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Rich young Kuwaitis challenge old guard government

A group of opposition demonstrators walk toward a meeting point in Mishref in Kuwait on Nov. 4, 2012. Thousands of protestors marched on the 6th Ring Road Highway protesting a decree by the emir that amends the election law. (Gustavo Ferrari/AP)

When the time came, the 30-year-old Kuwaiti did what activists across the Middle East have learned to do throughout the Arab Spring. He grabbed a mobile Internet router and a camera and set off to document the latest anti-government demonstrations.

But this protester, named Aziz, did it in style — in a way that was very Kuwaiti. He set off for the action last week dressed in an Abercrombie & Fitch tracksuit and driving a blue Chevrolet sport utility vehicle.

Aziz, who works for his family’s industrial business, is part of a discreet but growing army of rich young Kuwaitis who, while they profess not to be seeking outright revolution, are pressing for better management and greater accountability from their rulers.

These well-off dissenters are challenging the fundamental social contract under which the Gulf’s autocratic monarchies offer some of the world’s most generous welfare systems in exchange for political apathy and unquestioning allegiance.

“Do you think that pets like to live the way they’re living?” Aziz asked. “We are not after the food or the money — we are after freedom.”

Kuwait’s long-bubbling political crisis led last week to what activists said was the biggest street demonstration in the country’s history, on the eve of parliamentary elections that were boycotted by the opposition after the emir changed the electoral law.

Turnout in the elections fell below 50 percent for the first time in the parliament’s half-century existence, as opponents attacked the government over alleged corruption, the ban on political parties and the monarch’s power to appoint the prime minister regardless of the election result.

Younger Kuwaitis are to be the main driving force behind a diverse opposition coalition that also includes tribal leaders, liberals and Islamists — from both the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafi movement.

In Kuwait City’s Laduree cafe, Khaled al-Fadhala, a Kuwaiti youth activist, said: “The youth want change. Whoever will bring that change, the youth want. I don’t care if they’re Islamists, Muslim Brotherhood, Shitte . . . as long as they win in a democratic election.”

Fadhala, who studied in Denver, is one of a large number of Kuwaitis educated overseas on government scholarships. Some have returned with political ideas that have put them at odds with the authorities, who — in a move many Kuwaitis found shocking — used teargas and sound bombs to disperse a mass protest in October.

“We saw what real democracy was like,” Fadhala said.

The authorities have introduced limited social change. They allowed women to vote in 2006, and Kuwaiti society is widely acknowledged to have more space for public debate than exists in any neighboring country.

Even many in the youth movement would agree with Sheikh Mohammad Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, a former foreign minister, who says the ruling family is generally viewed as an “honest broker.”

But many observers doubt whether Kuwait and other Gulf states are prepared to change by as much as is sought by the army of wealthy activists and other opposition figures.

And while many young Kuwaitis appear financially pampered, plenty are quick to point out that the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion was a feature of their childhoods.

As the excitement of the latest protest waned, Aziz said: “Sometimes I do feel it’s dangerous; sometimes I don’t give a damn. Most of us [have made] one or two sacrifices for the country, and we don’t mind paying the price.”

— Financial Times



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