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Kuwait’s Democratization and Its Challenges Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 4th, 2020

Historical Background of the Political System of Kuwait

The political system in Kuwait is older than two centuries. In the late 18th century, the Kuwaitis nominated Sabar as their leader (Akerlof and Chaney 372). The family is still controlling the political system in the present Kuwait. However, the powers of the Sabar family remained limited until the middle of the twentieth century. Better system was then introduced in the late 20th century with a political structure taking the form of an overall Shaikh (Alnajjar 247).

Despite the influence of external forces in this new arrangement, there was an established structure to act as controls against abuse of power. For instance, in the year 1921, the Kuwaitis established a Shura Council followed by a Legislative Council in the late 1938. Due to the high influence of the oil economy in Kuwait, the need for a balanced power approach was initiated as the political ruler assumed full management of the economy in the 1950s. Besides, the ruler established several election initiatives in the 1950s characterized by liberalization of the press, creation of political posts, and liberalization of the society (Basham and Preble 148).

These initiatives spurred the underlying democratization reform efforts, which climaxed in the year 1961 following independence of Kuwait from the colonial master. Besides, the brief confrontation with Iraq over territorial integrity spurred the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in Kuwait. The constitutional political system consisted of a constitution, elected legislature, and a comprehensive power separation plan. The first election under the new political system was held in 1962 with the full support of the then ruler Abdallah al-Salim Al Sabar, followed by a parliamentary election the following year (Calabresi 33). By the year 1999, Kuwait had experienced 38 parliamentary sessions.

The main challenges to democracy in Kuwait are political and structural. Apparently, the political scene in Kuwait is characterized by social movements/mobility and frequent uprisings (street demonstrations, rallies, protests). However, these political movements have not been effective in demanding for serious democratization because of conflicts of interests and weak organization structures (Carapico 384). Specifically, by process tracing of the discourse of the main and frequent political social movements, their demands is to have the political rights that are revoked by the monarchy or manipulated (like changing the voting system).

Although these demands are within the current constitution, they are revoked for political interests from the monarchy/system. The political struggle in Kuwait is still within the rights of its constitution and most of the social uprisings stop their activities and demands once their political current constitutional rights are given back (Calabresi 31). This means circling into a loophole that never seems to end, despite an imbalance of power within the constitution for the monarchy that is being manipulated (Zaaiter par. 9). From the brief background, it is apparent that the Kuwait democracy is facing challenges since the precarious democratic model is not fully functional.

Research Problem/Puzzle

From the above review of the democratization process in Kuwait, political and structure challenges have been identified. This paper aims to assert the reasons for the problematic transition into democracy in Kuwait. It will review the political history of Kuwait and better assess the political system that the country currently uses. Secondly, it will address the attempts made by Kuwait in expanding democracy and heavily emphasizing it in this region. The analysis of the Arab political environment, its evolution and its outcome, will be vital in understanding the challenges of democratization in Syria. Ultimately, this paper will demonstrate why the current structure of government, in terms of political, social, and structural systems in Kuwait, will not sustain a democracy in the near future. Specifically, the paper will narrow down on the weighing down on social movements as a main hindrance to democratization in Kuwait.

Research Aim and Goal

Understanding geo-political, social, and economic dynamics in Kuwait is important in relating to the perceived ideology that has become an impediment to democratic governance. This research will be significant in establishing the contribution of the non-democratic ideology on the current democratic challenges in Kuwait. Through sociological imagination, it is easy to understand behavior change and identify forces: positive or negative, that facilitate the non-democratic tendencies in order to create alternative approaches for possible democratic governance in Kuwait. The goals are summarized as;

  1. To establish the perceptions of the Kuwaitis on the current state of democracy in Kuwait, with reference to the social movements.
  2. To make recommendations and suggestions on how the current state of democracy can be improved to make it more inclusive and people drive.

Research Question

In order to understand the underlying facts of the research paper, the research question will be;

How has the weighing down on social movements hindered democratization in Kuwait?

