On the glorious 61st anniversary of National Day and the historic 31st anniversary of Liberation, The Times Kuwait extends its congratulations and felicitations to His Highness the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, to His Highness the Crown Prince Sheikh Mishaal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, to the Government of the State of Kuwait. and the honorable people of Kuwait, wishing everyone peace prosperity, and progress.
Joyful celebratory events, especially ones as relevant as the National Day that commemorates the country’s independence, and Liberation Day that highlights the country’s rebirth after seven months of occupation and oppression by Iraqi forces, may not be the right occasion to voice doubt and dismay over how political developments have evolved over the decades since the country gained its independence in 1961. But then, there is also no occasion more timely than now, to look back with pride on what we have achieved so far, and also to reflect on how far we still need to go along the democratic path, to realize the full benefits it entails to the country and its people.
For more than six decades, before attaining independence in 1961, Kuwait was a protectorate of the British Empire, in line with an agreement inked in 1899 between then ruler Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah and the British government in India, to ward off potential threats to Kuwait’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. In 1961, following discussions between Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, and the British Chief Political Resident in the Arabian Gulf, Sir George Middleton, it was mutually agreed to abrogate the protectorate status and grant Kuwait full independence on 19 July 1961.
Sheikh Abdullah Al-Sabah became Kuwait’s first Amir and under his sagacious leadership and with the flow of new-found oil wealth, the country developed on all fronts, including in the economic, social, and political domains. Following independence, Kuwait formally applied for membership in the United Nations, and on 14 May 1963, the United Nations General Assembly welcomed Kuwait as the global organization’s 111th Member State.
In the wake of its newfound global recognition, Kuwait became an important player in the international family of nations, leveraging its growing surplus oil wealth to become a major foreign-aid donor. The Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, which was founded in 1961, became an active supporter and enabler of development projects throughout the Arab world and beyond.
A few months after independence, Sheikh Abdullah also formed a popular committee to draft a modern constitution for the newly independent nation. A draft constitution was approved on 11 November 1961, outlining Kuwait’s system of governance as a ‘fully independent Arab State with a democratic style of government, where sovereignty rests with the nation, which is the source of power’. Under the constitution, a constituent assembly was formed in 1962 and a year later the first parliamentary elections were held. Kuwait thus became the first Arab country in the region to have a constitution, an elected parliament, and a democratic style of governance.
From the early 1960s to well into the 70s, Kuwait was the most developed country and the largest oil exporter in the region. It was among the first countries in the world to diversify its newfound oil wealth by establishing the world’s first sovereign wealth fund through the Kuwait Investment Authority. On the academic side, Kuwait University, established in 1966, was a beacon of academic excellence that drew students from all across the Arab world. On the cultural front, theater, art, and literature flourished, and the media in Kuwait was described as one of the freest and most outspoken in the area, expressing and propounding ideas and ideologies that were until then taboo in much of the region. Liberal ideas and Western attitudes and lifestyles were conspicuously visible in society during this period.
It is to the credit of Kuwait’s first Amir, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, and to the founding fathers of the nation, who crafted a versatile constitution for the country that Kuwait continues to remain an independent, democratic country committed to the principles enshrined in its constitution. In recognition and honor of the contributions of Sheikh Abdullah and his role in establishing the country’s independence, and in laying the foundation for a strong democratic and constitutional nation, it was decided in 1965 to shift the celebration of Independence Day from 19 July to 25 February, the day of Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem’s accession in 1950.
The discovery of oil in 1939 and its first export in 1947 changed the fortunes and future of Kuwait. From the Sixties well into the Eighties of the last century, Kuwait experienced a period of oil-driven prosperity that allowed the country to fashion a ‘cradle-to-grave’ welfare state that catered to every need of citizens, pampering them with lavish subsidies and offering free childcare, education, health, housing and job security to them. The immense oil wealth also propelled major public-work programs that transformed the landscape of the country and allowed Kuwaitis to enjoy a modern and unprecedented standard of living. The new infrastructure construction projects and developments also attracted a large influx of foreign workers mainly from Egypt, India, and Palestine.
During this period, Kuwait was recognized in the region and beyond as an epitome of progress and development and a pioneer in the cultural renaissance of the Arab world. The democratic and liberal environment in the country also allowed Kuwait to become an ideal crucible for testing out various political thoughts and ideologies that were prevailing in the region then, including pan-Arabism and socialism. This much is history; but sadly, as the German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel is quoted to have said, “People and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” To paraphrase this quote more succinctly, ‘the only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history’. This is a frightening thought given that we are also told that ‘history tends to repeat itself’.
Today Kuwait is only a faint shadow of the promises and potential it displayed at the time of its independence in 1961. It is true that over the past six decades the country has weathered and successfully overcome several pressures to its democratic credentials both from within the country and from outside. The most significant challenge appeared in 1990 when the country’s very existence as a nation was threatened by the invasion and occupation of Kuwait by Iraqi forces for seven months. Luckily, this was thwarted with assistance from the international community.
But even before the Iraqi aggression, and since then, there have been many minor, but nevertheless consequential, provocations and exigencies that tested Kuwait’s democracy and threatened its democratic path of governance. Most of these challenges have been from within the country, and ironically, some of the gravest threats to democracy have come from within parliament, which is supposed to be the embodiment of democratic ideals and the source of all the virtues that democracy promises.
In Kuwait we have all the accouterments of a functioning democracy — a magnificent and iconic parliament building, a quadrennial election exercise that in recent decades have been held with almost clockwork precision every four years; we have universal suffrage among citizens, even though women gained this right relatively late and are still testing the political waters. Kuwait also enjoys a generally unfettered media space, with an entire street frontage lined with newspaper offices that jostle with each other to report on the latest political, economic, social, and cultural events unfolding in the country.
We also have a vociferous and contentious parliament that constantly monitors, evaluates, and censors the government over its functioning or for not functioning. Lawmakers are also constitutionally allowed to challenge the executive through grilling and no-confidence motions that could bring down the government. The parliamentary proceedings are broadcast live, and, as in most democracies, the parliamentary debates often evoke passionate and captious discussions in the public sphere; though in recent years these live broadcasts have conveyed more entertainment than information to the public.
So yes, for all intents and purposes Kuwait can be considered a functioning democracy with all its democratic credentials in place. But a functioning democracy on its own is not an indicator of a flourishing democracy where people embrace all of its values and support its principles. Having a contentious parliament, periodic electoral exercises, universal suffrage, or free media are only the outside trappings of democracy. Many people consider these external manifestations as a sign of a vibrant democratic nation; they could not be more mistaken.
Despite the passage of 60 years, and everyone you speak to in government and public continuing to vouchsafe that they remain committed to making democracy the way of life in the country, the fact remains that Kuwait can at best be considered a fledgling democracy that is still muddling along the democratic path that it chose to follow at the time of its independence. Though Kuwait was the first and remains the only country among its sisterly states in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc, with an elected parliament and democratic form of governance, various international ratings on democracy show that Kuwait fares no better than its GCC peers when it comes to democracy and the practice of its principles.
Democracy begins in the minds of people, with democratic values, principles, and ideals ingrained in the population so much so it becomes an innate part of the national psyche. However, for this to happen, the democratic ideals need to be planted and nourished in the minds of people starting from a very early age, including by inculcating it in the academic curriculum. It also needs to be constantly suffered and burnished so that the democratic spirit continues to burn bright now and forever.