Bridging the Gulf: Kuwait and a GCC Union

Kuwait towers

By Wafa Alsayed, Research Analyst, IISS-Middle East

In February of last year, Ahmed al-Saadoun, Kuwait’s speaker of the parliament at the time dismissed the idea of a Gulf Union. In an interview with Al Arabiya, he stated that Kuwait, with its open political system, could not withstand a union with the more authoritarian Gulf states. However, since then Kuwait has undergone yet another chapter of political turmoil accompanied with harsh government reaction to public criticism of the state. Due to these developments, the government in Kuwait may be looking more favorably at the prospects of a Gulf union. The signing of a Gulf Security Agreement at the Bahrain GCC Summit in December may signal that, in the face of growing domestic upheaval, Kuwait is willing to restrict its public sphere, enter a union with other GCC states and coordinate more on security.

The GCC Security Agreement was first proposed in 1994. At the time Kuwait resisted it because it considered some of its articles to be in conflict with its constitution. The agreement was shelved for almost two decades and an amended version was reintroduced at the end of last year. Though Kuwait’s government reassured the public that the amended version is no longer in conflict with the constitution, the swift signing of the agreement along with the secrecy surrounding its provisions stirred a heated debate in Kuwait, with some warning that the country is falling in line with the rest of the Gulf on issues of internal security and domestic politics.

Read the full article in Al Arabiya

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.

Controversy after Kuwait signs GCC pact

The emir of Kuwait (right) 33rd GCC summit. Photo Bahrain News Agency

By Wafa Alsayed, Research Analyst, Middle East

Gulf states have finally managed to sign a major security agreement, after Kuwait came on board last month at the 33rd Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, held in Bahrain. Kuwait resisted the collective security treaty when it was first introduced in 1994, deeming it incompatible with its constitution and unlikely to make it through its parliament. Its decision to swiftly ink the pact in private at December’s GCC summit may have been prompted by recent unrest back home. However it is also further fuelling a mood of insurrection in Kuwait recently.

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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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Districts and discord in Kuwaiti politics

Kuwait Parliament

‘Majlis-al-Umma’, Kuwait’s National Assembly building, Kuwait City. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons/Leshonai

By Wafa Alsayed, Research Analyst, IISS-Middle East

Last week’s verdict by Kuwait’s highest court, which left existing electoral districts intact, is the latest stage in an ongoing battle between the Kuwaiti government and opposition forces.

For opposition groups, this verdict is a victory. In 2006, the number of electoral districts was reduced from 25 to five, following popular pressure from youth groups and other members of the opposition.  Elections held since the redrawing of districts indicate that the new system favours opposition forces. The previous 25-district system – implemented by the government in 1981 – was regarded as biased against political reform, and too easy for the ruling Al-Sabah family to manipulate.

Both the 2006 redrawing and the latest court ruling were welcomed by opposition groups, but the verdict is unlikely to mark the end of the struggle over Kuwait’s electoral map. Read the rest of this entry »


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