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Kuwait - Politics

The present fractures in Kuwaiti political and social life stem from the failure of the mid-20th century social compact between the Al Sabah and the demographically growing Bedouin or tribal communities, which was intended to offset the political influence of the downtown merchant families. In exchange for tribalist support, the government offered them nationality and jobs in the police and army; the trend continues today with the government staffing the bureaucracies of several ministries with large numbers of tribals, many of whom are assessed by Kuwaiti liberals as having only limited qualifications. But the tribals failed to respond to the ruling family's largesse with loyalty or with a sense of commitment to Kuwait as a nation. Instead, the tribes have increasingly focused their energies on expanding tribal political power with the aim of advancing specific tribal agendas, functioning as de facto political parties for the benefit of tribal members.

While Islam provides an important backdrop for the tribes and forms a core part of their identity, most of them are motivated more by a desire to enhance their particular niche in society than by a desire to spread fundamentalist Islam. When it has served their purposes, however, tribalists have not hesitated to ally themselves with fundamentalists, including Salafists and Islamists, such as the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM-Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood) to advance their own interests.

The 1961 Constitution and National Assembly worked very well when political participation was limited to the well-entrenched, largely urban and self-interested merchant class, a handful of "intellectuals," and the ruling Al Sabah. Half a century later, participation has expanded to include a generally unruly and often resentful but demographically dominant Bedouin population with tribal and Salafist tendencies. Originally courted by the Al Sabah as a counterweight to the powerful merchants, this group now wields great disruptive power and seems intent on breaking down the old system of patronage, alleged corruption and mutual accommodation, mostly to ensure that they get more of the spoils. Traditional methods of governance based on face-saving consensus, or "ijma", and ultimate respect for the ruling family no longer achieve the desired results.

Citizens have only a limited, indirect impact on control of the executive branch, as the constitution stipulates that the country is a hereditary emirate. The 50 elected National Assembly members (along with government-appointed ministers) must by majority vote approve the emir’s choice of crown prince (the future emir). The crown prince must be a descendant of Shaykh Mubarak Al-Sabah and meet three additional requirements: that he has attained the age of majority, is of sound mind, and is a legitimate son of Muslim parents. The National Assembly may remove the emir from power with a two-thirds majority vote if it finds that any of these three conditions is no longer accurate. The law provides citizens with the right to change their representatives in the legislative branch of government, and citizens exercised this right in practice through elections.

The government does not recognize any political parties or allow their formation, although no formal law bans political parties. Well-organized, unofficial blocs operate as political groupings, and members of parliament formed loose alliances. Some tribes held illegal primaries to maximize their members’ chances for election to the National Assembly. Assembly candidates must nominate themselves as individuals.

The government restricted freedom of speech, particularly in instances purportedly related to national security. The law also specifically prohibits material insulting Islam, the emir, the constitution, or the neutrality of the courts or Public Prosecutor’s Office. The law mandates jail terms for anyone who “defames religion,” and any Muslim citizen may file criminal charges against a person the citizen believes has defamed Islam, the ruling family, or public morals. In December 2010 authorities shut the local offices of the Al Jazeera television network and withdrew its accreditation after it broadcast footage of police using force to break up an unauthorized gathering of oppositionists and subsequently gave airtime to opposition parliamentarians who strongly criticized the government for the police actions. On December 23, the Ministry of Information announced that Al Jazeera's offices would reopen as soon as the administrative process was complete, but they remained closed at the end of 2011.

Kuwait's 50-member parliament has legislative powers and the authority to question ministers, including members of the ruling al-Sabah family. Unelected cabinet ministers also become members of parliament. Senior members of the ruling family hold all top cabinet posts. Kuwait, a Western-allied oil exporter, avoided large-scale protests during the Arab Spring when some rulers in the region were overthrown. Despite the parliament’s relatively strong powers, the emir still has the final say in all state affairs.

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Page last modified: 17-11-2019 19:18:15 ZULU