Kenneth R. Timmerman is director of the Middle East Data Project, Inc., a consulting firm, and has written several books and monographs on Persian Gulf affairs, including The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq (Houghton Mifflin, 1991). On October 7,

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Kenneth R. Timmerman is director of the Middle East Data Project, Inc., a consulting firm, and has written several books and monographs on Persian Gulf affairs, including The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq (Houghton Mifflin, 1991).

On October 7, 1996, Kuwait held its eighth parliamentary elections. Most foreign observers responded to the event by chiding the government for its electoral rules, which enfranchise only civilian Kuwaiti males aged twenty-one or older whose family was in Kuwait as of 1920;1 as a result, only 15 percent of the citizenry and 5 percent of the country's total population can vote. In addition, critics pointed out that Kuwait's legislative body, the National Assembly, cannot overrule decisions made by the head of state, Emir Jabir al-Ahmad al-Sabah; and that no political parties were sanctioned, thereby making it easier for the government to sway individual deputies on key votes.

But these criticisms overlook much that is positive. First, the campaign itself was a tribute to democracy. Candidates across the political spectrum brought up such difficult issues as trimming extensive state welfare benefits and downsizing government; some went so far as publicly to accuse government ministers of embezzlement and corruption. Secondly, the National Assembly itself has real powers. It can introduce laws on its own, investigate government ministers, and fire them. Thirdly, while there are no formal parties, Islamists, liberals, and independents have formed informal "groupings," each with its distinct agenda. For example, the Kuwait Democratic Forum pushes for enhanced parliamentary oversight of the government, while Islamist groups seek stricter application of the Shari`a (Islamic sacred law).

Fourthly, Kuwait's National Assembly is a unique institution in the Persian Gulf region and much beyond, giving the elections an impact that reaches well beyond Kuwait's borders. "Kuwait is a microcosm for what is going on in other countries in the Gulf," says Shafiq Ghabra, professor of political scientist at Kuwait University and editor of the Journal of Social Sciences. "In Kuwait, the debates are on the table. The same issues are being played out in other countries, but they are normally hidden from view. The way we resolve these issues will determine to a large extent what others do. If we succeed, the other Gulf countries will be able to face these problems with more confidence. But if we fail, the fragile order that now exists could explode."


The National Assembly began life in 1921 as a Consultative Council, which was dissolved amidst domestic violence and heavy-handed repression by the ruling family, then re-emerged for four days in 1938. Kuwait's 1962 constitution gives the revived National Assembly responsibility for drafting legislation and allows the assembly to question the performance of the prime minister and other cabinet members, all of whom are appointed by the emir and approved by the assembly.

These broad powers have occasionally led to tension, especially when the assembly passes no-confidence votes against government ministers.2 The assembly was twice dissolved by the emir, in 1976 (reopening in 1985) and 1986 (reopening in 1992). Few Kuwaitis believe the emir can do so again, even if the investigations into kickbacks on foreign arms contracts, begun during the 1992-1996 Assembly, turn up evidence that senior government officials were on the take. "Before, the people didn't understand anything," says Faysal al-Hayda, a Kuwaiti lawyer who maintains a private archive on the history of the National Assembly. "Now they understand everything. The Assembly is not a biscuit the emir can spit out because he doesn't like the taste."

Except for Israel and Turkey, the Middle East knows no other cases of an elected parliament with such sweeping powers to challenge the executive authority.3 In Lebanon, parliament obeys the orders of neighboring Syria. In Egypt, it serves as a rubber stamp of government policy. In Iran, the authorities carefully pre-select parliamentary candidates to insure that none poses a serious challenge to their rule. In Jordan, the parliament remains in King Husayn's overall control through proxies, although this has not prevented serious challenges to the King's policies. In Morocco, repeated accusations of ballot-stuffing have marred what is otherwise an increasingly significant institution.


