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Moving Out of Kuwait’s Political Impasse

Kuwait is gripped by a state of political paralysis. A standoff between the ruling family and the elected parliament is aggravated by deep divisions within each side, making any kind of political movement difficult if not impossible.

Published on June 25, 2007

Kuwait is gripped by a state of political paralysis. A standoff between the ruling family and the elected parliament is aggravated by deep divisions within each side, making any kind of political movement difficult if not impossible. While Kuwaitis themselves often speak of a failure of leadership, attributing the logjam to the shortcomings of particular individuals, in fact the problems are more the result of structural and institutional shortcomings than they are personal failings. There are many possible solutions, but implementing most of them would demand precisely the kinds of decisive actions that are in woefully short supply. Thus the most likely course may be a suspension of the Arab world’s liveliest and most sustained democratic experiment.

In recent years, Kuwait’s political scene has not lacked for drama. Three elections have been held over the past three years as the result of a series of confrontations between the parliament and the government, and each one has produced a parliament with members ready to resume battle. Resignations of key ministers, threats of dissolution, walkouts of outraged parliamentarians, and stormy debates have come thicker and faster. A prevailing atmosphere of crisis has set in, leading many to feel that the system is under threat and others to despair that it is simply not worth preserving. These fears have not led Kuwaiti politicians to lower their voices: the weeks since the May 2009 parliamentary elections have seen deputies walk out when the cabinet was presented, a move to haul the minister of interior (in most Arab states an imposing figure and in the Kuwaiti case a high ranking member of the ruling family) in for parliamentary grilling, and a physical altercation between a parliamentary deputy and a government official.
The most likely course may be a suspension of the Arab world’s liveliest and most sustained democratic experiment
Nor have the disputes been restricted to government–parliament confrontations. Rumors of divisions within the ruling family continue to simmer. Parliamentarians have publicly squabbled over committee assignments, and in one recent public forum, a male parliamentarian prompted a female colleague to walk out when he contemptuously dismissed her remarks as meaningless (kalam fadi). An exchange between a Shi’i and a Sunni parliamentarian led to the former referring to the previous cabinet (in which several Sunni Islamists had participated) as a “Tora Bora government.” A prominent Sunni Islamist chided Shi’i parliamentarians for siding with “liberals” against “Muslims,” effectively tarring not only his intended targets but implying that those not in the Islamist camp were completely outside the faith.
But all this drama amounts to great motion with little movement. The Kuwait political system is capable of generating much discussion but has lost its ability to produce decisions. The real crisis for the country is not the liveliness of the debates but their inconclusiveness.
What is the Problem?
Kuwaitis who formerly prided themselves on the vitality of their public life now are unlikely to see it as a democratic flowering. Instead they see a cacophonous and quarrelsome stalemate that has stymied the country and led to stagnation at a time when Kuwait’s neighbors have shown considerable economic dynamism.
The country’s parliament was created under a 1962 constitution; it is granted a set of tools that allows it to oversee government work. But those tools are more negatively rather than positively useful. The cabinet is formed, for instance, without requiring a vote of confidence from the parliament. But after it has been formed, the parliament can question, grill (a more formal procedure in which the minister has to appear personally and answer questions about perceived shortcomings and even malfeasance), and withdraw confidence from any minister. (The prime minister alone is exempt from this last step, but the parliament can declare itself unable to cooperate with him, which leads either to a new premier or a new election.) The parliament has standard legislative tools at its disposal as well.
Over Kuwait’s history, its elected parliaments have varied in their ability and willingness to use these tools. The body has been inhibited at times by the cooptation of many deputies by the ruling family, its own divisions, and fear of transgressing vague “red lines” that have kept critical figures beyond criticism. Top cabinet positions, for instance, were allocated to leading family members, making a grilling a confrontational step indeed. And the premiership traditionally went to the crown prince, effectively inhibiting deputies from grilling (or even publicly criticizing) their future amir. If the parliament seemed too willing to use the tools it did have, the amir suspended it.
