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Kuwait: Politics and Oil in the Gulf

By Kathleen T. Bailey '76
Adjunct Associate Professor of Political Science

"Kuwait: Politics and Oil in the Gulf" is one of 30 courses offered each year through the Summer Study Abroad Program, Office of International Programs at Boston College. These are unique opportunities for students to study intensely in a foreign country with BC faculty as their intellectual guides. The Kuwait course has been offered for the past five years, and I have had the pleasure of bringing more than 80 students on the adventure of a lifetime.

Kuwait is the ideal place to study Middle East politics, despite the fact that the temperature often exceeds 120 degrees in May and June when the four–week course is offered. Kuwait is best known for its production of oil, accounting for about 8 percent of world reserves. It produces 2.5 million barrels of oil a day (bpd) and expects this figure to rise to 4 million bpd as new fields in the north are tapped and new production techniques come on line. Although Kuwait has pledged to diversify its economy and attract private investment, hydrocarbons account for half of its hefty 8.2 percent GDP, 95 percent of export revenues, and 95 percent of government income. With a citizen population of only 1.2 million (total population is 2.7 million, but 65 percent of Kuwait's population is expatriate labor), there is plenty of wealth to go around. In fact, while we were there, the government announced that the budget surplus for 2011 amounted to $50 billion, even after payments to the Fund for Future Generations and the Sovereign Wealth Fund were made.

Kuwait is a classic example of a rentier economy in which the state distributes income from petroleum exports to the population without extracting revenue through taxation. Dubbed the "nanny state" or "la–la land" by some locals, Kuwaitis are the beneficiaries of cradle-to-grave public welfare programs. These entitlements include free healthcare, education, guaranteed employment, subsidized housing, water, energy, and food. Just before our arrival, every citizen had received $3,500 and free food due to a banner year in oil revenue. During our stay, there was a popular movement to get the National Assembly to approve a bill that would forgive all personal credit card debt.

This so–called "resource curse" may not sound so annoying to those of us who have taxes and bills to pay but, in fact, it has impeded Kuwait's development in some important ways. With income from exports so high, there is little incentive to diversify, reform, and modernize the economy. The private sector is so limited that one businessman told us that the government supplements the income of Kuwaitis who work for him by paying them "hardship" wages. Extensive energy subsidies mean there is little inducement for energy conservation. And guaranteed employment in the state sector, where 90 percent of Kuwaitis work, means overstaffed bureaucracies, massive redundancies, and inflated salaries. A World Bank study estimated that on average, Kuwaitis work about 15 minutes a day.

However, there is one area in which Kuwait has defied the "resource curse" paradigm, which argues that there is a direct correlation between abundant natural resources and repression, or a democracy deficit: without taxation, it is difficult to demand representation. On the contrary, Kuwait's parliament is independent, feisty, and combative. It routinely files interpellations against cabinet members, forces resignations of government ministers, and recently compelled the resignation of a prime minister, who is a high–ranking member of the royal family. Parliament is chosen by popular vote in free and fair elections and accurately represents the viewpoints of citizens. And herein lies the problem.

Kuwait's population is divided into two rather distinct groups: urban elites (35 percent), who were the first to settle in Kuwait before the discovery of oil, and the more recently arrived tribal groups (65 percent), who were given full citizenship and the right to vote in the 1970s as part of the Emir's campaign to check the power of the urban class. The socially conservative tribal groups have begun to find their voice and to win seats in parliament. In the 2012 elections, Islamist and tribal candidates garnered 35 out of 50 seats in the National Assembly, a surprising increase over 2009, when they held 16 seats. Their populist policies reflect the perspective of the majority of voters on social issues. For example, during our stay, parliamentarians debated a "bikini bill" to ban swimsuits, a blasphemy law to give the death penalty to anyone who insults Islamic religious figures, the use of "morality police" to monitor women à la Saudi Arabia, stricter gender segregation in schools, and a constitutional change that would make sharia law "the" source of legislation rather than "a" source, as it now stands.

