For many years Kuwait has successfully wrestled with the demands of implementing a transparent, participatory and accountable political system. This process – balanced against the need to ensure stability in a society with strong traditional affiliations, and the responsibility of stewardship over a wealth of natural resources – can be contentious and is often laborious, but the country is well ahead of almost all states in the region in terms of the democratic process and political participation. Kuwait is an undoubted leader in terms of Arab democracy. The waves of unrest and protest sweeping the region, dubbed the Arab Spring by the Western media, have only served to highlight that many of the rights that young people have been calling for on the streets of other capitals have long been established in Kuwait. Yet, as with all emerging democracies, the process is ongoing. Most in the country would agree there is still much to do. Indeed, Kuwait has been grappling with significant political roadblocks, such as allegations of corruption, the rights of the stateless Bidoon, and the impasse between the generally pro-business liberal urban elite and the tribal majority, which has often brought the parliament, and with it economic expansion, to a grinding halt. The regional instability seen in the early part of 2011 has brought these challenges into sharp focus. Kuwaitis have been challenging their government, at the level of policy, for many years and will continue to do so. Therefore, while protests have been staged throughout 2011, the rhetoric has been less bilious than in much of the Middle East.

HISTORY: Kuwait has a fairly long history when it comes to democracy. The country was the first in the Gulf region to enshrine its governing principles in a constitution, a seminal event that took place in 1962, a year after the emirate had gained independence from Britain. In 1963 the country established its first elected parliament. This institution, which will soon celebrate half a century of activity, has long stood as a sign of Kuwait’s political maturity, and an act of precocity in a region accustomed to governance by handpicked councils.

AT THE VANGUARD: This legacy has been proudly upheld, as the country continues to be at the vanguard of political reform in a conservative neighbourhood. For example, in May 2005 the parliament passed a law giving women the right to vote and run in elections for the national assembly. Alanoud Al Sharekh, the corresponding senior fellow for regional politics at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told OBG that the majority of the population did not want female suffrage at the time, deeming it unnecessary. Indeed it would not be until May 2009 that the first women were elected to parliament, the third race in which female candidates were on the ballot. It is clear, then, that the Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, the government and the parliament led the way in broadening political rights in the country by granting these rights.

While external pressure was brought to bear by the Emir to push through this law in 2005, the move was not a simple response to international pressure generally, and from the US specifically. Kuwait had for a number of years been endowing women with significant roles. The country appointed a woman, Nabila Al Mulla, to the role of UN Ambassador in 2003, two years before female suffrage, and Kuwaiti women have held ambassadorial positions, rectoral titles, and chairmanships and executive roles in the private sector for many years. The election of four women to parliament in 2009 suggests the electorate is beginning to accept these changes, although none of the female representatives were returned to their seats in the 2012 election.

DIVIDING ISSUES: Despite the progress in the political and business spheres, Kuwait is still divided on the issue of gender segregation in universities, with the government beginning to enforce more rigorously a 1998 ruling that mandates segregation of classrooms by gender. According to Nizar Hamzeh, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the American University of Kuwait, “Previously it was acceptable for universities to use wooden or glass mid-level separators to segregate classes and that was neither a concern for our course offering nor our faculty resources. Currently, we have to segregate by class, so the same course has to be schedule twice with one section for male and another one for female students. This model has limited our course offerings, drained faculty resources and, on top of it all, delayed student graduation.”

LIVELY DEBATE: These contradictions and conflicts, which have fostered an embattled political culture, run across a number of issues. Sheikh Sabah, who ascended the throne in 2006 as the 15th ruler of the Sabah dynasty, has often tried to cajole the parliament and navigate these tricky political waters, using his powers to dissolve parliament and appoint a prime minister, who can form an unelected cabinet, to head off political crises. While this has led to a number of showdowns between the government and the parliament, with four dissolutions of parliament since 2006, compared to three in the previous 45 years, it also illustrates a dynamic and energised body politic. Indeed, Kuwait’s national assembly is certainly not toothless: the body has bite, using its right under the constitution to question the prime minister and call for votes of no confidence, as well as to write and approve laws.

These dynamics have engendered a politically engaged public. In the 2009 elections, for example, voter turnout stood at around 60%, above the US average for the past 20 years and within the range of Western European norms. Early indications showed a similar percentage for the 2012 elections. Such engagement, coupled with peaceful protest, is one of the hallmarks of a flourishing democracy. However, the parliament’s emergence as a robust mechanism and balance against executive power has also created a strained political atmosphere and frequent legislative inertia in the country.

