Sunday, November 22, 2009

Gulf Political Change

My last post mentioned one of the papers in the panel "Dynamics of Political Change in the Gulf: Implications of Electoral Politics in Iran and Kuwait," organized by Bjorn Olav Utvik of the University of Oslo's Gulf Research Unit. I would be remiss, however, in not mentioning the other four papers. Two University of Oslo scholars presented material related to Iran's 2009 Presidential election, with Kjetil Selvik suggesting that reformist leaders have gone from seeing themselves as representing the people to identifying with them and Yadullah Shahibzadeh arguing that reformists have supported an active local political because of its empowering effects.

Jon Nordenson's focus was not on the Green movement, however, but the Orange in Kuwait in 2006. His argument was that the internet provided a new public space which was important in the creation of a public sphere enabling the mass movement in favor of election law reform. Listening to it, though, I felt almost like he was moving past his major points, focusing on the potential role of technology in political change. I was excited by his continually referring to the internet as a space, which is something I suggested in this article. He also clearly understood that it's not just the uncensored technology that matters, but the way in which its specific properties shape the manner and possibilities of communication, which is really one of the key contributions of Elizabeth Eisenstein's work on print in early modern Europe. The discussant, Georgia State University's Michael Herb, added a mention of the importance of Kuwaiti newspapers as an open forum for communication aside from the internet. It's a little off topic, but I was intrigued to learn that part of the negotiations which led to the deposition of Emir Saad in January 2006 involved his wife's demands for material goods; this was covered at the time in Kuwaiti press, though perhaps with the support of factions within the Al Sabah.

James Redman, a graduate student at the University of Utah, gave a paper proposing a theory on why Kuwaiti diwaniyyah's not only continue to exist, but are multiplying when similar institutions elsewhere have died out when mass education and a commercial economy led to a shift in the social practices of clientage which sustained them. I was disappointed there wasn't more, or really any, discussion of this paper, as I've wondered the same thing. Redman's answer was that the diwaniyyah served as a site of brokerage between agents of the state, the cliques which in some Arab countries would be called shillas, and society, which are necessary because the state controls so much of life for Kuwaiti citizens and need the forms of brokerage such traditional institutions provide.

I found this paper important in part because in the past I've usually seen the diwaniyyahs portrayed as a sort of Kuwaiti shilla. By focusing on the concrete aspects of practice, however, Redman portrayed them in a way that is much more fluid than the factionalism which the latter term evokes, at least for me. (I'm only working with undergraduate knowledge on that point.) Individuals, for example, patronize multiple diwaniyyahs as their needs and interests change. However, I'm not certain Redman's paper gets to the root of things. Are there comparable institutions and practices in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates? If so, they're not nearly as remarked upon, and if not, then I'm not sure Redman's explanation for Kuwait allows for what happened to the comparable institutions in those societies. I suspect that to the power of the Kuwaiti distributive state, we need to add the existence of political actors independent of the ruling family with whom people would have a reason to network.

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