In a country where only 107,000 people are eligible to vote, campaigning gets intensely personal. Candidates are allocated outdoor lots along major thoroughfares, where they set up huge air-conditioned election tents. Constituents wander in to meet the candidate, hear lectures on issues of national concern, and sample free outdoor buffets. At one rally in an outlying district of the city, incumbent deputy Mubarak al-Khuraynij drew nearly one-third of his 6,489 constituents. The men sat on cheap rugs thrown over the dirt, slipped off their sandals, and listened to Khuraynij and other speakers describe his electoral program as Bangladeshi waiters wended their way through the crowd bearing trays of soft drinks and sweet tea. "It's a hands-on style of politics," said one Western diplomat, "up close and personal."

The diwaniya, a traditional forum in which men get together in the evenings to talk, is key to an electoral campaign in a country where no advertising is allowed other than campaign posters in one's own district. Standing outside his tent and stroking his long reddish-brown beard, Khaled Sultan al-`Isa, leader of the Salafi movement, explained the system: "We do some campaigning door to door," he said, "but most of it is through the diwaniyas. Over on this street, you can see three of them. On the other side, there are four. Behind us are two, and there are more across the road. And this is just one small neighborhood." A family diwaniya might meet once a week, or once per fortnight, so the candidates learn the schedules and make sure they show up when the largest number of voters are around.

Some 230 candidates ran for office in Kuwait's 25 electoral districts. The top two vote-getters in each district win places in the National Assembly. The largest district has 9,740 eligible voters and the smallest has 1,129,4 a discrepancy that candidates usually gloss over. "During the elections, candidates constantly call for redrawing the districts," says `Ali Murad, the Interior Ministry official in charge of coordinating this year's elections. "But once they are elected, they forget all about it. Three successive parliaments have failed to address the issue, which is why we still have the same districts we had in 1980." Redrawing districts would increase the representation of Sunni Islamists and Bedouin tribes, while reducing the influence of the more cosmopolitan and wealthy city dwellers, who tend to vote for reform candidates opposed to the imposition of Shari`a law.

The recent election resulted in a fifty-member legislature fairly equally divided among Islamists and pro-government deputies, with the government winning control through deputies elected on the basis of promised pork-barrel favors and also the parliamentary votes of (unelected) government ministers. At the same time, the pro-government candidate for speaker of the parliament narrowly lost to Ahmad as-Sa`dun, the man who in the 1992-96 parliament spearheaded parliamentary investigations into the government's responsibility for the 1990 Iraqi invasion and corruption by senior Kuwaiti officials.

That fully half the victors in the recent elections are freshmen suggests to Ghabra "an overwhelming popular rejection of the endless parliamentary debates over Shari`a law and sexual segregation, which consumed months of debate and accomplished little" during the previous legislature. "The new parliament will be more low-keyed, and will work more closely with the government -- if the government plays its hand right and doesn't seek fruitless confrontations."


On the surface, the Kuwaiti elections appear a model of participatory democracy, with rival candidates standing side-by-side without rancor near polling places on election day; but darker forces are at work under the surface. The more traditional tribal society of the desert and the modern, cosmopolitan urban areas are increasingly at odds. "We feel a desert breeze coming in from Saudi Arabia that has become increasingly distinct since the liberation," says Ghabra. "But at the same time, we see a very strong urge, especially among young people in the urban areas, toward a more open, more Western life style."

The tug of war has only begun between Islam and the state, between those who seek to segregate the sexes at public universities and those who seek coed schools and greater rights for women; between those seeking a Western-style democracy, and those preferring Kuwait's male-dominated version of it. "And then come a host of economic issues -- privatization, free market versus social welfare policies, health care, employment, the proper use of public funds -- that exist elsewhere in the Gulf but are rarely discussed so openly," says Ghabra. "Kuwaiti elections are like childbirth: everything comes out."

