Kuwait: Stories of Democracy: Politics and Society in Contemporary Kuwait

Article excerpt

KUWAIT

Stories of Democracy: Politics and Society in Contemporary Kuwait, by Mary Ann Tetreault. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. xv + 238 pages. Notes to 282. Bibl. to 298, Index to 309. $18.50 paper.

Reviewed by Paul Aarts

In most Arab countries, there is neither a well-- developed concept of citizenship nor of public responsibility of the state. Kuwait is no exception to that, albeit there are vast differences between the Kuwaiti experience of limited political liberalization and the other Arab states in the Gulf region. Political life in Kuwait has been oscillating between a tribal authoritarianism and an oligarchic republicanism. Stories of Democracy is an outstanding book on the idiosyncrasies of Kuwaiti politics, unravelling how the process of modernization is-obviously not without its ambiguities-tipping the balance. It may be a process of two steps forward and one step backward (sometimes more than one), but the direction is unequivocal. Civil bodies are increasingly capable of moving the state.

Things do not come easy, as Mary Ann Tetreault emphatically stipulates, spelling out the repeated recurrence of broadly similar situations in which various political factions have sought to advance their own notions of Kuwaiti history and politics, using strategies that have not fundamentally changed since the early stirring of the prodemocracy movement in the late thirties. Since the tumultuous experience of the 1938-39 legislative council, patterns of behavior persist which reflect enduring divisions over a range of key issues.

After dealing briefly with the 1921-90 period of struggle between Kuwaiti rulers and merchants, Tetreault presents a detailed history of state-society relations from the eve of the Iraqi invasion till the latest (June 1999) parliamentary elections. Her analysis, based on a wealth of primary and secondary sources, reserves a particular place for the concept of "political space." Two "protected spaces" receive special attention. The first of these spaces is the home and, by extension, the family and kin-based institutions and associations like the tribe, the family business, and the diwaniyya (a kind of salon for men only). …