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In Kuwait, Protests Meet the Water's Edge


By Michael Wilner

In an English class at Kuwait University, I was given the chance to ask local students what it means to be Kuwaiti. After testing the limits of my Arabic skills, I asked the class in English for their impressions of the revolutions rocking the Middle East.

“Forty years of anger!” one student responded.

“We want freedom,” another said.

Kuwait has certainly been quiet relative to its neighbors since Tunisia erupted in January. With no taxes on its citizenry, a 95 percent literacy rate and a parliament with real powers predating any other in the Gulf region, most experts expect that quiet to hold. But Kuwaitis are well aware of the pan-Arab uprisings that surround them, and some believe the small Gulf city-state may be the next stop for major protest.

“The potential for problems are there,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, citing political corruption, the illegal status of the Bedoun and the role of the emir. “The huge challenge for the U.S. is how we should assist the Kuwaitis to head off such a crisis,” Khalilzad added. “Additional reforms may be needed to head this off.”

The emir and his family cannot be publicly criticized, and in early February, one of Kuwait’s largest protests in recent memory erupted over the stateless status of nearly 80,000 residents. Security forces in Jahra quickly descended on the protests, which turned violent within hours.

Corruption is also a central issue challenging Kuwait’s parliamentarians. And while parliament has in some ways liberalized over the years - women have been able to vote and run for election since 2005 - there are no formal political parties representing the sides of debates Kuwaitis want to have publicly.

U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait Deborah Jones disagreed with Ambassador Khalilzad, noting that Kuwait has a “built-in elasticity,” with a free press and freely elected parliament. Jones did, however, concede the country’s need for political reforms.

“I think we’ve seen that they have tried to strike a balance between allowing demonstrations and freedom of speech without allowing violence,” Jones said. “I don’t think we’re headed for crisis. I think, like everywhere, we are in a phase of transition. The difference in sophistication is clear in the fact that their first blogosphere activity, politically, was to reduce the number of voting districts,” Jones added. “I mean, this is a big difference from saying, ‘tear down the government.’”

Kuwait is one of the most important logistical allies for the United States in the Middle East, serving as a stabilizing force next to Iran and Iraq.

“We have a lot at stake there,” Khalilzad noted. “But it also means we have relationships with people. We can influence what happens.”

Michael Wilner is a senior at Claremont McKenna College in California majoring in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He interviewed Ambassador Khalilzad in Claremont and Ambassador Jones in Kuwait, where he was visiting on a university exchange.

(Photo credit: Wilner)