The Islamic Constitutional Movement, which had been associated with the Muslim Brethren in Jordan and Egypt until the Kuwait war, emphasizes the application of Shari`a law. "We want to change Article 2 of the constitution, which says that Shari`a is `a main source' of legislation, to say that Shari`a is `the source' of law," said Mubarak ad-Duwayla, who was handily re-elected.5 In contrast, the Salafi movement, with a more politically conservative outlook, also seeks to introduce Shari`a penalties to the criminal code (such as amputating the hand of a convicted thief, or the public stoning of adulterers) but has a more gradualist approach. "Shari`a is not one law but a great body of law. It is the project of a lifetime, of several generations," said `Isa, the movement's leader (who was narrowly defeated at the polls). "The imposition of Shari`a is our long-term objective, but it must be a process of gradual change." The Salafis also seek to downsize government, privatize state industries and services, and remove obstacles to free trade and market forces, according to the movement's leader, Khaled Sultan al-Aissa, who was narrowly defeated at the polls.

Despite a strong Islamist showing, Western diplomats are not alarmed. "Compared to what we have seen elsewhere, Kuwait's Islamists are a tame group. This is largely because of the country's extraordinary wealth. They cannot tap the vein of economic discontent you find in the poorer countries. Here they must cater to the middle class," one diplomat said. "Rather than a victory for the Islamists, this election was the defeat of the liberals," notes another. "There was less criticism of the government during this campaign than in 1992, when the Parliament was clearly seeking revenge against the Royal family for having dissolved the Assembly in 1986."

There is another reason for the lack of worry: national security remains the major concern of most Kuwaitis, and here a near total national consensus exists. Even Islamist candidates recognize the need for the defense treaties with the allied powers, and the stationing of U.S. troops in Kuwait to serve as a deterrent to Saddam Husayn. Most also support increased reliance on the joint military power of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), despite the regional rivalries - especially with Saudi Arabia -- that impeded closer military coordination. And many Islamist candidates support expanding the Kuwaiti armed forces through foreign training programs and massive arms purchases. "After all, no one will defend us forever," notes the Islamist candidate, Salah `Abd al-Jabir.

If forced to choose, most Kuwaitis would undoubtedly abandon some of their precious freedoms if they came at the price of disrupting the fragile national consensus that has emerged since the liberation. One political advisor to a defeated Islamist candidate observes that

National unity is more important than anything else. We can differ over politics, we can discuss every issue you can think of, but there is a national compact none of us will betray. Remember, unlike other Gulf countries where kings and emirs seized power by force, Kuwaitis have chosen their ruling family of their own free will. We could have easily abandoned them during the Iraqi occupation; instead, the people asked the ruling family to return. This creates obligations on both sides.


In the 95-degree heat of the late afternoon, some 250 women gathered on election day in a suburb of Kuwait City not far from the emir's palace to demand the right to vote. They bore signs in Arabic and English proclaiming "Women's rights are guaranteed by Islam" and "Empowering women empowers a nation." The protesters included grandmothers in full-length black robes and headscarves, university professors, lawyers, and high school girls in jeans. Many of the younger women were frustrated because a similar demonstration that morning had been moved away from a polling station by the police; this time, the head of the police unit at the scene, Brigadier General Muhammad al-Qutami, politely warned them not to march. "Some of our women want to march anyway," noted one of the demonstration organizers, Ma`suma al-Mubarak, "but the police have made it clear they will act mean. We don't want to insult them by disobeying their orders." As a showdown in the hot, dusty parking lot approached, younger women began shouting at the policemen, taunting them and threatening to march anyway. A police captain drew one of the older women aside and quietly begged her not to embarrass them. "We are your families," he said. "We respect you. But we have our orders."

Kuwaiti women enjoy an extraordinary array of freedoms absent in many other countries in the Gulf. Those freedoms have become increasingly visible since the Iraqi occupation, when women played an active role in the resistance, ferrying arms and explosives inside their robes, hiding resistance fighters and serving as couriers right under the noses of the Iraqi secret police. The women of Kuwait are arguably better educated than their men (making up over 70 percent of Kuwait University students, for example). They work as lawyers, professors, cabinet undersecretaries, diplomats, and consultants. They receive equal pay and are well accepted at the workplace by their male peers. And yet, when it comes to political rights, something sticks. "Kuwait is still a very traditional society," said former assembly member Ya`qub al-Hayati, a supporter of the women at the curbside march. "Confrontation will only hurt their cause. They must do it peacefully, by dialogue."

