GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Merchants, Tribes, Shi’ites and the state in Kuwait: A micro-sociology of state-society relations in Kuwait from the angle of its main voting blocs (1990s – 2012)
Paper Proposal Text :
This paper aims to fill the analytical gap in our understanding of state-society relations in the Arabian Gulf, born out of the dissatisfaction with the prevalent state-centered literature, grounded in Rentier State Theory (RST). It does so by providing a micro-sociology of power in Kuwait; a field which has still largely gone unexplored. The focus of study is the important change in state-society relations Kuwait has witnessed since the 1990s. Precisely, it studies the evolution of the balance of power between the state’s major social groupings - the traditional Sunni merchant families, the Bedu, and the Shi’ite community - as well as between them and the state. Doing so, it aims to understand the capacities and limits of the Kuwaiti rentier state in its ability to co-opt socio-political forces. It demonstrates the hybrid nature and multifaceted nature of politics in the Emirate, as “traditional” forces (i.e. based upon primordial ties) coexist with new, “modern” (i.e. based upon class relations/ ideology) forces of expression and contestation.

Since the 1990s - especially since the American intervention in Iraq (2003) - state-society relations have drastically changed in Kuwait. On the internal level, growing opposition of radical Sunnite Islamists and the Bedouins (most of whom adhere to Islamist currents), has driven the regime to enforce its ties with its Shi’ite minority. It did so by incorporating a small group of very wealthy Shi’ite merchants – by means of economic favouritism – in the highest political ‘asabiyya around the Al-Sabah family. These ‘new’ Shiite merchants have recently started to gain influence in Shiite community politics - through investment in Shi’ite media but also through extensive charitable giving in the local community. By using the private sector as the primary tool for political patronage, the state hence continues to favor informal forms of rule over rational, bureaucratized modes. Yet, it was the feeling of an increasingly hostile society which has led the Shi’ites to seek recent state patronage, as was the case in 1938.

Whilst the case-study of the Shi’ite community points to the capacity of the rentier state to co-opt societal groups, I argue that it is mostly the minority status which explains the Shi’ites rallying behind the rulers since 2009. More often than not, Kuwaiti society has tried to challenge regime’s legitimacy. In recent years, the government’s vote-buying strategies towards the large voting bloc of tribal constituencies are no longer effective, as tribal candidates have come to be mandated by their constituencies to voice opposition to the government; which they tend to view as egregiously secular or tainted by corruption. Tribal leaders have succeeded to penetrate the state’s political institutions, and played a crucial role in the recent ousting of the PM. Also, the 2011 strikes of public sector workers point to the dysfunctional nature of the GCC rentier state in its capacity to buy social peace through rent redistribution.

The paper concludes that the rise of these new political forces is a manifestation of a deeper phenomenon to be observed in the wider region, republics and monarchies alike: the political emancipation of the (salaried) middle classes, increasingly disintegrated from semi-corporatist forms of inclusion. Even in the rich rentier state of Kuwait, the middle class - notably tribal constituencies, representing more than half of the electorate -has become increasingly dissatisfied with corruption scandals and the liberal policies. As the old status-quo that kept the Bedu under Hadhar control gradually fades into memory, the Al-Sabah regime might find it increasingly difficult to sustain its traditional politics of maintaining the pre-oil communal order, placing the asli merchant families on top of social hierarchy. This puts into question the dominant notion of state legitimacy and citizenship, based upon exclusive social rights, in the absence of mere political rights. Coming elections are hence likely to significantly alter alliances and might turn the balance in favor of Sunni Islamists at the detriment of the Shi’ite pro-government deputies and the liberals.