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Friday 19 December 2014
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Kuwait trying to suppress dissent

Michael Jansen

The hard line adopted by both the Kuwaiti and Bahraini rulers has mirrored the policy of Saudi Arabia.

Kuwait, the sole Gulf emirate with a proper parliament, has seen unprecedented pro-democracy demonstrations that could cause a simmering political row to boil over into a full-blown crisis.

Tensions rose on October 7 when the Emir, Shaikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, dissolved parliament.

The assembly, elected in 2009, was disbanded last December after allegations of financial corruption were made against 13 members and the former prime minister Shaikh Nasser Muhammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah† was forced to resign.

A fresh election in February gave the opposition a landslide victory but four months later the constitutional court dismissed the assembly and reinstated the 2009 parliament, prompting the opposition to stay away from sessions, depriving the assembly of a quorum. Both fundamentalists and secularists say they will also boycott the December 1 poll, the sixth since 2006.

The cause of the crisis is the emir’s refusal to end the ruling family’s monopoly of cabinet positions and permit the adoption of legislation imposing accountability for governments. Since 1938-39 Kuwaiti emirs have been saddled with parliaments demanding a say in governance. On occasion rulers have curbed the powers of parliament or, even, shut it down.

Political climate

However, they have not been able to abolish the assembly which fiercely defends its right to represent the populace and reflect the political climate of the times. During the 1960s, the assembly was Arab nationalist when Arab nationalism gripped the Arab world. During the 1990s its membership has become more tribal, conservative and Muslim fundamentalist, challenging not only the Kuwaiti emirs but also their powerful allies, the Saudi rulers.

Since early 2011, Bahraini Shias, the majority community, have protested against discrimination under the Sunni Khalifa family and called for equality. The security forces have responded with force and detentions, Saudi Arabia dispatched troops and tanks to reinforce the Bahraini army, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent police to help quell demonstrations.

The hard line adopted by both the Kuwaiti and Bahraini rulers has mirrored the policy of Saudi Arabia, which has repressed all dissidence in the kingdom since the first stirrings of Arab popular revolt surfaced in Tunisia in December 2010.† As in Bahrain, Saudi protests have been staged by Shias calling for an end to discrimination. Saudi Shias are, however, a minority.

While the government has also responded by investing billions of dollars in housing and benefits for poorer sections of the Saudi population, Riyadh has done nothing to address the grievances of the Shias who are reviled by the puritanical Wahhabi Sunni establishment.

Pressed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE has also adopted a tough line against dissidents, particuarly members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. At least 64 have been arrested since 2011, including a state prosecutor and a former judge.

Shaikh Sultan al-Qassimi, head of the fundamentalist Islah grouping and cousin of the emir or Ras al-Khaimah, a UAE federation member, has been placed under house arrest.† Islah, an off-shoot of the Brotherhood, has been the focus of the crack-down. Seven naturalised Islah members were stripped of their citizenship. †

Gulf media reported that some detainees had confessed that Islah had established an armed wing that intended to take power in the Gulf and set up an Islamic state.† Islah, a tiny grouping, has denied the charge.

The US has quietly acquiesced in outright repression in the Gulf, a chief source of the world's oil and a supremely strategic region, particularly since Sunni dominance in this area has been challenged by Washington's regional antagonist Shia Iran over the past three decades.

While Iran is considered the chief culprit fomenting sedition among Shias in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, the Brotherhood, now in charge in Egypt, is blamed by autocrats for trying to subvert Sunnis by converting them to democracy.

The Kuwaiti authorities are seeking three Brotherhood members charged with instigating unrest while UAE Foreign Minister Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan has accused the movement of plotting against governments in the oil-rich region.

In a bid to counter the Brotherhood influence, the Saudis have been supporting puritan Salafis, who formed conservative socio-cultural movements. However, since the advent of the Arab Spring in 2011, Salafis have emerged as political parties in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, and as anti-regime fighters in the Syrian civil conflict. †

These developments are being watched closely by millions of Indians working in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf who may come to see the drive for democracy and sectarian equality as a deeply destabilising force that could cost them their livelihoods.†


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