But since the restoration of the Kuwaiti constitutional system in 1992 (a year after the country’s liberation from Iraqi occupation) the red lines have gradually decayed. Perhaps more accurately the meaning of “red lines” has gradually shifted; what were borders never to be crossed have become frontiers that can be (carefully) explored.[1] In the current decade, the premiership has gone to ruling family members other than the crown prince, ruling family cabinet members have been subject to grillings, and the parliament has brought down a series of ministers (usually by making clear that they lacked majority support without formally proceeding to a confidence vote).
Kuwait is not the first country to experience political gridlock; its brand of standoff has many parallels
Most dramatically in 2005 and 2006, the parliament forced through a major reform in the electoral system. In 2005, a majority formed in the parliament that insisted―over government objections―on combining the country’s tiny twenty-five districts into five, allotting each voter four votes (with the top ten vote-getters in each district winning seats). They claimed that this would produce a parliament more attuned to national needs than neighborhood demands; programmatic campaigns would replace the retail politics that had dominated parliamentary elections. Perhaps fearing a more cohesive legislative branch, the amir went so far as to dissolve the parliament pressing for the electoral reform and call for new elections. But he was forced to back down when reformers won an absolute majority in the new parliament. The new electoral law passed when the parliament convened in 2006 and vague ideological tendencies formed as parliamentary blocs. Since that triumph, however, the opposition coalition crumbled, leading to a situation in which highly factionalized parliamentarians use their tools with abandon in pursuit of no coherent agenda.
Kuwait is not the first country to experience political gridlock; its brand of standoff has many parallels. Indeed, many currently democratic European political systems evolved out of protracted conflicts between a monarchy resisting any fetters and a parliament anxious to assert its oversight prerogatives and force the cabinet to be politically responsible to the parliament rather than the crown. In these countries, much of the struggle for democracy took the institutional form of a tussle over the constitutional authority of elected parliaments. In this sense, the Kuwaiti case is reminiscent of classic European political struggles of the nineteenth century.
But such optimistic readings do not prevail in Kuwait today, and not only because they demand a very long-term view. There are precedents closer to home that suggest Kuwait’s future may hold not protracted struggle but a sudden clamp down—parliaments in the Arab world that learned how to use their tools have been closed, suspended, or brought to heel in places as diverse as Morocco, Egypt, Bahrain, and Kuwait itself (once in the 1970s and once in the 1980s). Kuwaitis now speak of “unconstitutional dissolution” (disbanding the parliament without calling for new elections and ruling by decree) as if it were a normal political option. The amir has gone beyond oblique hints to parliamentarians to less diplomatic warnings—and apparently earlier this year even briefly decided to suspend the parliament indefinitely before changing his mind.
The standoff is also a problem for Kuwait because it blocks clear policy moves in any direction
The standoff is also a problem for Kuwait because it blocks clear policy moves in any direction. Important projects have been held up and fundamental economic decisions have been avoided or cancelled after they were taken. Parliamentarians stand ready to examine government contracts and large projects (motivated both by suspicions of graft and favoritism and also—if critics are to be believed—resentment if friends, relatives, or followers were excluded from lucrative deals). An economic stimulus package was mired in political bickering until parliament was dissolved pending this year’s elections (the amir used his authority to issue emergency decrees when parliament is not meeting). A fourth refinery for the oil industry and a large deal with Dow Chemical were cancelled; in both cases solid business considerations for or against the projects were drowned out by the political wrangling. Constant reshuffles in top positions make it difficult to pursue any consistent policy. The country’s infrastructure is quite unimpressive, given the level of oil revenues the government has enjoyed; businessmen complain of a sclerotic regulatory environment but despair of reform. Compared with the dynamism evident further south in the Gulf, Kuwait seems stagnant.
