Bader Al-Saif: Kuwait's Perceptions, People, and Progress

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This transcript is from a CSIS podcast published on February 6, 2024. Listen to the podcast here.

Jon Alterman: Bader Al-Saif is an assistant professor of history at Kuwait University, a consultant, and a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Bader, welcome to Babel.

Bader Al-Saif: Thank you, Jon. Pleasure to be with you.

Jon Alterman: So, what is the mood in the Middle East these days, and are you surprised at this mood?

Bader Al-Saif: I'm glad that we're starting with the mood because it's on everyone's minds. It translates to everyone's actions. Let me tell you. I've been to all Gulf capitals plus Iraq since the war on Palestine unleashed in October, and I haven't seen such anti-Americanism in a very, very long time and even ever. We haven't had such levels of anger, real anger. It's not only popular anger that manifests in weekly protests, boycotts, angry memes, social media, and coordinated action, but you also see it at the official level, which has been quite interesting.

I haven't seen the Omani foreign establishment be this expressive, be this angry. I haven't seen them go out and condemn in such clear language. I haven't seen the Qataris increase their dose of statements and the feeling of being underappreciated with their mediation efforts.

Another example which has caught my attention is the UAE, and specifically their presence in the UN in 2023 and the amount of the successive statements that have only grown more concerned with U.S. inaction, Israeli action, and the lack of support that the issue gets.

Jon Alterman: You've talked about this as in some cases the Arab public is leading their governments. For the most part, foreign policy issues are considered sovereignty issues that the public has deferred to their governments about. Certainly, in the EU, normalization wasn't popular before it happened. Once it did happen, however, the Emirati public largely deferred to the government. Why is this different?

Bader Al-Saif: Palestine is an issue that's central to many, many generations. The manifestations of that interest in Palestine come in different ways, and they may not be ways that can be polled or put out very publicly, but they are ingrained, not only in the Arab Gulf states, but across the larger Middle East, including non-Arab countries like Iran and Turkey.

This comes up the clearest when there is naturally an attack. Now, leaderships in the region do not like for Palestine to spiral out for various reasons. This is a cause that shouldn't be living on as long as it has. We're talking about 75 years of agony, many years of occupation, displacement, and injustice in various forms.

But this also translates to domestic issues within each country. On the one hand, leaders across generations using this cause to advance their own interests. I'm thinking of the Egypt of Gamal Abdel Nasser moving down. If we jump to 2023- 2024, the Houthis in Yemen are using this to advance their personal issues.

So, it becomes really messy and confused. It confuses a lot of the public in the process. This is not healthy for the development of those countries. Many of these countries are looking for the prosperity of their people. They want to move into the future, yet this issue keeps pulling them back.

This issue really needs a just and lasting resolution that takes on all parties. It’s really complex and multilayered, and for this cause to continue unchecked, unchanged, doesn't bode well for anyone.

Jon Alterman: When I talked to leaders in the Gulf and the Levant, there was a sense that the younger generation didn't have the same connection to Palestine that the older generation did, and that people had become desensitized. They were interested in entertainment, music, jobs, and all kinds of other things, and that Palestine was the failed cause of an earlier generation.

I was a little bit surprised, because this is a younger generation that grew up watching images on Al Jazeera, that grew up with social media, and generally had exposure to Palestine. But people told me, "No, no, no. Palestine, we're moving on. That's sort of retro and doesn't have salience."

After the Al-Ahli hospital bombing a few days into this conflict, which ironically seems not to have been carried out by Israel, we saw it come back to young generations with vigor, almost shockingly stronger.

Were you at all surprised, or did you never buy into the narrative?

Bader Al-Saif: I wasn't surprised, and I think I'm on the record saying that this has been something that didn't dissipate. I say this because I teach at Kuwait University, and I see both Kuwaiti and Arab students in and out, and I see these discussions come forward.

Let me give you an example. I teach a class called contemporary Arab affairs. In the class, I try to do a simulation, to have a person be in someone else's shoes so that we can move on and resolve a conflict. I chose the Palestine-Israel conflict. I had certain students take on the role of Israel. I had to sit down and convince them that this is a simulation, you're not going to be castigated or looked down at for being Israel. So that was one.

Second, you should see the amount of attack that came from the other Arab states in the simulation, including Kuwait, is quite indicative of popular mood among the youngsters.

This not only in Kuwait. I see this in the other states that do have openness to protests. We saw this in Bahrain. Bahrain has been consistently protesting for the last 17 or 18 weeks. Bahrain is normalized, too. So that's one clear example there.

