The Political Profile of Postwar Kuwait
THE liberation of Kuwait has barely begun. The emir cannot rule the new Kuwait as he did the old; the opposition wants change and is prepared to demand it. The emir can allow such opposition, as well as an elected assembly - or he can impose an authoritarian solution. Though he leans to the latter, he would be wise to consider the former. The present crisis solidified Kuwaiti opposition as never before. In the past, Kuwait's oil wealth enabled the emir to buy off dissent. Kuwait did have an elected National Assembly, and was one of the more politically open states in the region. It had a relatively free press and a real Assembly elected by a small (adult male citizens) but not trivial electorate.Skip to next paragraph
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Those who dominated the assembly were not the historical elite but ordinary Kuwaitis who benefited from the state's generous welfare system. The historic opposition, the merchants on whom the emir relied for money in the lean pre-oil years, held back from politics, devoting themselves instead to investing the money the emir sent their way.
In the year before the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait's political dynamic began to change. In 1988 the emir suspended the Assembly. In 1989 members of this dissolved Assembly began organizing the Constitutional Movement, calling for reinstitution of the Assembly and the suspended 1962 constitution. They were joined by the merchants, alienated by the ruler's inability to adhere to the political buyout agreement due to the 1986 fall in oil prices. The merchants' extraordinary return to politics unified the opposi tion and prompted the emir to hold June 1990 elections for a compromise part-elected, part-appointed National Council.
The invasion prompted the opposition to regroup in exile and petition the emir for greater democracy in restored Kuwait. The showdown came in October when the ruler met with 1,200 opposition leaders and publicly promised liberalization following liberation. The elite opposition, however, had finally unified just as it was losing its popular base to the resistance groups inside Kuwait. The Kuwaitis who had spent months fighting the occupation had little need for those who had spent the war in relatively comfortable exile. To them, the exile opposition leaders had become figures as distant as the emir. These divisions surfaced after the war as food rotted in warehouses while resistance leaders argued with old officials over the right to feed people. The opposition, so briefly united, redivided.
This was the moment for the emir to break off negotiations over gold bathroom fixtures and return to Kuwait with the armies of liberation, kiss the ground, make new promises, then stand above factions and appeal to the natural desire of a population tired of war. The prodemocracy movement might have been scuttled and a benign authoritarianism reimposed.
Instead, he clutched. Whether for personal reasons, from exaggerated concern for al-Sabah interests, or from the ineptitude of ruling classes that is as common as it is inexplicable, the emir hesitated. Thus he legitimized the opposition. He unwittingly forged a united prodemocratic front that could now challenge him.
* The merchants. Historically, the most important opposition group. After the discovery of oil, the merchants went into political hibernation but are active again. They form the liberal constitutionalist opposition along with "the technocrats."
* The technocrats. Often children of merchants, they established a political beachhead in the bureaucracy before the invasion and reestablished one in the reconstruction administration. They support prodemocracy but are in an adminstrative turf battle with "the resistance."