On the economic front, tribal groups tend to be less wealthy than urban elites and more dependent on the state for subsidies and entitlements. They are inclined to assume that privatization advantages urban elites and will jeopardize their stream of benefits. Thus, they pressure parliament to forgive debts, share oil profits, and raise government salaries, all of which were at least partly accomplished in the short time our group lived in Kuwait. On the other hand, the social issues mentioned above did not succeed in making it into law because the emir, who is a mite more liberal than his subjects, summarily rejected them.

In one sense, parliament is effective because it represents the interests of the majority of its constituents and takes up the issues they deem important. This means, however, that major projects and serious problems go unaddressed. The northern oil field is not being worked, a major oil refinery is not being built, the main sewage line in Kuwait City is not being repaired, and a $17 billion joint venture with the Dow Chemical Company was withdrawn as the members of parliament debated the merits of bikinis. Some Kuwaitis argue that parliament can act irresponsibly because it is well known the emir will step in to save it from itself. Many urban elites are beginning to admire the efficient, authoritarian systems of Dubai and Qatar, whose powerhouse economies have overtaken Kuwait's, especially in the areas of diversification and foreign direct investment. Nonetheless, Kuwaitis are dedicated to the preservation of their quasi–democratic system, still a rare commodity in the region even after the developments of the Arab Spring.

All of this makes Kuwait a fascinating place to study. Our days are filled with classes, presentations by guest speakers, site visits, and cultural activities, and end with conversation and reflection. Guest speakers include members of parliament, cabinet ministers, academics, artists, religious leaders, business people, journalists, tribal leaders, and young people. We visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Women's Cultural Society (whose founder worked with Mother Teresa), the American Hospital Museum (the first hospital in the Gulf), the U.S. Embassy, a logistics and security company that ships oil and gas throughout the world, Kuwait Oil Company (where we climb precariously on oil rigs in the desert), the Grand Mosque, Holy Family Catholic Church, the Iraq War Museum, several newspapers, Arab Organization Headquarters, the Kuwait Investment Authority, the Old Souk, and many more places, too numerous to list.

Our classes are held at American University of Kuwait, which generously invites us to all its events. Students interact with their Kuwaiti peers, who kindly invite us to their homes, desert camps, and beach chalets. Two weekends are reserved for travel to other Middle Eastern countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Oman, for comparative perspective. In June, we visited Dubai, where we rode camels on a desert safari, and Qatar, where we were granted a rare tour of Al Jazeera.

It is often said that study abroad expands students' academic and social horizons by providing them with global perspective. It gives them new insights, new outlooks, and new experiences that challenge their reality and expand their minds. The following statement from a rising junior captures this experience.

"One of my favorite memories from the incredible month I spent in Kuwait occurred on the very last day of our trip. A student I met at Kuwait University by the name of Altaf invited us to her home for lunch. Lunch in Kuwait is not like lunch in America; Altaf's family had prepared an enormous spread of traditional Kuwaiti food, complete with freshly squeezed guava juice and a delicious date cake dessert. As we all enjoyed a leisurely meal, we discussed everything from politics—including upcoming American presidential elections—to pop culture. I never would have expected to feel so welcome in the home of a family I had just met only an hour earlier. We stayed at Altaf's house for nearly four hours, completely losing track of time in our fun. Before we left, we took pictures together to ensure that we would all remember that wonderful day. I realized in that moment that I wasn't ready to go home; I felt as if our journey in the Gulf had just begun. During my month in Kuwait, I had not only found friends in my fellow Boston College students, I had also formed friendships with people who lived more than 6,000 miles away and came from a completely different culture and background; and this, perhaps, was the most rewarding experience of all."

The 80 students who have traveled to Kuwait are sterling examples of the benefits of intercultural learning. Many of them have returned to the Middle East as Fulbright Scholars or recipients of Boren or other prestigious awards, or are working for the U.S. government, NGOs, or international businesses. All of them have remained friends, forever bonded by the experience of Kuwait.

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