Crackdowns and Coalitions in Kuwait

by Alex Boodrookas | published June 18, 2018

This article was updated on July 10, 2018.

In November of 2017, several dozen Kuwaiti opposition members, including a number of current and former MPs, were suddenly arrested on charges relating to the occupation of the Parliament building in 2011—even though they had been cleared of similar charges four years earlier. [1] The arrests swept up a number of politicians who had been the most visible anti-corruption campaigners in the country, and few doubted that the regime was trying to use the incident to discredit or imprison those who would embarrass the ruling family by airing its dirty laundry. [2] After a drawn out trial, which witnessed regular protests outside the Parliament building calling for the case to be dropped, the defendants were released on bail; the final judgment is due on July 8th. [3]

As the case was slowly winding its way through the justice system, another story began generating significant press attention, both within Kuwait and internationally. In February of this year, the body of Joanna Demafelis, a 29-year-old Filipina domestic worker, was discovered in a freezer in Kuwait. [4] She had been reported missing over a year earlier, and her body bore signs of torture. While two suspects were quickly arrested, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines seized on the issue, calling for a total ban on Filipino migration to Kuwait and inviting the approximately 250,000 Filipino workers already in the country to return home at government expense. [5] In April, tensions increased further when the Filipino ambassador was expelled following a widely publicized “rescue” of domestic workers orchestrated by the embassy. [6] As both the Duterte government and a string of Kuwaiti politicians mobilize migration for their own political ends, noncitizen workers in Kuwait are finding themselves caught in an increasingly precarious situation.

Both of these incidents have been widely, if perfunctorily, covered by international media. [7] Few if any observers, however, have traced how they reflect more fundamental political realignments that have swept Kuwait over the past ten years. Even as the perpetually fragmented opposition faces harsh repression, it is finding common ground in the issues of corruption and economic justice. State efforts that shut down all remaining spaces for open debate represent, in a sense, an admission that its strategies of vote rigging, gerrymandering, and soft coercion, practiced since the 1960s, have either failed or backfired. Unfortunately, the state seems to have decided to rely less on guile, and more on naked force. The labor movement is also forging new alliances in the face of opposition. Workers, both citizen and noncitizen, are confronting both a populist anti-immigrant backlash and a wave of privatization and austerity. But in response to these challenges, noncitizen workers affiliated with unions abroad have launched campaigns with Kuwaiti labor unions, which have themselves mobilized to combat cuts in wages and benefits. These quasi-official, transnational union connections are a significant innovation, crossing a citizen-noncitizen divide that is often thought of as an unbridgeable chasm. New coalitions seem to be on the cusp of coalescing—just as the space for dissenting politics is under immediate and unprecedented threat.

An Anti-Corruption Coalition

The lawsuit over the occupation of Parliament represents the latest in a series of harsh state reprisals against Kuwaiti activists taken in the aftermath of major protests in 2011 and 2012. [8] As Mary Ann Tétreault has noted, the clashes can best be seen as the culmination of years of struggle between pro-democratic forces and the regime over the outlines of the constitutional system. [9] When the Emir amended electoral laws without consulting Parliament, tens of thousands of orange-clad demonstrators took to the streets. Many were beaten by armored riot police, whose heavy-handed reaction triggered a popular backlash. Protests by bidoun—legally stateless people who have long been denied access to even the most basic rights and benefits—were also met by a violent crackdown. [10] These incidents appeared to prompt the regime to launch a slashing assault on any and all dissent. In 2014, the state stripped several oppositionists of their citizenship and deported them from Kuwait. [11] This was a particularly effective measure because citizenship is granted through inheritance, rather than birth—thus, many relatives were also denaturalized in a kind of legal collateral damage. At the same time, an increasingly repressive legal apparatus is silencing free speech. A cybercrime law passed in 2016 effectively criminalized online criticism of the ruling family, while the once vibrant press has been defanged. [12] There is little doubt that the remaining space for political debate in Kuwait—forged by generations of Kuwaitis at enormous personal risk—is in jeopardy.

