- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

Earlier this month, Kuwait held its quadrennial parliamentary elections, an important step for one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East. Yet, Kuwait’s freedoms and its friendship with the United States still seem fragile. That will likely remain the case until further reforms have been made.

U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait Richard Jones recently called that nation’s constitutional monarchy “the most democratic country in the Gulf,” and he was almost certainly right to do so. In the run-up to the election, issues were freely debated and potential parliamentarians politicked with few restrictions. The elections resulted in an orderly, legitimate transfer of power in the parliament.

Kuwait was also essential to the American victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to Mr. Jones, Kuwait shut down almost half its country in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. In addition, the government gave the United States use of one of its ports and built an pipeline from a refinery directly to two U.S. airbases, through which fuel freely flowed.

Unfortunately, during the parliamentary elections, progressives lost seats and Islamists gained. While it is far from clear if the strengthened Islamic bloc in Parliament will be able to cool the warm relationship that has developed between the United States and Kuwait over the course of two wars, this could have a chilling effect on the reforms that the government has tried to implement. These range from allowing international companies to invest in developing Kuwait’s northern oil fields (Project Kuwait) to granting women the franchise. Much will depend on the willingness of the ruling Sabah family to fully back those measures.

Some reforms are clearly called for, since Kuwait’s constitutional monarchy is far from representative. Only about 15 percent of Kuwait’s 800,000 citizens were allowed to vote. Women, who represent about half the population were the most glaring exclusion. But the franchise has also been denied to policemen and servicemen.

Economic reforms are needed as well. The government should consider limiting the private monopolies that discourage overseas investment and allow Project Kuwait to go forward, especially now that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein is gone. In the long term, even greater reforms will be required, because, vast as they are, Kuwait’s oil reserves will not last forever. As it stands, the wealth, and possibly the health, of Kuwait’s welfare state are so intimately linked to the oil industry that it is far from clear if the former could survive a serious downturn in the latter.

That those issues and many others are continuing to be hotly debated in Kuwait says a great deal about the openness of the society. Progressive Kuwaitis are rightfully proud of their freedom of thought and action. However, as they fully acknowledge, the country still has a long way to go, and could easily slip backwards. Until republican practices — and the rights that animate them — are firmly established in the social bedrock, the liberties that Kuwaitis enjoy and the government’s friendship with the United States will continue to seem fragile.


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