Stories of Democracy: Politics and
Society in Contemporary Kuwait

Author: Mary Ann Tetreault.

Reviewer: Peter W. Moore
For the most part, social scientists studying the modern Gulf countries have contributed little to the broader study of other regions of the developing world. One exception has been in the field of political economy. Drawing on the classic treatments of how a country’s source of revenue shapes its political life, scholars sought to provide generalizable theories for Gulf politics. The result was a body of literature that helped explain some of the uniqueness of Gulf politics but was still accessible to those studying other regions. Mary Ann Tetreault’s early work on Kuwait was a notable contribution to this literature, but her most recent effort departs from that tradition in important ways. Theoretically, Stories of Democracy reverses the standard focus on state economics to examine modern Kuwaiti politics from the societal perspective. Empirically, this is one of the finest analyses of Kuwaiti politics to come along since Jill Crystal’s Oil and Politics in the Gulf. The result is an extensive exploration of opposition politics in Kuwait and a novel contribution to the study of the modern Gulf countries.
”Public finances are one of the best starting points for an investigation of society, especially though not exclusively of its political life.” This classic statement by the Austrian economist Joseph Shumpeter comprises the starting point for much of the analysis of Kuwaiti politics by political scientists. Tribe, culture and religion all took a back seat to the more important effect oil revenues had on Kuwaiti political life. The decline of the historic opposition role of Kuwait’s merchants and the rise of new social groups in the 1970s (Islamists, Shia, bedouin) could all be explained by examining the tremendous capacity oil monies imparted to the Kuwaiti state. Consequently, a great deal of social science research focused on the structure of the Kuwaiti state and how it was integrated into the world oil market. When Kuwaiti or Gulf Arab society was considered, it was as a reflection of the oil-rich state - what Hazem Beblawi termed “the rentier society.” The intent was to make sense of the observation that despite becoming one of the world’s richest countries, Kuwait nevertheless failed to modernize in the classic sense; no middle class, no democracy. Tetreault’s work departs from this dependent societal view to stress instead “the agency of individuals” and the opposition’s ability to push the democratization envelope.
The first two chapters lay out a sophisticated framework for tracing how battles over power and authority reflect interpretations of the meaning of democracy and its progress. At the core of this framework is the idea of “political space.” This is the conceptual arena in which individuals and groups in society make and remake themselves to expand their own freedom of action and capacities. That this process should revolve around Kuwait’s furtive experiments with elected representation and opposition efforts at expansion is natural. A quick read of Stories of Democracy might conclude that Tetreault is engaged in sophisticated descriptions of Kuwaiti public life, especially as it is acted out in the diwaniyya. However, that would be a mistake. While the book certainly departs from conventional structural analyses concerned with causation, the theme of exploring contending interpretations (or myths) of Kuwaiti national life serves other purposes.
Though one success of structural theories was to account for the lack of classic modernization in Kuwait, part of Tetreault’s analysis is to show how modernity has nevertheless penetrated. Well- researched coverage of Islamist politics and interest lobbying provide a far more nuanced picture of Kuwaiti politics than the dependent societal view. Opposition and loyalty to the regime are intertwined, not stagnant. Throughout the book, Tetreault develops an appreciation of political and social change despite the restrictions of structure. At the same time, the author is quite honest about the difficulties of this task. For anyone who has conducted research in Kuwait, the paradoxes are well known. One the one hand, research access and informed individuals for interview are among the best in the region. On the other hand, each discussion only seems to add to the complexity of domestic political struggles. The author is honest about the fact that the stories presented (interpretations and perspectives on 1990s Kuwaiti politics) do not represent all of even such a small country as Kuwait. Interviews with merchants, government ministers and well-known local commentators are most prominent. The temptation would be to rely on those sources that streamline one’s project, but at every turn Tetreault cogently analyzes alternative interpretations. The book’s narrative, therefore, renders an excellent portrayal of the rich twists and turns of domestic politics, making it one of the finest examples of the adage that much of politics is informal and all of it is ultimately local.
