It is not fair to call every leader of a Middle Eastern country a despot, but for all intents and purposes they are leaders of very restricted governments, often consisting of a single party or appointees of a ruling family and do not allow free, multi-party elections to governing parliaments. These leaders – whether they are hereditary monarchs, presidents or dictators – now know that the spreading desire of Middle Easterners for greater political power gives them only four options: they can work to make the transition through reforms like King Abdullah of Jordan, they can go quietly and leave the country to sort it all out like Zino ben-Ali of Tunisia, they can try to face down the rebellions and die like Moammar Qaddafi or they can kill tens of thousands of their own people trying to retain power like Bashar al-Assad.
Now, Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabr as-Sabah, 83, is in the crosshairs. Kuwait has been an important ally of the United States, acting as our staging area for the invasion of Iraq and is one of the most important oil producers on the Arabian Peninsula. Kuwait sits at the point where Iraq meets the Persian Gulf and was created in 1756 when the tribal people of the area elected Sabah I bin Jabar as their first emir. The country had a client relationship with Great Britain from 1899 to 1961 and its borders were established in 1922. The current Emir is a direct descendant of Sabah I and technically the country has a constitutional monarchy.
Kuwait is not a true constitutional monarchy like Great Britain or Spain. The Emir appoints the Prime Minister, who in turn selects the cabinet. Therein lies the conflict that has been building for the past year. The people want a true parliament and a separation of powers between the parliament and the Emir. They want an independent Executive Branch based on a majority of the parliament. King Abdullah II in Jordan has faced the same situation, with his ability to appoint the government coming under attack as well as the manner in which parliamentary districts have been drawn to favor conservative rural areas.
Kuwait’s government is in chaos right now. The recently elected 50-member parliament had a new Islamist majority and the election was annulled by the Supreme Court. The 15-man cabinet resigned on Monday. The court ruled that the old parliament should be reinstated. It is expected that the Emir will dissolved the reinstated parliament and hold new elections after Ramadan, which begins July 19.
Kuwait has no political parties, just election blocs based on religious and tribal loyalties. It suffers from the same tension points as most Muslim nations – Sunni against Shia, varying degrees of Islamists against each other and secularists, modernity against tradition. A year ago, it was rocked by corruption scandals involving the Prime Minister, who was the Emir’s nephew. The scandal helped get the Islamist opposition elected to a majority of the parliament, but they did not get a majority of the seats in the cabinet. A battle has developed between the appointed cabinet and the parliament, ending in the dissolution of the parliament and resignation of the cabinet.
The fighting has endangered Kuwait’s economic development plans. The development plan was set to cost $107 billion and included major upgrades to infrastructure to attract foreign investment. The legislature, riding its anti-corruption mandate, became distracted trying to pass Islamist legislation in one of the most secular nations in the region. The parliament tripped over itself with attempts to force all laws to be drawn from Islam and impose a death penalty for blasphemy. The Emir vetoed both ideas.
On the other side of the equation are the Emir’s family, his heirs, those who are accustomed to being in charge or who aspire to being in charge. Many of them do not want any kind of reform, would choose the Qaddafi or Assad route to maintain their power base and their wealth. They resemble those mimes who do the “walking against the wind” routine. The Emir’s age is working against the people of Kuwait. He may not have much time to lead or to assure that his successor leads the nation into the 21st century.