Kuwait’s hybrid political system, enshrined in its constitution, is famously dysfunctional. Near permanent deadlock between lawmakers and the emir has stymied development. The capital’s iconic water towers dominate the waterfront, but no new hospitals have been built for decades and the international airport is a 1960s relic compared with its gleaming counterparts further down the Gulf.
Oil still accounts for 90 percent of state revenues and little progress has been made in diversifying the economy, promoting the private sector and reducing state subsidies. Inward investment is sluggish. Underlying this malaise is a lack of trust in the system and resentment at corruption, and a lack of accountability from ministers and officials.
Protesters warn that fiddling with the electoral system will not help if the root causes are not addressed.
“The government blames the national assembly for being an obstacle to development, but the problem really is that they want to make it into a one-man show,” engineer Ghazi al-Shammar said.
For Ghabra, the conclusion is clear.
“By not listening to the people, the government is creating a bigger problem,” he said.
Profound social changes lie behind the unrest. Tribes that came from Saudi Arabia in the 1970s have multiplied, and tensions have grown between them and Kuwait’s urban community, descendants of the pearl merchants and traders of old.
“We are against corrupt institutions run by some of the sheikhs and businessmen in their own interests,” Mohammed Ruwayhil of the opposition people’s bloc said.
Like elsewhere in the region, over half of the population are under 25 and many were educated abroad at the government’s expense.
Deference has faded.
“We were always told by our fathers that at a diwaniya there was a strict seating pattern,” a thoughtful Sabah minister said. “The further you were away from the center, the less you were expected to speak. However, with Twitter and WhatsApp, and all the social media, everyone can speak their mind.”
Repression is mild by regional standards. State security agents hanging around Irada Square are easily spotted.
“People do get slapped around and sometimes put into solitary confinement, but there is no torture,” one activist said.
Still, official patience is wearing thin. Arrests for the Kuwaiti equivalent of lese-majeste have increased. Musallam al-Barrak, the firebrand opposition leader, was imprisoned for 10 days after issuing an unprecedented public warning to the emir over his election decree — and (falsely) accusing Jordan’s King Abdullah, (who is also struggling with demands for political change), of sending in mercenaries to crush protests.
This month there was a reminder of happier times with a dazzling firework extravaganza commemorating 50 years of the Kuwaiti constitution — winning an immediate place in the Guinness Book of Records as the most expensive pyrotechnic display ever mounted.
However, the mood is turning ugly.
The opposition is “obsolete” and their protests vulgar, said Safaa al-Hashim, a candidate in the third electoral district.
In the media, charges of treachery are flying over the boycott, and there is a whiff of sectarianism in the air as Shias are accused of standing with the government and the tribes of being backward.
“My views have shifted from left to right,” a female business executive said. “I am against the way the opposition is behaving. I understand why they are against one man, one vote, but this country is still being run by a tribal mentality. The law is only enforced selectively.”