Data and Methodology

For the purpose of this paper, the researcher used several types of sources ranging from the internet to articles. For the history and background on the Kuwait governments, the researcher relied mostly on written material. In analyzing the more recent history, the researcher used both written material and personal accounts. Lastly, the focus was on the challenges that establishing a democracy in the region will face was taken from mostly written sources (Saunders 23). Think-tanks and other institutions have various reports analyzing the aspects of Kuwait deemed problematic democratic challenges. The mixture of journals and internet presented a number of pre-specified competencies and best practices based on the research topic. The researcher chose the qualitative because the scope of the research is focused, subjective, dynamic, and discovery oriented (Saunders 29).

The collected qualitative data was coded and passed through appropriate analysis tool. In the process, critical analysis was used to compare and contrast the impressions on the state of democracy in Kuwait, with reference to social movements. In order to quantify the relationship between the independent and dependent variable, analysis was essential besides figurative representation of the findings. The secondary approach for the survey presented a clear, scientific, and verifiable criterion for systematic analysis. Reflectively, this permitted comparative research especially when qualitative design is adopted to give room for testing accuracy and degree of biasness (Saunders 42).

Literature Review: Theoretical Framework

Many obstacles stand in the way between where Kuwait ideologically stands now and the attainment of a democracy that coheres to the values of a free society. The idea of a social order in which infringements on the inherent rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Chaney 346) are forbidden is a concept that the United States has attempted to disseminate on the Middle East for the past couple of decades. Through vast amounts of money and assistance, referred to as “democracy aid” (Hamid 79), the United States attempted to use the funding as a means to establish and sustain institutions that promote democracy, both as a way of spreading the values prominent to the American ideal.

The fall of communism and the successes thereafter that assisted the nation’s growth and development led America to become a prominent world power. They began to see democracy as “the final form of human government” (Tessler 38). This premise became the perpetual reformation of their foreign policy, focused on the proliferation of democracy to the rest of the world. During the years leading to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, it was clear that the Middle East’s ideologies were adjacent to American values and could become threatening (Grappo 146). After the attacks, foreign policy strategies shifted in order to target the cruelty and unjust practices that were occurring throughout the region under oppressive dictatorships. Later, with the United States’ presence in Iraq, surrounding countries saw the assistance that America provided a country that relied on foreign powers to transition it into democracy; although the effects of this transformation proved brutal, the promise of a western ideology had never been more appealing (Chaney 345). This ultimately led to the first spark of the Arab Spring.

The Arab Spring instigated a movement that promised a better and more egalitarian future for Arab citizens in their respective countries (Stewart 34). People rose in favor of a new government that would reflect their newfound realizations of electing their leaders and ultimately governing themselves. Demonstrations took place throughout the region with the most successful being in Tunisia and the key countries being Egypt, Libya, and Syria (Calabresi 34). The oil-rich countries such as Kuwait generally stayed out of the conflicts after some demonstrations were quieted by the ruling elite’s promise of more state jobs and government assistance (Stewart 34). The remaining countries were either left in a continuing turmoil that still persists or silenced by relentless rulers. This movement has left many questions about the extent to which democracy could be practiced in the region (Carapico 381).

The structure of basic societal norms and customs in Kuwait greatly inhibits the extent to which a system that promotes freedom and equality as its main pillars can be practiced (Calabresi 39). Kuwait inhibits particular groups of people from sharing the same privileges, reduces the importance of education to a secondary level, and has intertwined Islam with the government, which creates a preference for one religion over others. Although the types of democracy vary around the world, no existing democratic institution excludes members of their citizenry or uses other means to hinder them from participating in government as is the case in Kuwait (Akerlof and Chaney 369). When such practices are essential in the Kuwait political culture, democracy does not function.

