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

African States Push to Keep Boko Haram Offline

Central African telecoms ministers working with Nigeria to block all videos posted by Boko Haram in effort to blunt Nigerian militant group's propaganda More

Falling Oil Prices, Internet-Savvy Youth Pose Challenge for Gulf Monarchies

Across the Gulf, younger generations are putting a strain on traditional politics More

Philippines Call Center Workers Face Challenges

Country has world’s largest business process outsourcing, or BPO, industry, employing some one-million workers More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More