One of the hottest issues of the campaign was whether the National Assembly should grant women the right to vote. The voters' rejection of moderate Shi`i Muslims and representatives of the Kuwait Democratic Forum, both of whom favored enfranchising women, dealt the women's rights campaign a crushing blow. In their stead, a host of Sunni Islamist deputies won seats in the National Assembly, vowing to change the constitution and impose the Shari`a. Western diplomats and Kuwaiti political observers accuse some of them of having close ties to the ultra-conservative Wahhabite sect in neighboring Saudi Arabia, where women are even denied the right to drive automobiles. A few days before the elections, the leader of the Islamic Constitutional Movement, Mubarak ad-Duwayla, remarked that "politics is not a right for women; it is not right for women. It is a man's right, only." This suggests just how far Kuwait's women have to go before they achieve the vote.

Kuwait's complex demographics help explain why urban Kuwaiti women have reservations about pursuing their cause more aggressively. "We have to research the issue more thoroughly," said Kuwait University president Rafaysa al-Khurafi, the first woman to head a university in the Middle East. "We need to look at the demographics -- who lives where -- to see whether having the vote will actually help women or not." She and other women's activists express a concern that enfranchising women could have just the opposite effect because of the socially conservative bent of the highly populated Bedouin areas.


On top of the new assembly's agenda stand a host of domestic concerns: burgeoning budget deficits, the privatization of state industries and services, and what many Kuwaitis feel is a time bomb -- Kuwait's fast-growing youth. "Forty-three percent of the total Kuwaiti population is under fifteen years of age," observes the prominent economist Jasim as-Sa`dun (brother of the National Assembly's speaker). "So job creation is quickly becoming a critical issue." The National Assembly faces the daunting challenge of reforming Kuwait's economy and strengthening national defense, all the while kowtowing to demands for stricter adherence to Islamic laws.

The central government's extraordinary control over the economy compounds the problem. The government employs some 93 percent of working Kuwaiti nationals, most in government sinecures.6 In contrast, the thriving private sector employs foreign laborers and technicians, with just a handful of Kuwaitis at the top of corporations. "Look at Bahrain," argues Jasim as-Sa`dun, an outspoken critic who accuses the ruling family of tunnel vision and an unnatural love of petty political maneuvering. "In Bahrain the government was facing a similar problem, and tried to put it off. Now they have 25 percent unemployment, and riots. Such a scenario will be unavoidable in Kuwait, unless we attack the problem now. We need radical policies to create jobs for tomorrow, and a government that is willing to pursue unpopular policies" such as reducing entitlements.


Kuwait's strong sense of national unity, plus the continued threat from Iraq, mean that these elections will hardly affect U.S.-Kuwaiti relations, which have grown into a true alliance, one as firm and as important to both partners as U.S.-NATO ties. Kuwaiti and American forces conduct joint military exercises together in the desert; Kuwaiti air force pilots train in the United States; Kuwaiti military doctrine is increasingly based on the U.S. doctrine of force multipliers to deter and, when that fails, severely disrupt an invasion force through combined ground, helicopter, and air attacks.7 A senior U.S. field commander described the training and military-assistance program as "coalition building, so that when you have to deploy and fight for real, no one is doing it for the first time." U.S.-trained Kuwaiti tank crews are said now to be capable of channeling an Iraqi attack off the roads and into the desert, where Iraqi tanks would be easy prey to aircraft. "Once we become allies and partners," says Information Minister (and former ambassador to the United States) Saud Nasser Al Sabah, "we should also start planning together to craft a long-term strategy."

