Baker Institute report examines Kuwait’s fragile pluralism and inclusion post-Arab Spring

A new report from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy draws attention to the countervailing dynamics of pluralism and inclusion in Kuwait since the onset of the Arab Spring protests in 2010.

The Kuwait Towers in Kuwait City. Credit: 123RF.com/Rice University

The country’s experience in particular demonstrates the fragile nature of fundamental political rights and inclusive policies in the Arab Gulf region, said A.Kadir Yildirim, fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute, who edited the report, “Pluralism and Inclusion in Post-2011 Kuwait.”

The report is a collection of issue briefs by authors Daniel Tavana of Princeton University, Courtney Freer of the London School of Economics, Hamad Albloshi of Kuwait University and Tahani Al Terkait of Durham University. The authors’ briefs analyze the political, religious, social and gender dynamics of pluralism in Kuwait, examining the actions of both societal and oppositional groups and regime policies.

“Kuwait, one of the bright spots for democracy in the Gulf region prior to the Arab Spring protests, has since experienced mounting challenges to its pluralistic socio-political makeup,” Yildirim wrote. “Recent developments have shown the extent of the existential threat felt by the regime as the demands and actions of political opponents continue unabated. The regime’s fears have led to major changes to aspects of Kuwait’s political system — changes put in place to reduce the available maneuvering space for the opposition, thereby undermining key pillars of pluralism in the country.

“While we are accustomed to the idea that the struggle for such rights moves toward greater inclusion, the past decade has shown that the assumption does not withstand the force of pushback by illiberal currents both in the Middle East and the rest of the world, including the United States.”

In his brief, “The Evolution of the Kuwaiti ‘Opposition’: Electoral Politics after the Arab Spring,” Tavana examines the specific ways new electoral law hinders the opposition’s chances of winning seats in the parliament. Freer’s brief, “Kuwait’s Post-Arab Spring Islamist Landscape: The End of Ideology?” argues that cross-ideological collaboration has enabled Islamist actors to push back against the regime’s restrictive policies to curb political pluralism in the parliament. In the brief “Social Activism and Political Change in Kuwait Since 2006,” Albloshi sheds light on the dynamics of recent social activism in Kuwait. Finally, two recent events have shaped gender politics in Kuwait in recent years: the Sufoor controversy and the “My Hijab Makes My Life Beautiful” campaign. Al Terkait investigates both events in her brief “Civil vs. Religious Dilemmas in Pluralistic Society: Examples of Gender Politics from Kuwait.”

The report is based on a May 5 workshop held in Kuwait City in collaboration with the Alsalam Center for Strategic and Developmental Studies and hosted by Kuwait University. It is part of a broader, two-year Baker Institute research project, “Building Pluralistic and Inclusive States Post-Arab Spring,” supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Yildirim and Baker Institute colleague Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East, are the project’s principal investigators.

Yildirim’s main research interests include politics and religion, political Islam, the politics of the Middle East and Turkish politics.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.