| KUWAIT, April 2
KUWAIT, April 2 With a youthful, well-educated
population, strong relationships with both neighbours and world
powers, and a strategic location on the Gulf, major oil producer
Kuwait should be as dynamic a hub for the region as Dubai or
But while others in the Gulf have powered ahead, attracting
foreign investment and developing infrastructure, Kuwait has
stagnated, frustrating the people of a country once seen as a
Middle East trailblazer.
This frustration is especially evident among young Kuwaitis,
cosmopolitan and often educated abroad, who complain of
bureaucratic red tape and dysfunctional politics, but also
acknowledge complacency among their fellow citizens.
Although thousands took to Kuwait's streets in 2011 and
2012, seeking moderate political reforms, the demonstrations
eventually fizzled, at least partly due to Kuwaitis' alarm over
the chaos and rise of Islamists in the Arab Spring countries.
Kuwait's system of government handouts and well-paid,
comfortable state jobs also blunted calls for change, whether in
politics or in the state-reliant economy, observers say.
"We are very lucky that we are financially very
comfortable," said Maha al-Baghli, president of the association
of business and professional women in Kuwait and an advocate for
"On the other hand, it is not encouraging entrepreneurs and
hard work," Baghli told Reuters.
Sandwiched between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the country is one
of the world's richest per capita, and more than half of its 1.2
million citizens are under 25.
Kuwait's leaders point to political deadlock in parliament
that makes it difficult to get things done. But many observers
say the government's frequent personnel changes, layers of
bureaucracy and general ennui are also to blame.
"We don't take the government seriously. They talk, but they
do not do," said one Kuwaiti newspaper editor, who asked not to
be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.
The trauma of Saddam Hussein's invasion in 1990 deepened an
innate cautiousness in Kuwaiti society, some believe.
When asked in 2010 why Kuwait appeared to have lost position
to other Gulf states, its emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah,
told Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:
"Every country follows its own path, according to the
demands of its society."
Kuwait's parliament is the oldest and most influential in
the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. The assembly can block
legislation and interrogate ministers, who are selected by a
prime minister chosen by the emir.
Relations between the elected assembly and government have
often been fraught, however, with six parliamentary elections
since 2006 and more than ten different governments, resulting
more in political stasis than dynamism.
In addition, members of the ruling family tend to hold the
top government posts, while 84-year-old Sheikh Sabah has the
final say on state affairs.
The political stand-offs are seen to be a main factor
holding up economic reforms and a 30-billion-dinar ($106.5-
billion) development plan for major infrastructure projects,
announced in 2010, aimed at turning Kuwait into a regional
The plan includes projects such as a new airport, refinery
and housing. One major residential city project, planned for
years in the southern desert near the Saudi border, appeared on
a recent visit to have made little progress.
Shafeeq Ghabra, professor of political science at Kuwait
University, said there is a growing sense that the current
system is not working.
"There needs to be a political system which is more
representative, more equal and more grassroots, with new blood
at the highest level - that is able to deal with the issues that
have been mounting over the past two decades," Ghabra said.
"You cannot freeze yourself in a moment in history."
Kuwaitis compare their financial centre to Dubai, ruled by
United Arab Emirates Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid
"It's leadership," said the editor, when asked about what
makes the UAE, also home to Abu Dhabi, work. Kuwait's government
has not implemented a strategic vision, he said.
"(Sheikh Mohammed) has a vision, he has a plan. From
arriving at the airport until you leave. You respect this."
The UAE also brooks no dissent, however. The contrast
highlights the fact that Kuwait's example of limited greater
freedoms has not impressed its neighbours, commentators say.
"The failure of Kuwait to keep pace with its neighbours does
have an unfortunate side-effect of dampening support for even
partial political participation," said Kristian Ulrichsen, Gulf
expert at the U.S-based Baker Institute.
"Rulers elsewhere look at the political deadlock and take
the lesson that this is what happens when too many unpredictable
elements are brought into the decision-making process."
COST OF DOING BUSINESS
One thing that infuriates young Kuwaitis on a day-to-day
level is how much easier it can be to do business in other Gulf
countries - even next door in deeply conservative Saudi Arabia.
When Shawaf al-Shawaf wanted to register his kitchen tools
business in Kuwait, the bureaucratic process took six months. In
Saudi Arabia, it took him less than a day.
"If I need to go to a government department, I cancel my
whole day because I know I will spend the whole time there,"
said Shawaf, 24, who set up his company Dolsten in late 2012.
A 2013 World Bank ranking on the ease of doing business puts
Kuwait at 104 out of 189 economies, by far the lowest in the
GCC. The next lowest, Qatar, is at 48 while Saudi Arabia is at
26 and the UAE leads at 23.
The government says it wants to make bureaucratic processes
easier for small and medium-sized companies and support youth
initiatives, and has set up a 2 billion dinar fund to help such
But people in Kuwait say the country will only carry out
serious economic and political reforms if faced with a crisis,
such as a steep fall in oil prices. Oil accounts for nearly all
of the state revenues.
In addition, high government wages and generous benefits
will not be sustainable forever. The International Monetary Fund
says spending could exceed income as early as 2017 if it
continues to grow at the current rate.
"I don't think that change is likely unless it is forced on
them," a Western diplomat said, declining to be named because of
the political sensitivity of the subject.
($1 = 0.2816 Kuwaiti Dinars)
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)