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Abdulrahman Alebrahim

June 4th, 2020

‘The Balancing Powers’: A New Approach to Kuwait’s Modern History

0 comments | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Abdulrahman Alebrahim

June 4th, 2020

‘The Balancing Powers’: A New Approach to Kuwait’s Modern History

0 comments | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

by Abdulrahman Alebrahim
Bedouins played a significant role in balancing the influence of sheikhs and merchants in Kuwait. Source: David Foster, Flickr

Since 2011, the Arab Spring has revealed an overwhelming desire among the inhabitants of Arab countries to introduce political, economic and social changes. Although this trend reached the Gulf States, it has not had a fundamental impact on their political structures as in the case of countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

Nevertheless, sporadic protests flared in four of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), namely: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain. Moreover, the Arab Spring sparked controversy among intellectuals about the actual roots of these movements in recent local history, leading me to reconsider the history of constitutional development in my country, Kuwait.

A few years later, while formulating the idea for my PhD dissertation, my mind became occupied with the practicality of writing about Kuwaiti history. A number of questions sprang to mind: Is the history of Kuwait important? Was our history written properly? Why do we find repetition in the existing literature on the history of Kuwait in Arabic and in English? Why is the analysis mostly related to two categories: the sheikhs – i.e. those belonging to the ruling family – and the merchants? Did other social groups have an impact on the political landscape? And why were they not mentioned in the historical sources addressing the local history?

My pursuit led me to the French Annales School, which provided the starting point for my thinking. This school disbelieved in the Holy Trinity of the individual, politics, and the chronological writing of history. Rather, it expanded to include other areas. This thinking outside the usual historical framework stimulated me to think why social groups other than sheikhs and merchants have been marginalised in Kuwait’s political history.

This led me to formulate a new analytical framework, which I called the ‘Balancing Powers’. I apply this label to social groups that have had an impact on the political, social and economic history of Kuwait, but historians have only mentioned them occasionally without reference to their roles and relationships with other elements of society.

My objective in writing my dissertation was to demonstrate the effectiveness of the ‘Balancing Powers’. As time elapsed and factors changed, these powers became major players in political, economic and social life, and an effective third factor in the political landscape alongside sheikhs and merchants. This article aims to define the idea of ‘Balancing Powers’ in Kuwait, identifying the three phases that these powers went through until the introduction of the country’s constitution in 1962.

In early 1716, an unwritten social contract emerged between Kuwaiti social forces – including the ruling family – based on the Islamic shura system that mandates consultation between the ruler and the elite. During Mubarak al-Sabah’s rule (1896-1915), the traditional shura system was replaced by an authoritarian one, which lasted until his son Salem’s rule ended with his death in 1921. Subsequently, a group of Kuwaiti merchants, religious scholars and ruling family members asked the new ruler, Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah (who ruled from 1921-1950), to restore the shura system. This paved the way for the first written constitutional document in Kuwait in 1921 and a consultative council formed of merchants and religious scholars.

The 1921 Shura Council and constitutional rule lasted only six months before authoritarianism was restored. Eventually, the merchants and ‘Balancing Powers’ again sought to revive the old shura system. This resulted in the establishment of Kuwait’s first Legislative Council in 1938, which led to the drafting of Kuwait’s second constitutional document that granted broad authority to the Council. However, the Council was also dissolved again due to conflicts between various social components, such as Kuwaitis of Iranian origin and many merchant families.  In late 1938, new elections were held for the Second Legislative Council, which the merchants again dominated. In early 1939, this council prepared a draft of a new more comprehensive constitution for Kuwait. However, the ruler rejected it and asked the British Political Agent for a copy of the Trans-Jordanian constitution. On its basis, he drafted a new constitution in which he wielded most of the power, including the right to veto. The Council members refused to endorse this draft constitution, leading the ruler to permanently dissolve the Council in March 1939.

In 1938, Kuwait entered a new era of transformation in which the economy – which previously relied on trade, fishing and pearl diving – boomed due to oil production. The increase in oil revenues triggered fundamental changes in society, making it more modern. This also led to a new agreement between the ruling family, the merchants, and the various Balancing Powers that was eventually crowned by the drafting of the fourth constitution in 1962 after Kuwait’s independence.

Although the constitutional documents of 1921 and 1938 revived the shura system that existed before Mubarak’s reign, the 1939 constitution that was not approved by the Legislative Council set the tone for the the constitutional arrangement that was to come. Reflecting the discovery of oil and the impending collapse of the old economic system, the 1939 constitution concentrated most of the power in the ruler’s hands. It can thus be considered the bedrock of the current constitution, adopted in 1962, as a modern written constitution based on some democratic principles.

The prevailing narrative on Kuwait’s constitutional and historical development is confined to the story of the ruling family and the merchant class, on the assumption they have been the only two effective powers in the country’s political history. This does not accurately reflect the role and impact of other segments of Kuwaiti society in the political decision-making process throughout the country’s history. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the evolution of relationships between the ruling family, merchants and other social and political powers.

The ‘Balancing Powers’ concept constitutes a novel vision in the history of Kuwait that explores the role of the various segments of society neglected by scholars in the past. The term ‘Balancing Powers’ does not entail a unified social power with common will or characteristics. Rather, it is an inclusive and general concept encompassing the various social and political forces that played a vital role in Kuwait’s political life from the beginning of the twentieth century until the ratification of the 1962 constitution.

