Recovering the Politics of Kuwait: From Regional Margins to the Theoretical Mainstream
RoundTable XII-1, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am
This roundtable explores the politics of Kuwait through a provocative entrée. Traditionally, Kuwait has seldom garnered mainstream academic interest; it is either overshadowed by larger MENA states like Egypt, or else framed as a marginal example of broader regional phenomena. For instance, Kuwaiti politics is often portrayed as an outgrowth of oil-rentierism, a type of outmoded monarchism, or an appendage to titanic geopolitical conflicts in the Gulf waged by powers like Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the US. The roundtable, however, adopts a radically different perspective: Kuwait is also a vivid site of domestic political contestation, and the puzzles of its national political life speak directly to the most important theories about power and governance within the social sciences. Studying Kuwaiti politics enables us to observe how governments form, institutions diverge, elections proceed, opposition organizes, citizenship operates, protests erupt, and social forces like women and youth mobilize for change. Kuwait is an autocracy, but its political order ranks as among the least repressive in the MENA – which, in turn, allows the struggles and conflicts of its society play out in public. Yet, the field of Kuwaiti political studies remains small, and the country poorly understood.
Gathering junior and senior specialists, this roundtable elevates research on Kuwait into the disciplinary mainstream. Its participants interrogate three questions. First, why is the study of Kuwaiti politics – from its legislative elections and ideological wranglings to its grassroots activism and Islamist movements – so marginalized in comparative political analysis? Second, which social, economic, and political issues in Kuwait have the most salient theoretical implications for outside scholars, and would make the country more legible outside the well-trodden canons of Gulf strategic studies and the oil-rentier paradigm? Third, how will Kuwaiti politics evolve over the coming decades? The country faces enormous challenges, among them tribal and communal rifts; inequality across class, citizenship, and gender; financial and market dysfunctions; indeterminate elections and electoral rules; and unstable governments that amplify indecisive leadership. How these issues play out will dramatically reshape Kuwait’s state and society.
Moving beyond stale optics that ignore Kuwait’s fascinating politics, the roundtable will answer these questions by linking the accumulated knowledge of Kuwaiti specialists – in particular, political scientists, sociologists, and historians – with broader theoretical frameworks.
Dr. Michael Herb
Dr. Sean Yom
-- Organizer, Presenter, Chair
Dr. Farah Al-Nakib
My framework situates Kuwait as a case of "semi-democracy" in the Arab world. Its hybrid political system fails to qualify for electoral democracy, but which has liberal political attributes. Among them is the capacity of a powerful parliament and well-mobilized, if fractious, opposition forces to constantly undermine the royally appointed government, thereby halting the lawmaking process. While popular commentators constantly deride Kuwait for such political "gridlock," which has become the a predominant trope in how Kuwaiti politics is conveyed by outsiders. Yet I argue that this optic misses the point: other Gulf kingdoms and most other Arab autocracies have no gridlock because they have no viable opposition, or elected institutions, that can independently monitor and check the exercise of executive power. The political history of Kuwait, in fact, is a history of contentious resistance, horizontal accountability, and popular pushback against repression. Thus, if we shift our framing of Kuwait from that of an under-performing authoritarian country to one that is closer to democracy than dictatorship, then new vistas of political analysis open. It means we can begin analyzing under what conditions that the ruling Sabah monarchy might concede its executive supremacy; the factors that shape opposition cohesion or fecklessness; and the power of mass mobilization to shape government outcomes in ways that are unthinkable anywhere else in the Gulf. In sum, by transforming conventional views of Kuwait, we can see new democratic possibilities that underscore the exceptional nature of this country.
Not only has Kuwait’s domestic political contestation and parliamentary affairs been marginalized, but its civil society and grassroots activism have also received little attention from scholars. In this roundtable, I would like to highlight the diwaniyyah culture and women’s rights activism in particular and to situate them in the broader social science literature. How does the diwaniyyah influence politics and society in Kuwait, and how can we link it to the broader theories about social capital? What can we learn from women’s rights activism in Kuwait, and the backlash against these movements, for comparative political analysis?
The oil-rich Arab monarchies of the Gulf typically appear in the comparative politics literature as edge cases that show the impact rentierism (or some other variable) in its most extreme form. Often rents are said to create an overweening state, a weak society, and extreme authoritarianism. Kuwait, however, is not nearly as authoritarian as the literature would lead us to expect: it has a remarkably powerful parliament and a vibrant civil society. Of course, it could be that Kuwait is simply idiosyncratic, with no real lessons for other countries. I do not think this is the case. Instead, I think we can learn a great deal by taking Kuwaiti politics seriously and understanding why it defies the predictions of much of the literature on states and democracy in comparative politics. In my roundtable contribution I will explore how Kuwait's parliament survives despite the strength of Kuwait's oil-funded state. How is the regime constrained? Why does Kuwait continue to have free elections in a regions where free elections are uncommon? What does Kuwait tell us about the relationship between state power and democracy? And, how does Kuwait's example suggest a path forward for the other monarchies of the Gulf?
In her seminal 2009 book Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf, Nelida Fuccaro claims that, “Historians have often been discouraged by the apparent ‘exceptionalism’ of the historical experience of the Gulf coast” (5). This exceptionalism, which permeates not only historical literature on the region but also the social sciences, is associated with the Gulf’s seemingly unique experiences of rapid oil modernization, rentierism, and the role of powerful ruling families in creating grand visions for their states and societies—visions that are given material form in the spectacular and record-setting urban landscapes of cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Riyadh. Though some scholars over the past ten years have taken their cue from Fuccaro and attempted to dispel this myth of Gulf exceptionalism, within the broader field of Middle Eastern studies it is still “acceptable,” as anthropologist Ahmed Kanna puts it, to present the Arab Gulf in sweeping stereotypical terms that are no longer acceptable of other postcolonies (2011: 1). The relative paucity of scholarship on Kuwait compared to that of its regional counterparts arguably has contributed to the false assumption that the Gulf region can only be analyzed on its own terms rather than in relation to broader theoretical frameworks. Though Kuwait was the subject of some of the earliest social science studies of the region (e.g. Mary Tétreault, Jill Crystal, Anh Nga Longva), the sudden and extreme rise of places like Dubai and Doha since the early 2000s captured the imagination of scholars as much as it did that of media pundits and global audiences, who continued to view the Gulf as a region unlike any other and studied it as such. My own research on Kuwait’s oil-driven transformation from a port town to a modern city, however, attempts to dispel the myth that oil made Kuwait’s urbanization unlike that of any other city in the world. Rather, my research emphasizes that Kuwait’s experiences of modernity, though seemingly shaped by the country’s unique experiences of oil rentierism, align closely with those of other postcolonial states in the middle of the twentieth century seeking to maintain political legitimacy and stability, economic autonomy, and social cohesion in the face of rapid upheaval. Studying Kuwait’s modern developments can, therefore, shed light on state-society relations in the Middle East that often ignore the Arab Gulf.