I've also seen this in Qatar and Oman. For others, you see this across social media and discussion forums. So, it comes in different ways. I don't think it has died out.

Jon Alterman: Do you think this conflict changes in a durable way Gulf states' perceptions of the United States as a reliable partner?

Bader Al-Saif: I would put this conflict as part of a larger semblance of various acts that have been taking place in the region and in the world. The United States is not the United States that we've known. There has been a concerted effort for it, in its own words, to pivot away from the Middle East, and we've seen this in successive administrations regardless of party, starting with Obama.

It's not only because of what's happening with Israel and Palestine alone, although that's very central. How reliable can they be? They're not going anywhere, regardless of what they try to say. They're there. The numbers speak for themselves. The bases are there. I think they keep getting pulled in.

The United States is trying to bring in a grand strategy that looks at the Gulf within world politics as opposed to looking at the Middle East and the Gulf on its own. That's the issue that they need to move beyond because they've been trying to take the battle to China or to compete with the Far East, but the Far East is in the Middle East anyway.

They need to try to bring those blocks together. The Gulf has taken the cue. They've been trying to diversify. This is not new in their long history. The United States has been a phase in a very long history of various superpowers they have shown, and this will be a very interesting game to watch to see how things fit differently.

I don't think any of the current steps taking place are displacing the number one place for the United States, and that will continue for some time.

Jon Alterman: You know from a U.S. perspective, partnership with the Middle East has been difficult. There's been a lot of complaints that the Middle East has not been supportive of the U.S. view of Ukraine, despite the fact that the U.S. view is that the same sanctity of international borders is what brought the United States to defend Kuwait in 1990.

When I was in Kuwait a little more than a year ago and talked about the dissonance for American audiences between defending the Kuwaiti border and defending the Ukrainian border, folks in a Kuwaiti audience said to me, "Well, Ukraine's really far from Kuwait." And I looked and said, "But Kuwait is really far from the United States." There seems to be a real dissonance between the Gulf's sense of cooperation with the United States on security issues and the Gulf's willingness to support the United States outside the Gulf on security issues.

Bader Al-Saif: It's more of a mixed reaction, really, in the Gulf. I don't want to paint a holistic image for all states, and I'm glad that you started with Kuwait because from a foreign policy perspective, they've come up very clearly, very early on condemning the attack, and they've been the least to engage with the Russian side from my own observation among the Gulf states. The Kuwaitis came out very forcefully in their opinion. So did Qatar.

So Kuwait is trying to have a more nuanced approach. The other states see themselves as larger fish in the pond, and they have other global interests that demand them to take a middle position for the sake of mediating the conflict. I think that's how they presented themselves. Some circles in American policymaking circles have bought into it and others have not.

It's all connected because with the Russia situation there is an energy issue there. And I think that's the same concern that some of those Gulf states had when it comes to Russia in terms of how much can you put pressure in ways that don’t disrupt the OPEC+, in ways that don’t disrupt the energy security in place?

Jon Alterman: What do you see the future U.S. role in the Middle East being? Given tension over global perspectives, disappointment in the region with the U.S. view, and the possibility that we could end up with a very different U.S. position on Palestine, either through success or failure over the next several years? If you had a crystal ball and were looking forward 10 years, what do you think the U.S. role in the Middle East in general is going to be and what is the U.S. role in the Gulf going to be?

Bader Al-Saif: Don't we wish we all had these crystal balls, right? Let me flip the question. I think it should start from the region because it's the regional perspective that should matter the most, and that's what the Americans should listen to in order to guide their policymaking. I think the region needs to believe further in itself, and that's what the region has been doing, by the way. For the past few years, we've seen a few hints here and there, and that self-realization, ironically, is what the Americans have been calling for the longest time. "We can't take on the tab forever. You need to take care of your own security. You need to share the neighborhood." Remember that talk from Obama?

So, all of this is really coming to fruition. I think we are at very exciting times in which there will be more than an organic solution or an organic method to resolving conflicts. Don't forget the UAE and Saudi are very keen on developing their local defense capabilities. We've seen a lot of steps in that direction. We've seen also an interest in developing peaceful nuclear energy.

So more and more, we're seeing some of those Gulf states taking matters in their own hands. I think that's a healthy development and that should guide not only relations with the United States but with any other superpower.

Jon Alterman: You've talked at some length about the rising Saudi role in regional diplomacy, partly guided by a Saudi sense of strategic patience. How does that play out as we think about the next decade?

