In all nations, a constitution establishes the legal basis for the government and lays out the rights of the nation’s citizens. In accordance with the principles established by the UN Declaration of Human Rights after the Second World War, nearly all constitutions guarantee, at least in principle, equality between citizens and forbid all types of discrimination. Interestingly, a comparison between the nature of Arab governments and constitutions will show us that parts of the constitutions do enforce a certain form of a hierarchical classification of citizens, which has led to the destruction of the concept of equal citizenship. These constitutions also undermine the concept that the people give legitimacy to their authorities.
This topic is undoubtedly one of the most studied and controversial topics in the Middle East by Arab lawmakers and intellectuals. Most of the study of the situation, however, has taken a Western approach to describe different classes in the Arab world, comparing them with class systems in Europe’s different eras. What is important in the current situation is that, while societal changes and development in many of the Arab nations have kept up with modernity, the GCC states have remained bound to their traditions, namely the class-based ruling system, inherited authority, and the formation of coalitions with tribes, particularly those with influence and power in trade and defense.
Societal Divisions in Kuwait and Qatar
To address the situation in the GCC states during the urban revolution and societal opening that has taken place over the past decades, a deeper look is needed with regard to the Gulf states’ constitutions and the format of crafting laws. For example, let us look at the mention of voting rights in the Kuwaiti and Qatari constitutions to discuss this problem.
Kuwait’s constitution is considered the oldest and most liberal among its peers in the GCC states, while Qatar’s, adopted in 2003, is more recent and narrower in scope. The Kuwaiti constitution states in Articles 6, 7, 8, and 29, and the Qatari in Articles 18, 19, 34, 35, and 36, that all citizens are equal in their rights and obligations. These articles clearly state that all citizens are equal, making it impossible to imagine that the classism created in the GCC has influenced some articles of the constitutions and the crafting of the nations’ laws, which in many cases run against the spirit, if not the letter, of the constitutions’ provisions. Unfortunately, while the Qatari and Kuwaiti constitutions guarantee equality in principle, they were not decisive about denouncing classism and its ramifications, or even totally canceling it.
For instance, article 4 of the Kuwaiti constitution states that the royal family is the lineage of Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah, a clear formation for the state rulers. Right after that, however, election laws and naturalization laws have divided citizens into two categories, “original” citizens and their descendants, and naturalized ones. This means that there are three different classes within Kuwaiti society, explicitly divided by the constitution: the ruling family, the citizens during the formation of the state, and the naturalized citizens.
This classification changed slightly after the liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1991. Legislators have since decided that there is no reason to divide Kuwaiti citizens into two categories, because the people in the eyes of the law should be united, with equal right to vote and run for elected office. Until now, however, remnants of this categorization have prevailed beneath the surface, as particular ministries are only given to Kuwait’s original families, whose ancestors were citizens during the country’s formation.
In the Qatari case, society is divided into five different groups. First comes the ruling family itself, which, according to Article 8 of the constitution, is the male lineage descendants of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Hamad bin Abdullah bin Jassim Al-Thani. The second class consists of the rest of the Al-Thani clan, and according to Article 15 of the constitution, there is a council for this class that is called the “Ruling Family Council.” Meanwhile, Qatari society at large is divided into three categories based on the country’s election law, using the same concept as the Kuwaiti case but more explicit. The first group is considered by law the founding families of the emirate, which have the authority to elect and to run for office. The second group cannot run for office, but can vote; the third group has neither of these rights.
Divisions Could Lead to Unrest
To summarize, in Kuwait, there are three different categories of citizens, while in Qatar there are five. At the same time, in both countries, the constitution clearly states that all citizens are equal in their rights and obligations. Eventually, it must be accepted that this is a problem, and it will lead to more tensions between the governments and the citizens of the GCC, who want a modern state and functioning institutions, if it is not resolved. However, as these constitutions are made, the person that implements the changes is careful to keep the class divisions, leading to the undermining of the constitution’s power.
Another dilemma is that this classism, at least in Kuwait and Qatar, is protected by constitutional law. Modernity and state-building are struggling to prevail or to keep up with modern laws that respect international norms and human rights codes. This has taken place not only in the cases of Qatar and Kuwait; there are similar cases in the other GCC states that present similar results. Classism that is protected by the laws, and the failure to clearly condemn it is probably the most serious political and ruling error facing the GCC states’ constitutions. This problem requires more research for a resolution to be reached, and for full equality to be achieved between each of the Gulf nations’ citizens.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.