Though the book does provide some discussion of Kuwait’s political history, the research is primarily focused on post-liberation Kuwait and parliament. A central question is, why, despite liberation, significant fiscal dislocation and a history of elected representation, did Kuwait not more significantly democratize in the 1990s? In one of the best chapters, “Iraqi Occupation and Kuwaiti Democracy,” the author provides an unequaled discussion of this pivotal period and the highly sensitive social divisions that emerged. Much like the political failure of the resistance parties in post-war Europe, Kuwait’s post-war democracy movement foundered on divisions between those who endured Iraqi occupation (insiders) and those who watched the occupation via CNN (outsiders). However, the book leaves unanswered a vexing question introduced in the chapter: What has been the extent of genuine democratization in Kuwait? The start of the chapter argues that the invasion and its aftermath “helped shift the balance between the regime and its opponents in favor of pro-democracy elements.” Throughout the book, instances are highlighted in which “the ability of citizens to carve out spheres of autonomy is extensive” (p. 184). Even the strategy of “desertification” (a regime effort to supplant the liberal opposition with more loyal bedouin and tribal elements in the 1980s) is deemed to have failed. However, despite these apparent advances, Tetreault admits that the government successfully bypassed many opposition efforts and really only delivered on the promise to hold elections after liberation. But are the machinations and powers of the elected parliament of the 1990s really different from their predecessors in the 1960s and early 1970s? Certainly, a key indicator is the composition of the prime minister’s Cabinet, and the book (chapter 7) clearly shows that the opposition has made little headway there. So, did opposition agency fail, or did the regime’s divide-and-rule tactics overwhelm the opposition (p. 227)?
There are hints but no definitive conclusions. The focus on agency does bracket any useful discussion of structural change that may provide firmer conclusions. Such change can reveal many of the interests upon which most agency is presumably exercised. Consider one hint, the problematic role of the Kuwaiti business elite. The original liberal opposition leaders of the first parliamentary movement in the region and possessors of significant agency capabilities, business elites, according to Tetreault, were the primary victims of the desertification strategy. Though figures like Abdul Aziz al-Saqr were prominent in opposition efforts to force post-liberation elections, Tetreault argues that “merchant interests work against the coherence of the opposition” (p.130). Why this change? Oddly, there is little discussion of actual merchant agency, rather it is their growing internal divisions that are to blame for their lack of opposition. However, if we consider the role of structural change and realize that agency need not always entail action against the government, a different picture comes into focus.
A weakness of the book is the lack of attention to political and structural changes that were well underway prior to the Iraqi invasion. Kuwait’s massive debt problems in the 1980s and efforts at resolution were important precursors to parliamentary politics in the 1990s. The persistence of the crisis and its effects on Kuwait’s financial system created a great deal of shared interest between state officials and business elites represented by the Kuwait Chamber of Commerce and Industry. At nearly every turn, leftist and Islamist opposition elements resisted government-business proposals at reform.
This business-state relationship went beyond the types of pacts Jill Crystal had first documented to resemble more of a coalition. Though merchant representation in parliament was negligible in the 1980s and 1990s, the institutional capabilities of the business class greatly assisted government efforts at debt reform. Unprecedented coordination between Chamber of Commerce officials and government officials eventually resulted in comprehensive debt resolution that was pushed through parliament. As Tetreault’s final chapters document, this common ground was tilled extensively in the 1990s. For the first time, an unelected Chamber official was appointed to head the important Ministry of Commerce and Industry. The well-known financial-disclosure law of 1996 (pp.190-191) has never been implemented precisely because of a confluence of business-government interests to restrict such information. The first Shia elected to the Sunni-dominated Chamber of Commerce board, Abdul Wahab al-Wazzan (p. 233), has facilitated even greater business-government coordination on issues ranging from cooperative reform to new banking regulations, many aimed at limiting the political and financial power of Kuwait’s Islamists.
Finally, the election of Jasim al-Khorafy to speaker of the parliament (the first prominent merchant in that post since the first speaker, Abdul Aziz al-Sagr, in 1961) symbolically solidified the new business-state alliance. In return for a greater voice in economic policy and limitations on political rivals, business elites do seem to have exercised significant agency to advance government policies. New economic realities have perhaps divided business somewhat, but incentives to abandon its opposition role have proven even stronger.