Interview with Kuwait Information Office Director Shafeeq Ghabra:
New Kuwait Cabinet Passes Sweeping Reforms
Women to Gain Right to Vote; Economy Opened to Foreign Investment

Dr. Shafeeq Ghabra, the Director of the Kuwait Information Office in Washington, D.C., spoke at Al-Hewar Center, a dialogue forum in metro Washington, on June 30, about his expectations regarding the elections for a new parliament in Kuwait to take place just days later. After the previous parliament was dissolved, the Kuwaiti Cabinet passed a series of sweeping social and economic reforms which will be presented to the new parliament for a vote shortly. The following is Al-Hewar Magazine’s recent interview with Dr. Ghabra about the reforms and how they will effect Kuwait and the Gulf region:

Q: Could you tell us a little about the reforms?

Ghabra: The reforms in Kuwait were among the most serious and far reaching reforms that have taken place in a long time – in fact, Kuwait hasn’t experienced such reforms since the 1960s. The government passed 60 laws in all, the first of which gave women the right to vote and hold political office. This bombshell was followed by economic reforms that granted foreign companies the right to invest in Kuwait without a Kuwaiti partner and allowed non-Kuwaitis to participate in the Kuwaiti stock market. Also passed were decrees that provide for the release of unclassified materials to the press and the public, and other changes that encourage a more open society. Further reforms involved the closing of loopholes in intellectual property laws and measures to encourage economic growth of the private sector. All of these reforms, whether they encourage democratization or economic liberalization, show that Kuwait’s vision is to move towards a more prominent global role.

Q: Is it true to say that the elections were a referendum on the reform package?

Ghabra: In a way, yes, this election was a referendum. While the parliament was dissolved and the candidates were campaigning, the government took the initiative to pass these laws. However, the laws are not effective until the Assembly approves them. So, if voters had re-elected the same parliament and the reforms were vetoed, the government could have done nothing.

Q: What were the results of the election in terms of the new composition of the Assembly?

Ghabra: The elections brought a whole group of liberals and independents who are neither in the government’s camp nor in the Islamists’ camp. Out of 50 MPs, there is a solid bloc of about 20 liberals and independents that will be able to set the agenda for the new parliament. In the 1992 and 1996 parliaments, it was the Islamists who set the agenda, but now their numbers have decreased from 14 seats to 10. Other groups gained as well, such as Shia, who went up from five seats to six, and tribal groups, but the most significant shift was in favor of the liberals and independents.

Q: What significance will this have on these and future reforms?

Ghabra: This liberal, independent group is expected to support the government’s proposed reforms, although they are not expected to support the government on every issue. This parliament shows the promise of more reform, and this group in particular will play a critical role in the government wishes to continue with the reforms>

Q: Why were these reforms issued now?

Ghabra: They came about now because there has been a Constitutional crisis in effect since 1991. In the past two Assemblies, there were many smaller factions, but no solid bloc of members that the government could deal with. Although the Islamists tended to have the upper hand, no single power totally dominated.
    So what you had were two parliaments that put on the agenda the issue of Sharia (Islamic Law) in Kuwait. They passed a law to segregate      Kuwait University after it had been co-ed for more than two and a half decades. They had the ability to bring down the Minister of Information over his lifting of censorship on books at the Arab book fair several years ago. They had the power to drill and call for a vote of no confidence in the Minister of Education – and all he tried to do was decrease the amount of memorization of religious materials required of students!
    All these issues created tensions and prevented reform. The government’s laws for reform had been on the table for several years, but the parliament would not pass them. So this situation was an opportunity for the government to show the Kuwaiti public that these laws could benefit the nation. It was also a way to form an alliance with the silent majority who were critical of the way the government was demonstrating that reform was possible, but only with a reform-minded parliament.
    It is also important to say that the two previous governments (which must be formed with the election of a new parliament) were not exactly reform-oriented governments. They were formed in the image of the parliament, so when the parliament had more members with Islamist orientations the government had more Islamist representation. As the parliament became more diversified, the government also became diversified. As a result, the government, like the Assembly, was unable to pass the reforms it wanted.
    The government formed on July 13, on the other hand, is a reform-oriented government with a liberal orientation. It does not have an Islamist orientation, and, being formed in the image of the new parliament, it can easily make decisions concerning liberalization.

Q: So the orientation of the new government tends to be liberal?

Ghabra: Yes. Liberals have taken the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Information as well as several other key ministries. Over all, the Cabinet has a very strong liberal component. Some ministers are concerned with political liberalism, but for many others the issue is economic liberalism. Therefore, you have a cabinet of political and economic liberals who can combine forces to make reform take shape.

Q: What influence will the enfranchisement of women have in the Gulf region?

Ghabra: It will greatly affect the Gulf because you are talking about women voting in the only genuine parliament in the Gulf. There have been women campaigning for the municipal assembly in Qatar, so there is a process there. Women have also participated in elections for a consultative assembly in Oman. But in Kuwait your’ going to have elections for women in a genuine parliament and in an open political arena with free press and free expression.
    If the Kuwaiti experiment succeeds, it will demonstrate to others that this is the way. If it fails, it will tell others that this is not the way. That’s why we all have a stake in making sure that the Kuwaiti process goes on step by step and sees its way to further democratic reality.

Q: Do you think the changes in Kuwait are indicative of a trend in the Gulf?

Ghabra: I would say yes. Today’s newspapers reported that Qatar has established a consultative assembly to begin drafting a Qatari Constitution to govern future elections. Qatar has already set a date for these elections and both men and women will participate. So, we are seeing serious change in Qatar and we could see it elsewhere as people begin to express the desire to transfer sovereignty from the state to society.

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