Saturday, March 28, 2015


My oldest memory of Kuwait is a report on BBC television news, back in the late 1960s or possibly the very early 1970s, in which the camera crew drove the full length of a bread queue that began in the desert and ended in the centre of Kuwait City, a journey of well over five miles. Hard to imagine that today, with Intracen, the International Trade Centre which is the joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, praising Kuwait's planned strategy to assist in reducing poverty world-wide, and UNICEF statistics placing Kuwait among the highest in the world pro rata for literacy, including female literacy, for education in general, as well as life expectancy, and a median income level that is eight times that of the world's poorest nations. 

It should have been impossible then too, given that Kuwait found oil in the 1930s, and sits on the Persian Gulf, so exporting the mineral is easy. But Kuwait had been blockaded by the British in the Great War, because it sided with the Turks; then the pearl industry collapsed during the Great Depression; and in the meanwhile attempts by Saudi Arabia to conquer and annexe Kuwait had driven it into an expensive and protracted war. 

Britain finally gave up its protectorate in 1963, leaving Sheikh al-Sabah in charge, and the country has remained an emirate ever since, which is to say a feudal kingdom in which the royal family pretty much owns and governs everything, only members of the royal family can get important jobs, whether in government or elsewhere, and the vast wealth, as ordinary Kuwaitis will tell you, stays mostly inside the family. 

Very few websites in the official media will make this sort of observation however, because Kuwait is key to western interests in the Middle East, and not only for its oil. Alongside Saudi Arabia, Iraq too has for decades claimed Kuwait as part of its territory, and in 1991 it took a US-led coalition of absurd size and strength to force the Iraqi invaders back. Twelve years later and the troops were back, this time to finish the job they had failed to finish last time – the removal of Saddam Hussein from the Iraqi Presidency, a classic piece of American foreign policy in which they see a bad situation, step in where they are neither wanted nor needed, and make it worse; the current war with the IS, or ISL, is the result, as the Taliban of Afghanistan were the result of that interference.

The same paradoxes that apply to the economy and the power structure apply across everything else in Kuwait, and it may serve as a useful model for making distinctions between beneficent and benevolent dictatorship. A beneficent dictator is one who holds supreme power, but still does good things for his people - Fidel Castro's Cuba offers a good example of this, with its universal health and education provisions amongst the best in the world, and vastly superior to that liberal democracy America. A benevolent dictator is one who holds supreme power, and likes to present himself (it is usually, but not always, a he) as one who is doing good things for his people, but actually isn't. 

Kuwait, for example, was the first Arab state to have an elected Parliament, though you don’t get a seat if you are not part of the royal entourage. Its women are emancipated compared to any other Arab country in the region; but this is the equivalent of saying that King John was a liberal democrat because he signed Magna Carta. It probably has the freest press too, though a glance at Amnesty International's most recent report on Kuwait will remind you that Einstein's theories of relativity are not only applicable in physics ("Peaceful criticism of the Amir, other state authorities or Islam remain criminalized. Those targeted for arrest, detention and prosecution include human rights and political reform activists. Authorities have used a telecommunications law to prosecute and imprison critics who expressed dissent using social media, and curtailed the right to public assembly. The government continues to withhold nationality and citizenship rights from tens of thousands of Bidun people, and has arbitrarily stripped several critics and members of their families of their Kuwaiti citizenship. Women face discrimination in law and practice. Foreign migrant workers, who comprise over half of the population, lack adequate protection under the law and are subject to discrimination, exploitation and abuse. The death penalty remains in force for a range of crimes; no executions have been reported...")

Kuwait pays the price of needing America and Europe to sustain its economy, and its very existence. I simply note that, women having been granted the right to vote at a time of political and economic tension, that right was removed when the tension eased, and then re-granted, though there is no quota, as there is in some other Arab Parliaments. Women are still expected to wear the ancient hijab while using the latest technologies; one more perfect illustration of the paradoxes.


Marks For: 3

Marks Against: 6


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