Kuwait: Kuwait's Black Monday

The storming of the kuwaiti national assembly building by around one hundred protestors on November 16, 2011 sent shockwaves through a country more accustomed than its regional neighbours to expressions of political opposition.

The World Today Updated 6 August 2019 Published 22 December 2011 4 minute READ

Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Former Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

The dramatic events that night brought to a head months of escalating tensions between an energised opposition and an entrenched prime minister, a nephew of Emir Sabah Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah. Matters reached their crescendo the following week when tens of thousands of Kuwaitis participated in a rally calling on the embattled prime minister to resign. He did so on November 28, and the Emir appointed a new prime minister on December 4, ahead of fresh elections to the National Assembly early in 2012. The results of this cathartic fortnight leave Kuwait facing its deepest political crisis since liberation in 1991, as the need for a new political settlement becomes urgent.

While the unprecedented display of public anger and assertiveness carries strong overtones of the Arab uprisings that have led to the downfall of regimes elsewhere in the Arab world, the Kuwaiti unrest has specifically Kuwaiti roots. These include flaws in the nature of Kuwait’s power-sharing arrangement, which has paralysed political reform and economic development policies for years, and rising anger at issues such as corruption, unemployment, and perceived inequalities within Kuwait. The external context of the Arab Spring has undoubtedly galvanised the popular and political temperature in Kuwait, with the emergence of a vocal youth movement particularly symptomatic of the difficulty of incorporating new players in the political arena.

Kuwaiti politics has always been the distinctive outrider in the Gulf. In a region not known for its democratic openings, the 1962 Constitution laid the basis for quadrennial elections to the National Assembly, which first sat in 1963. It also built on earlier traditions of participatory politics, with a reform movement - and short-lived Legislative Council - in 1938 providing the catalyst for similar reform initiatives in nearby Dubai and Bahrain. The National Assembly has sat for nearly fifty years, with two suspensions, between 1976 and 1981, and between 1986 and 1992. Significantly, the Iraqi invasion in 1990 took place against the backdrop of rising tensions and demands for a return to parliamentary politics, and just after most Kuwaitis had boycotted governmental attempts to install a less powerful alternative assembly. In October 1990, at a meeting of Kuwaiti exiles (including the ruling Al Sabah family) in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, the Emir promised to implement a return to constitutional rule. Public pressure on this issue continued after the liberation with a series of petitions for reform, and the first post-war elections eventually took place in 1992.

The majority of Kuwaitis thus feel strongly protective about the rights enshrined to them under the Constitution and through the National Assembly. Uniquely in the Gulf, oversight of oil reserves is vested in the institution, rather than the ruling family. However, the political system contains numerous flaws, causing it to malfunction badly in recent years. One is structural; the government only has to contain one elected MP and so does not have to be drawn from the National Assembly. As a result, the fifty elected MPs are augmented by the appointment of up to 16 government ministers, and it means that the parliament essentially plays the role of the political opposition to the government. The ban on formal political parties also hampers the construction of political alliances or interest groups based on ideological values, meaning that many MPs follow populist approaches designed to appeal to the largest number of voters ahead of any broader interest. Recent MPs’ initiatives to get the government to repay the debts of all Kuwaitis testify to this populism at work.

Another flaw has been the inability of the parliament to work with Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al Ahmad Al Sabah since he became prime minister in 2006. During his turbulent nearly-six year premiership, he dissolved parliament seven times and called fresh elections three times, in 2006, 2008 and 2009. Successive efforts to find a workable relationship between the parliament and the government merely widened the gap separating them, both in terms of policy and personality. Yet sustained parliamentary pressure kept raising the bar for permissible levels of opposition; in January 2006, the National Assembly played a key role in the succession crisis following the death of Emir Jaber and the inability to rule through ill-health of his designated successor, Sheikh Saad. Emboldened by their success, political and public opinion coalesced later in 2006 into an ‘Orange Movement’ calling for electoral reform. Another milestone was reached in December 2009, when the prime minister agreed to be questioned (‘interpellated’) for the first time; previous attempts to question him had resulted in the fall of the government. He survived, but a second interpellation in 2010 came close to unseating him and indicated how the level of opposition was rising.

