On Dec. 28, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, Prime Minister and nephew to the ruling Emir, stood before the Kuwaiti National Assembly to face intensive questioning from representatives of Kuwait's three main opposition groupings. The parliamentary "grilling"-- in Kuwait's colorful parlance -- came in response to his government's use of force to break up a meeting of academics and parliamentarians, a gathering which itself was called to protest alleged constitutional violations by the government. Eight days later, the premier narrowly escaped a vote of no-confidence by the Kuwaiti parliament which would have forced the Emir to relieve him of his post or dissolve the parliament and call for new elections.
Such legislative oversight and popular accountability is unheard of in the Arab Middle East. Yet few Kuwaitis stopped to celebrate this hard fought step toward a genuine constitutional monarchy, and few Gulf citizens looked to Kuwait in envy. Indeed, in this boom era of oil prosperity, Kuwait -- once the exemplar of the Gulf -- has increasingly come to be viewed as a mess.
The most recent grilling of PM Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed was the eighth of his tenure, a tumultuous five year period which has seen six different governments and three elections, two after constitutional dissolutions of the parliament due to repeated conflict between lawmakers and the executive. The political instability has taken its toll on the economy: while Qatar, the U.A.E., and even Saudi Arabia have surged ahead with bold projects of infrastructure development and economic diversification, Kuwait has stayed much the same. No one can deny the constitutional empowerment of its parliament, or the dynamism of its civil society organizations and media. Yet some have come to question their value: what has all of this popular participation achieved for Kuwait and its people?
It is just such doubts that delivered a defeat for most of Kuwait's organized opposition movements in the May 2009 election, returning the most pro-government parliament since liberation. Yet just a year and a half later, this same parliament fell just a few votes short of voting a standing Prime Minister, and royal family member out of office. How did this reversal of fortune happen?
It is notable that the center of gravity of the opposition has moved from Kuwait's urban center to the more populous and once reliably pro-government "tribal" outer districts. These relatively late-arriving citizens -- most of whom were naturalized after Kuwaiti independence in part as a ruling family strategy to dilute the influence of urban Arab nationalist movements -- are becoming better educated and less willing to accept blind loyalty to the rulers. While politically organized as tribes, economically they have long been sedentary and are mostly dependent on state employment. They have therefore been defending their economic interests in the parliament where they have numerical advantage, seeking to forestall privatizations which they believe will benefit the better placed urban merchants while endangering their stream of state benefits. This socioeconomic cleavage animates the hadhar-bedu, or urban-rural divide so prevalent in Kuwaiti politics today.
The ruling family has been using this political cleavage to its own advantage, playing on urban resentment against tribal nepotism and obstructionism toward large development projects. Indeed, the May 2009 elections for the National Assembly delivered more pro-government MPs from the "hadhar" inner constituencies of Kuwait city based on just such sentiments. Their stronger position in parliament allowed the Al Sabah to shift tactics vis-a-vis the opposition: confident of majority support, the Emir chose to have the Prime Minister stand for votes of no confidence, rather than shuffling the cabinet or forcing new parliamentary elections. The first "grilling" of the premier by the new parliament in December 2009, carried out by a tribal MP accusing the Prime Minister of a misuse of public funds, resulted in a lopsided no confidence vote of 13-35 in favor of the government.
In the past year, however, the government has overplayed its hand. First, the government sought to strip the parliamentary immunity from the tribal MP who questioned the Prime Minister, a move perceived by many as a heavy handed attempt to silence the opposition. This was compounded by the arrest and prosecution of a popular journalist, Mohammad Abdulqader al-Jasem, who has been sharply critical of the government and the Prime Minister. These events prompted the creation of a new "defense of the constitution" movement, made up of opposition tribal and Islamist MP's supporting their colleague's attempt to keep his parliamentary immunity, but with broader support from liberal MP's fearing the government encroachment on political freedoms. The attack of special forces on a meeting of this group on Dec. 8 which resulted in the injury of parliamentarians and the arrest of a constitutional scholar united all the parliament's opposition groupings -- liberal, Islamist, and tribal populist -- in criticism of the current government. Augmented by urban liberals, this broader coalition fell only three votes short of upending the PM by a no confidence vote of 22-25.
This impressive showing belies the fragility of the coalition. The current interpolation battle saw the opposition shift its tactics toward a populist ground game, with opposition MPs from Kuwait's outer districts encouraging people to rally outside the houses of fence-sitting MPs to pressure them to back the vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. Yet as opposition tribal MPs pledge to continue their campaign to oust the Prime Minister through street protests, they risk alienating their urban allies in the parliament, who face constituents who see the rise of tribal populism as a greater threat to civil liberties than the strong arm tactics of the government.
Chief among those viewing the rise of tribal populism as a threat are the Shia, who have watched with trepidation the rising influence of Salafi anti-Shia thought in Kuwait, particularly in the Sunni tribal outer districts. Increasingly, the government has come to rely upon the Shia, who did extremely well in the past election and form a key supportive urban voting bloc for the Al-Sabah. The Sunni tribal opposition, have been quick to impugn the Al-Sabah with this alliance, adding a disturbing sectarian angle to the debate.
As Marc Lynch noted in his posting "The wages of Arab decay," Arab states harbor many social problems concealed under the heavy screen of security states. Kuwait's relatively open and dynamic politics offer an open view of these tribal and sectarian conflicts, and a forum for negotiating them. However, the institutions as they exist -- incomplete constitutional monarchy, unrecognized political parties, pervasive private interests in media -- seem to be exacerbating rather than alleviating these political conflicts. How Kuwait navigates this dangerous terrain may be a harbinger for political futures well beyond this tiny city state.
Kristin Smith Diwan is an Assistant Professor of Comparative and Regional Studies at the American University School of International Service.
The Middle East Channel offers unique analysis and insights on this diverse and vital region of more than 400 million.