A few hundred protesters gathered in front of Kuwait’s parliament last week to demand institutional reforms and action against state corruption.
By Arthur Blok* |
Antiestablishment demonstrations are relatively rare in the state of Kuwait. Last week’s protesters demanded an end to the perceived unwillingness of the state to fight corruption. They also called on the speaker of the parliament Marzouq al-Ghanim to step down.
The protestors were mobilized by former lawmaker Saleh al-Moulla who used social media – with permission from the authorities – to call for a watch. The turnout was nothing compared to mass protests in other countries in the region.
In neighboring Iraq tens of demonstrators were being shot dead in the streets in the past month alone. While in Lebanon protesters have paralyzed the country and successfully brought down the government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. At the same time in recent weeks the Egyptian security forces crushed attempts to protest the police state of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.
One of the demonstrators who spoke to the Levant News on the condition of anonymity said he wants to know how all the petrol billions were spent in the past decennia: “Kuwait is a very rich country. Still, our infrastructure is very bad, there are barely any nice public places for us to go to with our children and on top of that no affordable homes are being built for young people.”
The protester, who works in the parliament, was himself disappointed with the turnout. He expected that thousands of Kuwaitis would have shared his anger and come to the parliament building: “We want accountability, and to know where all our money is being spend on. No one really knows. It is a simple and fair question to ask.”
Questions about where Kuwait’s money is being spend on are there from all layers of the society. Another Kuwaiti that has some questions on how public funds are being spend is influential businessman Abdul Ilah Marafie, chairman of the international Marafie Group.
The Marafie Group has over 100 years of experience and is one of Kuwait entrepreneurial success stories. It was established in 1919 and it is seen as a market pioneer in business areas such as Trading, Real Estate, Hospitality, Contracting, Construction, Manufacturing, Designing, and numerous other related segments.
Abdullah Marafie’s family has a long and established history in Kuwait. His father was a member of the Kuwait’s first parliament right after its establishment in the early sixties. “In that time, it was still a very good representation of the society without other interest but to serve the people”, said Marafie.
The distinguished businessman continues: “What do you see anno 2019? Some newly elected members literally are elected from nowhere into the parliament. They do not represent anyone’s interests but their own. Suddenly, they are a parliament member, they own a villa, an apartment building and sportscars. This is a new phenomenon that must be looked at critically. It is a bad development in this country.”
Despite last week’s demonstrations Kuwait seems to be one of the few countries in the region where there is no tension between Sunni and Shia Muslims: a contrast with the situation on the ground for example in Iraq or the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, all neighbors of Kuwait.
Dr. Khalil Abul a Shia member of Kuwait’s parliament has an explanation. “From the beginning of Kuwait, over 300 years ago, people migrated from all over the region to this place. From Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Iran to name just a few. People with different backgrounds and different cultures came together and established what we now call Kuwait. All their habits were mixed as well. That is why there is a different atmosphere and attitude here than in other countries of the Gulf”, said Abul.
The MP continues: “Despite our openminded attitude we are 100 percent affected by what is happening around us. America versus Iran, the Saudi’s versus the Iranians and the Iraqi’s between themselves. It is all happening on our borders. We have a more neutral stance here in Kuwait, close to that of Oman. You can say that we have a unique foreign policy in the region: we have a good relationship with everybody. Even with Iran.”
Mohammed Al-dallal a Sunni MP representing the Muslim brothers in the parliament shares Dr Abul’s vision. He adds that Kuwaiti’s are also not easily affected by the regional turmoil because most of the population is living ‘the good life’.
“Having a strong economy, a good income helps a lot in this perspective. On top of that the leadership here tried hard to prevent any of such problems to come to Kuwait. While in other Gulf countries this was and is less the case”, said Al-dallal.
He emphasizes that a downward economic trend in the region also increases the tensions. Al-dallal: “KSA is going for example through an economic difficult period. At the same time the state has issues with Shia dominated countries, and everyone feels it. Our leadership here is doing its best to stay in between all these parties and being a peacemaker in the region. Which is not an easy task.”
Businessman Marafie sees it as follows: “Kuwait has always remained neutral, a policy implemented since the establishment of Kuwait around 1650. The people that came here – mainly merchants – accepted the rule of one leader. They only had one condition: that everyone was equal. No matter from which area you were from or which religion you practice.”
Kuwait’s political system
Kuwait is a so-called constitutional emirate with a semi-democratic political system. The hybrid system is divided between an elected parliament and government appointed by the Emir. Kuwait is among the Middle East’s freest countries in civil liberties and political rights. The Constitution of Kuwait was declared in 1962 in which a parliament was stipulated. The Kuwaiti National Assembly contains of 50 members.
The National Assembly has the power to remove government ministers from their post. MPs frequently exercise their constitutional right to question government members which is usually broadcasted life on Kuwaiti TV. MPs also have the right to question the prime minister, and then put forward a motion of non-cooperation with the government, in which case the cabinet must be replaced.
“We are one of the first countries in the region that had a parliament, and a woman’s movement. Even though the parliament and the electoral system needs reforms we still have more constitutional rights than the parliament in the UAE or the Shura Council in Saudi Arabia,” said MP Dr. Abul.
He continues: “The parliament has no jurisdiction on the judicial authority nor on the government. However, we can have the right to topple ministers and the prime minister. Despite that, we need more democracy, and more constitutional tools to check on the government. That would be beneficial for everyone.”
*Arthur Blok is the Executive Editor-in-chief of The Levant News.