The months leading up to the outbreak of the Arab Spring were notable for an upsurge in political tensions in Kuwait. A series of incidents occurred in the latter months of 2010 that threatened Kuwait’s reputation as the most open society in the region. In November, a prominent writer, Mohammed Abdulqader Al Jassem, was convicted of slandering the prime minister and sentenced to one year in prison, before being released on appeal in January 2011. Just two weeks later, Obeid Al-Wasmi, a Kuwait University law professor, openly critical of the ruling family, was also arrested and detained for three months before being released in February 2011. Most spectacularly, state security forces attacked and forcibly broke up a demonstration in December 2010, during which four MPs and a number of other participants were beaten and injured. The incidents culminated in the death of a man allegedly tortured in police custody in January 2011, and the resignation of the Interior Minister shortly thereafter.

Hence the political temperature was rising even before the outbreak of widespread demonstrations throughout the region. The confluence of opposition demands and repressive responses suggested a tinder box awaiting a spark. Beginning in February, new youth-led movements, one calling themselves the ‘Fifth Wall’ as a virtual extension of the four city walls that historically had protected Kuwait City from attack, began organising public demonstrations outside the National Assembly. The numbers attending gradually grew, in part as MPs attempted to jump onto the bandwagon and channel the ensuing calls for change. Not even the generous Emiri grant of one thousand Kuwaiti Dinars (about 3,600 dollars) and free food rations per citizen could douse the protestors’ demands for real and meaningful political reform. Over the summer, matters escalated further, with stunning revelations of a corruption scandal that has shaken Kuwaiti confidence in their political representatives, and a series of damaging strikes among oil industry and customs workers that undermined Kuwait’s economic prospects.

Beginning in August, allegations began to surface concerning the transfer of 92 million dollars into the bank accounts of two MPs. The investigation then widened as the Kuwait Public Prosecutor announced it was investigating a total of sixteen MPs (more than one-third of the total) for allegedly accepting 350 million dollars in bribes from the government in return for their votes on specific issues. The sheer scale and extent of the scandal shocked Kuwaitis, and led a bloc of 26 opposition MPs to confront the government and demand an interpellation of the prime minister. Their numerical strength would have been sufficient to pass a vote of no confidence that would have unseated him, but instead the constitutional court ruled that he could not be questioned over the corruption issue. This provided the immediate context for the storming of the National Assembly, on the day after the court ruling, after a prominent opposition MP was prevented by police from leading protestors on a march to the prime minister’s residence.

While the period of immediate crisis may have passed, Kuwait’s turbulent month leaves a number of important issues unresolved. The new prime minister, Sheikh Jaber Al Mubarak Al Sabah, was previously the minister of defense and first deputy prime minister, and unlikely to be a figure acceptable to the emboldened opposition. With the Emir’s hand having effectively been forced into replacing Sheikh Nasser, just days after vowing not to bow to protestors’ demands, he will not want to be forced into making further concessions. Here the composition of the next parliament will have a say in framing political relations within Kuwait, but core issues, such as the relationship between the prime minister and parliament, do not appear to be on the negotiating table. For their part, the established political opposition faces a challenge of working alongside the newer youth movements that are rewriting the older (unwritten) rules of political engagement. With almost fifty percent of Kuwaitis now under 21 years of age, they lack the memory of the 1990-91 Iraqi occupation that has been such a formative touchstone for their elders. More willing than ever to rock the boat, and drawing encouragement from the images of a youthful generation struggling for their rights across the Arab world, the stage is set for Kuwait’s political turmoil to continue, as an important adjunct to (but not a direct derivative of) the Arab Spring.