The Underlying Cause: Divide but not Rule
The paralysis in Kuwaiti politics is often associated with a generational change in the ruling family: the amir and crown prince/prime minister who ruled Kuwait for a generation passed from the scene earlier in this decade, handing the reins to a fractious group of younger leaders. And it is indeed difficult to deny that the ruling family is now deeply divided by rivalries and factions. Its members sometimes maneuver against each other by reaching out to individuals and groups in the broader society, even forming tactical alliances with outspoken parliamentarians. Kuwaitis thus often speak of a failure of leadership and even politicians used to confronting the family make clear their discomfort at the lack of direction from the top as well as the tendency to suck commoners into ruling family squabbles.
But to ascribe Kuwait’s political standoff to weak leaders mistakes symptom for cause. The first parliamentary effort to grill the prime minister, after all, came not against the current occupant of the position but under the long-serving crown prince now remembered as a strong and dominant personality (the grilling never took place, but ill health finally led him to surrender to long-term demands that he accept the separation of the positions of premier and crown prince). Deep, even fratricidal, disputes in the ruling family are not new; the novelty is that Kuwaitis now know more about them. In previous years, ruling family councils were very private affairs and even Kuwaitis who prided themselves on their mastery of political gossip would admit that they were unsure how ruling family politics operated. This year, by contrast, a family council on the confrontation with parliament was followed not by dignified silence but instead by newspaper headlines after some members rushed to leak details to favorite journalists.
To ascribe Kuwait’s political standoff to weak leaders mistakes symptom for cause
Underlying the oft-described crisis of leadership is the reality of a society that is more difficult to lead. Not only have international contacts and economic prosperity made the society more complex; the previous generation of Kuwaiti leaders deliberately made the political system more inclusive. They did so in order to divide and rule. While they succeeded in doing so over the short term, over the long term, this formula has worked only halfway for their successors. Kuwaiti politics today divides very effectively but it makes rule difficult indeed.[2]
A half century ago, Kuwaiti politics was the monopoly of the ruling family, leading merchants, and a handful of educated professionals. Even then it could be contentious, and the ruling family reacted in part by folding new groups into the political field to dilute the influence of various opposition groups and critics. Shi’a, Bedouin, and Islamists were often quietly encouraged to organize and become politically active to balance against other groups. Citizenship rights were granted to large numbers of people living on the outskirts of Kuwait City to dilute the influence of those closer to the center. Benefits and access to government services were doled out in such areas on a tribal basis in order to encourage the election of “service deputies” who gave political support to the cabinet in return for constituent benefits.
These various groups now sit together uneasily in a fractious parliament, and they are no longer content to be politically quiescent. Shi’i deputies regularly raise sensitive issues (such as the building of Shi’i mosques); on the Sunni side, the tamer Islamic Constitutional Movement has been outflanked by a collection of Salafis and independent Islamists.[3] Tribes have made the transition from loyal clients to obstreperous and demanding constituencies and have built very effective political machines. They openly organize primaries in direct contravention of the law to ensure that their members do not split their vote. Behind the current rush to grill the minister of interior—within a couple weeks of the cabinet taking office, the earliest such move in any parliamentary session—stood resentments stemming from the minister’s attempts to shut down tribal primaries when he sat in a previous cabinet.
The inclusion of women in the parliament may have complicated matters still further. On the one hand, the election of four female deputies brought Kuwait a significant amount of positive international attention and thus certainly raised the political costs of suspending the body. But on the other hand, the women deputies hardly form a united bloc and their presence has already led to wrangling over issues such as their dress and their committee assignments. (One of the new deputies, Rola Dashti, won a seat on a committee that focuses on negative phenomena in society—a traditional preserve for conservative and Islamist deputies who could use it to thunder against cultural and social practices they did not like. When she was elected as the committee’s rappoteur, two Islamist members quit in protest, saying she had no place speaking for a committee whose existence she did not support.)
