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Finding a Sense of Direction in Kuwait

In recent months, a variety of actors within Kuwaiti society have engaged in a far-reaching discussion about the nation’s future. This discussion has focused primarily on the difficulties facing the functioning of the country’s government, reflecting their concern for Kuwait’s future. The conversation focuses on the concern that both the executive and legislative institutions within the country lack a single long-term strategic vision linked to national goals. Such a vision would function as an alarm system, allowing the government to respond to threats when Kuwait’s national interests are at stake.

In the perceptions of many, Kuwait’s political situation has grown more complicated and no longer serves the country’s interests as a whole. The ambiguous silence of many of the country’s influential elite complicates this situation; they seem to believe that any logical discussions of Kuwait’s conditions will fall on deaf ears. All government officials, their logic goes, are too busy with their narrow interests to effectively perform their official functions.

It’s Everyone’s Fault

Given the range of problems, trying to comprehend why many Kuwaitis remain silent is quite difficult. Nepotism and corruption run rampant in the country, and public services in the economy, education, infrastructure, and government management continue to deteriorate. The government is deeply divided; infighting and division between opposing legislators have come to dominate the current parliament. This division has gone beyond verbal exchanges and, on occasion, has turned into physical violence in the chamber of the parliament. The media and public rhetoric reflect the lack of confidence in the current parliament, although some criticism is excessive and illogical. The public criticism assumes, for example, that most government institutions and officials are unqualified without demonstrating concrete evidence. This leads to further fragmentation between the state and society, which in turn, unfortunately, leads to more censorship and restrictions by legislators incensed at societal criticism of their work.

Difficulties in Kuwait’s political life are as old as the country itself. After sixty years, all Kuwaitis know the problems that lead to unrest, even if the solutions remain elusive or politically inconvenient. For instance, when elected members of parliament are given ministries within the executive branch, some will fill their staff with well-connected sycophants rather than qualified bureaucrats to improve their re-election odds. This exchange – prioritizing electoral prospects over doing the job – affects the minister’s public work quality. In some cases, this has even led to ministers making decisions that contradict their views when they were parliamentarians. Societal confidence in the Kuwaiti electoral system –and in the executive and legislative branches– naturally declines with such conduct. In turn, this lack of confidence makes people more likely to resort to their tribal and sectarian identities, effectively ensuring that they push for narrow priorities rather than the common interests of Kuwait as a whole. Resorting to identity politics has made many Kuwaitis react negatively to decisions by the government that would promote the interests of the country – most recently the backlash against allowing women to enlist in the military in non-combatant roles.

The Right Way Forward

Despite these problems, basic steps can be taken to ease the tension and find a resolution. First of all, the ongoing discussion about “national dialogue” is limited to a few individuals. It does not include a broad segment of the society, despite the wide and varied interests of many constituent groups in Kuwait. The people in charge of this dialogue should first expand the number and diversify their professional and academic backgrounds, making an effort to include people with experience in, and knowledge of, both branches of government. Second, the dialogue’s agenda should be expanded to look into serious public service reform, a clear priority in Kuwaiti society. 

Amending the constitution, originally written more than fifty years ago for a country with practically no economic, demographic, political, or societal relationship to the current reality, should take priority. How can we govern a society that has dramatically changed in fifty years with a document written for a totally different society? Moreover, the constitution itself states the importance of amending it to empower growing participation by different members of society. Kuwait’s neighbors have actively done this, most recently in Jordan, where the constitution was amended to explicitly include women in political activity. 

Reforming the constitution to allow political parties and movements to legally operate within Kuwait would be a key reform. This would free Kuwaitis to assemble in political parties formed and regulated by a legal code. This will allow individuals a platform to engage in public affairs, and help push them away from sectarianism, tribalism, regionalism, and other narrow interests. Additionally, these political parties can produce candidates for parliamentary elections to represent the parties and society, so that the government can deal with the parties as movements representing the interests of segments of Kuwaiti society, rather than only dealing with individuals. 

If properly implemented, these reforms will lead to fundamental changes in the nature of politics and government work. They will take Kuwait to a better state and improve its economy, its education system, and the other services of the state. Unfortunately, neither the government nor the opposition has taken political and constitutional reforms as seriously as they should, focusing instead on the solutions to small, individual disagreements. Today, Kuwait sorely needs a new approach; diagnosing the root causes of disagreements and implementing reforms designed to address them.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Dr. Rumaihi is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kuwait. He holds a Ph.D. from Durham University and has published more than 20 books about the social and political changes in the Arab Gulf states. He has been an Editor-in-Chief for prominent newspapers and magazines in Kuwait and other Arab Gulf states and was Secretary-General of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature 1998-2002.

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