November evenings are balmy on Kuwait City’s waterfront and there is a festive atmosphere in Irada Square as crowds gather for another protest rally. Women swathed in black mix with others in jeans, while men in dishdashas and red-checked ghutra headdresses sip tea on Persian rugs spread on the spiky grass.
Speakers are hammering home the call to boycott tomorrow’s elections because the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, has decreed a change to voting rules that will weaken the opposition. Stewards display spent teargas canisters that were fired to break up an unlicensed protest last month.
Unlike elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, Kuwaitis are not seeking to overthrow their regime. Irada (the Arabic name means “will”) is tamer than Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Violence is very rare.
Yet there is no mistaking the depth of divisions in this small, but fabulously wealthy country — and the anxiety about how they will play out. Its ultraconservative Saudi and Emirati neighbors are watching nervously.
“The emir’s decree was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Sultan al-Majrubi, a young activist who was injured when special forces broke up last month’s big demonstration. “The Sabah family needs to change from the inside. They are not thinking about the future and their credit with the people is running out.”
Kuwait is still the most democratic state in the Gulf. Its “springtime” dates back to 2006, long before the overthrow of the autocrats who ruled Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
In November last year, the prime minister, the emir’s nephew, was forced to quit in the face of allegations that lawmakers had been bribed to support the government. Protests then were the largest ever seen in the region. Parliament was dissolved in June.
The opposition is a coalition of youth groups, disgruntled tribes and Islamists. Many sport orange ribbons — a nod to the revolution in distant Ukraine. Social media plays a vital role. The Twitter hashtag #KarametWatan (“dignity of the nation”) has been used with stunning effect to organize protests and outwit the government.
“If you look at the slogans, the empowerment of the grassroots and the emergence of civil society activism, then, yes, we are part of the Arab Spring,” political scientist Shafeeq Ghabra said. “People want dignity, and political participation and equality before the law, but it’s not a revolution here.”
Kuwaitis suffer neither hunger nor poverty. The country’s oil riches have funded a lavish welfare system since independence in 1960. Its 1.2 million citizens pay no tax, but the system is rife with paternalism and wasta (connections or nepotism). Last year, the emir gave every citizen 1,000 dinars (US$3,550) in grants and free food coupons.
“Kuwait is a wealthy society, so people have a lot to lose,” said a smiling Jaafar Behbehani, a businessman. “That’s why many support the status quo.”
In the capital’s diwaniyas — informal all-male gatherings held in private homes — the election boycott is being hotly debated. Ostensibly, the emir is modernizing the system by reducing the number of votes from four to one.
His aim seems clear.
“They are crafting a new parliament by having it customized for their own needs,” complains a consultant in his 20s handing out boycott badges under palm trees in Irada Square.