December 5, 2017

Kuwait Struggles for Unity at Home and in the Region

Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah
Kuwait's emir, Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, stands for a group photograph at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Kuwait City Dec. 5. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

As Kuwait hosts the annual Gulf Cooperation Council summit this week in yet another push to find an antidote for Gulf acrimony, stakes are rising. A zero-sum battle for Gulf supremacy –  Iran versus Saudi Arabia; the self-proclaimed anti-terror quartet versus Qatar – places Kuwait in an untenable position, and threatens its model of civic accommodation. Kuwait’s relatively open politics and careful balancing of societal constituencies – Sunni and Shia, liberals and Islamists – look anomalous in today’s maximalist Gulf, and increasingly under threat.

On October 24, Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah stood before the opening session of Kuwait’s Parliament and issued a call for unity. Citing the difficult regional situation – civil wars, sectarian conflict, and Gulf disagreements – he pleaded with Kuwait’s rambunctious lawmakers to be aware of the seriousness of the current situation and act with responsibility. His appeal to domestic harmony mirrored his thus far fruitless effort to mend the yawning divisions that have opened within the GCC with the quartet of countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates continuing its boycott of Qatar on accusations of its support for terrorism.

Yet less than a week later, Kuwait’s Cabinet resigned in the face of opposition questioning of a royal cabinet member and an impending parliamentary vote of no confidence. A new government has yet to be appointed, a delay most believe to be due to difficult negotiations over power sharing by factions within Kuwait’s ruling family. Meanwhile, the decision of an appeal’s court to jail nearly 70 politicians and youth activists for crimes surrounding the storming of the Parliament in protest in November 2011 is roiling Kuwaiti domestic politics. The obstacles are mounting to find a formula to achieve unity at home and in the region.

A Harsh Judgement

Domestic political harmony took a step backward with the issuance of stiff prison sentences for a broad array of the political opposition, including Islamist and tribal members of parliament and youth activists of all political stripes. The harsh judgements against 67 individuals, notably a sentence of nine years for Kuwait’s once formidable opposition politician, tribal populist Musallem al-Barrak, came as something of a shock. A lower court had dismissed all charges, and most Kuwaitis thought the appeals court would either follow suit or issue a mild rebuke.

The 2011 occupation of the Parliament was an inflection point in Kuwait’s Arab Spring demonstrations. Young street protesters, backed by some opposition parliamentarians, demanded their elected representatives act against the standing prime minister, a member of the ruling family. Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah was indeed pressured to resign for his role in a raging corruption scandal, which implicated members of the National Assembly in a pay-for-votes scheme.

Current and former parliamentarians, among them long-established Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi politicians Jamaan al-Harbash and Waleed al-Tabtabai (both sentenced to seven years), turned themselves in to the authorities and many young activists, such as human rights activist Sulaiman bin Jassim (sentenced to five years), did the same, declaring their love of Kuwait and loyalty to its constitution. While the final court of cassation could lessen or overturn their sentences, lawmakers, academics, and public figures of both Islamist and liberal backgrounds look to a more immediate remedy, appealing in meetings and royal petitions for a royal pardon.

The Kuwaiti Anomaly

While some Kuwaitis applauded the court’s enforcement of respect for law and order, the number of those arrested and the jailing of youthful transgressors gave others pause. The decision comes at a sensitive time in Kuwait’s politics both at home and regionally. The prime minister, Jaber Mubarak al-Hamad al-Sabah, has failed to form a new government since its resignation due to Parliament’s determination to oust the ambitious young royal heading the Ministry of Information, Mohammed Abdullah al-Sabah. In the absence of a government, the Parliament has likewise been out of session, prompting concerns about a possible interruption of Kuwait’s constitutional order.

Most Kuwaiti analysts attribute the delay to royals wrangling over Cabinet posts and cementing coalitions to improve their positioning for the impending succession. With both the emir and crown prince of advanced age and questionable health, the battle over future rule is happening now. This royal transition is complicated by the sizeable number of potential candidates and the constitutional role granted to the Parliament in the process. Kuwait’s National Assembly must approve the appointment of any future crown prince, rendering its fractious politics a factor in royal calculations.

These politics likewise complicate Kuwait’s external challenges: the Gulf crisis over Qatar and the intensifying confrontation with Iran. Unique among Gulf states, Kuwait still has societal groups and political blocs targeted by its Gulf neighbors in regional campaigns. Correctly sensing the unfriendly political winds, the emirate’s well-established Muslim Brotherhood and activist Salafi factions wisely chose to end their electoral boycott and return to working relationships with the ruling family-led government. Kuwait’s sizeable and prosperous Shia political factions have stood fast as loyalists to the ruling Al Sabah family, and form an important bulwark of political support. Maintaining stability in Kuwait thus requires disciplining and balancing the interests of these political groupings while regional currents threaten to polarize and mobilize them.

The GCC Refuge

The safer line of action for Kuwait’s ruling family, then, is to mediate these conflicting political crosscurrents where possible, while defending and working through the institutions of the GCC. The Gulf crisis has therefore presented a strategic quandary for Kuwait, weakening the GCC and its ability to stand against Iran while increasing pressure on Kuwait to rein in political groups that hold substantial societal influence and political standing within the country.

The crackdown on dissent – the prosecution of dissidents who criticize GCC partners Saudi Arabia and the UAE online, and the legal judgements that fall disproportionately on Sunni Islamist and tribal factions (and occasionally Shia) – could be read as a response to regional pressures, at least in part.

But Kuwait likewise has a geopolitical interest in preserving maximum breathing space vis a vis both regional heavyweights, Iran and Saudi Arabia – avoiding the fate of neighboring Bahrain and certainly Qatar – thus, the strong motivation to prevent the hegemonic ambitions of both. The GCC summit in Kuwait City December 5-6 presents the best and perhaps last opportunity to draw all of the Gulf Arab states under one big tent.

Against all odds, the Kuwaitis managed to secure tentative commitments to attend from all of its Gulf neighbors. The foreign ministers’ meeting held ahead of the summit on December 4 brought together Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani for the first time since Riyadh cut off all ties with Doha. Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah al-Khalid al-Hamad al-Sabah told participants that the Gulf dispute would have to be addressed over the two days, even if not resolved. And in an attempt to turn the page, the Saudi paper Elaph reported that Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah had secured from Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani a commitment to offer a public apology to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz during the summit, which will include both private and public meetings.

Stiff Headwinds

The imperative for Kuwait to mediate its internal and regional conflicts is rooted in its character and interests. But the political headwinds are stiff. Saudi Arabia and the UAE appear determined to pursue their own vision of a transformed region with no space for the societal compromises and careful diplomacy of their forefathers. As Kuwait puts out the red carpet and unfurls the six flags of the GCC, the Saudi and Emirati joint project, both narrower and more regionally ambitious, is likely to set the terms.

Kristin Smith Diwan is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.