News / Middle East

    Kuwait Takes Tentative Steps to Connect with Youth

    Demonstrators carry placards during a protest in Kuwait City, January 6, 2013.Demonstrators carry placards during a protest in Kuwait City, January 6, 2013.
    x
    Demonstrators carry placards during a protest in Kuwait City, January 6, 2013.
    Demonstrators carry placards during a protest in Kuwait City, January 6, 2013.
    Reuters
    On a January afternoon in Kuwait City, a group of bloggers gathered around three men they would not normally expect to see in a downtown coffee shop, clutching lattes and mochas.

    Education Minister Nayef al-Hajraf, Commerce and Industry Minister Anas al-Saleh and Sheikh Mohammad al-Mubarak al-Sabah, all in their early 40s, had come for an informal meeting with some 30 Kuwaiti bloggers and online journalists to discuss issues that concern young people.

    "It was an ice-breaking action," Sheikh Mohammad, a member of the ruling family who is Kuwait's minister for cabinet and municipal affairs, told Reuters.

    "We wanted them to hear what we had to say. We wanted to hear what they had to say," he said in the April interview.

    Like most countries in the Gulf region, Kuwait has seen little of the kind of turmoil that turfed out entrenched rulers in other Arab countries in 2011. But opposition politicians and a youth movement have been emboldened.

    Dozens of activists and political figures have been charged since late last year with insulting 83-year-old ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, mainly in comments made online.

    Young people regularly spill out onto the street to protest over local issues. Most of the gatherings are peaceful, but some have resulted in clashes with police.

    In an attempt to prepare for the future of a country where more than half of citizens are under 25, Kuwait has tasked the three men and other younger officials with exploring reform. With little desire to substantively change the political structure - the Al-Sabah family has ruled Kuwait for 250 years - the men are focusing their efforts on the economy.

    Their concerns about Kuwait's economic future give them common ground with many activists, a Kuwait-based diplomat said.

    "They understand the difficulties and the realities of the situation here," the diplomat said. "But they face huge hurdles."

    Getting a handle

    A major oil producer and U.S. ally, Kuwait is one of the world's richest countries per capita and one of the most politically free in the Gulf, but development has stalled due to bureaucracy and political upheaval - December's parliamentary election was the fifth since 2006.

    The economy is almost entirely dependent on oil, even more than most in the oil-rich Gulf region. Income from crude made up 94 percent of Kuwait's state revenues in the first 10 months of the fiscal year.

    The International Monetary Fund has warned that Kuwait may exhaust all of its oil savings by 2017 if it keeps raising state spending at the current rapid rate.

    Officials like Sheikh Mohammad, an influential member of the younger generation of the Al-Sabah family, are acutely aware of the threat posed by this lack of diversification, diplomats and political analysts say.

    The younger officials also may be amenable to modest political reforms to ease long-running tensions between the hand-picked government and elected parliament, which are seen to be among the main factors holding up development, they say.

    Education Minister Hajraf, who observers say is determined to overhaul the lagging education system, was CEO at an Abu Dhabi real estate company and worked as a financial advisor to Kuwait's stock exchange before going into government. He studied at the University of Illinois and completed a doctorate in accounting at Britain's Hull University.

    Saleh, the commerce and industry minister, worked for several financial companies in Kuwait after studying business administration at the University of Portland.

    Sheikh Mohammad, the son of a well-known female Kuwaiti poet and a former deputy ruler, like his colleagues speaks almost flawless English thanks to his studies in Britain.

    He favors an informal style, especially when meeting young Kuwaitis. At a recent youth conference, he applauded Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah's decision to relax the dress code, no longer requiring that ministers wear the formal "bisht" cloak over their everyday white robes.

    "I was told, no, don't wear it; the prime minister is not wearing it, and I was very happy to hear that," he said.

    The young ministers have the ear of the prime minister, who selected them for his cabinet, although their influence on major policymaking is not thought to be comparable to the emir's close advisors.

    "These guys absolutely get it," another Kuwait-based diplomat said. "They understand the need for reform, particularly on the business side."

    Housing and bureaucracy

    This younger generation has contributed to attempts to address the housing shortage and curb the bureaucracy that has held up investment - top concerns for young Kuwaitis today.

    A report from the Oxford Business Group said in April that the waiting list for government-subsidized housing has grown to more than 100,000 in a country of 1.2 million Kuwaitis with access to generous welfare benefits.

    The government hopes to remedy the shortage with new developments.

    There also has been more immediate progress at the multi-billion-dinar sovereign wealth fund, where the amount of money allocated for the part of the fund focused on saving for future generations was more than doubled last year.

    Hajraf oversaw that change during a brief stint as finance minister after his predecessor was forced out by a hostile parliament.

    The Commerce Ministry under Saleh last year also pushed through a companies law aimed at simplifying procedures and encouraging investment.

    The ministry plans to issue temporary company licenses on the same day the application is made, rather than having people wait up to a year for a permanent license - a common complaint among young Kuwaiti entrepreneurs.

    Meeting at the coffee house

    Some of those who attended the coffee shop meeting on January 22 were disappointed, partly because Kuwaiti media turned up to what was supposed to be a private gathering and the talks veered off into daily politics instead of focusing on a long-term vision for the country.

    "There were people from the outside, and they messed up the event," said Khalil Alhamar, a 23-year-old who runs the blog Q8path.

    But al-Qabas, an independent daily owned by business families, praised the meeting as an attempt to encourage a dialogue between the government and the youth.

    Young people were turned off by official speeches and were turning to social media, the newspaper said in a column at the time. It called the meeting a strange, but promising, attempt to change the government's style.

    "It is a breakthrough from the formal address, filled with courtesies and empty promises, which state departments' offices routinely spew out," columnist Iqbal al-Ahmad wrote.

    Blogger Alhamar wondered, however, whether anything would come of it. "We have lots of talk but we need action,'' he said.

    You May Like

    Russia Sees Brexit Impact Widespread but Temporary

    Officials, citizens react to Britain’s vote to exit European Union with mix of pleasure, understanding and concern

    Obama Encourages Entrepreneurs to Seek Global Interconnection

    President tells entrepreneurs at global summit at Stanford University to find mentors, push ahead with new ideas on day after Britain voters decide to exit EU

    Video Some US Gun Owners Support Gun Control

    Defying the stereotype, Dave Makings says he'd give up his assault rifle for a comprehensive program to reduce gun violence

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Unchartered Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Unchartered Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora