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Tue 11 Oct 2011 11:04 AM

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Kuwait protesters in Porsches shake democracy pioneer

Push for new politics, not more cash, is driving the call for change in Kuwait

Kuwait protesters in Porsches shake democracy pioneer
Kuwait protesters call for the ouster of Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser

Meshal al-Zaidi says he was drawn into Kuwait’s protest
movement by political ideals, not the economic grievances that helped spur revolts
in poorer Arab countries.

“My friend drives a Porsche Cayenne, another a Porsche
Panamera, you’ll see the best cars at Kuwaiti protests,” said al-Zaidi, a
25-year-old who runs a public relations firm and attends rallies seeking the
ouster of Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah. “It’s not about
money, it’s not about oil, it’s about real democracy.”

Demands for a change of government are growing louder in
Kuwait, where per-capita gross domestic product was about $39,000 last year and
the authorities started food and cash handouts in February as Egyptian
protesters were driving Hosni Mubarak from office. That’s a warning signal for
other Gulf rulers who are also betting on accelerated spending to appease calls
for democracy spreading through the Arab world.

Kuwait has gone further down the road toward representative
government than peers in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, while posting
slower economic growth. Its $110bn development plan is lagging as opposition
lawmakers, with more powers to block policy than direct it, charge the
government with corruption. The main stock index has fallen 15 percent in the
past year, double the drop on Bloomberg’s Persian Gulf benchmark.

 “The next several
months or couple of years in all the Gulf monarchies are going to be less
politically stable than at any other point in their history,” said Christopher
Davidson, who specializes in the study of the Gulf at Durham University in the
UK. In Kuwait’s case, “parliamentary activity is far more advanced than the
others, and its ability to hold up economic development is unprecedented in the

Kuwait created the Gulf’s first elected parliament half a
century ago, and expanded the franchise to include women in 2005. It ranked as
the third most democratic Arab state, behind Lebanon and Iraq and above the
other five GCC countries, in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2010 Democracy

Economic growth, though, has been the GCC’s slowest over the
past five years, according to International Monetary Fund data. Gross domestic
product expanded an average of 2.6 percent a year, compared with 4.2 percent in
the United Arab Emirates, 5.7 percent in Bahrain and 18 percent in Qatar.

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Kuwait’s assembly has no say in the formation of the
Cabinet, traditionally headed by a senior member of the ruling Al-Sabah family.
It can demand the right to question ministers, and lawmakers are using that
power to harry Sheikh Nasser, the ruling emir’s nephew.

Demonstrations calling for the premier to quit began in
March, and the biggest on Sept 21 drew several thousand in a country where
Kuwaitis make up only one-third of the 3.6 million population. Opposition
lawmakers such as Musallam al-Barrak and Jamaan al-Harbash regularly speak at
the rallies. Youth groups including al-Zaidi’s ‘September 16’ cite inspiration
from the Arab Spring and demand a constitutional monarchy and elected

“The continuation of Sheikh Nasser’s government is an insult
to the Kuwaiti people,” al-Harbash told a crowd of thousands at a meeting in
front of parliament in Kuwait City late yesterday. The protesters, mostly
wearing traditional Arab robes, formed a circle around a central platform where
fans were placed to cool them down.

Sheikh Nasser has survived three confidence votes in
parliament since his appointment in 2006 and been forced to form seven separate

The opposition is threatening a renewed drive to unseat Sheikh
Nasser after the assembly reconvenes on Oct 25, this time over a corruption
scandal that was a trigger for last month’s protest.

Eleven lawmakers received unexplained payments of KD31m ($112m)
to their bank accounts, al-Barrak said in an Oct 4 phone interview. Al-Barrak
said the country’s two biggest banks, National Bank of Kuwait and Kuwait
Finance House, revealed the transfers, and there may be other “suspicious
accounts” still to be disclosed. National Bank and Kuwait Finance declined to

Sheikh Nasser “will be toppled” if the issue comes to a
parliament vote, al-Barrak said. “This is a matter of dignity for the Kuwaiti

The government has drafted an anti-corruption bill that it
says will be submitted to parliament this week. The measure will “help put an
end to this controversial file and to the accusations” of graft, Oil Minister
Mohammad al-Busairy said this week.

Political ructions are holding back Kuwait’s investment
plans. The Al-Zour refinery, a $14bn project with planned capacity of 615,000
barrels a day, was due to be operating next year. Construction hasn’t started
and Kuwait National Petroleum Co. said last month it’s still awaiting final

Governments across the Gulf are opening purse-strings in
response to public demands for higher living standards spurred by the revolts
in Tunisia and Egypt. Among the six GCC countries only Bahrain, where 35 people
were killed as security forces cracked down on protesters, and Oman experienced

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Saudi Arabia announced $130bn of spending on jobs and homes,
in addition to an existing five-year, $380bn investment plan. The UAE is
spending $1.6bn to improve infrastructure in its poorer northern regions.
Kuwait’s version is a four-year program costing KD30.8bn which started last

There’s no shortage of funds. Kuwait has the world’s sixth-
biggest oil reserves and pumped about 2.6 million barrels a day last month. It
has posted budget surpluses for 12 straight fiscal years, amassing KD38bn in
the past seven. The government in February granted Kuwaitis KD1,000 each, along
with 13 months of free food staples.