The case has also raised serious questions about the state of the Kuwaiti justice system. When asked at trial why only some of those present at the Parliament protest were arrested, the prosecutor admitted that a number of the demonstrators were police plants, but refused to identify them. The appointment of a new judge in the middle of proceedings led to suspicions that the palace had exerted pressure to get its preferred man selected, in violation of the principle of an independent judiciary. For many oppositionists, the case has become an important symbol of the current political climate. Outside parliament in Irada Square, supporters of the imprisoned, including MPs and family members, gathered regularly to protest the detentions. They listened to speeches, munched on snacks, and even branded the campaign by wearing red ribbons in solidarity. The defense itself has framed the case as symbolically important. In a closed bail hearing, an attorney for the accused made an impassioned speech arguing that the survival of democracy in Kuwait was at stake. Speaking directly to the judge, he said that the faith of Kuwaitis in their courts, and indeed their whole system of government, was hinging on the decision. His motion carried, and the defendants were released on bail in February.

While the case is ostensibly about the occupation of Parliament, it has also brought the longstanding issue of corruption back to the center of public discourse. In reality, “corruption” can seem too mild a term to describe an economy that is often little more than a sophisticated recycling mechanism that redistributes state oil wealth into the pockets of the well-connected and powerful. As scholars such as Ghanim Al-Najjar have noted, this is nothing new: Land purchasing and distribution programs, which consumed much of the state budget in the fifties and sixties, effectively funneled the state’s wealth into the hands of a few landowners. [13] Recent accusations have been numerous and, at times, spectacularly well-documented, including one case in which an MP acquired a photocopy of a check that suggested that at least one member of the ruling family was using state funds as a personal bank account. [14] MPs have also used their constitutional right to interrogate ministers to publicly shame ministerial perpetrators, a tactic that has infuriated the ruling family still further.

But even more than individual cases of corruption, it is the fundamental inequality of the Kuwaiti economy that has the potential to unite the Kuwaiti opposition. The occupation of Parliament itself was controversial, and even unpopular. But when the recently imprisoned parliamentarians held diwaniyya meetings (gatherings in private homes that serve as semi-public social and political forums) to celebrate their release and thank their supporters, the gatherings were remarkably diverse. Islamists rubbed shoulders with socialists, and liberals from merchant families chatted with conservatives elected by the tribal vote. This is particularly crucial given that in Kuwait, the word “opposition” is a loose term used to describe, in effect, anyone who will occasionally say no to the Emir. While its feuding factions often have little in common, they could agree that the arrests were a significant threat to whatever is left of Kuwaiti democracy, and that the current economic system is rigged.

This emerging consensus is particularly remarkable given the regime’s repeated efforts to split the opposition over the past half century. Its strategies of divide and rule have been varied and sophisticated. It encouraged Islamist parties in order to fracture the support of pro-constitution Arab nationalists in the seventies; incorporated powerful merchant families into formal institutions like the Cabinet and Chamber of Commerce and Industry to temper their independence; strategically granted citizenship to formerly nomadic tribal groups and then housed them in segregated neighborhoods to try and create self-contained and dependent constituencies; and cleaved Shi`i Kuwaitis away from the rest of the population to create a relationship of dependency with a religious minority. [15]

But these strategies never functioned exactly as planned, and many have started to backfire. Naturalized tribes, formerly stalwart regime loyalists, are chafing at their continued exclusion from the full benefits of the welfare state and have become a central force in the opposition. While Islamists continue to push for pet projects, such as making Sharia “the”—rather than “a”—source of law, many are now leading campaigns against corruption. Merchants are frustrated with increasingly flagrant royal corruption scandals and an economy that seems unable to keep up with nimble regional competitors like Dubai. And strategies of sectarianism look increasingly risky as Kuwait tries to please its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors while retaining its sovereign autonomy. As the regional Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran is increasingly framed in sectarian terms, encouraging such divisions looks like a recipe for trouble. Indeed, the recent reversion to repression may be seen as the strategy of a regime that believes that where vote rigging failed, violence may succeed.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this emerging coalition is its resemblance to some of the largest popular movements in Kuwaiti history, with the critical caveat that it has the potential to be larger than ever before. In 1938-9, merchants drafted a constitution and formed a legislative council to democratize decision making and more fairly distribute wealth. But they failed to attract widespread support, and when they sought to take control of oil revenues, they were violently crushed by the Emir and his tribal allies. In the 1950s and 1960s, a front of reformists, Arab nationalists, and workers successfully pressed for the region’s most democratic constitution, and then succeeded in nationalizing the oil industry in the 1970s. All these movements embraced the equitable distribution of wealth as a central objective, but few, with the possible exception of the Arab nationalists, were able to forge a coalition of this breadth. It may be that the regime’s old balancing act will come to an end because, quite simply, there is no one else to put on the scale.