With parallels with the US Congress, the Kuwaiti national assembly has reached deadlock on a number of issues, and little meaningful policy has been able to pass into law over the past half decade. One of the consequences of this has been a semi-closed economy and stunted economic growth. John Sfakianakis, the chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi in Riyadh, highlighted this when he told Reuters in June 2011 that, “Kuwait’s foreign direct investment inflows over the last decade were around $800m, compared to Bahrain’s more than $10bn, the UAE’s $73bn and Saudi Arabia’s $130bn.”

WINDS OF CHANGE: As with the US, this polarised atmosphere has largely emerged as the result of an increasingly energised conservative base threatened by what it sees as a significant departure in policy by a predominantly urban and liberal elite. While this characterisation is a simplification, it does capture a broad trend that has emerged in the last decade as the demographics and the political, social and cultural conditions of the country have changed.

The more populous tribal areas have shifted to become the heart of opposition in Kuwait. These constituents were once courted by the ruler as a bulwark against the currents of Arab nationalism circulating in urban areas. Indeed, many people from rural districts were only naturalised as Kuwaitis after independence. However, in more recent years, as this population has continued to grow and levels of education have increased, it has begun to turn away from the government.

Much of this opposition centres on the desire to retain this government patronage in the form of welfare packages and public sector jobs, benefits seen to be put at risk by the government’s economic development plans. Highlighting this point, and the power of the tribal elements in the assembly, Al Sharekh told OBG, “Parliament is essentially a union for government employees.”

Debates about how best to use the state’s vast natural resources, about transparency and corruption in government contracts, and about the extent to which the market should be involved in the provision of social services have all been conducted with rigour and passion.

PERIOD OF DEVELOPMENT: While some parliamentary discussions, such as the 2009 debate calling for the state to bail out all consumer debt and credit card loans, have led to derision in some circles, the country is transitioning through an important period of development, where ideological differences have become pronounced and political debate has sharpened. Since the US invasion of Iraq, and the latest oil windfall, Kuwait’s merchant class may have seen a significant opportunity to push through reforms in line with recommendations from international bodies such as the World Bank, and mirroring the diversification policies of other Gulf states such as the UAE and Qatar. At the same time, many Kuwaitis are keen to protect the tradition of social welfare and the national stewardship of resources.

PROJECT KUWAIT: One issue that has straddled this ideological fault line for many years is Project Kuwait. First formulated in 1997, Project Kuwait is a plan to enhance oil production in the country’s difficult northern oil fields through the involvement of international oil companies. The $9bn plan has polarised public and parliamentary opinion.

The government has said that the project is essential for the efficient management and production of the emirate’s oil reserves, while opposition parliamentarians have questioned the involvement of foreign oil companies. Some MPs have queried whether the proposal goes against the constitution, and have argued that all production should be carried out by the national oil firm, Kuwait Petroleum Company (KPC). For over a decade the issue has stood as a symbol of the country’s fractured political system, taking in as it does issues of national resource management, foreign investment, private sector participation and transparency.

Yet Project Kuwait does not tell the whole story, and examples exist of progress on government programmes. For instance, in February 2010, despite ongoing parliamentary concerns over Project Kuwait, the government was able to sign a five-year enhanced technical services agreement with Royal Dutch Shell for work in the northern gas fields. In the same month, the parliament passed a $108bn five-year development plan, the first such multi-year strategy to pass the assembly in more than two decades. These moves, coming in such close proximity to each other, have brought a cautious optimism that the parliament and the government can work together on a number of key strategic issues.

POLITICKING: Furthermore, this portrait of duelling ideologies and stalled governance does not fully capture the intricacies of daily politicking in Kuwait. The broad distinction between an urban elite and the rural tribes captures the large tectonic plates that rub against each other, but within these plates, there are fractures and rivets. Kuwait’s political system does not allow for formal political parties, so candidates either run as independents or as affiliates to loose coalitions or blocs, which ebb and flow depending on the issue. It can, therefore, be difficult to pigeonhole individual parliamentarians or talk about any ideological consensus.

