America’s Liberal Persian Gulf Friend: An Uneasy Kuwait Confronts Domestic Critics and Regional Threats

Kuwait City, Kuwait—Kuwait is a shrimp among whales in the Middle East.  It lies among three much larger states, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, all of which have the potential, noted one American diplomat, of swallowing the small Gulf kingdom.  Indeed, Baghdad attempted to do precisely that in 1990.

Although more than two decades have passed, Kuwaitis remain grateful to the U.S.  They know they would be the 19th province of Iraq absent American military support.  The Sheraton, where I typically stay, includes photos of the damage wreaked by Iraqi invaders. 

Today Iran looms as the larger threat, though Kuwaitis actually are less concerned about nuclear issues.  When your neighbor holds a gun to your head, who cares how big it is, quipped one.  With a heretofore well-integrated minority Shia population, most Kuwaitis actually worry more about the Shia-Sunni battle being fought especially vigorously by Iran and Saudi Arabia.

However, most Kuwaitis appear to back the Obama administration’s diplomatic approach.  They know that military strikes are an alternative to negotiations, and war would be disastrous.  Moreover, Kuwaitis hope future talks ultimately could ease tensions in other areas.  Kuwait’s assent offers an important affirmation of Washington’s strategy.

Regional events, not just Iranian threats but the Arab Spring bust, have helped reduce domestic political tensions.  Kuwait is among the Gulf’s most liberal societies, enjoying a powerful parliament, vigorous media, and independent population.  However, in recent years the political process ran aground, putting both openness and stability at some risk.

In July, Kuwait held the third National Assembly poll in 17 months.  Last year the opposition boycotted the election in protest over changed election rules.  Demonstrations erupted, sparking a sharp government crackdown.  Fractures in what remains a small political community seemed to widen dangerously.

However, the protests have stopped.  Enthusiasm is difficult to sustain, while small political communities possess powerful tools to discourage active opposition.  Moreover, noted one American observer, there appears to be increased fear of jeopardizing “this island of stability.”  There’s a lot to complain about in the current system, but far more could be lost.  Indeed, after Islamists won control of the National Assembly in February 2012, it was the hereditary monarch who blocked proposed legislation to base law on Sharia, bar construction of any new churches, and execute blasphemers. 

Dr. Sami al-Faraj, a well-connected consultant who advises the royal family, among others, believes that creating a vibrant, opportunity-oriented private sector is the key to permanently easing political tensions.  Abundant oil wealth has created a welfare society in which most everyone is dependent on the state, creating what one analyst calls “a transactional state.”  The royal family’s control of so much wealth discourages measures to promote private entrepreneurship and democratic governance.  As a result, al-Faraj says his country is “continually in a crisis management mode.”

The Middle East has dramatically demonstrated how democracy can become a minefield for liberal, tolerant societies.  While Kuwait is not Washington’s most important ally in the region, it is America’s strongest Arab friend.  And probably the Gulf’s most free society.  Kuwaiti success in moving in a direction that is both liberal and democratic would offer an important model for its neighbors.   We should wish the Kuwaitis well.