Common ground

There are parallels between the political crises enveloping Kuwait and Jordan. But can their respective leaderships show each other a way out? Published in The Gulf, December 2012

Picture the scene. Demonstrations are growing in size on the streets of the capital as people press the case for greater reforms. The ruler, keen to bolster his position, is urging the public to channel their political energy through the ballot box at forthcoming elections. But the calls are falling on deaf ears and, as the protesters gain in self-confidence, they start to break the historic taboo of publicly criticising the monarch.

It could be Kuwait, but it could just as easily be Jordan. The two countries are facing strikingly similar issues. Their economies are going nowhere and there is growing distrust between a ruling class and the wider public, which has lead both to a political crisis. What happens next could set a new model for democratic accountability in the region, or a new standard for repression.

“Everything is unpredictable these days. We really are in uncharted territory,” says one Kuwait analyst whose comments could equally be applied to Jordan.

The authorities in the two countries seem to have some sympathy for the other’s plight and have been drawing closer together. On 4 November, Kuwaiti foreign minister Shaikh Sabah Khalid al Hamad al Sabah signed eight co-operation agreements with his Jordanian counterpart Nasser Judeh in areas ranging from education to culture to security.

The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) has also promised Jordan $5 billion in grants over the next five years to help it overcome a budget shortfall. Rumours surfaced in early November that the quid pro quo would be for Jordan to send 16,000 police to help suppress demonstrations in Kuwait, although that was swiftly denied by both sides.

Such a crackdown would go against the recent traditions in both countries. Jordan and Kuwait have a freer political culture than many parts of the region, although some issues such as criticising the ruling families have always been off-limits. These days, however, the ability of King Abdullah of Jordan or the Emir of Kuwait, Shaikh Sabah al Ahmad al Sabah, to set the boundaries of debate is being severely tested.

Opposition groups in both countries have coalesced around recent changes to the voting system which, they say, will artificially bolster the position of the regime. As a result, there are boycotts in place for the elections to Kuwait’s National Assembly on 1 December and Jordan’s House of Representatives on 23 January. Instead of campaigning for votes, the opposition are subverting the electoral process with a show of force and taking to the streets in their tens of thousands.

“A lot more should be done in order to bring about a more democratic constitution and define a better relationship between different authorities in our country,” says Oraib al Rantawi, director of the Al Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman. “The small steps [taken so far] don’t match the spirit of the Arab Spring. They don’t meet the demands of public opinion, of the streets, of the reformers.”

The situation has intensified in both countries with public criticism of the regime and ruler, something that until now was a ‘red line’ which people did not dare to cross.

King Abdullah explicitly took on those calling for the fall of the regime in Jordan during a speech to a group of 3,000 dignitaries in Amman in late October.

“Let us speak frankly today about some slogans raised by a limited number of protesters: ‘overthrow the regime’,” he said, before seeking to define the regime in a way which might undermine the protesters. “The regime is the state in all its institutions and agencies... all segments and components of our Jordanian society... Every individual in this society is part of the regime.”

In Kuwait, meanwhile, opposition politicians have also been getting more vocal. On 15 October Musallam al Barrak told a group of supporters that “We will not let you, your highness, rule this country on your own.” The phrase “we will not let you” has since taken on a life of its own. Four days later, the Emir went on television to warn against “threats of chaotic sedition”.

However, for all the similarities there are differences too, in particular in terms of the economic problems the two countries face.

Kuwait’s vast oil wealth means that it does not lack for income, even though it may be languishing behind other, more vibrant Gulf countries. The repeated stand-offs between elected parliaments and appointed governments has led to inertia, with spending plans left on the drawing board. Even so, Tom Byrne, a senior vice-president at Moody’s Investors Service says “the long-running clashes in parliament have not adversely affected the Kuwaiti government’s large budget surplus, robust net financial asset position, nor its willingness to service its outstanding debt.”

In Jordan, the situation is far worse. The country has little in the way of domestic resources and its economy has been hammered by the repeated sabotaging of the pipeline from Egypt which provides cheap gas. In place of that, it has been forced to buy expensive fuel on the open market. Aid from GCC countries has helped bridge the budgetary gap, but unemployment remains high and there is widespread anger at corruption. The country is also being hit with the cost of accommodating hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the violence in Syria.

“People will tolerate many things if there is some progress in dealing with issues like unemployment and corruption, but if they feel nothing is changing and their economic situation is getting worse they will shift,” says al Rantawi.

Al Rantawi is pessimistic about the chances for political progress in Jordan in the near term. Equally, in Kuwait the prospects for a quick resolution of the crisis look dim.

“Nothing about the Emir’s record shows he will compromise. He is very autocratic by nature,” says the Kuwait analyst. “All scenarios are open. If the al Sabah family feels power slipping away as the rallies keep getting bigger they’ll either have to crack down hard or let go. Letting go is simply not an option for them, but it is difficult to see them getting away with cracking down hard. Bahrain-style repression is simply not possible in Kuwait. In Bahrain you have a long history of it; it’s almost par for the course. In Kuwait it would be a shocking new development. It would be transformative.”

Neither regime appears to be in immediate danger of falling, but these days Middle East rulers would be foolish to suppose their position is unshakeable. If either Jordan or Kuwait can find a way out of its crisis, however, it may at least offer a useful model for the other to follow.