The most formalised bloc in the parliament is probably the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Islamic Constitutional Movement. Other blocs include liberal groups the Popular Bloc and the Democratic Forum, Sunni groups such as the Islamist Salafist Movement and the Islamist Ummah Movement, and the Shia group, the National Islamic Coalition. There is often coordination and consensus across groups on certain issues, but rarely for very long.

PROTESTS: This intricate mosaic is often cited as a leading reason for the political inertia and infighting, which has stalled a number of bills and brought down several governments. The protests that emerged in 2011 have not simply focused on the government and the prime minister, but also the perceived shortcomings in the political system as a whole. For example, in March 2011 Hamad Al Judai, a protester in Kuwait City, told Bloomberg, “We are here to push for change. We want a complete parliamentary system. We want organised political parties. That’s the only way forward.” This view has also been supported to some degree in parliament itself, with plans to debate proposed laws regarding the formation of political parties.

Indeed, the nature of opposition to the government has begun to change. The parliament elected in May 2009 was the most pro-government in 20 years, yet in December 2010 this same parliament came within a handful of votes (22-25) of passing a vote of no confidence against the prime minister. This shift was the result of an attempt to undermine the opposition by then prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al Ahmad Al Sabah. First, the prime minister and his cabinet tried to remove the parliamentary immunity of several opposition MPs, including Dulaihi Saad Al Hajri. Second, the arrest and prosecution of Mohammad Abdulqader Al Jasem, a respected and well-known journalist who had been critical of the prime minister and the government, was seen as a blunt move to silence the opposition. Many urban parliamentarians who usually took a pro-government stance joined with the tribal and Islamist opposition in a broad coalition to defend the constitution and the political system.

EARLY ELECTIONS: Fuelled by allegations of corruption, anti-government protests continued in the second half of 2011. In November 2011, after a rally that saw protesters storm parliament, the National Assembly was dissolved, two years into its four-year term. The cabinet resigned and early parliamentary elections were called by the Emir for 2 February 2012.

To ensure free and fair electoral process international monitors supervised the election and the count of votes was televised to ensure it was transparent. In the ballot just 22 incumbents in the 50-member National Assembly were re-elected, with the four female lawmakers losing the seats they had won in 2009. With 28 new MPs, the number of opposition MPs increased to a total of 34.

After the elections the Emir asked the outgoing prime minister, Sheikh Jaber Al Mubarak Al Sabah, appointed in December 2011 after the resignation of the previous cabinet, to form a new cabinet. Political tension has diminished since Sheikh Jaber formed his first cabinet in 2011 and pushed for an increase in the federal budget from $71bn to $79bn.

SHOW OF STRENGTH: These developments have shown the strength of Kuwait’s parliamentary democracy. The notion of a parliament banding together across the ideological divide to question the actions of a prime minister would be unheard of throughout much of the region and beyond. Therefore, while talk of crisis is not wholly misplaced, it also fails to capture the efficacy of this robust political system that has developed in the emirate.

Another issue that illustrates this point is the position of the Bidoon, or stateless people, within Kuwaiti society. It has been a divisive issue for years, as this community, many of whom fought in the army during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, have been looking to gain the benefits related to citizenship, including education, health care, employment and housing. There are 120,000 Bidoons in the country. False claims by immigrants from neighbouring countries to be non-registered Kuwaitis have been damaging in this regard, and in the current regional atmosphere of upheaval, the Bidoon have become more vocal in their demands and protests have occurred. The country has largely tried to deal with this in the framework of the formal political structures. For example, in February 2011 several parliamentarians called for discussions over a draft law to grant basic civil rights to this group. This move has eased the situation and once again reiterated the agency of the parliament and the democratic underpinnings of the state.

OUTLOOK: Kuwait is many years ahead of the majority of its neighbours and counterparts in the region in terms of participation and parliamentary empowerment. This is not to suggest that the system cannot be refined further. Many Kuwaitis are all too aware of the shortcomings of the country’s political environment. The political system in Kuwait, and the way in which parliamentarians practise within it, have often been charged with slowing growth and development, promoting inertia rather than action. These complaints, however, are largely the manifestation of participants wanting to perfect a system that, while still a work in progress, allows for dissent and agency, qualities that promote progress. The parliament may be divided but it unites often enough, not only to check executive hubris but also to pass meaningful legislation, such as the five-year development plan, which will carry the country forward.