Bader Al-Saif: Saudi Arabia's foreign policy has been very stable if you subtract the first few years of the King Salman era. Since 2021, they've been going back to their original demeanor, and that includes strategic patience.

There is some merit to that strategic patience because as a rising power not only in the region, but in the world. They're among the G20 nations at the moment. They feel that they have a responsibility to the world, both on the economic side when it comes to maintaining the energy supply, but also as the spiritual head of Islam with housing Mecca and Medina.

You need to be calculating, you need to take risk very carefully, and you need to work behind closed doors. And that's what they've been doing, really. They've been sending a lot of messages. They work very hard, and I know you know that as well, because we go to Riyadh all the time, and we talk to many of those officials.

It doesn't look that way to the public. They may seem to some as reactive, lethargic, or slow, but there's a lot of action behind all of this, and that action is certainly coordinated across the Gulf states.

The centrality of Saudi Arabia should not be lost on observers of the region, and they tend to be underestimated, but they shouldn't be. I think that's where things should be gravitating toward, and they are moving forward.

Jon Alterman: In the 1960s and '70s, Kuwait was, in many ways, the engine of the region socially, economically, politically, etc., and it's not now. You've written an article in Al Majalla about the stagnation in Kuwait that's prevailed. Kuwait now has a new emir. It has a new prime minister. What does it take for Kuwait to succeed, and how do you move the system in the direction you think Kuwait wants to or needs to move?

Bader Al-Saif: Let me first start with something at the risk of sounding like a broken record, but this picture is the image of Kuwait in general. Kuwait, regardless of all the problems that it's going through, it goes unnoticed, underestimated as well, and underappreciated across the international arena when it comes to looking at the Middle East.

This is unfortunate because it's the only effective Arab constitutional monarchy. You don't get as much leeway to hit hard on everyone but the emir except in Kuwait. It's a system with a lot of flaws. We have gone through a trauma. I argue in that piece that you mentioned from Al Majalla that we haven't gone through closure yet. Many are still waiting for their remnants of their relatives to come back, and there hasn't been a national strategy to close the chapter. That needs to be done.

What needs to be done as well is to understand that those growing pains of the system should not stall development. We've had a parliament since the '60s. We're on our fourth constitution, Jon. We've had one in 1921, '38, '39, and this one came in '62.

Time is ripe for a fifth, really. Renewing the social contract is something that we can do. They come in various forms. In the United States there have been amendments to the Constitution. Other places have changed their constitutions altogether. We can benefit from looking back at our 60-plus years of this constitutional era. What went wrong? What went right? How can we develop the system further?

Again, it's not being fixated on the system as much as the practices. How do you envision the country moving forward? There is a heated debated, as always, in Kuwait on how to move the country forward.

There needs to be some form of coalescing, and that's why I've been calling for an actual national dialogue. We haven't had a real national dialogue since the occupation, and I'm reminding you and the listeners to the Jeddah Conference that we had in October 1990 under occupation when all Kuwaitis from all types came in to renew their pledge to Al-Sabah and to the constitutional democracy that they've put together.

The time is really ripe to move on with this. And we have a new set, a new crew, as you mentioned right now in Kuwait. We're starting the year off, new government, new emir.

It's not the choice of minister per se that makes or breaks the system. It's bigger than that. How do those ministers work together? What kind of process? What kind of vision do you have for the country? Can we allow that vision to then rule supreme instead of having it go through a lot of debating?

Jon Alterman: There's also the problem in Kuwait that I think you have in the United States, that part of the role of the government that people care about is distributing government resources. In the United States, you have this entitlement state that takes up more than half of the federal budget for welfare, for social security, for Medicare, which people are entitled to, and they see that as a role of the state.

In Kuwait, where the state has remarkable oil wealth, people have taken the role of the state to be to distribute the state's oil wealth in exchange for loyalty. The idea that people would have to be productive seems to be marginalized. In states without parliamentary democracy, the ruler says, "These are going to be the rules. This is going to have to be how it is." In Kuwait, the parliament says, "Let's talk about forgiving everybody's debt."

Part of the problem of democracy when there are central resources is that people say the role of the government is to give the resources to me and people like me and, in Kuwait, to my tribe. Rather than building resources and building a productive society, you have the state playing the role allocating resources to citizens.

Bader Al-Saif: This is ahistorical. This is not a reflection of Kuwait's history, by the way. This is only when the oil pumping started in the late '40s and the money rushed in in the '50s, and that's the beginnings of the welfare state.