The problem is a lack of government leadership that is
hurting the economy’s ability to compete internationally, said Jassim
al-Saadoun, head of Kuwait-based Al-Shall Economic Consultants.

“We have enough funds to finance our own projects, but to
produce what?” he said. “Things are intolerable, change is coming.”

Adding to the turmoil is a wave of strikes, as Kuwaitis in
the private sector demand equality with government employees, while the latter
call for salary increases to match peers in other departments. A threatened
strike in the oil industry, averted when employees’ demands were met, would
have cost the country $320m a day, Oil Minister Mohammad al-Busairy said last

Al-Zaidi, the publicist turned activist, says it’s the
corruption allegations that are fueling the most anger.

“Once upon a time we said, okay, let them steal and let them
build our country,” he said. “Now we say, we’re not going to let them steal and
we are going to build our country.”

And he is working to spread the message: “I tweeted my
friend and asked him not to wear his Prada shoes to protest, but to wear
something practical.”

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall

Joe Karcia 8 years ago

Arabs needs to realise, democracy is never the answer to anything. Look at India, and then look at China. You know why China is far ahead than India now.

Look at Europe and Americas. Democratic economy and what's happened. If you want to protest, do so for a visionary leader. Not for democracy. Its just a fancy word, that's about it.

Ted Danson 8 years ago

Firstly, China is way ahead of India because China has a developed infrastructure and your country doesn't even have a proper sewage system. Democracy is a term that is used loosely in the Arab world and is not the same democracy as most Western countries because you must have sectarian legal system with democracy, like in Turkey. It will not work with a religious based legal system like sharia law. So therefore these countries are grappling with a new form of democracy, but that is not Kuwait's problem. The Kuwaiti youth are disenchanted with their 'visionary leaders' because it has been alleged that some of these 'leaders' have been bribing other officials with outrageous sums of money, money that belongs to the people and not developing the nation like they see in neighboring GCC nations. This is the straw that broke the camel's back in Kuwait. These youth want a government that performs for the people under a true democratic structure with transparency.

Ahmad 8 years ago

Good Article! Any respected 'thinker' will be able to differentiate between 'the process' and 'the result'. Mohammed Al-Bu'zizi and Wael Ghoneim were major instigators of 'the process'; the former starting the Arab Spring in Tunisia and the latter being an active part of the revolution since before it began through online media. Wael moved emotions, and its these emotions that people used to overcome their fear. In this article, the Kuwaitis try to differentiate themselves from Egypt and Tunisia because of their Prada shoes and their Porshe's, but in the end, it is about governments who do not support the people and use tactics, in Kuwait's case it was a 1000KD for every citizen, not round the clock torture chambers as in Egypt, to contain the streets. The youth are fed up, they have been lied to and watch their 'visionary leaders' line their pockets with their countries money with no visable signs of future development.

His Excellency Dr Paul 8 years ago

Joe - China? Have you ever been there? I have. Now imagine what it might have been like if it was democratic. In fact, you don't need to imagine, because a piece of it is. Taiwan. I've been there too. In fact, I used to live there. There is no comparison. Taiwan is richer, cleaner, more developed, more friendly, the food is nicer and... it has been a democracy for a couple of decades.

As for your comments regarding Europe and the US... how many Europeans and US citizens are hiding in the back of trucks to smuggle themselves into China - or anywhere else for that matter?

You have obviously never been to Europe or the US, but they are the pinnacle of civilization and culture, with living standards the rest of the world only dreams of, and where citizens have rights and privileges that most of the world can only dream of. And their wealth comes not because of what is under their country - but what is in it - people, empowered to think freely and generate wealth.

CSS 8 years ago

His Excellancy Dr Paul, I am amazed at your statement,

"Europe & US: they are the pinnacle of civilization and culture, with living standards the rest of the world only dreams of, and ..... rights"

Pinnacles of civilization?? - From the year AD 1 to about 1810, China & India were the biggest and oldest civilizations. Then the Europeans took over by force by plundering and criminal activity & thuggery. To achieve their aims, British and United States merchants brought opium from the British East India Company's factories in India, to the coast of China, where they sold it to Chinese smugglers who distributed the drug in defiance of Chinese laws.

By the 1830's, the English had become the major drug-trafficking criminal organization in the world; very few drug cartels of the twentieth century can even touch the England of the early nineteenth century in sheer size of criminality.

The USA killed the Natives in USA -biggest Genocides, indulgence in slavery - CIVILIZATION ????

Mumeen Chowdhury 8 years ago

Kuwait and its govt cannot really achieve what UAE and Qatar have achieved or are achieving, unless Kuwait also treats its expat population with freedoms of work and entrepreneurship which UAE has long ago granted. If kuwaitiis work competitively with expats and receive comparable salaries, then only can they develop. Developing infrastructures or buildings is also no development if there's no human (resoures) development. People have to learn to be fair to others, to be humble, gentle, have equal playing field, independent and truly neutral and fair judiciary, equality in the eyes of law, etc. to taste development.