Liberalish Rather than Liberal: A Kuwaiti Grades the Gulf Kingdom

Kuwait City, Kuwait—“I read your blog post,” Dr. Anood Al-Sharikh told me when we met. “Kuwait isn’t really liberal, but more liberalish, don’t you think?”

She’s right, though in the Middle East even liberalish is a major advance over ugly authoritarian systems like the Saudi theocracy. Kuwait hosts many traditionalists and Islamists who live conservatively, but there is space for most everyone. Many women, like Al-Sharikh hold professional jobs, travel the world, and dress fashionably.

Moreover, politics is freer than elsewhere in the Gulf. Kuwait is ruled by an emir who appoints government ministers, but an elected National Assembly can challenge government ministers and force a cabinet’s resignation. On Tuesday I sat through some the “grilling” of the health minister, a liberal royal who I met last year when he was working in the prime minister’s office. Animated legislators vigorously challenged his performance as well as the arguments of their colleagues while pushing a no confidence motion.

Still, the government clearly has the upper hand, aided by problems elsewhere in the Gulf. A year ago, Kuwait was host to multiple demonstrations by an angry opposition which ranged from secular liberal to Islamist. Today “things have calmed down,” noted Waleed Moubarak of Alghanim Industries. That’s positive, in his view, since you “can only sustain so much political drama.”

But more happened than people being worn out. The authorities “sucked the wind out of” the opposition movement, noted Al-Sharikh. The “government struck back effectively” in a notably illiberal fashion, jailing some people and using its various forms of influence. It even pressed Islamist clerics to issue fatwas against the opposition. Moreover, she asked, “how can anyone in Kuwait be against the government,” which offers jobs, provides homes, pays for education, and more.

Internal contradictions hobbled the opposition: by allying with Islamists, the liberals were effectively promoting a political agenda that included imposing dress codes, closing churches, executing blasphemers, and enshrining sharia as the fount of law. Equally important, the collapse of the Arab Spring had a sobering effect. A bank analyst told me “the public was fed up, it saw chaos in Egypt, violence in Syria, and said that is not for us. People decided there was more to lose than to gain if they went down that particular route.”

In fact, Kuwait well demonstrates the tensions between a democratic polity and liberal society. Thus the “liberalish” country’s fascinating paradox: today, at least, Kuwait’s hereditary emir might be more likely than an elected parliament to encourage development of a free society.