicate their entire lifetime and efforts towards that goal. They have some animosity towards other religions, and would only accommodate them according to their own rules and regulations. The more extreme of them would not allow their women to leave the house alone for anything-including education or employment-and would gladly and openly consider a Fatwa as a Law above State Law, and would even consider capital punishment, such as public beheading, as sufficient punishment for murderers and drug dealers.

Salafis - in their defense, however - tend to accept and follow instructions of the law of the land,  represented by the Emir who is the Head of State, since State Law is signed by the Emir, and the Courts rule and judge in his name. In that sense, they're less prone to morphing into hardliners in the political arena.

Then come the Islamic Brotherhood. These guys are nasty! The are professional articulate and well-funded politicians, all of them, who will shamelessly use religion to suite their goals and aims, as they have done in the past. All the Arab countries that felt the winds of the so-called Arab Spring have seen the Islamic Brotherhood swoop in and fill the void left by the removed dictatorships. Libya, Tunis, Egypt have one thing in common-if at all-and that is the emergence of the Islamic Brotherhood-or their close affiliates-into the political scene and hence, into power. Represented by the Islamic Constitutional Movement, or Hadas, their powers in Government have waxed and waned over the years, but were always in de-facto control of some of Kuwait's major social institutions.  The result of which is their prominence as a useful and capable alternative to both the Salafis and tribalists.

It's ironic, therefore, that most of the Youth movements that were instrumental in shaking the country into a series of events that lead to the dissolution of both parliament and government were all organized and funded by Hadas. Equally ironic is the fact that the Kuwait Transparency Society, whose members are almost completely comprised of Hadas, has been allowed to invigilate Kuwait's latest elections this year-for the first time!

These people fall into two main categories, Arabs and Persians, and both constitute over a third of Kuwait's Society. They have always had smart, bright and highly educated representatives in parliament, and have historically always defended and sided with the Ruling House of Mubarak Al Sabah. Lately, however, thanks to a very well-timed smear campaign, they have been polarized (unjustly in some cases) into a faction that is generally regarded as unfriendly to the majority Sunni Kuwaitis. Coupled with the majority-shiite uprising in Bahrain, animosity towards them has emboldened them to become more outspoken and vocal as to their civil and religious rights and affiliations. This has resulted in some of them coming out and openly criticizing some of the activities and opinions of the Sunni tribes, accusing them in return of being backward and unfaithful to anything except their tribe and tribal leaders.

The Shiites of Persian descent, in particular, whose ancestors migrated to Kuwait, had brought with them their wealth and had set up their businesses, and had later became very successful as well as useful to the society as well as the economy of Kuwait. Not until recently had their loyalty to Kuwait and it's rulers and families ever come under question, thanks in part to the First Gulf War (Iraq-Iran) and the polarization of extremist and tribal Sunni political opponents.

6-The Merchant Families
Kuwait was built upon the efforts of those families that had lived upon it since it's establishment in the 18th Century. Those families eventually became successful (and some say cut-throat) merchants due to their trade and pearl-diving enterprises. Upon it's independence in 1961, many, if not all, of Kuwait's sensitive and vital Government and Administrative positions went to the members of these families, being those in economic power, well-educated and best-suited to run the country alongside the Ruling Branch of the Al Sabah family. As the country progressed towards diversity and complexity, in parallel with it's increasing revenues and mega-projects, these families became even wealthier and more powerful.

With political power augmenting their wealth, they were a constant threat to the Ruling Family's rule, until events in the 1930's, orchestrated by the Merchants, forced the ruling Emir at the time, the late Sh. Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah, into recognizing the need to end the current state of rule into a more politically even power-sharing infrastructure.  Since then, the Ruling Al Sabah strived to keep the Merchants' power in check, by inviting, settling and propping up the numerically superior Bedouin tribes and other minorities against them in all walks of Kuwaiti live, notably within the military and governmental positions. Ironically, though, it is the descendants of these tribes and Minorities who now constitute the bulk of nearly all opposition groups calling for the end of the Al Sabah's participation in Government!

7-The Rest of Us
Finally, there's the 'ordinary' people, the plain vanilla of Kuwait's society. Earnestly working to better their lives and 'just live', the ordinary, non-affiliated people of Kuwait is that part of society that is gradually eroding, polarized towards either a religious, tribal or family affiliation, especially with the hesitance of implementing the Law into those opposition groups and notables who constantly insist on publicly insulting and accusing their opponents of corruption, be they Merchants, Sheikhs or Institutions. This section of Kuwait's society is as eager as the rest in seeing actual positive changes on the ground, and not just read about potential improvements in the local newspapers.

Sadly, however, they're the ones whose morale compass is as true as their they are credulous! If one outspoken opposition member publicly states that some big-shot so-and-so is a liar, a cheat and an embezzler, they're more than eager to believe the hype than their own eyes & ears. Alternatively, if they read about the Government's plans to develop some sort of Economic upheaval through renovating the 1st Ring Road, or by building a water fountain, they'll more than likely believe it!

Come election time, these people will be more eager to believe anyone who speaks to their needs and wants, as opposed to actually having any sort of agenda remotely related to the development of Kuwait. They won't really dwell into the background of any particular candidate, nor would they care about how much experience he or she may have, as long as they're singing the right tunes and saying the right words and visiting the right Diwaniya's, they'll vote for them!

Admittedly, this gullibility has decreased somewhat, especially during the periods between 2011-2012, but not enough (in my opinion) to warrant their classification as 'capable, responsible' voters.

In short, and in summary, Kuwait's voting system is flawed, at best. Kuwait's voters - in general - are myopic, selfish and credulous, making them easy prey for the real political players such as the Religious & Tribalists. Once you consider all the variables, however, it becomes evident that the power struggle on in Kuwait has traces historic roots from two main sources; The Ruling Family and the Merchants. Both want control, both want power and both want wealth. Everything else is background noise!

So there you have it, my own personal take on the current Political situation in Kuwait. Like it or not, believe it or not, accept it or not, it all boils down to power, and who wants to control it. Sad, really.

But then again, aren't all Democracies simply power struggles?

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