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Kuwait's new Emir Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah attends a parliament session, in Kuwait City, Kuwait October 20, 2020. (Reuters)

Kuwait is Not a European Democracy

Kuwait’s political situation is in crisis. The political unrest that currently grips the country is not the first it has experienced, and will not be the last; however, there is little doubt that the current situation in Kuwait is the most dire of the twenty-first century. The source of this crisis is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Kuwait’s constitution among the government’s opposition. As long as this misunderstanding remains, the present crisis will endure.

Kuwait’s current political emergency came about after the opposition gained more seats in the country’s December 2020 parliamentary election. Because opposition MPs believed that this victory reflected the popular will, it prepared a broad agenda and presented it to Parliament, fully expecting to win support for its program. It started with the most challenging tasks, pardons and restricting the cabinet members voting right. This course of action is a dramatic change in the representatives’ role, and it is an interference in the Emir’s role for which there is no constitutional precedent.

This blatant attempt to seize power has resulted in chaos in Parliament. It happened with a smear campaign against Speaker Marzouq Alghanem since the opposition’s candidate lost the vote in the contest for the speakership position. The campaign also targeted Prime Minister Sabah Al-Khalid Al-Sabah when the opposition suggested calling him for questioning—hardly an auspicious opening to the current parliamentary session.

Kuwait Cannot Ignore its Past

Amid this chaos, it is important to point out that the birth of Kuwait’s constitution came from a democratic mixture appropriate to its conditions. Kuwait’s constitution emerged after a two-year deliberative process, with the blessing of then-Emir Sheikh Abdullah al-Salem; the end result was a special combination, made by Kuwaitis and crafted to fit the needs of Kuwait.

Because of its local conditions, Kuwait’s democracy cannot be identical to the democracy of Europe, where the majority moves to make legislation and change, governs and leads according to its program approved by a spectrum of the people. Instead, Kuwait’s formula is a partnership between its historical legitimate political system and its representatives in the Parliament. Kuwait’s history also generated the accepted understanding that it is necessary to keep pace with time, in order to achieve the stability of the homeland and to consolidate the principles on which it is based.

The partnership between Kuwait’s past and its present is based on two pillars: the people, as represented in the National Assembly, and the country’s historic political system. Critically, these two pillars must exist in consensual harmony, each agreeing that attempting to impose its will on the other will not work. Doing so will strike the constitutional equation, highlight imbalances, and cause turmoil within Kuwaiti society. The essence of the Constitution, in other words, is bilateral compromise and mutual trust.

The Opposition Has Destroyed the Balance

Of course, any steps that challenge this partnership and seek to accommodate a greater role for one pillar over the other will face an obstacle in the constitution. Today’s crisis emerged from a failure to understand Kuwaiti democracy. The opposition is armed with the tenets of integrated European democracy, and this means that the opposition is using an ideology inspired from abroad. This foreign system is strange and difficult for Kuwait, and attempting to force its use will lead to extremely destructive consequences for the nation.

Ultimately, the problem stems from the fact that the opposition has adopted a unilateral, ideologically rigid perspective; it has prioritized an idealistic selection of characteristics that exist in European democracy, but in doing so has ignored the realities in Kuwait. Because the opposition does not understand the partnership on which Kuwaiti society depends, it has not stopped to reflect upon the experience of the Constituent Assembly, some of whose members are supporters of integrated democracy, but who also understand the importance of pragmatism and compromise.

The late Abd al-Latif Muhammad Thunayan al-Ghanim, President of the Constituent Assembly, was realistic and aware of the complexities of Kuwait’s situation. He led the deliberations wisely and in accordance with the partnership system, which has produced the parliaments adopted since 1962; for sixty years, no opposition movement has sought change with the same zealous outlook as its current opposition.

The Seeds of Distrust

Because the government was surprised and worried by the fervor of the current opposition, it insisted on preserving the historical and constitutional decade of 1962. Consequently, the feelings between the opposition and the government, led by His Highness the Prime Minister, have become acrimonious. For instance, in recent weeks, a Kuwaiti MP has told the Prime Minister, “You will go to the podium against your will”; another was heard to say in Parliament that “he [i.e. the Prime Minister] is going to be removed for sure.” This disrespectful language is totally inappropriate in Parliament. It was from this mismanagement that the current chaos and antagonism erupted.

It is important for the opposition to realize the extent of the disconnect between public opinion from these elections and their outcome. The priorities for the Kuwaiti people is not who wins the elections, but the stability of the country. Rather than an ideal European democracy, most Kuwaitis prioritize the stability and security of the country. Kuwait is surrounded by flames of chaos; it must contend with the dangers of the Iranian intervention in Yemen, the civil war in Syria, and the collapse of Lebanon from internal corruption.

In this confusing crisis, silence cannot be the remedy. Instead, the delicate situation in Parliament makes it necessary for the state to ease worried public opinion. Solutions can come through proper implementation of the laws and the constitution, but this needs initiatives to bring Kuwait back on track and out of its current chaos.

Kuwait’s Future

During this crisis, I, like many other Kuwaitis, have received calls from friends and colleagues in the other GCC states expressing concerns related to the implication of this conflict on Kuwait. I do not blame them, since anyone who reads what happens in Kuwait has good cause to be worried. Social media platforms are filled with accusations and exaggerations in describing the situation.

But it is certain that the Kuwaiti experience concerns all Arabs and others, especially the GCC states, to whom Kuwait offers a pathway to transforming the monopoly of monarchical power into a constitution-based partnership drawn from historical legitimacy. From this partnership springs a concept of shared institutional work, in which the representatives of the people work closely with the executive power in a system that is open to change and accommodates reform and development.

Kuwait’s experience deserves to be followed up and examined across the region, and its success depends on the duality of popular awareness and the authority’s understanding of what dictates change. No matter how much the experience of Kuwait was minimized or caused hardship, it is worthy of study and reflection, because it sensed the necessities of change, reaching an era based on mutual consent between the people and the historical authority.

We cannot ignore the fact that the Gulf states, whose fantastic oil wealth has been both a great blessing and a terrible curse, urgently need to think about achieving the unity of their resources, so that the Gulf’s economy is interconnected with its politics, ensuring the sustainability of a decent life. It must also renew its political approach towards partnership, in the form that includes popular representation in government, and it must respond to the dictates of time. In this, the Kuwaiti experience plays a critical role, helping to guide the way to a future that our brothers in the Gulf aspire to.

In conclusion, Kuwait’s current problem is not a struggle between groups striving to gain influence. Instead, it is an attempt by the opposition to seize power, cutting the strings of the consensus base that have bound Kuwaiti society since 1962 and taking Kuwait into a direction independent of any role for the legitimate executive authority. Once the problem is made clear, the solution is simple: Kuwait must recommit to its historical approach to societal consensus, in order to resume its path towards the future.

Abdulla Bishara is a Kuwaiti diplomat and the former Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

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

Abdulla Bishara was Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council between 1981 and 1993. He also held several positions in Kuwait’s Foreign Ministery: Permanent Representative to the UN, Kuwaiti Ambassador to Brazil and Argentina, and Foreign Service Officer. Currently, he is the president of the Diplomatic Center for Strategic Studies and a board member of the advisory body of the GCC Supreme Council.


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