Kuwait remains a classic rentier state, living on natural resources alone and unwilling or unable to diversify, reform, democratize, or otherwise change for the better. If anything, the emirate should be wallowing deeper in autocracy as state dependence on oil rises. Yet the politics of the country belie this.
In what will be remembered as the year of the woman in Kuwait, Prime Minister Sabah Ahmad Al Sabah on June 12 appointed Massouma Almubarak as Minister of Planning and Administrative Development. Just one month earlier, the feisty Kuwaiti parliament gave women the vote after having resisted the Emir's initiative since 1999. These steps have changed politics in Kuwait permanently.
A survey of women's political status in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states shows that in some countries women have recently made considerable progress toward formal equality of political rights, but in others they have not. The governing elite in the GCC countries generally supports women's political rights, but strong social sentiment against women's participation in politics persists.
In May 2004, the Kuwaiti cabinet submitted to parliament a bill amending the 1962 electoral law to give women the right to vote and run for office. In November 1999, amidst the stormiest public debate in Kuwait's history, parliament narrowly rejected a decree promulgated by Emir Jaber Al Sabah that conferred full political rights on women.
The current crisis over electoral redistricting—leading to the dissolution of the National Assembly and new elections set for June 29—is unusually sharp but by no means a first in Kuwait's 45-year history as an independent nation. If the issue is finally resolved, it could open the way toward a broader discussion of representation including the issue of possible legalization of political parties.
Kuwaitis describe the country’s current parliament with an apparent contradiction: “The opposition is the majority.” In any parliamentary system this would be impossible; a government cannot serve without majority support. Even in presidential or mixed systems, the parliamentary majority enjoys a share of power through cohabitation or divided government.