Chance for Kuwaitis to have their say

As Kuwaitis head to the polls today, for the second time in a year, the country faces a crucial question: Whether to hold on to its leading democratic experiment, or turn back the clock to the tribal system.

The question on everybody’s mind today is: What is happening in Kuwait?

There is no doubt that Kuwait set an example of democracy in the Arab world and was the first in the Gulf region to introduce political reforms and adopt a real parliamentary system of checks and balances.

The process of a democratic transition was initiated by the late Shaikh Abdullah Al Salem Al Sabah, who ruled Kuwait from 1950 to 1965. He introduced a progressive constitution in 1962, followed by parliamentary elections in 1963, which was a landmark step in the Gulf region.

Although many years have passed since the death of Shaikh Abdullah, his legacy continues to fascinate the Arab world. He is still remembered as the leader who put oil revenues in the service of the Arabs at a time when the world’s superpowers were seen favouring Israel.

Shaikh Abdullah redefined the relationship between the royalty and the public, and firmly established the principles of popular representation in Kuwait.

His era marked the country’s turning point from a tribal system to a modern state, based on the rule of law and institutional governance.

One can say that the democratic experiment in Kuwait found a parallel in the vision of the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who introduced the model of a federation in the UAE, put funds in the service of the civil state and bridged the gap between the governing system and citizens.

The introduction of a social safety net in Kuwait was aimed at ensuring sustained development. Shaikh Abdullah set up several commissions to serve his people and aid states all over the Arab world.

Shaikh Abdullah was not biased towards any group of people. He was perceived as an Arab nationalist who worked for the best interests of his nation but also made Kuwait a home for all Arabs. He served Arab causes more convincingly than other leaders who raised the slogan of Arab nationalism.

But today, Kuwait is at a crossroads, pulled in different directions by an Arab nationalistic philosophy, which dates back to the early 1940s, and political Islam, which found its footing in Kuwait in the late 1970s.

The Kuwaiti National Union of Students gave the former camp a public face during the 1960s and beyond.

The emergence of Islamist groups at a later stage further queered the political landscape.

This resulted in the emergence of new alliances between the regime, which perceived a threat from nationalist groups. The Islamist political movement professed loyalty to the ruler’s authority.

The Islamist groups, given to the belief that the ends justifies the means, assumed control of powerful positions in the state to have a say in the country’s economy and significant government and private financial centres of influence.

Many consecutive events led to the Muslim Brotherhood movement penetrating the decision-making process.

The differences within the ruling family in Kuwait also gave the Muslim Brotherhood, and later the Salafi parties, the perfect opportunity to come to the fore but this was not in the best interest of the country or its people.

The rival groups took advantage of the domestic unease to forge alliances.

During the Cold War, the political Islamist movement gained popularity in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and elsewhere and, many say, this eventually led to the rise of fundamentalist tendencies in the region.

Arabs across the region suffered as a direct result of these political experiments, which makes it binding on us to recall the wisdom of Shaikh Abdullah, who believed in steady and well-planned development rather than revolutionary changes.

This is a lesson we learned at a cost and safeguarding the democratic system in Kuwait will not only help preserve the legacy of Shaikh Abdullah but also contribute greatly to stability and development in the country.

This brings us back to the question ‘what is happening in Kuwait now?’

Democratic battles in Kuwait should be fought on constitutional lines. A failure to do this will stonewall the political emancipation of Kuwaiti society.

Simply put, this will mean a return to sectarianism and tribal instincts that will not only doom the modern state but will also put paid to emerging social movements which focus on issues such as women’s rights.

Kuwait is at a crossroads, it must stand up for democracy or risk turning the clock back on half a century of progress.

Kuwaiti voters are now vested with the historic responsibility of deciding their nation’s direction and fate.


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