Kuwait’s opposition finds a focus


The Emir of Kuwait, Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah

By Wafa Alsayed, Research Analyst, IISS-Middle East

The trial of outspoken political activist Musallam al-Barrak seems to be galvanising Kuwait’s fragmented opposition – at least for the time being. Thousands of Kuwaitis took to the streets in protest on 15 April, after Barrak was sentenced by a lower court to a five-year jail term on charges of ‘offending the emir’. The Court of Appeal’s decision to release him on bail last Monday defused some of the tension that had built up as court proceedings were live-tweeted and otherwise disseminated over social media, but with his appeal due to resume on 13 May it remains a potential rallying point.

Barrak’s supporters say the charges against him violate the principle of free speech. They relate to comments he made at a demonstration last October that: ‘We will not allow you, your highness, to take this country into the abyss of autocracy.’ While Kuwait has one of the Middle East’s more open and democratic political systems, its constitution holds that the emir is ‘immune and inviolable’, and Barrak’s remark was said to contravene this.

The protest took place during a deepening political crisis in Kuwait, soon after the dissolution of the opposition-dominated parliament only eight months into its term. Four days later the emir announced an emergency decree amending the country’s electoral law; by reducing the number of votes per person from four to one he ended an arrangement that had benefitted Islamist, tribal and other opposition groups. Barrak’s ‘we will not allow you’ soon became the refrain of opposition rallies that followed the announcement of the emergency decree.

With the Kuwaiti government’s continued crackdown on the opposition, other political activists are facing similar charges of offending the emir. However, Barrak is a particularly popular and high-profile figure. A former MP who draws much of his support from powerful tribal constituencies, he won a seat in parliament in the February 2012 elections with 30,000 votes – a Kuwaiti first.

After his sentencing on 15 April, security forces made several unsuccessful attempts to take him into custody. A raid on his house prompted large protests, to which police responded with tear gas and stun grenades.

Such opposition solidarity comes after a period of disunity and difficulties in mobilising mass rallies of last year’s magnitude. Kuwait’s opposition consists of a remarkably diverse array of groups, bringing together liberals, civil-society groups, and trade and student unions with tribal, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated and Salafist groups. In March, Barrak spearheaded an effort to bring the opposition under one umbrella, namely the Etilaf al-Mu’aratha (the Opposition Coalition), but this alliance quickly ran into criticism as those around it called it either too radical or too weak.

Today in Kuwait the prime minister is appointed by the emir, who in turn appoints the cabinet, and one reform the Etilaf has demanded is that the parliamentary majority should have the right to form the government. One member of the former opposition majority in parliament, Al-Saifi Mubarak Al-Saifi, has said that around 17 members of that bloc found this call for elected government too drastic. By contrast, another opposition member and former MP, Obaid al-Wasmi, has criticised the Etilaf for being too ‘soft’ in its demands.

Salafis have also established their own group, the Coordination Committee of the Popular Movement, which opposes calls for elected government as well as unlicensed demonstrations.

Such divisions seem to be forgotten as the opposition rallies around al-Barrak. His case is a reminder of how government heavy-handedness can unite Kuwait’s usually disparate opposition factions. In late 2010, for example, an attack by security forces on Kuwaitis gathering in an MP’s diwaniya (traditional salon) was the catalyst for a popular mass movement that eventually forced the resignation of Prime Minister Nasser al-Mohammed in November 2011.

On Thursday, the government delayed another move that was uniting the opposition against it. It put on hold its proposal to introduce strict new media laws after criticism not only from rights groups, but also from some government supporters. The ‘halting’ of the law demonstrates the opposition’s ability to get results when it unites against draconian government moves.

