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16-04-2012 - Gulfnews by Ralph Diesta

Mission to please and survive

Kuwait Two months after a new parliament was sworn in, the Kuwaiti government is still getting a sense of what it wants to do in the coming period, a Kuwait University professor has said.

Speaking with the Gulf News, Dr Shafeeq Ghabra, a professor of Political Science at Kuwait University, said the government is still trying to come up with a new version of priorities.

"I would say we have different groups competing over different values. The government is trying to address certain demands, mostly economic," he said.

"We have a parliament that is trying to come up with its priorities too and we also have a civil society that is trying to decide on the most pressing issues in order to defend freedom of expression, personal freedom and deal in any attempts to make life more restricted in Kuwait," he said.

Ghabra said government is under pressure to deliver while parliament is facing pressure as regards its priorities and the execution of its plans. Civil society, he added, is facing pressure on how best to deal with radicals. "We are in the state of being pressed."

According to Ghabra, the strike which took place last month was a result of the labour force seeking to see how far the government would go.

"Nothing is clear so far - how long the government will last, how successful the parliament will be, how dynamic the civil society be," he said.

Ghabra said the strike was not connected to election promises made during the campaigning period.

"No. It has something to do with time," he said.

More forceful

He predicted that future labour actions would be even more forceful because of the prevailing political situation in the Arab world.

"Everything is connected to the so-called Arab spring. If you take out the Arab spring with the same issues, then the turnout will be more gentle; bring in the Arab spring, the issues are more intensive," he said.

"People in Kuwait borrow slogans, borrow methods from the Arab spring. People now are more assertive and aggressive [as regards] their demands, they are blunt, they are more expressive," he pointed out.

He warned that the period of testing government is not likely to be over any time soon, adding that the government would be evaluated in terms of what it can and cannot do.

Ghabra said the government's ability to lead a development plan and institute certain reforms would likely be put to the test. He added that Members of Parliament are unlikely to be spared in the near future.

"The calls for political reforms are very intensive in Kuwait particularly during the year 2011 and this is the real issue that parliament will be tested on," he said.

A former president at the American University of Kuwait, Ghabra noted that the fall of former prime minister Shaikh Nasser Mohammad Al Sabah was the result of a determined opposition movement.

"The opposition movement brought down the prime minister of Kuwait and brought down the government of Kuwait and the Parliament of Kuwait," he said.

"The same people are still [on] the streets of Kuwait and the civil society of Kuwait and some of them became Members of Parliament and... are in the waiting. [As a result] things in Kuwait will be more testing," he said.

"They are giving the new government more time, we have [a] society today that is less passive and more pro-active, they believe that the existing government will be able to work with the opposition in Parliament, which is now the biggest bloc, in order to bring the country one step further in [terms of] reform," he said.

Main issues

Ghabra stressed that some of the main issues that need to be addressed include the economy, development, freedom, reforms in government, the legalising of political parties, reformation of political districts [from five district to just one], and reforms to ensure that the judiciary that is more responsive, independent, fairer, balanced and protects civil rights.

"Overall, we are looking for a more responsive structure, we have a society looking for developments and change: More modernisation, utilisation of wealth in a way that can build Kuwait and improve its infrastructure," Ghabra said.

He said that as part of measures to further improve democratic reforms, Kuwaitis want to be partners with the government and the ruling family.

Ghabra went on to say that Kuwait was headed in a direction where the government will be constituted as a result of popular elections contested political parties - which will get the prerogative to form the administration.

"Kuwait is heading to that direction. We cannot deny or stop [a process that will usher in a] popularly elected prime minister. Maybe we are looking at less than eight years. It's in the process now. There is no consensus as of yet, particularly with the elites and the Al Sabah family," Ghabra said.

"It will be a turning point for Kuwait. What happened last year was a sign. The storming of the parliament and bringing down of the prime minister, who is an Al Sabah, and who could become the Emir is a [first] in Kuwait. These are all signs of where Kuwait is heading."

The road towards change and reform is sometimes painful and bloody, as in the case of other nations in the Arab world, he said.

"It's not always easy to [transform] into a democratic state, particularly if you don't have the consensus of everybody. But Kuwaitis are historically known as very peaceful people, very accommodating, and therefore I don't see intense confrontations," Ghabra said.

"Confrontation perhaps will take place but this does not mean that it will be bloody. Given the history of Kuwait, it has always been able to adjust to new conditions even after a period of refusal and anger."

Testing the waters

Ghabra reiterated that the strike that took place last week was part of moves to test the administration and warned that it would also not be the last.

"They may stop now, but they may resume a month later; they will try to get the most of their demands. If they don't, they may go back on strike tomorrow," he warned.

Ghabra said the government had already raised salaries by 25 per cent even before the strike and had been looking at ways of hiking wages even further to levels deemed acceptable.

He, however, said the issue was unlikely to die down soon, especially as employees are demanding a 300 per cent increment.

"The issue will not go away though, the issue will come back even if you give them 300 per cent. Others will demand 300 per cent too. We will end up inflating the country 300 percent," he cautioned.

Ghabra acknowledged the structural problems in Kuwait, which he said contribute to the existing dilemma.

"Almost 90 per cent of the Kuwaiti workforce is employed by the government of Kuwait. The government of Kuwait is [a] huge union itself, and unfortunately, it is a union without good human resources and without the mentality or productivity... existing in the private sector," he said.

"So you really end up in the culture of employment but it is partly hidden unemployment. It is an exaggerated form of political employment," he said.

"The government is not providing productive jobs for these people that are being employed. And in fact time is being wasted for them and therefore these structural problems add to the issues of development, modernisation, new projects, privatisation, initiatives for youth and political reform," he added.

"This is huge system that you cannot satisfy. No government on earth can employ 90 per cent of its people and expect to manage well."

Unproductive jobs

He said many Kuwaitis are in unproductive jobs today and many of them lack motivation.

"There are for example 50 people employed for one position; one does the job, 49 don't. Many don't go to or show up at work. We have a huge problem here and that is a structural problem," Ghabra said.

"The government [spends] 60 per cent of its oil wealth on... salaries. If it increases the salaries of its employees, it will end up paying 70 per cent. If oil prices drop, [government] will be paying 100 per cent of its income only on salaries. What will happen to Kuwait?"

Ghabra pointed out that the condition is an added burden to the programmes of Kuwaiti government, which encourages locals to work in the private sector.

"Now, the private sector will be obliged to provide at least salaries [equal to those offered in the] public sector [if] locals [are to] be employed by the private sector," he said.

"But they also need training, you need restructuring and you need incentives and motivation to encourage them to work in the private sector. Now the majority of people are young, 60 per cent are youth. They have loads of demands. What else the government can give?"

On the issue of security, Ghabra noted that US-Iran nuclear tensions had not affected Kuwait.

"The security issue in Kuwait is calm. Kuwait is safe and secure. Issues in Kuwait are mostly within the dynamics of Kuwaiti society. It has to do with divisions as we have different views, different social groups; tribes, and we have Sunnis versus Shiites, etc."


Other sources on GCC civil society and human rights