The Identity Politics of Kuwait’s Election

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Thursday’s parliamentary elections in Kuwait reflected the intense drama unfolding in the country over the last four months — youth-led street protests, corruption charges that implicated 13 Members of Parliament (MPs), the November storming of the parliament to protest corruption, the dissolution of parliament by the emir, and the resignation of the embattled prime minister. The election campaign was marked by vitriolic rhetoric and violence. And the results empowered a loose Islamist-tribal coalition of opposition candidates which disappointed liberals and set the stage for continued political fireworks in the coming months. Despondent moderates surveying the outcome repeatedly complained that, “nobody is representing the middle.”

The election revolved around competition between a coalition of opposition candidates demanding greater transparency and candidates who have been loyal to the government. Important political issues loom large in the background in Kuwait — things like an elected prime minister, allowance of genuine political parties, an independent judiciary, parliamentary independence from the government, and general progress toward a constitutional democracy. However, demographic changes and the material issues of welfare and corruption seem to have driven the election results — particularly fury over evidence of official corruption and the absence of accountability. This resulted in a 54 percent turnover in the parliament.

The loose Islamist-tribal coalition of opposition candidates won about 34 seats in the 50-seat parliament. Islamist candidates won 14 seats, while tribal candidates, half of whom might be called Islamist, took 21 seats. The opposition group is clearly tapping into voter sentiment. Tribal opposition MP Musallam al Barrak from the Fourth District was elected with the highest number of votes ever cast for a candidate.

At the same time, the so-called Islamist-led opposition is far from a monolithic coalition. Some Islamists are ideologues; others are not. Religious fervor was not a central campaign call. Islamist candidates proved themselves to be better organized and more politically savvy, articulate, and eloquent. Many younger candidates have risen through social organizations and civil society. They have been “groomed” to be effective leaders over the years. Nor are tribal voters a monolithic bloc. There is an emerging generational divide among tribal voters as many tribal MPs were implicated in the corruption scandal. Interestingly, the controversial tribal primaries were not an accurate predictor of the tribal vote in the general election.

Liberals fared poorly, however. None of the four women MPs elected in the last parliament won seats; in fact, not one of the 23 female candidates was elected. Liberals saw their seats reduced from eight to five, and Shiite from nine to seven.[i] Shiite MPs have generally voted pro-government. Further, the Shiite MPs include five supported by the Shiite institutions while only two identify as liberal and nationalist. There are only four Independents. Columnist and former Minister of Information Sami al Nesf called the election results “a tsunami of wrath and fury against governmental and legislative corruption…and against moderate voices.”[ii] Columnist Waleed al Rujaib sees it as a “clear manifestation of tribal and sectarian sentiments and a continuation of corruption in our society.”[iii] But for their own part, the relatively small liberal contingent is divided and does not work together in any coherent way. One liberal voter summed the electoral outcome this way, “We deserved this! We allowed this to happen.” 

There is real frustration, even anger, among Kuwaiti voters about the state of the economy and development projects. In my small poll among female voters in the Third District, they voiced concrete concerns about the lack of jobs for Kuwaiti youth, the lack of housing for single and divorced women, the absence of nurses in grade schools throughout Kuwait, and that Kuwait has fallen far behind the economic powerhouses of Dubai and Doha, even behind Saudi Arabia which has burgeoning new economic cities. They also complained of too much wasta, the rise of sectarian tension, and the uneven implementation of the constitution. For example, “The constitution is not the problem. It’s the way they pick and choose what to implement.” 

The most powerful force driving the success of the opposition appears to have been widespread anger at official corruption. That rage will permeate the new parliament’s political agenda. The penal code stipulates that those involved in corruption should not be allowed to occupy public office, a law that opposition figures are now using to challenge some of the election results. At least 14 voters have filed an appeal to demand the annulment of the election of Mohammad al Juwaihel, who was charged with corruption. Law professor and newly-elected MP from the Fourth District, Obaid Al Wasmi, spoke in alarming tones, “I swear by the Almighty God that I will be scrutinizing the files of all those corrupt…I say to you that you have 24 hours to leave the country, I would not advise you to stay.”

For some, the electoral results are not the issue. Political Science professor at Kuwait University Ghanim al Najjar said before the elections, “It does not matter who win or loses. What is important is how we move on from there.”[iv] And here, many worry about the rising trend of sectarian agitation, derogatory, anti-tribal rhetoric, sexist discourse, and violent clashes among competing camps.

Some liberals do fear the Islamists will “turn Kuwait into Saudi Arabia.” Upon his election, MP Mohammed Al Haif announced that, “The ground is now fertile to amend the second article of the constitution to facilitate the road to change making sharia the sole source of legislation in Kuwait.” The simple revision of one article — changing “a” to “the” — alters the legal framework of the state of Kuwait. An official spokesperson soon countered that the government will not stand idle in the face of such efforts. Women, in particular, fear the imposition of dress codes and increased gender segregation. Two winners, MP Mohammed Hayef and MP Faisal Al Mislem, had, in fact, previously formed a Committee to Curtail the Negative Phenomena at Kuwait University. They set limits on women’s dress and integration on campus. They also targeted feminine men and masculine women. But others point out that Islamists have long competed in Kuwaiti elections and been represented in parliament, and are unlikely to behave in fundamentally different ways today than in the past.

