Kuwait Elects First Women Lawmakers

Daily News Article   —   Posted on May 18, 2009

(by Maria Abi-Habib, WSJ.com) KUWAIT CITY – Kuwait on Sunday elected a parliament that includes its first female lawmakers.

Preliminary results showed university instructor Aseel al-Awadhi — whose campaign had made her a political celebrity in the tiny emirate — and economist and women’s rights activist Rola Dashti were among the four women to win seats. At the same time, Islamists lost ground.

Women were given the right to vote and run for office in 2005, but until now hadn’t been able to win a seat in this conservative Muslim society. This year, 19 women were among the 280 candidates for 50 seats in Kuwait’s parliament.

In March, Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, dissolved parliament for the second time in a year, blaming lawmakers, especially Islamists, for hindering the nation’s economic progress.

“Frustration with the past two parliaments pushed voters to seek change. And here it comes in the form of this sweeping victory for women,” Massouma al-Mubarak, a 62-year-old teacher of political science and one of the women elected, told the Associated Press.

But analysts say the nation’s rulers must match this result with a reform-minded cabinet in order to help revive the economy in the Persian Gulf state, a U.S. military ally that is also home to the world’s fifth-largest oil reserves.

“We need a clear position and road map,” said Kamel Harami, an independent oil analyst and former executive at Kuwait Petroleum Corp. “Parliament will support a five-year program as along as there’s a vision.”

Attention will now turn to the shape of the new government and the emir’s appointment of the government ministers who will present an economic plan to turnaround the country’s flagging economy.

The emir chooses the prime minister, who then nominates the cabinet, which is traditionally dominated by officials from the ruling Al Sabah family.

Merrill Lynch expects Kuwait’s gross domestic product to contract by 1.8% this year.

A five-year economic reform program is expected to be presented to the new parliament when it opens in weeks. To succeed, Mr. Harami says, the plan must diversify the country away from oil, while at the same time provide money to boost the industry and lure foreign companies to help increase output.

Also, the government faces a need to inject funds into badly needed infrastructure to help stimulate Kuwait’s economy and help it catch up with more diversified neighbors in the Gulf, like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

Legislation to create a stock-market regulator is also needed, economists say.

Kuwait’s bourse, once the envy of many Gulf countries, has seen heavy losses this year and has been criticized for lacking transparency. Some economists are calling for a new foreign-investment law to help the country compete better in the region. Foreign companies in Kuwait must pay a 15% tax, which makes it less competitive, they say.

Islamist lawmakers resisted Project Kuwait, an ambitious plan to invite foreign companies in to help develop Kuwait’s northern oil fields. They also opposed a vital economic rescue package to kick start lending in Kuwait’s frozen credit markets.

However, prospects for the new plans depend in large part on whether a progressive cabinet is chosen. Recently elected liberal lawmakers warned that if the government doesn’t have a progressive plan to move the country forward, there could be another standoff.

“We need to elect a parliament that wants to move forward to send a message to the Emir to request a good, capable government so we can work together to move forward,” Ms. Dashti said ahead of the vote. “Depending on the outcome, it can last four years.”

Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.  Reprinted here for educational purposes only.  Visit the website at wsj.com

Questions

1. a) List the countries that border Kuwait.
b) What is the capital of Kuwait?
c) Who is the leader of Kuwait?

2. Kuwait gained its independence from the British in 1961. The 1962 constitution provides for an elected National Assembly and details the powers of the branches of government and the rights of citizens.
a) In what year were women in Kuwait given the right to vote and to run for office? (NOTE: Requirements for all citizens to vote: must be 21, have to have been a citizen for 20 years, and can not be in the security forces.)
b) How many women won seats in parliament in the election that just took place?

3. While women won seats in parliament for the first time, which group lost ground in the elections?

4. Why had Kuwait’s emir dissolved parliament for the second time in a year and called for new elections that resulted in women being elected for the first time?

5. Three of the women who won seats in parliament were mentioned in this article. What does each woman do for a living?

6. Were you surprised to learn that women were only given the right to vote or run for office in Kuwait so recently? Explain your answer.


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Background

GOVERNMENT OF KUWAIT:
Kuwait is a constitutional, hereditary emirate ruled by an Emir who has been drawn from the Al Sabah family since the middle of the 18th century. The 1962 constitution provides for an elected National Assembly and details the powers of the branches of government and the rights of citizens. Under the Constitution, the National Assembly has a limited role in approving the Emir’s choice of the Crown Prince, who succeeds the Amir upon his death. If the National Assembly rejects his nominee, the Emir then submits three names of qualified candidates from among the direct descendants of Mubarak the Great, the founder of modern Kuwait, from which the Assembly must choose the new Crown Prince. Successions have been orderly since independence [1961]. In January 2006, the National Assembly played a symbolically important role in the succession process, which was seen as an assertion of parliament’s constitutional powers.

For almost 40 years, the Emir appointed the Crown Prince as Kuwait’s Prime Minister. However, in July 2003, the Amir formally separated the two positions and appointed a different ruling family member as Prime Minister.

Although the Emir maintains the final word on most government policies, the National Assembly plays a real role in decision-making, with powers to initiate legislation, question (“grill”) cabinet ministers, and express lack of confidence in individual ministers. For example, in May 1999, the Emir issued several landmark decrees dealing with women’s suffrage, economic liberalization, and nationality. The National Assembly later rejected all of these decrees as a matter of principle and then reintroduced most of them as parliamentary legislation. In July 2005, the Prime Minister appointed Kuwait’s first female minister, Masouma Al-Mubarak, as Planning Minister and Minister of State for Administrative Development Affairs, and later as Minister of Health. Following the March 2007 resignation of the cabinet, Masouma was joined by a second woman, Nouriya Subih, who was named Minister of Education in the new cabinet. Masouma resigned from her post in August 2007, but in May 2008 Nouriya Subih was joined by another woman in the cabinet, Moudhi Abdulaziz Al-Houmoud, who became Minister of State for Housing Affairs and Minister of State for Development Affairs.

ECONOMY:
Kuwait has a small, relatively open economy dominated by the oil industry and government sector. Approximately 90% of the Kuwaiti citizen labor force works in the public sector, and 90% of private sector workers are non-Kuwaitis. Kuwait’s proven crude oil reserves of about 100 billion barrels–9% of world reserves–account for nearly 45% of GDP, 95% of export revenues, and 90%-95% of government income. Kuwait puts 10% of its annual oil revenue in a Fund for Future Generations in preparation for the transition to the period after its oil resources are depleted. Kuwait’s economy has benefited from high oil prices in recent years, as well the economic activity generated following Operation Iraqi Freedom (Kuwait is a major logistical and transit hub for Coalition operations in Iraq). Non-oil sectors such as banking, financial services, logistics, telecommunications, and construction have enjoyed strong growth in the past three to four years. The global financial crisis affected Kuwait in late 2008, with the Kuwait Stock Exchange–the region’s second-largest bourse–losing almost 40% of its market capitalization during 2008. High oil prices in recent years have resulted in large budget surpluses in 2005-2008.

(all of the information above is from The U.S. State Department website at state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35876.htm.)

Resources

For a map of Kuwait, go to worldatlas.com.

For background information on Kuwait, go to the CIA World FactBook.

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