If you look at Kuwait's very long history, and I say this to my students the whole time—look, we have a 300 plus year history. The exception is the oil era. The norm is being in a healthy society that provides to the government. There were a lot of taxes prior to oil, and people contributed to the wellbeing of society, and they were responsible.

When push comes to shove, Jon, they did act in that manner during the occupation. We had Kuwaitis piling up the garbage, cleaning up the streets, distributing food, baking. It takes social re-engineering, and I think the way that this current government started with the message. He said, "My project is to develop the new economic identity of Kuwait."

That's very important because you need to change perceptions. That is not only about switching from one welfare system to another, but it's about changing mindsets. It's about reclaiming Kuwaitiness, the Kuwaitiness of sacrifice, those people that perished in sea or in desert trying to make ways for their own people. That needs to move forward.

Only by doing that will you break the addictive cyclicality of the political system. The cyclicality of having people push for more welfare, the government being not strong enough to stop that interaction, and then you end up either with a resignation of the government or a dissolution of parliament and, fast-forward, you repeat again and again. We've been doing this for some time.

Kuwait has been developing in a different direction in the last two to three years. I've written about this in another piece with the Arab Gulf States Institute. I call it “Kuwait's New Doctrine.” In that new doctrine, the emir, then the crowned prince at the time, was trying consciously to break that cycle.

Everyone needs to agree, however, that we need to move forward, and that's where the national dialogue comes in handy. We need to agree on the next steps. We're not going to please everyone. It will be filled with a lot of debates again. There will be some sacrifices that need to be done, but we need to keep an eye on the Kuwait not only of today, but the Kuwait of tomorrow.

Jon Alterman: Let me ask a difficult question. Obviously, this takes a lot of things. It takes political leadership. It takes charisma. It takes maybe changing some of the rules, maybe some constitutional pieces. What's the most important element? Obviously, there are infinite numbers of elements. Is this a question of do you really need a charismatic leader, or do you need a stronger leader, or do you need to get consensus on a different set of rules that will create a different set of outcomes? What do you need to prioritize to get to the point that you're talking about?

Bader Al-Saif: It is a matter of shifting the mindset, and that takes a lot of messaging, cultural shifts, ingraining the history of their own grandpas and grandmoms that sacrificed for the country. I spoke about masked unemployment. That's what I called it, “البطالة المقنعة” because we have very low unemployment rates in Kuwait and arguably in the Gulf even. However, if you dig deep, many of them are just being paid for showing up and fingerprinting at the beginning.

Jon Alterman: You show up once.

Bader Al-Saif: You show once or maybe twice. If you end up going for coffee or running errands, and you need to exit when you leave. Let's not fool ourselves. That's a recipe for disaster. We've been doing that for decades. It might be a misconstrued form of understanding that there is a right to work. Some people think that this means that immediate employment by government, but it doesn't. It doesn't.

Change the mindset. Try to stop that crazy employment. Tell them that, "I'm going to fund you. I'll still going to redistribute wealth, but I'll do it in a clever way. I'll have certain small to medium businesses pursued. I'll give you a fraction of the oil wealth if the prices are in a good shape. If they're not, you're not getting anything." There are many ways to still endow people, but to have them maintain their own sanity by being functional citizens, which many of them are not today.

Jon Alterman: The region now looks very dark. When do you think we can start expecting some better news? How good do you think things will get, or do you think we're going to be on this cyclical up and down in the Middle East for many years to come?

Bader Al-Saif: It's a matter of perception, Jon. I ask myself this question every day. The way I look at it is, let's take care of the bad as we celebrate the good at the same time because there are some good stories out there. If you look at the amount of talent and innovation that some of the youth are doing in the region, it's something to keep an eye on. If you look at some of the achievements— such as Oman, for example, where the economy has turned around and they've shown a surplus — and now they're building their own local sovereign wealth fund. That's a story that doesn't get told as much.

Iraq is not in its best of cases. However, if you look at Iraq since 1920, they've never had four-year prime ministers and governments in their very long history as they do now.

So, let's not be too harsh on ourselves. Yes, there is a lot of blood, and it's very dark, and we do not deserve this. No one deserves this. Everyone needs to live in peace. Everyone needs to feel safe. Everyone needs to have a sense of dignity flying through. We shouldn't be arguing for basics. However, we also need to think of how to move the country forward, and I think the young ones might do a better job than many of us have in trying to bring the sanity that the Middle East urgently needs.

Jon Alterman: Bader Al-Saif, thank you very much for joining us on Babel.

Bader Al-Saif: Thank you, Jon.