Kuwait’s pardoned dissidents return to a country in crisis

KUWAIT CITY (AP) — More than a decade after a wave of uprisings swept across the Middle East, countless dissidents have encountered grim fates: exiled, imprisoned, disappeared, dead.

Until mere months ago, Musallam al-Barrak, the icon of opposition in Kuwait, seemed another Arab Spring casualty.

As high hopes of protests curdled into political chaos and the downfall of dictators left Gulf Arab states feeling increasingly vulnerable, Kuwait smothered dissent. Four years ago, al-Barrak fled to Turkey so as not to face prison again.

But now, he is home.

With Kuwait trying to claw its way out of a dangerous economic hole and decade of political deadlock, it has done what many countries in the region consider unthinkable — launched a widespread public reconciliation campaign that granted amnesty to prominent political dissidents last fall.

“It was an unexpected, incredible feeling,” al-Barrak recently told The Associated Press in his first interview with foreign media since his return. “We felt the truth, that this was a sign of the nation’s interest in our cause.”

In 2011, the oil-rich Gulf sheikhdoms dodged serious unrest. But as cracks emerged in the veneer of stability, rulers left nothing to chance.

Bahrain’s monarchy clamped down on protests, banned opposition parties and revoked the citizenship of high-profile Shiites.

The United Arab Emirates spent heavily to placate its citizens, jailed Islamists and silenced criticism. Saudi Arabia expanded generous social welfare programs to neutralize opposition. Oman’s sultan is said to have quietly encouraged the return of dissidents in exchange for political quiescence, but the results remain unclear.

Kuwait, home to the most powerful parliament among its Gulf neighbors, has always been different. Where conquest vaulted monarchs to power across the Arabian Peninsula, Kuwait’s ruling Al Sabah family acquired its authority from an agreement among coastal merchants in the 18th century.

However, Kuwait’s experiment with limited democracy has yielded little but frustration. Autocrats in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, their cities gleaming and economies diversifying away from oil, see it as a model to be avoided.

Kuwait’s economy still runs solely on pumping crude. Populist lawmakers blast government corruption and promote Islamist policies while blocking much-needed economic reforms. Cash reserves are running dry. The state cannot borrow money, introduce a sales tax or overhaul its bloated salaries and subsidies because of parliamentary opposition.

“The liquidity crisis has reached a dangerous point when it comes to our ability to pay employee salaries,” said Ahmed al-Hamad, head of parliament’s finance committee. “But we cannot approve debt without a clear plan for how to fight corruption. We don’t trust how it will be managed.”

Kuwait’s budget deficit hit $35.5 billion last year — the highest in its history as the pandemic pulled down oil prices. Fitch, a credit-rating agency, downgraded 11 Kuwaiti banks last month.

In pardoning al-Barrak and nearly three dozen other dissidents, emir Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah met a long-held demand of the opposition — a bid to break the worsening gridlock between the elected parliament and his hand-picked Cabinet.

But hopes for conciliation soon soured.

Some lawmakers withdrew support for the amnesty, rejecting it as a political ploy to win their silence. Others saw it as cosmetic step to avoid further concessions in a country that bans political parties and restricts voting rights.

“Individualism is predominant ... We need collective action,” said opposition lawmaker Hamad al-Matar.

Only with political parties and freer elections, he added, “will there be value for the national dialogue, and for the ruling family if it wants to improve its political work.”

To make their displeasure known, lawmakers recently hauled in ministers for embarrassing questioning sessions over alleged misuse of state funds.

“Look how the government does not respect the constitution!” shouted lawmaker Shuaib al-Muwaizri from the parliamentary chamber during an interrogation of the foreign minister last month, pounding his fist on the lectern. He complained about diplomats’ hotel invoices for over an hour and at one point played a dramatic video showing a Kuwaiti stranded in Austria without embassy help.

The political paralysis prompted Kuwait’s defense and interior ministers to resign in protest last week, citing “the impossibility of reform.”

Al-Barrak and other dissidents, driven into exile for storming parliament in the surge of 2011 protests that led to the ouster of Kuwait’s prime minister, have come home to find this sort of clenched political turmoil.

“Despite Kuwait’s wealth, there is suffering everywhere. ... Kuwaitis are living in a state of anxiety, the feeling that neither the government nor the parliament can solve their problems,” al-Barrak said from his sparse, marble-floored villa. “This is the most dangerous thing that can happen to the democratic experience.”

The 66-year-old firebrand is struggling to carry on the fight. His past conviction for insulting the ruling emir legally bars him from running in future elections.

Still, he vows to remain relevant.

He spends his nights shuttling between diwaniyas, the customary gatherings for tea and talk. In discussions with youth, he describes his dream for a Kuwait with a democratically elected prime minister. In political meetings, he presses for a national conference to create a clear vision for Kuwait’s future.

He warned darkly of the country’s mounting crises: corrupt contractors, languishing projects, dwindling jobs, squandered pensions, electoral restrictions, neglect of schools, repression of freedoms.

“As a former lawmaker, a citizen, a politician, am I not shaken to the core?” he said, his voice swelling.

Mubarak al-Waalan, another pardoned former lawmaker, lamented that the underlying oppression and corruption that drove him to protest had only gotten worse during his exile.

“We tried to offer a future vision for the youth of Kuwait, but unfortunately, our attempts were aborted. We fought and paid a very bitter price,” he said, looking at his youngest son who grew up without him.

The government’s future vision, meanwhile, is an economic reform plan to transform Kuwait into an attractive financial hub by 2035 with an island free-zone called Silk City.

Officials pitch an international airport, Olympic stadium and among the tallest towers on the planet. Citizens speculate that alcohol, banned in the conservative country, will flow to lure tourists.

But political deadlock has created repeated delays.

Today, the 48-kilometer (30-mile) road to Silk City cuts across Kuwait Bay, soaring over pearl blue waters on towering piers before ending abruptly at its destination: nothing but empty desert.