WASHINGTON, May 27—The outcome of Kuwait’s May 17 parliamentary election is likely to further discredit democracy and thus undermine political reform in the Persian Gulf. The success of the conservative Islamist salafis will most certainly result in a splintered and combative parliament, while losses among the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood affiliate (HADAS) was a major setback for political reform.

Middle East expert Nathan J. Brown assesses the implications of the election in a new commentary, Kuwait’s 2008 Parliamentary Elections: A Setback From Democratic Islamism?. By voting along tribal and sectarian lines, Kuwaitis undermined efforts to establish a more democratic party system—a setback for a close U.S. ally curiously overlooked by American efforts to promote political reform in the region.

Key Conclusions:

  • Salafi leaders are unlikely to compromise with the cabinet, dominated by Kuwait’s ruling family, or other parties, which will undoubtedly generate new tensions in parliament.
  • HADAS leaders found they could not take advantage of a new electoral system they had helped design due to strategic errors in their campaign and the public perception that the party had become too soft on the country’s rulers. 
  • While the election represents numerous setbacks for democracy, it did mark a positive shift for the inclusion of female voters, who were aggressively targeted by all parties.

Brown concludes: 

“After Kuwait was liberated from Iraq in 1991, the United States implicitly coupled its security guarantee with an insistence that parliamentary and electoral life be revived. But the United States now is largely disengaged from the domestic political scene in Kuwait, despite its strong verbal push for Arab political reform. Kuwait’s long-simmering and nonviolent political crisis has been long been overshadowed by more dramatic and bloody conflicts. But the threat to one of the region’s most democratic experiments is real.”



  • Nathan J. Brown is director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University, a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, and a distinguished scholar and author of four well-received books on Arab politics.
  • The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, socio-political, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key cross-cutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The Carnegie Middle East Program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics throughout the region.
  • The Carnegie Middle East Center is a public policy think tank and research center based in Beirut, Lebanon. Bringing together senior researchers from the region, the Carnegie Middle East Center aims to better inform the process of political change in the Middle East and deepen understanding of the issues the region and its people face.
  • The Arab Reform Bulletin addresses political reform in the Middle East. Sent monthly, it offers analysis from U.S.-based and Middle Eastern political experts in English and Arabic, as well as news synopses and resource guides.