If a broad based coalition could emerge, it would represent a serious challenge to the established order. These new connections are personified by politicians like Musallam Al-Barrak, whose well-deserved reputation for combativeness and incorruptibility has earned him both popular acclaim and the enmity of the regime. [16] Key to his appeal are his links to the tribal vote, the Islamists, and the labor movement—perhaps the most powerful non-elite blocs edging towards the opposition. Al-Barrack and others therefore have the potential to unite Islamist, tribal, and labor opposition on a platform of transparency, reform, and economic justice. These diverse groups have already rallied around a central narrative: that those who revealed corruption are facing long prison terms, while those who took bribes retain their ministerial posts. Unfortunately, it seems that this nascent coalition may be crushed by state repression just as it is coalescing. Even at the diwaniyyas celebrating the release of the defendants on bail—which was widely seen as an encouraging sign—optimism was scarce. Whatever the verdict, the regime seems increasingly determined to silence its critics by any means necessary.

An Emerging Labor Coalition?

A simultaneous, but even more fledgling coalition has emerged in the labor movement. Spending increases—exacerbated by remarkable giveaways intended to tamp down the protests of 2011 and 2012—have been replaced by a regime of austerity, or at least what passes for austerity in Kuwait. The withdrawal of generous gas subsidies two years ago represented a significant retrenchment, and the state has even a proposed VAT tax in line with similar plans across the GCC. [17] These cutbacks have triggered a backlash in the press and Parliament. The strongest reaction, however, has come from workers in the state oil company union. Long the most organized and militant labor bloc in the country, they responded to government plan to cut salaries in the oil industry with a series of strikes in 2016 that succeeded in reversing the proposal. [18]

Beyond the immediate question of salaries, the strikes also raised wider questions about recent attempts to privatize segments of the oil industry. Oil nationalization in the seventies is still remembered as a nationalist triumph, one that received critical mass support from an alliance of Arab nationalists and oil workers. Indeed, several founders of the Kuwaiti trade union movement who were influential in the nationalization drive, including Hasan Falah, the pioneering leader of the oil workers union, came out of retirement to oppose privatization. [19] Many considered state control of the oil industry to be one of the most important legacies of their movement, both a victory against economic imperialism and a declaration that Kuwait’s natural resources belong to its people. In the eyes of many, privatization would represent an abrogation of that sacred promise.

At the same time, remarkable new links are emerging between Kuwaiti and non-Kuwaiti unions within Kuwait itself. In the past decade or so, a group of workers affiliated with Sandigan, the major Filipino union, began creating a network of Filipino workers in Kuwait. Due to legal restrictions on the unionization of non-citizens, they have focused on charitable and social work rather than workplace organizing, and cannot be said to be conducting collective bargaining or other bread and butter trade union activities. However, not only are they affiliated with their home union, but they are cooperating officially with the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF), running workshops and trainings and raising awareness about labor rights in expatriate communities. [20] As the KTUF is effectively a state institution, funded by the government and partially incorporated into the bureaucracy of the Ministry of Social and Labor Affairs, such links seem to enjoy a remarkable level of official acquiescence. They are also something of a double innovation, as many Filipino workers are domestics and are thus exempt from most of Kuwait’s labor legislation. Women have taken a prominent role in these efforts, and Sandigan organizers have reached out to Kuwaiti and international NGOs focusing on domestic worker and human trafficking issues. [21]

Filipino workers, many of whom are better paid, educated, and organized than other noncitizen workers – and, crucially, often fluent in English – have led the way in building transnational union connections. But such cooperation appears to be spreading. An official agreement between the KTUF and GEFONT, the Nepalese trade union, signed in 2012, has resulted in a sustained relationship between the two unions. [22] The KTUF has long had a strong internationalist bent, participating in conferences at the Arab Labor Organization and the ILO. But noncitizen workers in Kuwait itself have been generally overlooked, in no small part because they are often seen as a reserve army of labor undercutting, and underpricing, the Kuwaiti workforce. These connections thus represent a significant attempt by the KTUF to emphasize solidarity, rather than competition.

