Friday, November 02, 2012

Constitutional Compromise and Kuwaiti Royalty

Those looking for a single article to read on the current standoff in Kuwait and the background to protests scheduled for next Sunday can do no better than Mary Ann Tetrault's piece for the Middle East Research and Information Project.  After a brief constitutional overview of the 20th century, she focuses on difficult-to-understand and quite possibly incompetent decisions by the reigning Emir Sabah IV since his accession in 2006.  Much of this analysis centers around his appointments:
The impasse of 2012 is a continuation of this long struggle between emirs and parliaments but, since Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad became emir in January 2006, the confrontations have grown increasingly poisonous. The animosity is boosted by high and rising levels of popular as well as elite dissatisfaction with the performance of the government and ruling family. Ironically, Sheikh Sabah became emir on a wave of warm feelings, having taken charge after a politically difficult transition to a new head of state. But the good will dissipated quickly when he unveiled what observers felt was a mediocre cabinet, and revealed his intention to award a monopoly of power to members of his branch of the Al Sabah. Rather than following the storyline of alternation between the Al Ahmad and Al Salim branches by naming an Al Salim to the position of crown prince, he chose his half-brother, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad, to assume that position and his nephew, Sheikh Nasir al-Muhammad al-Ahmad, to be prime minister.
By continuing the separation of the positions of crown prince and prime minister that had taken place when he became prime minister due to the illness of the-then crown prince, Sheikh Saad al-Salim, Sheikh Sabah missed the opportunity to shield his prime minister from demands for accountability. He himself had experienced little public criticism while serving as acting prime minister during the illness of Sheikh Saad. He had presented himself as an effective leader and, to a degree surprising to many long-time women’s rights campaigners, something of a feminist as well. But his apparent immunity from scrutiny was just that -- apparent. The separation of these two offices had made public criticism of the prime minister possible for the first time since the adoption of the 1962 constitution, which forbids such appraisals of the emir and crown prince. Sheikh Sabah had emerged relatively unscathed, but a deficient prime minister could hope for no mercy.
As prime minister,  Nasir al-Ahmed was, in fact, less than ideal, and many of the political crises over the past six years have centered around the emir's desire to forestall questioning of the prime minister's authority, and hence his own.

One issue that doesn't come up in Tetrault's piece, perhaps because we know so little about it, is politics within the royal family itself.  Perhaps Nawaf had a strong internal claim to be next in line for the throne, but Emir Sabah wanted either to limit his power or have a younger prime minister?  We don't know why this decision was made, but presumably there were reasons.  Similarly, the case has been made that part of the political opening comes from efforts of the marginalized Al Salim branch of the family to send a message to or pressure the Al Ahmed.  That is not to say that disgruntled royals created the movement, only that they are a factor in the background.

But consider this, too:  What is the nature of Gulf royal families mean they can't take steps towards constitutional monarchy, as many hope will happen?  It's sometimes suggested that being a ceremonial head of state isn't a bad gig, and it certainly isn't.  Queen Elizabeth II and Emperor Akihito definitely have high standards of living.  Right now, though, Gulf royals control lots of oil revenue, and much of this is shared among the family as a whole.  In addition to economic privileges, most members of Gulf royal families get some form of stipend, and the higher profile ones creates their own institutional fiefdoms.  The emir is not just the head of state, but the head of the family, and the family has the special position in the society.

Lots of societies have weak or ceremonial heads of state, but a whole family?  I can't see royal privileges and personal fiefdoms long surviving the effective power of the emirs, and this means that as head of the family, the individual emirs can't compromise anything that threatens the privileged position of the family as a whole.  This, I think, is the biggest block meaningful democratic reform in the Gulf, and I can't think of a good way around it.



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