Kuwait fails to keep up with its neighbours لماذا فشلت الكويت في مواكبة دول الخليج؟


أدت مقارنة الكويتيين لبلدهم بدول الخليج الأخرى، إلى نوع من عُقدة النقص؛ فرغم أن الكويت تملك ثاني أعلى دخل للفرد في المنطقة (وأعلى رابع دخل للفرد على مستوى العالم) – بفضل الاحتياطي الكبير للنفط الخاص بها وقلة عدد السكان – إلا أنها تراجعت عن دول مثل قطر والإمارات، من حيث الديناميكية والجاذبية الدولية، وفي الوقت الحاضر تبدو السعودية أيضًا طليقة من الناحية الاقتصادية.


KUWAITIS often compare their country with the other states of the Gulf, leading to something of an inferiority complex. Yes, it has the second highest GDP per person in the region (and the fourth-highest in the world), thanks to its large oil reserves and small population. But it has fallen behind countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in terms of dynamism and international appeal. Nowadays even Saudi Arabia looks more freewheeling, economically speaking.

Still, Kuwait distinguishes itself in one respect. It is the closest thing to a democracy in the Gulf. The ruling Al Sabah family is firmly in charge—it limits speech and appoints the most important figures in government, including the prime minister (who selects the rest). But a 50-member National Assembly is elected by the people (including women) and is often truculent. Indeed, in an election on November 26th voters kicked out over half the incumbents in favour of candidates who promised to confront the government over recent austerity measures.

The emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, cited “security challenges” as a reason for calling the snap election. But the public focused on decisions earlier this year to raise the price of petrol and other subsidised commodities. This was necessary, said ministers, to close a deficit that reached $15bn last year owing to the low price of oil, which supplies 90% of government revenues. Voters saw it as a harbinger of future cuts to Kuwait’s sumptuous welfare state. They want the assembly to put up more of a fight.

Pro-government types argue that the assembly holds Kuwait back from developing as fast as other Gulf states, where ruling families need not gain approval for their plans. Indeed, the Kuwaiti assembly often blocks big projects. Voters are concerned with keeping their government jobs and cheap public services.

But it is wrong to blame the assembly for Kuwait’s stagnation. For the past three-and-a-half years it has simply done the government’s bidding. Changes to the electoral law in 2012 led opposition groups to boycott two rounds of elections (but not the most recent one). In that time the government has made progress in building new houses and hospitals. But it has not put forward the type of broad economic vision that animates other Gulf states.

Innovative Dubai is the comparison that most frustrates Kuwaitis. That is in part because Kuwait was once the Gulf’s trailblazer. It set up the world’s first sovereign-wealth fund in 1953 and was a leader in health care. It started one of the first airlines in the region. But the decline of Kuwait Airways is instructive. As its fleet aged and losses piled up, carriers from Qatar and the UAE began offering better service and more routes. Politicians have talked of privatisation. But parliament, reluctant to mess with one of the country’s biggest employers, has frustrated these efforts.

Let Dubai keep its bikini-clad beachgoers and cocktail-sipping tourists, say most Kuwaitis, who view such things with pious distaste. What they envy is Dubai’s energy and efficiency. The UAE (of which Dubai is a part) ranks 26th in the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business index; Kuwait is 102nd. The ruling Al-Maktoum family of Dubai encourages development through a suite of companies known as “Dubai Inc”. In Kuwait, the government owns most of the land and hampers its use by the private sector, says Michael Herb of Georgia State University. “There is no Kuwait Inc.”

The government’s failings extend to public services. It has neglected public hospitals and schools. Low electricity prices and a sweltering climate make Kuwait one of the world’s biggest consumers of energy per person. But the government, which is the sole provider of electricity, has invested little in infrastructure. Parliament has delayed efforts to boost the supply. In 2014 a power outage shut down all three of the country’s oil refineries, crippling fuel production for a week. Endemic corruption completes the dismal picture.

So Kuwaitis have responded to the government’s call for austerity by telling it to put its own house in order. But beyond opposing cuts, few of the new MPs have a vision for the country. More stagnation seems likely and perhaps more elections; there have been four in the past five years. Quasi-democracy is seldom satisfying.

Middle east

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