The inclusion of women in the parliament may have complicated matters still further
But it is not simply greater inclusiveness that ties Kuwait’s political system in knots. After all, many functioning democracies are more diverse than Kuwait. The system’s paralysis is caused by the strong preference for consensus and the absence of parties. The combination gives every small group in Kuwait not merely a voice but also a veto. In a sense, the system requires consensus but simultaneously makes that consensus difficult to achieve.
Consensus is required both formally (a small number of deputies can launch a grilling and a no confidence motion) and informally (the cabinet generally reflects a great plurality of political inclinations and constituencies rather than a narrow majority coalition). Similarly, the weakness of the party system has a legal root (parties are simply not recognized under Kuwaiti law; even the electoral system has turned out to be far more amenable to tribal candidates and wealthy individuals than to political parties). But just as important is a critical informal tendency: the ruling family deals with the citizenry as a collection of individuals, groups, constituencies, and demands and has resisted any attempts to deal with the parliament as a collection of political blocs. The result is that elections rearrange much but resolve little.
Kuwait actually took a lurch toward a political party system in 2006. Taking advantage of their successful assembling of a coalition for electoral reform, three strong blocs formed in the parliament (Islamic, populist, and liberal) and worked to hammer out a common legislative agenda. Such blocs had a long history in Kuwait but had varied considerably in their ability to act cohesively; even when they had shown some internal unity they almost always eschewed any efforts to work together. But for a moment in 2006, it seemed like a cohesive parliamentary majority had formed (termed by its members the “bloc of blocs”)—a troubling one for the government to be sure, since it was oppositional in character. The ruling family was hardly likely to allow the new majority coalition to form the government—that would have surrendered cabinet formation wholly to the elected parliament. But it did not even seek to favor one bloc and exclude the others, a move that might have fostered the nascent party system while maintaining a strong ruling family role.
Instead, the ruling family showed a preference to returning to an atomizing divide and rule approach, reaching out to particular deputies, co-opting some members of each group and playing off the blocs against each other haphazardly. After the 2009 elections, for instance, a cabinet was cobbled together that included a motley group of tribalists, representatives of different ideological currents, ruling family members of varying reputations, and a few technical experts.
Kuwait confronts its paralysis with real assets
The blocs not only fell out with each other, as might have been expected, but they also began to disintegrate. (By 2009 matters had progressed to the point that when I asked one Islamist to describe his relationship with other Islamists, he despondently said “We have a truce,” bemoaned the need to coordinate with other Islamists one by one, and concluded by complaining “I find liberals easier to deal with than other Islamists.”) The blocs performed unimpressively in the 2008 parliamentary elections and became almost irrelevant in the 2009 voting.
Ways to Move Forward?
Seen this way, Kuwait confronts its paralysis with real assets.
First, its problems stem from the virtue of openness: the Kuwaiti political system embraces Sunna and Shi’a, Islamists and liberals, men and women, tribes and merchants, recent citizens and those whose ancestors helped establish Kuwait three centuries ago. It does not include everyone equally, of course. There is a ruling family and a small group of merchant families whose members become more noticeable the higher one climbs the political and economic ladder. Districts are drawn in such a way that the vote of those in outlying districts is worth half of the residents of Kuwait’s central core. And those who do not have citizenship at all are politically excluded (though even there Kuwait’s record may be better than that of its Gulf neighbors—some parliamentarians are willing to press for favorable treatment of the bidun, or those with no citizenship, since many are members of the same tribes as some Kuwaiti citizens). But for all its inequalities, the Kuwaiti system is still one in which distributional issues are openly discussed and in which citizens formerly excluded from politics have learned to make their demands heard.
Second, besides inclusiveness (or perhaps because of it), Kuwait has a very strong sense of national identity that keeps boisterous debates from degenerating into violence. Indeed, with some fleeting exceptions, Kuwaiti political disputes have been noisy but remarkably gentle.
