Kuwaiti Complexities

Saturday, October 30, 2004

On July 5, Kuwait held elections for its national parliament, and many Western observers didn’t like what they saw. “Women Protest Being Shut Out of Elections” reported the July 6 headline in the Los Angeles Times. “Islamic Traditionalists Sweep Liberals in Kuwaiti Election,” proclaimed the July 7 headline in the New York Times.

In fact, women are prohibited by law from voting in Kuwait, the liberals lost six of their nine seats, and the Islamists—proponents of establishing the sharia, or Muslim religious law, as the law of the land—enjoyed a small gain, giving them about a third of the seats in the 50-member National Assembly. So viewing the conduct and the results of Kuwait’s election as a major setback for democratization is seductive. But the story is far more complicated.

For starters, the remainder of the seats in parliament, or more than 50 percent of the total, went to candidates loyal to the government. And this is not bad news at all. The government, which is headed by the emir, is composed of ministers appointed by him, many of whom are drawn from the extended royal family and educated in the West. In the context of Kuwait, with its mix of old and new, city and desert, religious and secular, the royal family is a liberalizing institution.

Indeed, there is plenty of good news to report concerning the forces of democracy in Kuwait. And when the elections are placed in perspective, Kuwait’s 40-year-old constitutional monarchy can be seen as slowly, awkwardly making progress in fulfilling the promise of the preamble of its constitution, providing its citizens with “more political freedom, equality, and social justice.”

On a recent five-day election-observing visit with a delegation sponsored by the Kuwaiti government, I had a chance to see hopeful signs firsthand. One of course would expect our hosts to accentuate the positive and downplay the negative. And certainly everywhere we were taken—ministers’ homes, business offices, campaign events, polling places—we found Kuwaitis delighted over the removal of Saddam Hussein; eager to remind us of Kuwait’s lonely and staunch support inside the Arab world for Operation Iraqi Freedom and of its generous provision of bases and oil to the coalition’s war effort; and generally well disposed toward things American.

Yet we also heard much criticism. Nadder Al-Eassa, the suave deputy chairman and CEO of the state-owned Kuwait Petroleum Company, emphasized the importance of privatization to stimulate individual initiative and productivity. Jassim M. Boodai, the owner and editor in chief of Al-Rai Al Aam, Kuwait’s largest-circulation newspaper, argued the point more bluntly. “Democracy in this country,” he said scowling, “is not real democracy,” and he blamed the country’s massive welfare state, which employs more than 90 percent of the population, provides cradle-to-grave health care, education through the university level, and generous housing loans. The country relies on the unskilled and manual labor of about 1.25 million guest workers. “We are,” Boodai lamented, “one million spoiled people.”

We also heard uncompromising criticism of Kuwait’s ban on women from voting and holding office. Over lunch at his beautiful home overlooking the Persian Gulf, with his Georgetown- and Johns Hopkins University–educated daughter looking on, former minister of oil and ex–Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States Sheik Saud Nasser Al-Sabah pronounced the ban a “black spot” on constitutional government in Kuwait.

The Women’s Cultural and Social Society—an organization whose activities include promoting awareness of health issues within the family, caring for cancer patients, raising money for the poor, and organizing symposia, courses, and workshops—has played a prominent role in the fight for women’s suffrage. A member of the society’s board currently has a lawsuit pending against the ban, with a judgment due this fall. In speaking to us, the leadership stressed that, in challenging the ban, they were demanding that the laws of the land comply with the constitution’s guarantees of freedom and equality for all citizens.

Not everybody we talked to agreed on the women’s question. Jassem al-Khorafi, Speaker of the parliament (who stood successfully for reelection), insisted that the time was not yet ripe to give the vote to women. At a typical campaign gathering, surrounded by men who had come to hear speeches, chat idly, and enjoy free food and drink, al-Khorafi insisted that women have to do more to prove they are ready. (He did not tell us what men had done to prove that they were ready.) In principle, he let it be known, he was not opposed to women’s suffrage, though when a measure was introduced in the last parliament, he voted against it. The measure failed by two votes.

Granting the right to vote to women just now, however, may actually in the short run help the country’s most reactionary forces. “It is in the interests of fundamentalists to give women the right to vote,” explained Sheik Saud Nasser Al-Sabah. Many Islamists are married to women who have been raised in strict accordance with religious law and tradition and could be counted on to vote to strengthen the political role of Islam.

Nevertheless, the prospects for Kuwaiti women are good. They form a substantial majority at Kuwait University, they constitute more than a third of the workforce, and they occupy high-ranking positions at the universities, in medicine, and in business. It is hard to imagine that, enjoying the blessings of freedom in their professional lives, Kuwaiti women will remain content with its deprivation in their political lives.

A few days before the election, in the compact conference room of the small think tank for strategic studies that he now heads, Abdullah Bishara, former Kuwaiti ambassador to the United Nations and ex–secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, summed up in perfect English and with a worldly-wise smile the situation that prevails after the election, “We are a few miles into the road of democracy, but many miles lie ahead.” The widespread gratitude and attachment to America in Kuwait, the healthiness of dissent, and the high profile of women in the workplace give reason to hope that the Kuwaitis will find a way to deal with the bumps in the road, the time-consuming detours, and the sudden storms that inevitably mark the journey.