The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kuwait’s royals are taking their feuds public

Kuwaiti Minister for Cabinet Affairs Sheikh Mohammad al-Abdullah al-Sabah (L) and Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah (R) attend a parliamentary grilling session against the latter, on April 29,2014 in Kuwait City. Three opposition MPs sought to question Kuwait’s prime minister, accusing him of giving cash handouts to lawmakers and mismanagement in sovereign wealth fund investments. (Yassert Al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images)
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The past few weeks have seen the small oil-exporting emirate of Kuwait absorbed in a court case over a videotape(s) which is alleged to show prominent politicians, including a member of the al-Sabah ruling family, plotting against the current government. Kuwaiti citizens have been forbidden to discuss the issue by a gag order from the public prosecutor backed up by a rare statement from the Royal Court and Ministry of Interior promising prosecution of any media outlets commenting on the case. Two newspapers and affiliated television channels have been ordered to shut down for two weeks for doing so.

While it is impossible to determine the veracity of any “scandal” surrounding the recordings, what is clear is the open discord within the ranks of the al-Sabah ruling family. While rare, this public breech in royal unity is becoming more common. In 2011 factional fighting overtook Kuwait’s elected National Assembly as feuding royals leveraged parliamentary clients to undermine the ministerial power and influence of their rivals. In June of that year Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmed al-Fahad was forced to resign after government officials and parliamentary supporters of al-Fahad’s royal counterpart, then Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed, withdrew their backing before a vote of no confidence. In response to this unprecedented action the Kuwaiti paper al-Qabas published a front page op-ed, “Enough Fighting among Sons of the Ruling Family,” reminding the al-Sabah of the dangers of using parliament as an arena for its power struggles.

These very public disputes offer a window into contemporary dynamics emerging in the Arab Gulf that might challenge theories of family monarchies. Power struggles are to be expected within ruling families, especially in the Gulf monarchies where – with the notable exception of Bahrain – succession is determined not by primogeniture but by royal consensus. Leading scholars have viewed this indeterminacy as a beneficial and even essential element of dynastic monarchy. In his landmark work, “All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies,” Michael Herb observed that royal competition for power forced aspirants to assemble the familial coalitions that captured the sovereign ministries, and that preserve royal hegemony over state institutions today.  While recognizing royal factionalism as a potential danger to monarchies, Herb argues that its persistence is discouraged by strong incentives for royals to bandwagon in support of the strongest candidate, and by the existence of “consolation prizes” such as state offices doled out to losing clients.

Yet today’s political environment offers some new elements – on full view in Kuwait – that warrant revisiting this argument for the durability of dynastic monarchies, and the state stability they underpin. The current period of generational transition is a particularly fraught moment for Gulf ruling families. In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, ruling lines have tended to move laterally through the brothers and (in Kuwait) cousins of previous rulers. The last succession in Kuwait consolidated power in one wing of the ruling family, shifting the competition for leadership to the next generation of princes. In Saudi Arabia, the generational change may effectively define a new ruling line and mean the culling of other branches from power. The stakes of the current leadership contest are very high.

Ruling families depend on discretion and secrecy to resolve their inevitable leadership disputes. But keeping negotiations within the family is much more difficult today. The transformation of the information environment, as first satellite television and now internet-based social media platforms have become an integral part of Gulf public life, has amplified the potential for opportunistic leaks.

In Kuwait the existence of a controversial recording in the hands of al-Fahad was communicated through an anonymous post on Twitter. Interest was revived when former Speaker of Parliament Jassem al-Khorafi forced an investigation by taking the matter to court. A gag order from the public prosecutor and warning from the Royal Court dampened public chatter about the case on social media, but did nothing to prevent competing public statements by ruling family members and allied government officials who testified in court and briefed Kuwait’s spirited parliament. The political spin was echoed in Kuwait’s complex media environment, which includes multimedia platforms held by the political opposition and even by competing factions of the ruling family itself.

The proliferation of independent media in Kuwait is reflective of a third change: The empowerment of Gulf publics. The expansion of public education, the new media environment and an active civil society have created an engaged public in Kuwait, who know more and demand more from their public officials. There is an understanding that royal disputes do threaten the effectiveness and even stability of the state. And while many continue to show the traditional deference to the ruling family in resolving their own issues, some now argue for a constitutional order that would insulate the business of everyday rule from these high tribal politics.

The tape controversy in Kuwait has coincided with the release of a new National Political Reform Project by the Kuwaiti opposition. This coalition of tribal populists, political Islamists, leftist nationalist, unions and youth movements published an extensive program of reforms based on the principle of popular sovereignty and including legal and constitutional amendments to make Kuwait a “full parliamentary democracy.” This entails measures to disentangle Kuwait’s legislature from the ruling family-led executive: By allowing the formation of the government and the direction of its program to be set by the list winning parliamentary elections.

These sweeping formal demands mark a milestone in Kuwait which, if enacted, would significantly curtail the dominion of ruling families over Gulf politics. While the opposition – with conservative tribesmen and Sunni Islamists in the forefront – has thus far failed to win sufficient cross-sectarian balance and urban penetration, the support for substantial change is gaining ground.

Since the last succession in 2006 Kuwait has experienced constant instability in its formal politics with six parliamentary elections taking place in the eight years the current Emir Sabah al-Ahmed has reigned. The friction between the elected parliament and ruling family-led executive has taken a toll on Kuwait’s economic development, public services and infrastructure, which noticeably lag those of its neighbors despite Kuwait’s bountiful oil wealth. The fact that the cabinet has failed to effectively utilize the current pro-government parliament – elected under new rules set by the emir and with an opposition boycott – has put the focus back on executive dysfunction and the ruling family’s manipulation of the assembly.

This week, five members or 10 percent of the parliament resigned when their request to interpolate the prime minister was rejected. Whether this latest parliamentary protest is the result of executive infringement on the parliament’s constitutional duty of oversight, or, as the speaker has implied, a conspiracy to force the parliament’s dissolution orchestrated by a disaffected royal, the outcome is the same: More popular disillusionment with Kuwait’s current system.

While the success of the movement for popular sovereignty in Kuwait is far from assured, change is coming. Western governments accustomed to dealing with royal courts will more frequently find themselves sorting out the competing ambitions of ruling factions – along with the expectations of the more connected, more aspirational publics they govern.

Kristin Smith Diwan is an assistant professor of comparative and regional studies at the American University School of International Service.