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

    Turkey, US Splits Deepen Over Support for Kurdish Militants

    Ankara summons American ambassador to protest remarks by State Department spokesman who said Washington does not consider Syria's Kurdish Democracy Union Party (PYD) a terrorist organization

    Obama Seeking $19 Billion for National Cybersecurity

    Move, touted as attempt to build broad, cohesive federal response to cyberthreats, calls for increase in cybersecurity spending across all government agencies

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire, who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clownsi
    X
    February 09, 2016 8:04 PM
    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay Prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Middle East Affairs and national security.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.