As with the case of the anticorruption campaigners, labor activists are operating in an atmosphere of increased repression. Indeed, they face a wildly popular anti-immigrant wave that is sweeping through Kuwait. While anti-immigrant feelings are anything but new, they have reached a new level of intensity in no small part thanks to politicians who have built their careers on immigrant bashing. Perhaps the most notable is Safa Al Hashem, whose Trumpian ideas about immigration – including proposals to tax expatriates for using public roads, ban them from healthcare access, or deport them en masse—have made her internationally notorious. [23] She has also claimed that 300,000 Kuwaiti citizens—out of a total of about 1.3 million—have “fake citizenship,” and should be investigated. [24] Recently, proposals have been made to tax remittances and even build a DNA database with the biometric information of every resident and visitor in Kuwait—a measure mercifully defeated in court. [25]

Like their counterparts elsewhere, noncitizen workers in Kuwait remain in a terribly precarious position—structurally, politically, and legally. New developments notwithstanding, there seems little hope that their situation will notably improve in the near future. Those involved in organizing efforts are quick to stress that they are not seeking to become a union, but intend to remain focused on raising awareness and providing support to workers who have suffered abuse at the hands of their employers. Nevertheless, these formal agreements represent an acknowledgement on the part of Kuwaiti unions that organizing citizen labor is not enough. In the fifties and sixties, the Arab Nationalist movement energetically fought to include non-Kuwaitis—or at least those deemed Arab—in the labor movement and the welfare state. They were soundly defeated, and the rights of noncitizen workers have grown increasingly restricted ever since. While it seems impossible that the debate will reenter the mainstream, Kuwaiti and non-Kuwaiti workers are organizing in new ways, and there seems to be a growing recognition amongst organizers that increased solidarity across the boundaries of nationality can only help the labor movement.

A Turning Point?

These new cross-class and multinational coalitions testify to the vibrancy of Kuwaiti political organizing, even in a moment of crisis. Kuwaiti civil society remains as active as ever, with activists organizing around issues ranging from women’s rights to anti-censorship. But even the broad anti-corruption coalition remains on the margins of politics. Certain eventualities could bring the debate back into the center of public discourse. The verdict will almost certainly be a moment of truth, and one that could bring a significant reaction if the defendants are convicted. If it falls with a dud, however, the effect could be stifling. National elections are likely to be called in the near future, which could once again put the regime’s gerrymandering to the test—although the campaign could also amplify anti-immigrant rhetoric or pry open fissures in the opposition. The case of fuel subsidies may be the most significant precedent. Further austerity measures—especially if they coincide with additional corruption cases—could trigger a wider public response.

But even if all of these possibilities come to pass, the people of Kuwait would still face a regime armed with decades of oil reserves, a swelling sovereign wealth fund, and an increasingly uninhibited security apparatus. The citizenship stripping cases have cast a chill over the political scene, as has the trial. Ominous signs are proliferating; even last year’s book fair was censored. The Kuwaiti parliament has been suspended twice before, from 1976 to 1981 and from 1986 to 1992. A series of high profile corruption cases, and the threat of embarrassing parliamentary interrogations, were driving factors behind both suspensions. The reintroduction of parliamentary rule in 1992 came only after the trauma of the Iraqi invasion and a sustained effort from pro-democracy activists. Those who attribute the return of the Assembly solely to a deus ex machina, usually US pressure after the Iraqi invasion, do a disservice to the many Kuwaitis who battled for parliamentary rule during the suspension, in the face of violent coercion. [26] But for a regime sensitive about its international reputation, foreign pressure could be significant. Obviously, such pressure seems unforthcoming at the present juncture, particularly from the United States. And the rise of populist anti-immigrant feelings in Kuwaiti electoral politics could help derail debate on questions of transparency and economic justice. If the regime seizes the moment to squelch its critics, it is difficult to imagine how the opposition will survive.

The emergence of nascent cross-class and cross-nationality coalitions remains a reason for optimism. So does the history of Kuwaiti activism. Whenever Parliament has been shuttered, Kuwaitis have doggedly battled for its reopening. But there is no denying that the present moment is bleak. Democracy in Kuwait is balancing on a knife’s edge, and the next few months may prove critical.

Post-Script

On July 8, 2018, the court released its verdict. The judgement provides further evidence that the trial was, in fact, cover for a wider crackdown on dissent. Most of the defendants were released on bail, but several of the most dedicated oppositionists, including Musallam al-Barrack and multiple serving MPs, were convicted of attacking police, destroying government property and inciting violence, and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Some appear to have chosen exile. Musallam al-Barrack himself has left the country, joining a growing group of Kuwaiti political émigrés. While many Kuwaitis are outraged, and the full impact of the decision cannot yet be gauged, the public response has so far been muted. In effect, the court has broadcast the regime's message that public criticism will not be tolerated.