Therefore, the categories that make up the ‘Balancing Powers’ are multiple, and include: religious scholars, pearl divers, the working class, Bedouins, villagers, Shiites (Arabs and Persians) and intellectuals. Although these powers went through three different phases in terms of their political influence, their role in striking a balance between the power of the two main elements, the sheikhs and the merchants, was always significant.

Initially constituting a secondary element of political life in Kuwait, the role of these powers gradually evolved until they became major political political players in 1962. These groups furnished the vast majority of candidates and most of the elected members of the 1961 Constituent Assembly, and it was they who voted in favour of the 1962 Constitution.

The ‘Balancing Powers’ did not only exert their influence through representative institutions. In fact, apart from the participation of religious scholars in the first Shura Council in 1921, these powers wielded their political influence mainly through political mobilisation and support for one of the two main powers: the merchants or the sheikhs.

Only the sheikhs and merchants were represented on the Legislative Councils of 1938 and 1939. However, the  ‘Balancing Powers’ nevertheless played a crucial role in creating and dissolving both of these institutions. Intellectuals and the youth supported the council members, who were mainly merchants, through demonstrations and other forms of political mobilisation. For example, they formed a political organisation known as the National Youth Bloc. On the other hand, the villagers, Bedouin, and Shiites supported the ruler.

The evolution of the ‘Balancing Powers’ can be divided into three phases, according to fundamental events in the political history of Kuwait. During the reign of Mubarak al-Sabah, there were clear signs of these powers’ involvement in politics. Their influence crystallised during the events surrounding the migration of several of Kuwait’s most prominent pearl merchants to Bahrain in 1910 following a dispute with the ruler. The pearl divers, representing the ‘Balancing Powers’, threatened to follow the merchants into exile, which was central in strengthening the merchants’s hand against Sheikh Mubarak. As a result, the ruler was forced to concede to the merchants’ demands.

Near the end of Mubarak’s reign, the role of the religious scholars in opposing the ruler and his merchant allies emerged, especially when they incited the people to reject Mubarak’s orders to help the British against the Ottoman Empire. Those with modern views, such as Abdulaziz al-Rasheed and Yusuf al-Qina‘i, can be considered the pioneers of the intellectual class in Kuwait.

The second phase in the evolution of role of the ‘Balancing Powers’ commenced in 1921 with the rule of Ahmad al-Jabir. Their influence increased during this period, which was characterised by rapid changes resulting from the discovery of oil, the influence of Arab nationalists, the establishment of modern schools and the emergence of cultural institutions such as the National Library and Literary Club.

These decades were also marked by the emergence of modern state institutions, including the first Shura Council in 1921 and the two Legislative Councils of 1938 and 1939. After the dissolution of the latter, the ruler formed a new Shura Council. Other councils were established to provide social services, including the 1930 Municipal Council, the 1936 Education Council, and Councils for Health and Islamic Endowments in the 1940s. With the expansion of education and the abundance of oil revenues, the historical role of the ‘Balancing Powers’ became more evident. Competing for power, both sheikhs and merchants used different elements of the ‘Balancing Powers’ to tip the balance in their favour.

The third phase of the ‘Balancing Powers’ evolution began in the early 1950s, and coincided with two important events in the history of Kuwait. First, the state apparatus expanded dramatically following the increase in oil wealth. Some ‘Balancing Powers’ such as pearl divers and sailors, who were previously loyal to merchants as their employers, now came to rely on the ruling family for their livelihood. The second development was the emergence of the intellectuals at the forefront of a new movement opposing the ruling family. This group began expanding in the 1930s and 1940s when Kuwait’s educational system developed significantly with the arrival of Palestinian and Egyptian teachers. Thus, this third phase witnessed the emergence of the ‘Balancing Powers’ as an effective political force at the expense of the traditional merchant class. As stated before, this became apparent in the 1961 Constituent Assembly.

Three phases can thus be identified in the political evolution of the ‘Balancing Powers’: the first phase was that of ‘formation,’ when these elements were followers of the two main powers: the sheikhs and the merchants, without the ability to change the political landscape. The second phase was that of ‘growth,’  during which they contributed directly to the political landscape, although they did not play a direct role in the decision-making process. The third phase was that of ‘empowerment’, when the ‘Balancing Powers’ became part of the political game and played a central role in drafting the 1962 constitution.

Although these social powers played a central role in Kuwait’s constitutional development alongside the sheikhs and merchants, it is not easy to study the groups that constitute the ‘Balancing Powers’. Not only is there a large overlap between different social groups but there is also a lack of detailed local documents and statistics concerning them as I outline in my book on this subject.

Researchers must thus delve deeper into studying the history of the Arabian Gulf using different methods and unconventional perspectives. Historical studies and research should not view the role of less powerful groups as marginal but rather there must be an effort to reformulate the historiography of Kuwait in particular and the Gulf in general.

In this regard, it is reassuring that a new generation of Gulf researchers has become aware of this problem. They have begun to make their voice heard through social media, and have published articles and books that advance perspectives that differ from that of the established literature written during the 1970s and 1980s.

This piece is an edited extract from Abdulrahman Alebrahim’s latest book, Kuwait’s Politics Before Independence: The Role of the Balancing Powers. Get the book on Amazon here.

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About the author

Abdulrahman Alebrahim

Abdulrahman Alebrahim is an independent researcher whose research interests revolve around the history of the Gulf, particularly Kuwait, Najd and Southern Iraq. He obtained his PhD in History from Exeter University's the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. He tweets at @alibrahem_a

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