MANIPAL, India, April 23 (UPI) -- Kuwait is a tiny sliver of land sandwiched between the three regional giants of Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Unlike the three, the country is free from extremism and is showcasing economic rather than religious or ethnic issues to underline its identity. Local women go about the shopping malls in denims, although the emir of Kuwait has not been able to persuade Parliament to give voting rights to this better half of the Kuwaiti population. But it is to be hoped that the next elections will witness both women candidates as well as voters.
The ruling family in Kuwait, the Al-Sabah, are close friends of their Saudi cousins, the Al-Saud. However, the two dynasties have followed entirely different paths in managing their respective countries. For one, the Al-Sauds have been much more proliferant, now numbering an estimated 27,000 -- not counting more distant relatives. They have also taken seriously the message implicit in the very naming of their country after themselves, helping themselves to 36 percent of the total wealth of the kingdom, leaving the rest mostly to the families close to the court.
Many Saudi citizens -- especially in the Shiite east -- enjoy neither running water nor electricity. In contrast, Prince Abdel Aziz Al-Saud, the favorite son of King Fahd, has just done his bit for reducing unemployment in the kingdom by building a new palace in Riyadh at a reported cost of $670 million. No 30-year-old can be content with just a single home, so the austere Saudi royal is building another palace in Jeddah, although this will cost a mere $540 million.
The skies over Europe are filled with private aircraft ferrying the Al-Sauds from one hotspot to the other, and the boutique stores in Paris and London would close down but for free-spending Saudi princes and princesses. Sadly for the Saudi people, such largesse does not extend to home.As for that evil notion called democracy, forget it. Women need written permission of a male relative before traveling abroad. And any religious manifestation not permitted by the Wahhabi religion that is followed by the Al-Sauds is stamped out.
Small wonder that the Al-Sauds are hated in the peninsula, or that Saudi citizens are ambivalent about the likes of Osama bin Laden, who in their eyes has the merit of seeking to overthrow the ruling family, of course replacing it with a structure that would make Mullah Omar seem like a Boy Scout. So long as the United States and the European Union -- for reasons of commerce and convenience -- continue to back the Al-Sauds, the West will be demonized within Saudi Arabia.
While the heart of King Fahd, after a lifetime of virtuous living, is beating only because of medical advances, both Crown Prince Abdullah and his presumed successor -- Defense Minister Prince Sultan -- are in almost as parlous a state of health as India's Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee.
After them is the Interior Minister, Prince Naif, who had been a vigorous advocate of jihad till George W. Bush made the term politically incorrect. Even today, much of the network of "charities" that funnel cash to jihadi groups worldwide are patronized by the prince, who has emulated the example set by the Pakistan army in ensuring that no extremist of consequence gets captured, even by his men. Should nature take its course in the case of Abdullah and Sultan, there is no obvious successor, nor is there any cohesion between the 16 branches of the House of Saud. The possibility is high that there will be an internecine conflict within the Al-Sauds, one that could act as a trigger for the mobs to move into the streets of the smaller towns, thus effectively partitioning what is in fact an unviable state
Interestingly, almost all the labor crucial to the operation of the oil industry -- as well as essential to the infrastructure in the main cities of Jeddah, Riyadh and Dhammam -- is carried out by expatriates.
However, should the central authority in Riyadh crumble, local soldiers may not be as willing as Pakistanis to crush a revolt in the governorates, where the system is even more authoritarian than in the big cities. In particular, neither Iran nor Iraq would look on in silence were a massacre of the Shiites take place in the Saudi east. The odds are high that both would quietly work toward establishing a third Shiite-dominated state there, one that would possess much of Saudi oil reserves.
The economic center of gravity would then flow from Sunni to Shiite in the Middle East, a consequence of which would be the weakening of the Wahhabi infrastructure that the Saudi royals have set up worldwide.
By not remembering the umbilical cord that binds the Wahhabi establishment to almost all branches of the Al-Sauds, and by paying zero attention to the ruling family in next-door Kuwait, Western leaders unwittingly encouraged the climate that bred a bin Laden. Although the Al-Sauds are busying themselves in cosmetic gestures designed to convince the U.S. that it is willing to root out the props to the Archipelago of Terror that the state religion of Wahhabism has spawned, the reality is that they are as willing to act seriously against the fanatics as their allies, the Pakistan army, which has Jihad as its official motto.
In contrast, the Al-Sabahs of Kuwait early on recognized that the consent of the governed is crucial to stability, putting in place a Legislative Council on June 24,1938 to "advise the Ruler." On March 14,1939, this got transformed into a Consultative Council, where the Al-Sabahs had four out of a total of 13 members. Since then, democracy in Kuwait has proceeded in a zigzag pattern, with the Parliament today being strong enough to block the decrees of the emir -- such as women's suffrage, which was issued as far back as 1999 but has yet to be ratified by the elected legislators -- and force the removal of ministers.
Even the Kuwaiti royals have been unable to withstand such pressure. In 1985, Sheikh Salman Al-Duaj Al-Sabah was forced to resign from Parliament under threat of expulsion. This forbearance by the Al-Sabahs is creating a situation where the constitution and not the ruling family becomes the final arbiter.
Kuwait is different from even liberal sheikhdoms such as Dubai, where the system and principles of governance owe their survival to the ruler rather than to written law. Slowly, a free press and a justice system are emerging in the sheikhdom, encouraged by the Al-Sabahs, who appear content to accept the role of constitutional monarchs on the British model.
As in the case of Saudi Arabia, the present ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh Jabber Al-Sabah, is ailing. Indications are that he will be followed not by the present crown prince -- who also is unwell -- or by the prime minister, the septuagenarian Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, but by one of two younger princes, Sheikh Mohammed Al-Sabah (the present foreign minister) and Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah, an expert on art and antiquities.
Both are liberal and reportedly in favor of continuing the push toward a constitutional monarchy. Were one of them to become the emir and the other the crown prince, then Kuwait could become the model for the rest of the sheikhdoms in the Middle East.
Sabahism would pose a challenge to Wahhabism in the Arabian peninsula, competing with it by its own vision of economic prosperity and peaceful co-existence with all its neighbors, including Israel.
Unlike the Saudis, who block the granting of visas to such dangerous elements, the Kuwaitis have no hesitation in allowing inside those from the Third World foolhardy enough to have insisted on getting an Israeli visa stamped on the normal passport, rather than in a separate one valid just for travel to the Jewish homeland. In Kuwait City, there are churches that function openly, while the authorities permit other religious groups to set up houses of worship for private prayer, in contrast to Saudi Arabia, where non-Wahhabis are arrested for openly practicing their faith
If the Bush administration resists those voices that seek to slow down the transition to democracy in Iraq, and accept that the people of Iraq have as much right as Americans to control their own destinies, then the emergence of republican democracy in Iraq and a constitutional monarchy in Kuwait will act as spurs that will promote political change in the Middle East. It is no accident that it is Muslim Arabs and not Muslims from India who are active in al-Qaida. The former have no political rights whatever in their homelands. Only full democracy will stanch he flow to the terrorist training camps, a process that recognition of "Sabahism" as a counter to Wahhabism would accelerate.
-(M. D. Nalapat is professor of geopolitics at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India.)