If Kuwait’s opposition can remain united, there is no doubt that it will create a new political reality unlike any that has previously existed in the Gulf. While this will take much more to occur, what has happened already is totally unprecedented.
Those who follow the public affairs of the Arab world and its uncertain path toward democratization will no doubt be aware of the increase of democratic challenges facing Arab societies in recent years. While some of these challenges are created by external factors beyond the government’s control and must be addressed on that basis, it is clear that others have been artificially created by elite interests who stand to gain from authoritarianism, patronage, and corruption in the Arab world.
In the GCC states, for instance, much discourse has focused on the role of the nations’ incredible oil wealth, which has certainly helped to resolve many of the GCC’s fiscal and developmental issues. However, the authorities’ judicious use of oil wealth to fund patronage networks has also significantly contributed to its lack of democracy and apathy towards political participation. Perhaps Kuwait, with its National Assembly, can be excluded from this categorization, but it remains true for the other GCC states, all of which have backpedaled on democratization in recent years despite public proclamations to the contrary.
The Kuwaiti case is perhaps the most interesting of all. More than fifty years after forming its first parliament, the nation is facing a rollback in democratic advancements and practices. Kuwait’s current political crisis has been discussed at great length elsewhere, but one topic which has been avoided has been the democratic backslide that has accompanied it.
This backslide can be observed in two ways. First, the Kuwaiti opposition, which managed to achieve an exceptional victory at the beginning of the current wave of unrest, has nonetheless been unable to use its majority in Parliament to exert change due to opposition from fortified elite interests. Second, after a boycott was launched against the symbols of corruption in Kuwait, the authoritarian parties’ true intentions have been revealed; through a combination of force and oil patronage, funded by the theft of oil revenues and the mismanagement of state resources, they have managed to retain near-total control over Kuwait in spite of overwhelming popular discontent.
“Divide and Rule” No Longer Works
While this network of corruption controlled by Kuwait’s elite has had its share of successes, recent events have shown that it is unable to compete with a genuinely popular pro-democracy and anti-corruption movement. Over the past three decades, the Kuwaiti elite’s primary method of maintaining power has been to divide opposition groups into smaller factions along sectarian, religious, and tribal lines, and pit those factions against each other to cover up corruption. There is no denying that this method of division has been extremely effective at controlling Kuwaiti society and disrupting challenges to the ruling class.
Through the skilled use of these tactics, the Kuwaiti ruling class was able to hold ostensibly free elections with little doubt of winning. But these tactics no longer work. As corruption has mounted, and popular perception of it has increased, the ruling class is no longer able to win fair elections. Thus, instead of handing power over to a genuinely democratic class, they have stalled for time by causing as much disruption as possible, prolonging the stalemate, and widening the gap between the people and their rulers.
After the opposition’s decisive victory in the December 2020 election, the popular majority gained thirty of the fifty elected National Assembly seats. Given this clear supermajority, it was assumed that the opposition would have the authority to form the government and put forward their own candidate for the role of Speaker of Parliament. However, authoritarian forces in the government have used underhanded means to divide the opposition and maintain the status quo, circumventing the popular will.
The end result of this has been that the same corrupt faces that were overwhelmingly rejected by the people in December have remained in government. The Speaker of the Parliament, who has become a symbol of elite reaction against the popular will after he chose to oppose popular demands, remains in control of the Assembly despite a majority of parliamentarians opposing him. And in one instance, the government worked in secret to revoke the membership of one influential and popular member of the pro-democratic majority, to the outrage of the opposition.
How MP Al-Wasmi United the Opposition
When an election was held for this seat, the opposition ran a law professor, Dr. Obaid Al-Wasmi, to take the expelled MP’s place. This event has turned into a statement on the new nature of Kuwait’s political opposition. For the first time, a gathering of wildly differing factions, including the Salafis, the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood, Shi’a groups, feminists, traditional liberals, and leftist movements, put aside their differences to support Al-Wasmi. Despite these groups’ clear political and religious differences, they united behind one candidate who could challenge the ruling elites – and the government’s hope that these groups would split the vote by running their own candidates crumbled as separate sectarian candidates withdrew. On Election Day, Al-Wasmi won with 93% of ballots cast, perhaps the first time in the Middle East any candidate has genuinely won a fair election with such an enormous share of the vote.
What lessons can be learned from Al-Wasmi’s stunning victory? In this case, it seems clear that, to a greater degree than anyone predicted, Kuwait’s ideological groups have displayed flexibility and a willingness to accommodate the differences between them in pursuit of a common goal. It also shows an absolute rejection of Kuwait’s political elite, and an unwillingness to be manipulated into turning on each other, sacrificing democracy for the sake of ideological purity. If Kuwait’s opposition can remain united, there is no doubt that it will create a new political reality unlike any that has previously existed in the Gulf. While this will take much more to occur, what has happened already is totally unprecedented. Even the tribal candidates, who fiercely advocate for their own interests, were willing to set those interests aside and support Al-Wasmi for the good of the country. In Kuwait, this simply does not happen, and the fact that it has should terrify the corrupt officials.
It is also apparent how these disparate forces have united in defiance of the government, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of Parliament, and the networks of patronage and corruption. This reality has undoubtedly been shaped by Kuwait’s relative intellectual freedom, which has persisted in spite of efforts by the rulers to control it. Through old methods of communication, such as religious sermons, as well as through newer ones, such as social media, these intellectual changes have become a reality that has driven social change in Kuwait.
In short, while the current unrest in Kuwait has been chaotic and difficult, it has shown that the differences within Arab societies, whether sectarian, intellectual or social, can be settled when larger goals, such as combating corruption and ensuring democratic advancement, are at stake. When this is realized by the larger community, bridges can be built between different social forces, both in Kuwait and in the other states of the Middle East grappling with top-down authoritarianism. What has happened in Kuwait has been unprecedented, but if current trends persist, it could only be the first step in sweeping changes to come.
Dr. Abdul Hadi Nasser Al-Ajmi has held many academic and research positions since 2004. He is Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs and Graduate Studies in the College of Arts, Kuwait University, as well as the Head of History Department and the Deanship of Consulting, Training, and Development.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.