Several countries in the Middle East such as Yemen and Kuwait have experienced conflicts due to weak democratic structures. The conflicts are as a result of weak democratic institutions or complete degeneration of these structures. For instance, in Kuwait, the democratic institution has been abuse by different regimes due to the dynamic nature of that society (Akerlof and Chaney 372). In fact, the current ruler has been in power for more than two decades and has never passed through an election system that can be described as free and fair since those who are suppose to implement checks and balances are executed, deported, or intimidated by the state machinery (Akerlof and Chaney 378). Therefore, there is need to explore the possibility of attaining democracy and its challenges in Kuwait to design policies that can reverse the above trend.

Findings: Weighing Social Movements as a Main Hinder for Democratization

Despite these successful elections, there are no political parties in Kuwait. Rather, there are more than five political groupings with the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) and Kuwaiti Democratic Forum (KDF) dominating (Torki and Al-Sharah 59). After the 1999 election, it was apparent that the pro-government candidates faced a hard time with just a handful making it back to the parliament. The election results indicated reducing level of confidence that the public had on the government probably because of the close-nit control approach that it has on all aspects of Kuwait. Besides, the social movements and political mobilization in Kuwait have created political unrests that demands political rights.

But despite all the historical social uprisings and movements, democratization in Kuwait did not happen (Salem 11). Specifically, these movements demand better political representation, inclusion of women in the elections, and reduction of the voting age from twenty one years to eighteen years. Besides, the social and political movements have been in the forefront in demanding for inclusive government that integrates the interests of all regions and tribes in Kuwait (Torki and Al-Sharah 67). In addition, the social movements have always petitioned the parliaments to pass laws that would not allow the supreme ruler to dissolve parliament at will due to internal challenges that can be solve through other means.

The strategy of the governments of the day to weigh down on social movements has created structural and political challenges towards full democratization of Kuwait’s political and social system. Under the structural challenges, Kuwait’s democratic space is grappling with the imbalance in power separation due to the nature of its non-partisan parliamentary system (Salem 14). For instance, the law does not permit existence of political parties that might build space for better political democracy model. As a result, there is always an imbalance in the functions of the parliament since the ex officio members drawn from government ministries tend to influence most of the debates (Torki and Al-Sharah 69). The second structural challenge is the strict electoral base, which only permit persons above twenty one years to cast their vote.

Besides, the women population is are still disenfranchised, especially in terms of political equality rights. At present, women, the armed forces, and naturalized citizens are not eligible to vote. Due to the strict electoral base, less than 20% of the general population participates in the democratic elections (Gause 12). The low percentage of public participation in the poll raises concerns on the ability of the parliament to represent the will of the people, since the political movements are not allowed to operate independently. The third structural challenge is the short transition period in the formation of the government after an election. The process lasts for less than two weeks. In case there is dissatisfaction with a new government by the majority members of parliament, the transition period might be insufficient for reappointments and vetting without creating a constitutional crisis. Sadly, the social movements are only allowed to exist during elections.

The main political challenges facing democracy in Kuwait include power imbalance, government intervention in electoral processes, weakening culture of democratic politics, weakened civil society movement, and regional imbalances. Since the Kuwait government has monopolistic control of the major resources in the economy, there is always some level of competing interest between different stakeholders, especially in the important resources such as land, employment, and oil (Salem 18). Many Kuwaitis agree that monopolistic control of these important resources might not serve their interests, especially when the reigning government commits economic atrocities.

The second political challenge is the electoral process interference by the government since Kuwait government always has its list of candidates to support in any election. For instance, ministers are often instructed to facilitate financing and logistical support of candidates that are pro-government to the disadvantage of others. In the local dialect, the favors are referred to as wasta, which is bypasses several integrity and electoral fairness laws (Torki and Al-Sharah 71). The third political challenge is the weakening political democratic culture due to constant dissolution of parliament and lack of political parties. For instance, an Amiri can decree dissolution of a parliament, which can seriously weaken the democratic culture (Gause 21).

