Kuwait's Advantages May Be a Double-Edged Sword

5 MINS READJan 26, 2017 | 09:30 GMT
As Kuwait continues its steady march toward reform, the characteristics that distinguish it from the rest of the GCC may interfere with its progress.
Editor's Note

This is the fourth installment of a five-part series that explores the economic and social challenges facing the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, how their governments are responding and what effect their actions will have on the region's sectarian dynamics.

Kuwait stands apart from the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The country boasts tremendous oil wealth and a higher per capita production rate than even Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer. This has enabled it to amass financial reserves only slightly smaller than Riyadh's holdings, though its population size, at just under 4 million, is a mere fraction of the kingdom's. Kuwait is also by far the GCC's most politically open member (as well as one of its most socially conservative). The country's relatively powerful parliament offers a public forum for debate on a range of issues, and members routinely put Cabinet ministers through their paces. On top of these distinctions, the relationship between Kuwait's ruling al-Sabah family and its Shiite community, which makes up between 30 and 35 percent of the population, sets the nation apart from its peers in the GCC. Kuwaiti Shiites have proved an important ally for the royal family over the years and enjoy greater economic opportunities relative to Shiites living elsewhere in the bloc.

But like the rest of the GCC's members, Kuwait is in the throes of reform. In fact, the government in Kuwait City proposed its State Vision 2035 program — which aims to encourage private sector growth, diversify the economy and curb public wage spending — before global oil prices crashed in mid-2014. As the country continues its steady march toward reform, the characteristics that distinguish Kuwait from the rest of the GCC may interfere with its progress and inflame tensions between its Sunni and Shiite populations.

Although Kuwait's government laid out its most recent and serious reform campaign back in 2010, it is in no real hurry to see the initiatives through. The country's substantial foreign exchange reserves and massive sovereign wealth fund have buffered it from the fallout of low oil prices and have given it the luxury to pursue reform at a snail's pace compared with other states in the GCC. Along with its coffers, Kuwait's vibrant parliament has had a hand in stalling reforms. Lawmakers have used their office over the past two years to slow reform measures or block them altogether, as they did in January 2015 with a proposal to increase fuel prices, and they will continue to pose a challenge. Even Kuwait's Shiites have a voice in parliament, thanks to their historically strategic role in helping the government counter the demands of the Sunni merchant class. At times, that voice is too loud for the government to ignore; in 2011, for instance, the government limited its role in dispersing protests in Bahrain alongside Saudi and Emirati forces in response to outcry from Shiite legislators.

At a glance, Kuwait's political parties fall into three broad categories: Shiite, urban Sunni and rural Sunni. In recent years, the government has found its strongest support base in the secular and liberal groups that represent Kuwait's urban Sunnis and the various parties that represent the Shiites. The coalition of Islamist, tribal and Salafist groups that represents rural Sunnis, meanwhile, has emerged as the government's main opposition. The most recent legislative elections in the country, which took place in November 2016, tipped the balance of power in parliament out of the government's favor. After boycotting the previous parliamentary vote in protest of a new election law, Kuwait's tribal Sunni, Islamist and Salafist groups won 24 of the legislature's 50 seats. Kuwait's Shiite parties, by contrast, lost three of their nine seats and now have their weakest presence in the legislature since 2009.

A Snapshot of Kuwait
The parliament's composition bodes ill for the future of Kuwait City's reform measures. The country's rural tribal Sunnis are among its most religious, socially conservative and economically disadvantaged groups. Lacking the economic opportunities that urban Sunnis in Kuwait City are afforded, the country's rural Sunni communities depend on high public spending and subsidies to get by. Consequently, members of parliament from the Salafist and tribal parties are sure to oppose measures to cut social spending or liberalize Kuwait's social policies. In the process, they will likely try to persuade opposition figures from urban Sunni parties to ally with them against the Shiite groups. Though Kuwait City has made attempts in the past to find a compromise between the Shiites' interests and those of the tribal Sunnis, the government may have little choice but to side with the Sunni coalition. Otherwise, if the sectarian divisions in parliament continue to interfere with the government's reform agenda, Kuwait's emir may disband the legislature — something he has done before — or at least dissolve it in favor of early elections.

But even in the event that the government's contentious reform proposals exacerbate sectarian tensions in Kuwait, the country's Shiites are unlikely to turn against their leaders. And though Iran may see the political discord as an opportunity to forge deeper ties with Kuwait's Shiites, it probably will not get very far, given the economic and political opportunities that Kuwaiti Shiites enjoy. (The Kuwaiti government, moreover, hopes to give Saudi Arabia's rivalry with Iran a wide berth.) Even so, the al-Sabah family is well aware of the danger that Iran's influence presents. After all, Shiite groups from in and beyond Kuwait staged reprisal attacks in the country in the 1980s for supporting Baghdad in the Iraq-Iran War. If the ruling family were to marginalize its Shiite community in the future, Kuwait's Shiites may band together against it.


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