For all its inequalities, the Kuwaiti system is still one in which distributional issues are openly discussed and in which citizens formerly excluded from politics have learned to make their demands heard
Finally, Kuwait has a stable set of political institutions. Its constitution, which Kuwaitis regard with some pride, has not been amended since it was written close to five decades ago. Even fairly forceful attempts by the ruling family to demand amendments during times of suspension have failed to change a letter in the document.
The constitution contains an odd provision for amendment that may provide a clue on how to move forward: “The provisions relating to the amiri system in Kuwait and the principles of liberty and equality provided for in this constitution may not be proposed for revision except in relation to the title of the amirate or to increase the guarantees of liberty and equality.” This provision—probably the product of a patronizing but far-sighted Egyptian drafter[4]—suggests that a set of solutions may be found in devices that deepen democracy without threatening the monarchy.
Three such devices immediately suggest themselves. A first would be a better-designed electoral reform. The 2006 measure was supposed to diminish vote buying and tribal voting and encourage broadly programmatic politics. It had the precise opposite effect; in the 2008 and 2009 elections, the role of blocs and proto-parties declined, large tribes made the transition effortlessly (smaller ones were often big losers), vote buying apparently continued, and the successful candidates generally owed their election to a host of individual factors (deep pockets being one of the most important). The tribes are probably too deeply entrenched to dislodge completely and their effect is not wholly unhealthy (they do force the needs of outlying communities to be met), but an electoral system that actually offered real incentives to the formation of coherent political blocs would make for a very different parliament. Some Kuwaitis have even spoken of converting the country into a single electoral district with Kuwaitis choosing among party lists. Such a system would probably have to be combined with a high threshold to prevent the lists from being a device for further entrenching tribal representation. A more robust system of blocs and parties would change the ruling family’s way of doing business, but it would not fundamentally threaten its position.
A second device would be constitutional reform. Rather than having cabinet members appointed without a parliamentary vote (and often without more than rudimentary parliamentary consultation), a vote of confidence could be required. And rather than having each minister individually answerable for his policies and conduct, the principle of collective responsibility could be introduced. The reform would offer parliament a far larger voice in the formation of the cabinet but once it expressed that voice the resulting cabinet could be more confident of a majority for its initiatives. Ministers would have to defend their policies jointly, forcing them to coordinate on policy rather than march off in different directions as they do now. And, much to the ruling family’s delight, the parliament would not be able to harass the cabinet through grilling individual ministers. Of course, the same parliamentary questioning would still take place, but the drama of a grilling—a procedure that resembles a political trial more than a routing parliamentary inquiry—would no longer take center stage because it would no longer be seen as a prelude to a vote of confidence in an individual minister. At present, grillings are deemed sufficiently confrontational that Kuwaiti public life seems to revolve around nothing else when they are pending; grillings in Kuwait receive the same obsessive attention that most societies reserve for major sporting events. And ruling family members often regard it as beneath their dignity to submit themselves to such a spectacle. True majority rule with collective responsibility might be more boring, but it would also likely be far more productive.
The path toward any political reform is generally blocked by the very problems that make it so necessary. Any move forward must be a product of the same political system that finds any decisive action difficult
A more modest third reform would be to convert what Kuwaitis refer to in English as a “grilling” into the normal parliamentary maneuver it was meant to be. For the most part, this could be done simply by a change in the attitude of the ruling family and the government.[5] The grilling, after all, is simply a dramatic name given to the normal parliamentary move of an interpellation in which a minister is summoned to explain policy in parliament. Were ministers to treat it not as a trial but as a normal inquiry, much of the drama surrounding the move would recede. This change in attitude would not make the parliament any more cohesive a body; it would be a far more modest step than the constitutional reform described above of requiring collective responsibility and parliamentary approval of the entire cabinet. But the mild step of treating grillings as routine would at least stop the ability of a small number of parliamentarians to tie the country in political knots on a continual basis.