Besides, the civil society movements operate in an enclosed democratic space and must seek for approval from the government before organizing any democratic civil education camp. The approval of such activities is only preserved for the current government. The last political challenge is the regional imbalance in the democratic systems, which is indirectly and directly affecting the democratic space in Kuwait (Torki and Al-Sharah 75). For instance, in Saudi Arabia, the Shura Council has monopoly in public participate in governance. The political instability in Iran is threatening to overturn the decades of democratic gains due to reactionary measures by the Saudi government to prevent a similar occurrence. The Kuwait government has made it difficult for social movements to influence the policy or political direction due to pretense of possible violence (Torki and Al-Sharah 67).


Despite having gotten independence more than five decades ago, Kuwait is still grappling with very serious democracy challenges in its political system. The democratic governance system consisting of the parliament and executive units remain relatively immature, in terms of the level of public participation in governance. Specifically, the democratic governance in Kuwait has continued to face structural and political challenges due to weak social movements as a result of government interference, outlaw of political parties, and competing regional interests. The excessive control of the electoral system by the government, isolation of almost 70% of the population from voting, and lack of political good will from the government has undermined democratization initiatives.

In the recent past, imbalance in power to favor the government threatens to reverse the democratic gains that have been realized through the activities of different social movements. These pro-democracy movements have experienced difficulties in fair play in election, especially whenever the government has some political interests in a region. Since there are no political parties, legislators who make it to parliament through these coalitions become powerless since the ministers appointed by the government have unprecedented influence over the outcome of any debate. Besides, once in parliament, members of these social movements are treated as individuals and not as groups with common interest.

Works Cited

Akerlof, George, and Eric Chaney. “Democratic Change in the Arab World, Past and Present.” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, vol. 1, no. 3, 2012, pp. 363-414.

Alnajjar, Ghanim. “The Challenges Facing Kuwait Democracy.” Middle East Journal, vol. 54, no. 2, 2000, pp. 242-258.

Basham, Patrick, and Christopher Preble. “The Trouble With Democracy in the Middle East.” Middle East Journal, vol. 82, no. 3, 2013, pp. 123-181.

Calabresi, Massimo. “Is the Arab World Ready for Democracy?” Time, vol. 27, no. 4, 2011, pp. 34-41.

Carapico, Sheila. “Foreign Aid for Promoting Democracy in the Arab World.” Middle East Journal, vol. 56, no. 3, 2002, pp. 379-395.

Chaney, Eric. “Democratic Change in the Arab World, Past and Present.” Harvard Review , vol. 23, no. 1, 2012, pp. 363-414.

Gause, Gregory. “Arab Uprising: Kuwait Moment of Truth.” Middle East Political Science Journal, vol. 1, no. 3, 2012, pp. 1-29.

Grappo, Gary. “Rethinking Democracy and Conflict in the Middle East .” Harvard Review, vol. 2, no. 4, 2012, pp. 123-141.

Hamid, Shadi. “The Struggle For Middle East Democracy.” The American Univeristy in Cairo: School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, vol. 6, no. 3, 2013, pp. 145-164.

Salem, Paul. “Kuwait: Politics in a Participatory Emirate”. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, vol. 3, no. 5, 2012, pp. 2-28.

Saunders, Mark. Research Methods for Business Students. Pearson Education, 2011.

Stewart, Dona. “The Greater Middle East and Reform in the Bush Administration’s Ideological Imagination.” American Geographical Review, vol. 95, no. 3, 2005, pp. 400-424.

Tessler, Mark. “Islam and Democracy in the Middle East: The Impact of Religious Orientations on Attitudes toward Democracy in Four Arab Countries.” Comparative Politics, vol. 34, no. 3, 2002, pp. 23-78.

Torki, Mohammad and Mohammad Al-Sharah. “Kuwait’s Democratic Experiment: Roots, Reality, Characteristics, Challenges, and the Prospects for the Future”. Arab Studies Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 4, 2013, pp. 57-81.

Zaaiter, Haifa. Did Kuwait Protest Show a Real Threat to the Regime? Al-Monitor, Web.

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