An estimated 20,000 protesters took to the streets in Kuwait City last Wednesday, following a decision that deemed the opposition-dominated parliament illegal. The ruling Al-Sabah family has presided over Kuwait for the past 300 years, but they have come into recent conflict with the mainly Islamist opposition, who are calling for political reforms and a full parliamentary government. After forcefully quieting uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen, four ousted leaders, ongoing tensions and transitions in North Africa, and an official ‘state of war’ occurring in Levant, are the monarchies of the Persian Gulf region prepared to face the aftermath of the Arab uprisings? Kuwait is further evidence that although these movements vary based on their domestic environments, the people are becoming influential political actors in their societies, beginning to want democratic mechanisms in their governments, and Islamist groups which were once considered the opposition are not anymore.
The political crisis is not anything the Kuwaitis have not seen before.They have been through eight governments, and four dissolved parliaments in the past six years. Kuwait is wealthy, and a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, but it faces criticism of corruption in its limited democracy like many of its neighbors have in the region. Its political system allows for relative freedom, they are a conservative society, but it does not restrict general personal freedoms, as compared to neighboring Saudi Arabia. There are often discrepancies between the elected MPs and those who are appointed by the Prime Minister. The Emir has final oversight, and political parties are against the law.
Protests around the region have certainly played a role in increasing existing tensions in other countries, but the most important element of these uprisings are that people have realized they can organize and mobilize in order to enforce change and gain voice in their powerful societies. Moreover, the region is witnessing a trend of new and reformed actors emerging along with new demands. People are pressing for political change, and Islamist groups have gained intense popularity. There is a fear of the ‘secular elites’ losing power in the region, arguably more so in the Arab countries themselves than in Western countries, because of the deep divisions between secular and Islamist groups. But change is inevitably occurring, and Islamist parties are now becoming increasingly organized and participating parts of government. They are moving away from broader religious reforms, and embracing nationalistic and domestic agendas, with clearer concepts in their economic and political platforms.
The Gulf has surprisingly been able to impede repercussions of the termed Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council are determined to enforce stability in the Gulf, but they will have to come to the realization of the changes occurring and adapt their institutions, if they want to maintain a lead role in the emerging regional order, and not be seen as weak to their adversaries. The developments occurring in the region will take much more time. The democratic mechanisms occurring are a big shift, but a historic opportunity that will continue to cause tensions no matter how smooth the process. The world needs to be prepared, as more dramatic changes in alliances could occur, and as the Middle East will continue to be extremely unstable and unpredictable. But then again, has it really ever been any different?