Of course, pursuit of such solutions would immediately encounter a fundamental problem: the path toward any political reform is generally blocked by the very problems that make it so necessary. Any move forward must be a product of the same political system that finds any decisive action difficult.
Electoral reform, for instance, would require deputies elected under one system to do away with it—a rare occurrence. Constitutional reform is even more difficult to contemplate. Procedurally it is not hard, but politically it would require a broad national consensus. On two occasions the previous amir coupled suspension of the parliament with a call for amending the constitution; on both occasions he eventually felt compelled to reconvene the parliament without securing a single change. For many years, Islamist deputies championed a proposed amendment that would have strengthened the constitution’s commitment to the Islamic Sharia, a broadly popular idea, but one successfully resisted by both the ruling family and by liberals. In short, constitutional reform would require a strong national consensus and a willingness on the part of all parties to trade in their veto in a paralyzed system for a voice in a more effective one.
Constitutional reform would require a strong national consensus and a willingness on the part of all parties to trade in their veto in a paralyzed system for a voice in a more effective one
Even the most modest reform suggested above—the ruling family’s decision to treat grillings as a normal parliamentary procedure—would require a reconception by Kuwait’s rulers of their position in society. While most ministers would probably win most votes of confidence, there would still be a risk that ministers from the ruling family would resist. It is possible that some leading members would be voted out, and it is not inconceivable that one day a defense minister or even a prime minister could be effectively ousted, transforming their positions from overseers of the political process to participants in it.
But a failure to enact any reform will result in one of two default solutions (or non-solutions). The first, and perhaps the more likely one over the short term, is muddling through. Periodic elections, a game of musical chairs for cabinet positions, and the theater of continual grillings now dismay Kuwaitis as much as they excite them, but they may be able to continue indefinitely in a country where security is provided by an American umbrella and a handsome standard of living sustained by oil revenues.
But a second, much-discussed default option is an unconstitutional dissolution of parliament. If the gridlock continues and the underlying causes are not addressed, such a path becomes more likely. Yet it offers no solution. If attempted for a short period, it would probably simply see the reemergence of old patterns once the constitution was restored. The constant threat of dissolution has hardly led to chastened parliamentarians, nor is there any reason to believe that acting on the threat would have more effect. The past two suspensions were hardly followed by docile parliaments. Nor would the suspension of parliament provide a more auspicious set of circumstances for fundamental constitutional reform than those existing at present—as mentioned above, the two previous suspensions led only to failed attempts to revise the constitution. A longer suspension would, of course, provide a longer respite from a pesky parliament, but it would also eventually lead to the same kind of exclusionary politics, melding of ruling family property with the public purse, and generally unaccountable and opaque political systems that exist in many of Kuwait’s neighbors. Paralysis might be remembered fondly in such circumstances.
Is There a Place for the United States?
Kuwaiti democracy owes a strong debt to the strong support of President Bush—ironically, however, it was George H. W. Bush, not his son, who bears responsibility for undergirding Kuwait’s democratic institutions. The elder Bush tied the restoration of Kuwait following the Iraqi occupation to the restoration of its constitution and parliament. In 1991, Kuwaiti leaders were made to understand that the U.S. security guarantee depended on their acquiescence to a political system that allowed for popular participation.[6]
Kuwaiti democracy owes a strong debt to the strong support of President Bush

Ironically, the younger President Bush, far more identified with expansive rhetoric about democracy and freedom, undermined U.S. support for Kuwaiti democracy. The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq depended heavily on Kuwaiti cooperation, and U.S. interest in domestic Kuwaiti political affairs quickly atrophied.

But the United States still remains the pillar of Kuwaiti security policy and there are limited but definite signs that over the past year the United States has revived the elder Bush’s policy. The current ambassador to Kuwait, for instance, publicly stated that “our hope is that Kuwait finds ways within its constitution to move forward,”[7] acknowledging the gridlock but also suggesting that an unconstitutional suspension of parliament would not be greeted warmly by the United States.

