The world has been transfixed by the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election. But a different assertion of democratic and parliamentary power, this time in the Gulf sheikdom of Kuwait, which possesses 10% of world oil reserves, may prove to be equally important. Every sign indicates that the wave of democratization in Kuwait is irreversible, and the impact of these changes extends beyond Kuwait to all the other oil-rich Gulf countries, which are also ruled by emirs and sheikhs.
Indeed, these rulers now have much to ponder. The death of Kuwait’s ruler, Sheikh Jaber al-Sabah, on January 15, 2006, was followed by unprecedented national disquiet, which led to the rapid abdication of his designated successor, Saad Al Sabah. Nothing like this had ever hit the Al Sabah family, which has ruled Kuwait for two centuries.
Traditionally, the role of ruling Emir alternated (according to a tacit agreement) between two rival branches of the Al Sabah family – the Al Jaber and the Al Salem. The succession was always strictly a family affair, and any disputes remained behind closed doors. However, with Sheikh Jaber al-Sabah’s death, the succession was not only subjected to feverish public debate, but the Kuwaiti press and Parliament were key actors in determining the outcome.
Kuwait’s political system is considered the most modern among the Arab Gulf sheikhdoms and monarchies, because all citizens – men and women alike – elect its parliament. Elections with universal suffrage, combined with a relatively free press, meant that the succession became a public issue, debated in the media and by academics for months as Sheikh Jaber was dying.