Friday 3 February 2012

A tale of two Sheikh Nassers (PO)

M D Nalapat
Kuwait shares with Singapore not simply the territorial characteristic of being a city-state, but also as a location that encourages independent thinking. If a GCC Silicon Valley were ever to spring up, it would most probably be in Kuwait. The country has a relatively free media, while restrictions on speech and attire are low enough to be accepted by those passionate about democracy. In 1962,Kuwait became the first-ever sheikhdom to promulgate a constitution that set limits on the power of the Al-Sabah royal family. A parliament was formed, although at that point in time, suffrage was not universal. By 2006,women too were given the right to vote. Although the previous Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Jabber Al-Sabah, had been wanting this to happen for more than a dozen years, he was stymied by opposition from the 50 elected members of the National Assembly to the move. This refusal to ensure gender justice saddened the Emir and progressive members of his family, such as Sheikha Amthal Al-Sabah, who wanted women to be given the same political rights as men. That they could not get their way for so long indicates the power of the elected representatives vis-a-vis the royal family.

While 50 MPs get chosen by the voters of Kuwait,15 are nominated by the Emir, and these too each have a vote. More importantly, only one of the Kuwait Council of Ministers need be an elected MP. The others can be chosen from the nominated MPs. This provision has meant that only a minority of the members of the Cabinet are elected by the people, the maximum at any one time having been six. The Prime Minister is invariably nominated, and is always from the ruling Al-Sabah family.

Six years ago, the present Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Sabah, took over the governance of the small but wealthy country. Despite his 82 years, the Emir follows a rigorous schedule of daily appointments, and is known for his dazzling smile! However, the million-plus citizens of Kuwait are now looking for more. They are increasingly in favour of political reform that would devolve more power to elected representatives (including the taking over of top jobs such as the premiership). At present, most of the top-level jobs are in the hands of either direct members of the ruling family or those known to be personally close to them.

The Al-Sabahs have been one of the more modern ruling families in the region, and it is relevant to note that elements within the family are themselves strong votaries of political reform. Some have even suggested that the Al-Sabahs should confine themselves to the top two jobs in the country, that of the Emir and the Crown Prince, leaving the rest to commoners. Indeed, the eldest son of the Emir, Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah,is one of the most persistent votaries of reform. He would like to see Kuwait evolve in the style of a European monarchy, where the Royal House reigns but does not rule. Sheikh Nasser has seen the affection and reverence felt by the people of countries such as Denmark and Sweden for their royalty, and would like the same situation to prevail in Kuwait.

The most advanced in this regard are the people of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. They secured their rights a thousand years ago through the Magna Carta, and are free even to lampoon the monarchy in comedy shows. The smiling fortitude with which the British royals accept such jibes has increased the affection of the British people towards them, especially towards the young grandson and grand-daughter- in- law of Queen Elizabeth, who will soon become the longest-serving monarch in the history of the UK. The experience of European royalty has shown that Sheikh Nasser is correct in not seeing a contradiction between a Royal House and full democracy However, his cousin - also called Sheikh Nasser - has a very different approach. This nephew of the Emir differs from the son of the Emir in that he seeks to perpetuate the system whereby all key decisions get taken only by the Al-Sabah family and not by elected representatives.

This has brought him into conflict with the majority of the elected reprentatives of successive parliaments - in 2006,2008 and again in 2009.The present February 2 election too has been necessitated because of opposition to (the nephew) Sheikh Nasser among those MPs elected in three years ago. Six times,(the nephew) Sheikh Nasser has had to resign under popular pressure, each time to get re-appointed by the Emir. This lack of attention to the feelings of the elected MPs goes contrary to the views of the other Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah, the eldest son of the Emir,who would like to ensure that a Prime Minister be chosen who has the confidence of at least the majority of the elected MPs.

The ideological tussle between his son and his nephew is something that needs to be resolved by the Emir of Kuwait, who will have to decide whether to seek to continue the present system (which ensures that all top jobs remain in the hands of the ruling family) or make changes that would ensure greater representation to the elected Kuwait is evolving into a mature society, one where there exist – and contend - a multiplicity of views, many as sophisticated as that found in any other country. Amog those calling for more reforms are academics such as Shamlan Al-Essa and Ali Al-Tarrah. They are joined by former and present MPs,such as Musallam Al-Barak and former Speaker of the National Assembly Al-Sadoun, who are attracting large crowds as they publicly campaign for greater powers for the elected. Being in Kuwait during the electioneering for the February 2 polls, the observer from afar realises that she or he is witnessing history being made.If ever there were a country in the region that has the potential for peaceful yet comprehensive political reform,it is Kuwait.

That the people of the country are not going to wait much longer for their rulers to decide has become clear from the testy exchanges at political rallies, where criticism of the (six times deposed) former Prime Minister,(the nephew) Sheikh Nasser, is frequent and pungent. While not mentioning him by name, the allegation is that he has given various inducements to nearly twenty MPs elected in 2009 to always support him in his policies and decisions. This has become a major campaign issue. Indeed, the election is turning out to be a referendum on the former PM, who many fear will get re-appointed to the job if enough candidates opposed to him fail to get re-elected in a first for Kuwait, a group of people from the bedoiun Mutairy tribe burnt down the election tent in Adailiya of a candidate, M Al-Juwahiel, for insulting them. The candidate had reportedly made derogatory remarks about the tribe on January 30,which got aired live on a local television channel. Once those of the tribe heard the speech on television, more than five thousand set out for the candidate’s election tent and set it on fire. This has disturbed several people in the country, who are apprehensive that law and order may get affected if people react with violence to comments made by a candidate. However, it is undoubted that Al-Juwahiel was ill-advised in making offensive remarks about an entire tribe. He was lucky to escape from the attack without serious injury, so angered were his traducers at the remars he made. The incident has served as a wake-up call for the country, with many now calling not national unity. Among the fissures are those between Shia and Sunni, and between bedoiun and the others.

While Shia in Kuwait suffer no discrimination (unlike in some other countries), many of the bedoiun have yet to be given citizenship, an anomaly that democratic forces in Kuwait need to work to rectify In 1962,Kuwait created history in the Arab world by creating and adopting a modern constitution. Since then, this small but influential country has been a voice for progress in the region. Its people enjoy freedoms that are yet elusive for many others in the region. Kuwaiti women, in particular, are educated and dynamic, and are generally a voice for progress and justice. The Al-Sabah royal family has had a tradition of promoting modernisation and democratic reform. The expectation is that the wise Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Sabah, will heed the counsel of his eldest son Nasser and those close to him and implement a fresh set of reforms that would give those elected a much stronger voice in governance than is the case at present. Kuwaiti democracy works, and is strong enough to deliver justice sans bloodshed.

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