Kuwait is often considered the most democratic of the Gulf nations, even if five parliaments have been dissolved since 2006 because of the Emir’s displeasure. However, its impact on regional politics is defined by its oil. Saddam Hussein cited Kuwait’s violation of export quotas from 1.5 million barrels to 1.9 million that drove oil prices down as the reason for his invasion in 1990. More recently, a strike by workers in the oil industry reverberated globally bringing a much desired rise in oil prices.
As a result, the stability of the Emirate is an asset to more than just the country itself but has implications for the wider region.
It is for this reason that more than few eyebrows were raised last month after the Emirate announced two decisions that both carry the potential to destabilise the country in the long term.
The first decision was the announcement of the Health Minister, Dr Ali Al Obeidy, who announced in a televised discussion that plans were underway to construct a state-of-the-art hospital “for Kuwaitis only”. The decision was taken as a result of Kuwaiti frustration at the pressure on health services from the “waafideen” or “foreigners” who have the right to reside.
The Minister was quick to pre-empt accusations of racism, stating that all the other public hospitals would be available to the non-Kuwaitis.
Ironically, the new hospital would be staffed by foreigners who would not have the right themselves to be treated in the very hospital in which they are employed.
The response on Twitter was swift. Many Kuwaitis commended the minister, lamenting what they viewed as their genuine struggle to see a doctor as a result of the “foreigners”. Human Rights campaigners drew comparisons with the apartheid regime, whilst other remarked that the decision could lead to similar measures in other sectors. One user remarked sarcastically that Kuwaitis also ‘struggle’ with road traffic and that a road for ‘Kuwaitis only’ would surely be ideal.
Given the disproportionate ratio amongst the population (foreigners outnumber Kuwaitis by 2:1), the decision has the potential to sow increased discord in a region notorious for its treatment of non-Gulf ethnicities. Moreover, the oil sector is dominated by non-Kuwaitis who demonstrated their fundamental importance to the Kuwaiti economic and political stability by striking in protest at reforms to public sector pay.
Banning Opposition figures from elections
The second controversial announcement came in the form of an amendment to the law governing elections, adding an extra criterion that reads as follows:
Those convicted of insulting the following are barred from running for election:
- The Prophets
- The Princes
The response was widespread for two reasons. The first was that the law is clearly engineered to prevent the prominent opposition figure Musallem al-Barrak from participating in the elections. Al-Barrak was convicted in 2012 for insulting the Emir in a speech he gave at a rally. The statement that was deemed to have been insulting to the Emir was:
“We will not allow you to rule this country alone”
Al-Barrak is due to complete his sentence two months prior to the next elections and the law, dubbed ‘the Musallem al-Barrak Law’ by Kuwaitis, is seen as an attempt to specifically target the opposition figure.
The second reason that has upset many Kuwaitis is the perceived transgression of the sanctity of the religion of Islam, the country’s state religion, by including the Emirs in the same breath as that of Allah, the God of the Islamic faith, and the Prophets of Islam. In other words, the law implies that criticising the Emir is equivalent to criticising God, which is considered blasphemous amongst the majority of the local population.
Discrimination and repression in a region already inflamed, alongside low oil prices that may later threaten Kuwait’s ability to maintain its welfare system, may well constitute a recipe for instability in the Emirate sometime in the future.