May 15 (Bloomberg) — Most Middle Eastern countries need more democracy, the U.S. and European Union say. In Kuwait, viewed by the West as more democratic than most of its neighbors, the result has been deadlock.
Kuwaitis vote for a new parliament on May 17 after Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah dissolved the legislature in March for the second time since 2006. He said it was obstructing his agenda of modernizing the economy and instead pursuing Islamist policies and focusing on local issues.
In the past year, parliament has passed a pay increase for government workers and tried to force the resignation of Education Minister Nouriya Al-Subaih for refusing to wear an Islamic-style headscarf. It also has refused to pass a government-backed bill to sell off state-owned companies for more than 15 years.
“The Kuwaiti democratic experiment seems like a recipe for immobility to others in the region,” said Nathan Brown, head of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, in an e-mail. “In previous years, Kuwait was seen as a bit bold by regional standards in experimenting with democracy. Now, however, most eyes are on Dubai as a model” for economic management.
While Dubai has become a regional financial and tourism center, attracting international banks such as Merrill Lynch & Co. and Deutsche Bank AG, Kuwait remains the most oil-dependent economy in the Persian Gulf: 55 percent of gross domestic product came from oil sales in 2006. The deadlock also has been a blow to U.S. efforts to promote the sheikhdom as an example of an emerging democracy in the region.
In the past, Kuwait’s rulers have bypassed democratic traditions in response to legislative gridlock. Parliament was suspended from 1976 to 1981 and again from 1986 to 1992, both times because it had delayed government-proposed legislation.
It was reinstated for the second time after U.S.-led coalition forces liberated Kuwait from the 1990 invasion by then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Today, the administration of President George W. Bush counts on Kuwait to help in efforts toward stability, security and democratic governance in Iraq. Kuwait City hosted a meeting of neighboring countries and other backers in April, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appealed to regional powers for support.
Rice frequently urges Middle Eastern governments, including Kuwait, to adopt more democratic principles and tells the story of a T-shirt sent to her by a woman who campaigned for suffrage in Kuwait. The shirt says “Half a democracy is not a democracy at all,” Rice said.
Kuwait gave women the vote in 2005 and has held nine parliamentary elections since 1961, following independence from the U.K. It remains one of the few Gulf states to have democratic balloting.
The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Kuwait second-highest among the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries in terms of democracy, behind Bahrain. The United Arab Emirates, which includes Dubai, is the second-lowest, just above Saudi Arabia.
Although the 50-seat parliament can propose and revise legislation, it has no say in the formation of the Cabinet, which is traditionally headed by a senior member of the ruling Al-Sabah family. The Cabinet directs government policy.
For these elections, the government has redivided the country into five districts instead of 25 in hopes that the new legislature will be less concerned with local and tribal interests and more focused on national issues.
Kuwait is the sixth-wealthiest country in the world, with a gross domestic product of $55,300 for each of its 2.6 million people in 2007. It also is home to the world’s fourth-largest sovereign wealth fund, worth as much as $250 billion, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The campaigns show that wealth. Guests in the air- conditioned campaign tent of candidate Marzouk al-Ghanim in a Kuwait City suburb are treated to a free buffet of Arabic and Western-style dishes from the kitchen of a top hotel.
Billboards often carry a picture of the candidate and no slogans, and some candidates give out expensive perfume with their pictures on the bottles. Police have detained 12 people on suspicions of vote-buying, the Al-Watan newspaper reported.
“The provincial focus of many MPs has made it difficult for parliament to take a broader strategic view,” said London- based Tristan Cooper, chief sovereign analyst for Moody’s Investors Service in the Middle East. “Parliament has tended to be rather obstructive when it comes to economic reforms.”
A bill to sell off state enterprises has been stuck in committee since 1992. Legislation allowing foreign firms to take part in a project to boost oil production to 4 million barrels a day from 2.4 million barrels has been stalled since 1997. Legislators object to foreign participation requirements.
“People in this part of the world are not accustomed to democracy,” said Ali Al-Baghli, a former parliament member. “Democracy is malfunctioning but we don’t think the solution is to abandon it. We think we are new to democracy and that with time people will improve the experience.”