Campaigning has started for the elections in Kuwait that will produce a new National Assembly (parliament) in that wealthy Arab Gulf state before the end of February.
The Kuwaiti poll will be the first in any of the Gulf states except Baathist-controlled Iraq since Kuwait's own previous elections six years ago. Its results could be of key importance for the whole region, whose strategic significance has multiplied in recent years.
Citizens and rulers of Kuwait's Gulf neighbors consequently are watching the election campaign closely.
Students here from the tiny sheikhdom of Bahrain are collating daily reports on the Kuwaiti campaign. Bahrain is the only other Gulf state that has had a democratic experience mirroring Kuwait's; Bahrain's only parliament was dissolved in August 1975 and the last Kuwaiti parliament was dissolved by the then Emir when he suspended the constitution in August 1976.
For the Kuwaitis at least, the dissolution of their 50-member parliament was partly connected to concern that democratizing of the sheikhly systems bequeathed by the British to the Gulf was going too fast. The feeling was that this could lead to results similar to those produced in Lebanon by the unfettered practice of democracy.
But since 1976 pressures for a return to some kind of democracy have built up in trader-dominated Kuwait.
Last June, a government report proposed increasing the number of seats by 10, with a proportion of the new parliament to be appointed, not elected. Women were given the right to vote (but not to run for office) for the first time. Meanwhile, safeguards were built into the candidacy system to keep it under the control of the trading families.
Even this limited return to democracy has caused concern to rulers of Saudi Arabia, which is regarded as a "big brother" to Kuwait, Bahrain, and all the smaller sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula.
The Saudis blamed the smaller Gulf states, particularly Kuwait, for providing the relatively liberal political atmosphere in which oppositionists, such as those who seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November 1979, could organize.
Specifically, they blamed Kuwait because many of the oppositionist leaflets circulating inside Saudi Arabia during the mosque seizure had been printed in Kuwait. One of those in Saudi Arabia arrested for links with the insurgents was professor Abdullah Nafissi, a Kuwaiti citizen.
Saudi concern over developments in Kuwait went a step further at the beginning of this January. Then, a nationalist opposition leader in Kuwait's last parliament who is running in the next elections received an indirect warning from the Saudis, friends of his here report.
The former parliamentarian, physician Ahmed Khatib, reportedly was tipped off by the Kuwaiti government about a Saudi assassination plot. Kuwaiti officials, not wanting to mar the elections with any such mishap, have placed a discreet guard on his house, Dr. Khatib's friends say.
But the Saudis are not the only big neighbor to make its presence felt within Kuwait. The emirate is situated at the focal point from which all three major gulf powers radiate -- and the other two, Iraq and Iran, have both tried to import their mutual quarrel into Kuwaiti society.
Iranian nationals form the largest single minority inside Kuwait after the Palestinians.The thousands of Iranians still resident in Kuwait continue to constrain the government from acting too openly against Iran.
The Iraqis, who for decades claimed Kuwait as part of their own land, appear to have relented on that claim. A de facto demarcation line is to be drawn when the two states cooperate on a joint railway project.