 

Endnotes

1. “Kuwait: Mass Convictions for 2011 Protest,” Human Rights Watch, December 18, 2017.

2. “Azmat Ihkam al-Barliman al-Kuwaiti,” Al-‘Arabi, December 24, 2017.

3. “Ruling in key Kuwait court case postponed to July 8,” Gulf News, May 6, 2018.

4. “Joanna Demafelis: Employers of Filipina maid found dead in freezer arrested,” BBC, February 24, 2018.

5. Felipe Villamor, “Philippines Bars Citizens From Working in Kuwait After Body Is Found,” New York Times, February 12, 2018; “Philippines says more than 2,200 citizens in Kuwait want to go home,” Reuters, February 11, 2018.

6. Felipe Villamor, “Philippine Envoy to Kuwait Expelled After So-Called Rescue of Domestic Workers,” New York Times, April 26, 2018.

7. Jon Gambrell and Malak Harb, “Case against activists threatens Kuwait’s political openness,” Washington Post, February 19, 2018.

8. “`Ashirat al-jarhai bi mudthaharat li al-mua`arada bil Kuwait,” al-Jazeera, October 22, 2012.

9. Mary Ann Tétreault, “Looking for Revolution in Kuwait,” Middle East Report Online, November 1, 2012.

10. “Kuwait: Dozens Injured, Arrested in Bidun Crackdown,” Human Rights Watch, February 19, 2011.

11. “Kuwait: Government Critics Stripped of Citizenship,” Human Rights Watch, October 19, 2014.

12. “Kuwait: Cybercrime Law a Blow to Free Speech,” Human Rights Watch, July 22, 2015.

13. Ghanim Hamad al-Najjar, “Decision Making-Process in Kuwait: The Land Acquisition Policy as a Case Study,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Politics, University of Exeter, 1984.

14. “Al-fisad yezdad istafhilan fi al-Kuwait,” al-Qabas, February 22, 2018.

15. For more on the state’s instrumental preservation of the settled/nomadic dichotomy through housing discrimination, see Farah Al-Nakib, “Revisiting Hadar and Badu in Kuwait: Citizenship, Housing, and the Construction of a Dichotomy,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 46 (2014).

16. Musallam al-Barack, “Kuwait’s democracy is being undermined – that’s why its people are protesting,” The Guardian, November 25, 2012.

17. Alanna Petrof, “Kuwait is hiking gas prices by up to 83%,” CNN, August 9, 2016.

18. “Idrab ‘umaal al-naft bi al-Kuwait bisabib khitat al-hukuma li-khafdh ruwatibhum”, BBC Arabic, April 17, 2016.

19. Hasan Falah’s speech at one of the oil worker protests can be viewed on YouTube. Accessed June 5, 2018.

20. Cooperation between the two organizations can be easily followed on the KTUF Twitter account, including @KTUF_KUWAIT, Twitter, May 11, 2018.

21. One of the most active is the Social Work Society.

22. International Trade Union Confederation, “Kuwait and Bahrain unions become first in the Gulf to forge an official trade union relationship with Nepal,” January 16, 2012; @KTUF_KUWAIT, Twitter, April 9, 2018.

23. Habib Toumi, “MP defends tax on expatriates in Kuwait,” Gulf News, March 30, 2017; Habib Toumi, “Kuwaiti MP says state should not pay for injured expatriate,” Gulf News, December 12, 2017; Abubakar A. Ibrahim, “Proposal of MP Safaa al-Hashim “Expat Workers to be Deported Once Their Projects are Completed” Approved,” Arab Times Online, February 25, 2018; Abubakar A. Ibrahim, “MP Safaa al-Hashim – 'Expats are Opportunistic Bacteria',” Arab Times Online, February 16, 2018.

24. Naser Al Wasmi, “Kuwait MP: 300,000 locals suspected of forging citizenship,” The National, January 10, 2018.

25. Habib Toumi, “Kuwait inches closer to taxing expat remittances,” Gulf News, April 1, 2018; “Kuwait: Court Strikes Down Draconian DNA Law,” Human Rights Watch, October 17, 2017.

26. Mary Ann Tétreault, Stories of Democracy: Politics and Society in Contemporary Kuwait. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

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