Kuwait is often described as a democracy, because of the fact that it has a constitution (introduced a year after it gained its independence from Britain in 1981) and an elected parliament. But neither the constitution nor parliament has been able to prevent the ruling family, the House of al-Sabah, from monopolising power and controlling the Emirate’s oil-wealth; the current constitutional crisis has not been caused by any decision by parliament to assert its authority or by any call for the application of the constitution. Rather it is the result of the ruling family’s squabbling over who should success the late Shaikh Jabir al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who had ruled Kuwait since 1977.
Much to the embarrassment of Kuwait’s people, the squabbling has been unfavourably contrasted by both Arab and Western media with the relatively straightforward successions in the region’s other sultanates and monarchies whose rulers have passed away in recent months. When Shaikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and Shaikh Makhtoum of Dubai died shortly before Shaikh Jabir, the succession proceeded reasonably smoothly each time. It is true that in most countries where absolute power is inherited there are succession problems, but Kuwait is different from the other Gulf monarchies in that its leadership does not pass from father to son or from elder to younger brothers. Instead, it alternates between the two branches of the al-Sabah family, known as the al-Salam and al-Jabir lines, and in recent years rivalry between the two has increased and become the main cause of the current succession problem.
As his name shows, the late Emir was from the Jabir line, while Sheikh Saad al-Sabah, the crown prince who initially succeeded him, is from the al-Salam line. The dispute has arisen because Sheikh Saad is ill and in his seventies; the al-Jabir camp has seized on this as an excuse to demand that he abdicate, arguing that he should allow power to devolve on the current prime minister, Sheikh Sabah al-Sabah, because Saad is too decrepit to rule himself. In fact, Sabah, who belongs to the al-Jabir line, has been accused of supporting the right of the crown prince to succeed Jabir, knowing that he cannot rule for long and that he himself could soon become the new emir, as the Salim line’s turn would have ended with Sheikh Saad’s abdication or death.
In fact, members of the al-Salim side of the family have been complaining for some time that the al-Jabir group have been removing them from senior posts in government and undermining their position. They cite their scant presence in the cabinet as proof of their claim: the current cabinet has only one al-Salim minister but no fewer than six al-Jabirs, out of a total of sixteen ministers.
The latest development is that the prime minister has now publicly said that he would like to become emir; the cabinet has announced that it has officially applied to parliament to declare Sheikh Saad unfit to rule and appoint the prime minister as Saad’s successor. This application to parliament is presumably intended to give the impression that parliament resolves constitutional or political disputes and that members of the government resort to it in good faith. In reality, despite the fact that parliamentarians often make strong demands on the Emir that he respect their constitutional rights, the legislature has been no match for the Emir, who in the past has dissolved it more than once and refused to accept petitions for its restoration.
In 1988, for instance, the late Shaikh Jabir rejected a petition with more than 25,000 signatures for the restoration of the National Assembly (parliament) that he had dissolved two years before. He knew that his action would cause an uproar (which, in fact, it did), but he believed in his family’s right to rule without interference and was convinced that giving in to popular or parliamentary pressure would eventually mean that the family lost its grip on the handles of political power.
But ignoring pressures and demands is not the only method used by the ‘royal family’ to hold onto power. The misuse of Kuwait’s vast mineral wealth (mainly oil), which is used to bribe not only politicians but also the media (the practice is misleadingly called patronage) is the emirs’ main not-so-very-secret method of silencing opposition. With Kuwait holding a tenth of the world’s known reserves of crude oil, the wealth at its rulers’ disposal is enormous. Last year, for instance, Kuwait received a total of US$45 billion in revenues. Successive emirs have used this wealth not only to line their own pockets and those of their relatives and supporters, but also to bribe and buy out those who challenge them. They have also used it to set up a welfare system to please Kuwait’s citizens, of whom there are less than a million. To their discredit, they treat the large number of foreign workers in Kuwait very shabbily because they have no role in Kuwait’s politics.
If the current turmoil does not lead to the end of this family’s rule, the next emir is almost certain to preserve the current system, despite the claim by the US government that it is determined to bring democratic rule to the Middle East. Although Washington is willing to go through the motions of calling on countries like Egypt to improve or reform their public institutions, it will not do so in the case of oil-rich emirates and monarchies that may really be more vulnerable to such pressure. Moreover, the rulers in this region finance president Bush’s so-called war on terrorism. In fact the governments of Kuwait and other countries in the Gulf are determined to fight Islamic radicalism and activism in all their forms, because these are opposed to corruption, to the theft of public moneys, and to gambling, which is very common in the Gulf region.
In these circumstances, any outcome of the constitutional dispute in Kuwait is unlikely to be radical. MPs and other influential Kuwaitis are not expected to bite the hand that feeds them, nor to work for a system that could lead to widespread investigations into incompetence, corruption and misrule that might lead to exposure of their roles in the current state of Kuwaiti society and politics.