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.
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.”
Liberals and nationalists are quick to lambast the Muslim Brotherhood — known in Kuwait as the Islamic Constitutional Movement — and accuse it of conspiring to create a new caliphate under the orders of the new Egyptian government. However, the claims seem wildly exaggerated and Western diplomats privately dismiss them.
“There is an Islamist presence, but they are very pragmatic,” said Ghanima al-Oteibi, a secular student leader.
“The Kuwaiti government is attacking the Ikhwan [Brotherhood] because they need Gulf support,” former minister Saad al-Ajmi said.
Turnout in tomorrow’s election will be crucial in determining whether the new parliament enjoys sufficient legitimacy, or whether, in the words of one skeptic, it is just a “Mickey Mouse assembly.”
Whatever the outcome, it is hard to see how the country’s underlying tensions can be resolved any time soon.
“Kuwait is different, but we are not isolated from what is happening around us elsewhere in the Arab world,” the female business executive said. “The Sabah have always ruled by consensus, but now it is breaking down.”