The United States need not involve itself in any of the details of Kuwaiti constitutional engineering. But if the revival of a general U.S. interest in the domestic scene is sustained, the results could be quite salutary for the cause of political reform in Kuwait. By politely discouraging the default option of an unconstitutional dissolution of parliament, the United States can encourage Kuwaiti political forces to bargain out real reform and discourage the ruling family from imposing an illusory or short-term solution. As opposed to most other states in the region, basic democratic structures and practices exist; they only need some tinkering and some protection.

The United States can play such a role, but should it want to? What are the benefits? Here we must come to terms with the legacy of the younger Bush. By speaking so boldly of the “freedom agenda” but delivering only a host of regional challenges, the recent Bush administration paradoxically created two problems simultaneously: it raised expectations far too high but it also discredited any effort to promote political reform. Kuwait provides an opportunity for the United States to correct itself. A modest but real commitment to reform would have modest but real payoff in two ways.

First, Kuwait provides an opportunity to the United States to engage directly and at low cost with the political forces that so trouble it elsewhere in the region. Such contacts have occurred in the past in Kuwait and have picked up over the past year after a prolonged lull; they should be sustained. On the Islamic spectrum in particular, Salafi movements, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Shi’i movements of various stripes are all active in Kuwait, but none question the country’s relationship with the United States. Liberals and nationalists would find no purchase if they positioned themselves in opposition to the United States, even if they wished to do so (and they do not). The United States cannot resolve its relationship with political Islam or with the various legacies of Arab nationalism by its actions in Kuwait; that would be promising far too much. But it can train a cadre of diplomats and analysts to engage such forces and foster in them far more than book knowledge of the political forces confronting the United States elsewhere. When the U.S. ambassador to Egypt invited a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian to join a dinner, an intensive transatlantic political debate followed. When the U.S. ambassador or embassy personnel pay a call on Kuwaiti Salafis, it barely even provides grist for a day of local gossip.

Second, a successful attempt to sustain the Kuwaiti democratic experiment would have mildly positive regional effects for the cause of political reform. In earlier decades, Kuwait served as a positive model for some Gulf states. The Bahraini constitution of 1973, for example, was modeled on the Kuwaiti document. Kuwait no longer seems like such a positive model―in fact, the political stalemate in the country now serves as a negative model. A revival of Kuwaiti democracy will not lead to a “Gulf spring” much less an Arab one. But it will prevent elections and parliaments from becoming symbols of stagnation and paralysis.

1I am grateful to Mary Ann Tétreault for introducing the “frontier” analogy.
2See Michael Herb, “A Nation of Bureaucrats: Political Participation and Economic Diversification in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, forthcoming, 2009.
3 I have written of the Kuwaiti Islamist movement elsewhere in “Pushing toward Party Politics: Kuwait’s Islamic Constitutional Movement,” Carnegie Paper no. 79, January 2007, and “Kuwait’s 2008 Parliamentary Elections: A Setback for Democratic Islamism?” Carnegie Web Commentary, May 2008.
4The drafting history of the Kuwaiti constitution is largely guesswork. While the committee kept minutes of its deliberations, they were difficult to obtain for many years. Now they have been published, but a surviving member confesses that most of the important discussions took place outside of the formal sessions. In an interview I conducted in 1995 with Kamal Abu al-Magd (an Egyptian who served as a dean of Kuwait University’s law school and was earlier a student of the legal advisor for the drafting committee), he explained that his mentor wished to draft a constitution that a society he regarded as primitive could grow into. 
5For an analysis suggesting just such a step, see F. Gregory Gause, “Question Time,” National, June 18, 2009,
6 Interview with Edward Gnehm, former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, Washington, May 2009.
7Ambassador Deborah Jones, roundtable with Kuwaiti press, April 15, 2009, 

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