Unprecedented protest in Kuwait

Kuwait towers. Photo: Earth Hour Global under a CC licence

By Alanoud Al-Sharekh, Corresponding Senior Fellow for Regional Politics, Middle East

The unrest that erupted in Kuwait on Sunday was the largest and most violent in the oil-rich emirate’s recent history. Thousands of protesters took to the streets after emir Sheikh Sabah al-Sabah announced changes to Kuwait’s voting system on Friday. Less than a fortnight earlier, the emir had paved the way for snap elections in December by dissolving parliament.

The majority of Sunday’s demonstrators came from Kuwait’s Islamist and tribal opposition, who suspect the measures are an attempt to marginalise them in parliament. Special Forces used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the rally. I watched from my window as crowds attempted to bait the forces by throwing rocks and chanting ‘We will not allow you’ – a reference to one opposition politician’s warning to the emir not to make changes to Kuwaiti legislation. Several demonstrators arrested for participating in an illegal march and for damaging property were released the next day.

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Understanding the Saudi succession

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud performs a funeral prayer for Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (Photo: Saudi Press Agency)

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud performs a funeral prayer for Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (Photo: Saudi Press Agency)

It’s not yet clear what the appointment of Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud as crown prince of Saudi Arabia following the death of his brother, Naif, will mean  for the country or the wider gulf region. Prince Salman has a reputation as something of a reformer but is also known to be hawkish on Iran.

The appointment has also shone a spotlight on the kingdom’s labyrinthine rules of succession. In December 2010, following the unusual public announcement  that King Abdullah would be seeking medical treatment in the US, an IISS Strategic Comment explained the 2006 Succession Law, and looked at the issues facing the Saudi monarchy.

Read Saudi-Arabia: testing times ahead

The Syrian uprising seen from the Arab world

The Gulf States will play a more important role in Syria in the coming months, but their lack of knowledge of the Syrian opposition will prevent them from acting in unison. This was one of the messages to emerge from a talk by Middle East expert Emile Hokayem at IISS-US, which you can watch above.

Focusing on the Arab world’s perception of the Syrian uprising, Hokayem suggested that Gulf nations have few relations with important minorities in the country, such as the Kurds. He admitted there was an undeniable sectarian narrative on Syria in the Sunni-dominated Gulf States and that this had driven a Gulf media war against President Assad’s Alawite regime.

Each Gulf country ‘had their favourites’, he added. ‘If you’re Qatar, you’ve dealt for years with the Assad regime so you’ve developed relationships with senior businessmen’. They also ‘have good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood…but also with key independent opposition figures’. Saudi Arabia by contrast has closer links with tribes and former regime figures.

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Bahrain: between reform and stagnation

Elham Fakhro, IISS Research Associate for International Law and Strategy; and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Research Fellow at LSE Global Governance

Nearly two months have elapsed since the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) published a report into the unrest that shook this Persian Gulf archipelago last year. Its 513 pages laid bare the excessive use of force, systematic mistreatment, and culture of non-accountability, as the Bahraini government responded to a popular movement that challenged its grip on power. It also found no evidence of any Iranian involvement in the protests, thereby contradicting regime narratives that ascribed them to external intervention rather than domestic grievances. In response, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, pledged to initiate reforms, and established a national commission to oversee their implementation. Yet the measures taken to date have left unaddressed many of the roots of Bahrain’s political and economic inequalities, and ongoing clashes between protesters and security forces have if anything, intensified.  The result has been the empowerment of radical voices across the political spectrum and the marginalisation of Bahrain’s political middle ground.

Read the full article at openDemocracy

Asia’s energy security

By Dr Sanjaya Baru, Director for Geo-economics and Strategy

As Asia’s rising powers seek to sustain growth and ensure stability, energy security has moved to the forefront of Asian geopolitics. The recent visit by China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar was as much about ensuring energy security for China as it was about China playing a role in maintaining political stability in the Middle East. The visit came against the backdrop of the growing threat of United States-led oil-export sanctions against Iran and China’s need to secure alternative sources of oil and gas. But its unstated purpose was to bolster China’s rising profile in the Persian Gulf and the Muslim world.

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