Policy toward Iran is the main topic dividing Americans and Kuwaitis. Kuwaitis tend to view the U.S. sanctions on Iran with grave concern and go to great lengths to ensure that Tehran knows how much they differ with Washington on this issue. "We do not want to see Iran isolated," said outgoing Interior Minister Sheikh `Ali Al-Salem Al Sabah. "Iran is not a threat to us today. Iran is not supporting terrorism against Kuwait, or posing any threat to our territorial integrity." Kuwaitis profess not to fear Iranian ambitions. The interior minister contends that "the Iranians learned one major lesson from the Gulf war: You can't use military force in the Gulf with impunity." At the same time, Kuwaitis clearly worry that a mixture of Iranian paranoia and an aggressive U.S. stance might push Tehran to the brink. While not seeking to moderate the U.S. position, Kuwait steadfastly refuses to adopt it. Quite the reverse: on October 1, a deputy commerce minister went to Tehran to negotiate the opening of a direct maritime cargo link between Kuwait and the nearby Iranian port of Khorramshahr.8

The restoration of parliamentary democracy in Kuwait after the Persian Gulf war has opened the door to a solid partnership -- indeed, a solid alliance -- with the United States. Both the ruling family and prominent members of the new parliament are eager to work with the United States to understand better the changes taking place inside the region and to craft a joint strategy that contains the threats posed by Iran and Iraq, guarantees Kuwait's security, and assures U.S. access to Gulf oil. "Our real concern," says the information minister, "is that the United States lacks a clear long-term policy." To craft such a policy, he suggests that the U.S. sit down with its friends and allies in the region -- including Israel -- to determine common long-term interests and the best means of defending them. Kuwait, even more than other American allies on the front lines of dual containment in the Gulf, believes it has earned a seat at the table.

1 Of Kuwait's total population of 1.95 million, only 700,000 are Kuwaiti citizens. In addition, the 122,525 biduns (literally, "withouts"), a mixture of bedouins and immigrants who have neither Kuwaiti nor any other citizenship, are banned from voting; Kuwait's Interior Minister `Ali Sabah al-Sabah charges that the vast majority of the biduns are actually citizens of foreign countries who destroyed their passports in the hope of obtaining Kuwaiti citizenship. Most, he says, hail from Iraq and the government is "actively considering" expelling them once the new parliament is in place. In this small oil-rich state, still an easy target for greedy neighbors, demographics has clear national security implications. they thus outnumber Kuwait's 107,000 eligible voters. On them, see Human Rights Watch/Middle East, The Bedoons of Kuwait: "Citizens without Citizenship" (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1995).
2 The National Assembly can fire government ministers by passing a vote of no confidence, but if it directly challenges the prime minister, the emir is faced with the constitutional choice of dissolving the assembly or firing the prime minister. Since the prime minister doubles as the crown prince, the latter has never occurred.
3 For a general assessment of Kuwait's political situation, see Mohammad Al Rumaihi, "Kuwait: Oasis of Liberalism?" Middle East Quarterly, Sept. 1994, pp. 31-35.
4 The most votes for a candidate was 3,379; the smallest number sufficient to win a seat was 553.
5 Interview with the author, Oct. 3, 1996. Article 2 of the 1962 constitution states: "The religion of the State is Islam, and the Islamic Shari`a shall be a main source of legislation."
6 "Statistical Review," 19th Edition, 1996, published by the Ministry of Planning, Central Statistical Office, 1996.
7 The Kuwaiti air force has made real progress toward building an effective instrument to thwart Iraqi aggression with its two squadrons of F-18 multirole fighters. According to Colonel Ahmad Al Najar, commander of the Ali Al Salem Air Force base, where Kuwaiti pilots receive advanced weapons training, Kuwait will have 60 fully trained F-18 pilots by next year (or a respectable 1.5 per aircraft), each with more than 500 flying hours and extensive experience using advanced electronic warfare gear and stand-off weapons. "We have a joint plan with the allies to hit Iraq if they cross the border into Kuwait," he says. "With these aircraft, we can blind Iraqi planes from forty miles away, and kill them before they know what has happened to them." Progress with the army has been slower, although a Western diplomat notes that "selected armored units are now capable of joint operations with attack helicopters and close air support, using M1A2 Abrams tanks, that can outshoot and outrun anything the Iraqis can throw at them."
8 "Kuwait calls for expanding shipping ties with Iran," United Press International, Oct. 1, 1996, quoting the Islamic Republic News Agency (Tehran).