The greater fears lie in the backlash against the rising salience of tribal voters. Many liberals view the tribes as something other than civil citizens. It is reported that before the election, some tribes convened in front of parliament and sang traditional war songs for its dissolution. There is a sense that a “tribal mentality” is growing and that it will destroy the institutions of civil society as tribal MPs lack any platform of national development. Instead, they seek material incentives and patronage — higher salaries, more contracts, and the erasure of private debt. They will take the law into their hands and defend their tribal MPs, right or wrong. This is said to be their breaking point with the Islamists. One person said, “At least the Islamist positions are based on rational thinking, even if I disagree with it.”

In some ways, the Kuwaiti government brought the “tribal” problem on itself. In the 1960 and 1970s, when the government was fighting against the liberals and nationalists, they brought in an estimated 200,000 tribal people from Saudi Arabia and gave them Kuwaiti citizenship. As one person explained, “They were given huge parcels out [in] the suburbs. There was no mingling or assimilation so the new bedu formed neighborhoods in isolation from larger Kuwaiti society.”  The strategy has backfired. The government has lost their loyalty and their vote. Tribes are now the largest bloc in the opposition. The government still retains the enormous welfare costs of the “new bedu” and their many offspring. The tribes do indeed agitate for more material benefits from the state — which they consider only their fair share vis a vis the hadhar.

In a similar way, entire neighborhoods were constructed of only Shiite citizens. An elderly voter bemoaned, “What is all this Sunni-Shi’a talk? I never heard this growing up. There is no difference. We are all Muslim.” Another supported her saying, “In the past, Shi’a and Sunni lived together. It was good. People try to make this division now.” These incidents must be coupled with the volatile anti-new bedu rhetoric of Al Juweihel and the ensuing mob violence. And that unfortunately, exists alongside heightened sectarian tensions that overlap the bedu/hadhar tensions as the Shiite community is primarily urbanized. Taken together, it appears that socio-political discourse in Kuwait has grown more strident.

What now? First, the convoluted and critical process of naming people to a new cabinet is underway. A new cabinet must be formed before the first session of the new parliament, which convenes on February 15. It is important to keep a close eye on which, if any, opposition MPs are named to the cabinet. If the prime minister appoints 4 to 6 members of the opposition, as it did in 1992, it may well dissipate the opposition majority in parliament and pave the way for some cooperation. Further, the government can frame this action as “our respect for the democratic vote.” But this would require that the ruling family stand down from a confrontational path.

Secondly, much rides on the outcome of the vote for the speaker of the parliament, selected by the MPs and the 15 members of the cabinet. Ahmed Al Sadoun, the oldest Member of Parliament and a former speaker, is a long-time leader of the opposition and a strong contender. He is focused on increasing parliamentary control over the ruling family. Thirty-three MPs have publicly announced their backing for Al Sadoun, including 18 Islamist MPs who met yesterday, making him the clear frontrunner. If he wins, expect the parliament to forcefully challenge the government. 

Sadoun’s main rival for the speakership appears to be pro-government MP Mohammed Jassim al Saqer. He appeals to hadhar, liberals and merchants, and would likely push for a more conciliatory approach to the government. MP Ali al Rashid withdrew his name in an effort to boost the prospects for al Saqer, calling for “a new era of forgiveness and to forget the past…for all Kuwaitis to unite.” [v] This seems unlikely in the face of the election campaign. If he wins, there will likely be turbulence inside the parliament.

Thirdly, once the parliament begins its work, expect a push for relatively quick passage of new anti-corruption and financial disclosure laws. Many clamor for an independent anti-corruption commission. Some people want to try the former prime minister on corruption charges and to demand full disclosure of oil revenue and sovereign wealth funds. Those issues would respond to the popular mood, but will likely prove too contentious to go forward.

The other potential source of conflict in the early days will come over the place of Islam. The Popular Bloc announced that it would support the move to amend the Kuwaiti Constitution so that Islam is the sole source of legislation. This move, strongly opposed by liberals and the ruling family, requires two-thirds of the assembly to approve it as well as the approval of the emir. It is unlikely to pass at this juncture but the debate will reveal much about the internal dynamics of coalitions.

While this sounds alarming, it is worth recalling that Kuwait has a long experience with parliamentary politics, a vibrant civil society, and a robust political discussion that is open when compared with its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbors. Still, the repeated elections force actors to expend tremendous resources, time, and intellectual energy on campaigns that might be better spent tackling concrete issues of political accountability and national economic development.