Violence and opposition in the Persian Gulf monarchies are nothing new, with 2010 having had its fair share of Sunni-Shia riots in Saudi Arabia and government crackdowns in Bahrain. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - buffered by much higher GDP-per-capita values - have been more tranquil, but neither are complacent (the latter’s security forces recently underwent extensive riot and attack dog training). But the recent incidents in Kuwait warrant particular attention, not only because they reveal a strong and unrelenting undercurrent of opposition to authoritarian structures, but also because international freedom indices usually credit the emirate with having much greater political freedom and civil liberties than its neighbours.
On 8 December 2010 a particularly violent episode took place when Kuwaiti security forces attacked a group of individuals protesting outside a building. Government-affiliated newspapers in friendly nearby regimes dismissed it as a "scuffle", but four members of Kuwait's parliament, an academic, and at least a dozen others were in fact beaten and some were hospitalized. The group's members originally intended to hold a seminar inside the building and believed they had the ruler’s permission to do so, but later in the day police officials informed them that they had to move their chairs outside the building on the pretext that there were too many people. Members of the group claim that they received no warning and were not given an opportunity to negotiate or disperse. They claimed that when the attack began, they made an announcement on a loudspeaker to disperse immediately in order to avoid violence.
It appears the security forces attacked the group on the grounds that public gatherings of a political nature in Kuwait are illegal. However, in 2005 Kuwait’s Constitutional Court ruled that this legislation was outdated and that it violated Kuwait’s constitution. Since the attack, three opposition members of parliament have filed a motion to question the prime minister – a senior member of the ruling family - on the grounds that the government is restricting freedoms. The three members represent the three main opposition factions in the parliament and are believed to be supported by a further 17 members. The prime minister appears unwilling to acknowledge any wrongdoing. The government has stated that it regrets recent "illegal rallies" in Kuwait and commended the security forces for maintaining law and order and confronting "attempts to cause chaos and undermine national security."
The incident has also had a significant impact on media freedom in Kuwait, with domestic newspapers and news agencies being warned not to cover the attack. When Qatar’s Al-Jazeera network – which usually does a good job of bringing regional politics to the fore - covered the story and interviewed opposition figures on its satellite TV channel, the Kuwaiti government responded by closing down the network's Kuwait City bureau. Kuwait’s Ministry for Information has since issued a statement claiming that it contacted Al-Jazeera and instructed it not to interfere in Kuwait’s internal affairs. Al-Jazeera has justified its coverage of the story on the grounds that its editorial policy requires its reporters to give voice to all sides of the story. It has also stated that it will continue to cover Kuwaiti affairs and will not give in to threats from the Kuwaiti government. Meanwhile, the latter's suspicion of Al-Jazeera was probably not helped by last week's by Wikileaks revelations of a US assessment that Qatar uses the network as a foreign policy tool.
On 12 December 2010 a further incident took place when a law professor at Kuwait University was arrested at his home and taken into custody. He was interrogated for eight hours before being charged with spreading false information and provoking security officers. It is believed he had been openly critical of the ruling family. Although the Kuwait University Faculty Association has since organized solidarity seminars and has called for the individual's release, he remains in detention. Significantly, a video of his night-time arrest is circulating on the Internet and attracting a large number of comments.
The attack, the subsequent arrests, and the media blackout have come at a difficult time for Kuwait. They are likely to provoke more protests, and probably further public rallies. Also, even though conventional media outlets are unlikely to cover these stories, Kuwait bloggers will intensify their discussion of the subject. In common with the other Gulf monarchies the Kuwaiti ruling family and its government still doesn’t have a road map for political reform in place, despite paying Tony Blair’s consultancy firm more than US$40 million for advice. The current parliamentary system remains inherently unstable and the current crackdown will likely lead to yet another dissolution of the parliament, and it may be several months before the ruler feels comfortable enough for it to reconvene. More broadly, the government’s use of security forces against citizens and the blocking of Al-Jazeera will send out a signal to foreign investors, observers, and other interested parties that the Kuwait government is steadily losing control over its backyard.