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A renewed Kuwaiti opposition rises to fight corruption

"The battle starts tonight," Musallam Al-Barrak told several thousand Kuwaitis gathered outside their Parliament building last night.

Al-Barrak, the popular ex-Member of Parliament and pro-democracy activist, had promised an innovative mix of investigative journalism with al fresco politics – with a big reveal about corruption amongst Kuwait's political elite promised to all who attended the rally.

"We've had enough of this. It is time to fight corruption. The battle against corruption starts now, right after this rally. We will not allow corrupt people to continue robbing the country," Al-Barrack told the crowds.

Corruption has been a sore in Kuwaiti politics over the past few years, largely ignored or glossed over by the ruling executive, but enthusiastically pursued by many Members of Parliament. In 2005, a small group of MPs launched a local chapter for "Global Organization of Parliamentarians against Corruption" which began educating the public about the dangers of corruption.

A 2006 United States Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks described how "The rapid rise in oil prices and the accompanying oil boom has fuelled corruption in Kuwait," the cable said. "Kuwaitis are increasingly beginning to ask where all this money is going."

In 2009, the unpopular Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah was nearly deposed via a "non-cooperation" vote ordered by MPs. He was accused of embezzling millions of dollars in the run up to the previous years' elections, as well as paying $700,000 in a cheque to an MP.

By 2011, a new anti-corruption authority had been established by the Ministry of Justice, tasked with tackling public sector corruption, and a draft law requiring MPs, Ministers and senior government officials to declare interests, at risk of jail sentences – was in place.

But that year, two of Kuwait's largest banks flagged a suspicious transfer of $92m being sent to two members of Parliament. The resulting investigation engulfed fifteen of Kuwait's fifty MPs: experts dubbed it "the Kuwaiti Watergate."

The regime was not in good shape anyway – for months, the capital had seen numerous demonstrations demanding a constitutional monarchy and the removal of the prime minister. The stateless Kuwaiti bidoon (those without citizenship) were in the streets. Thousands of public-sector employees were on strike, demanding better pay and benefits.

Prime Minster Al-Sabah, who is also the nephew of Kuwait's ruling Emir, remained unpopular – since he had taken office parliament has been dissolved three times and Sabah had been forced to resign five times. In total, he had ruled over seven different governments in just five years.

Opposition lawmakers took the new corruption allegations as their opportunity to organise. Mass weekly protests, the occupation of the Parliament building, and a population already sick of corruption eventually led to Al-Sabah's resignation in November 2011. And this time he stayed resigned.

Problems still remained. According to the 2013 Resource Governance Index by the Revenue Watch, Kuwaiti law forbids to disclose any information about the Kuwait Investment Authority – constituting a huge block to government transparency.

A third of Natural Resources Funds do not publish any information on their transactions, investments or assets – estimated at $400bn each year.

The IMF has warned that poor supervision and monitoring at financial institutions made Kuwait an easy country to launder money in.

So what brought protesters out onto the square again this week?

The country is still reeling from a contentious audio tape purportedly implicating former senior officials in plotting against the Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah – which has certainly caused political tensions to rise. Two newspapers have already been shut twice for a total of 19 days for breaking a news blackout on the issue.

There is also still residual resentment over the political settlement that was reached with the government after the last corruption rows, particularly amongst Islamist and tribal opposition groups – who feel excluded.

But it was, once again, corruption allegations amongst Kuwait City's elite which were the biggest draw for the crowds in Kuwait City last night – and for Musallam Al-Barrak, perhaps Kuwait's most popular politician, the crowd of thousands was his opportunity to reveal dramatic evidence of new corruption allegations.

It was hot even by Kuwaiti standards – with temperatures around fifty degrees even after sunset. Eyewitnesses reported cold water and ice-creams being distributed. As is usual for Kuwaiti protests, the police presence was minimal.

Al-Barrak and his supporters set up a huge screen to project the evidence of corruption.

Alongside everyday Kuwaitis, the crowds contained various political elements, including liberal and leftist activists and youth organisations – but mainly populist, tribal and Islamist groupings – including Kuwait's Muslim Brotherhood.

The notable exception to the throng were the Salafists – who are now in disagreement with the Opposition coalition over whether strict sharia law should be implemented in Kuwait.

In all, Al-Barrak had an audience of six thousand, all of whom had the opportunity to see the private banking documents which Al-Barrak claimed proved corruption amongst senior Kuwaiti officials.

Among his targets was a member of the royal family, Nasser Mohammed Al-Sabah, who currently holds the powerful post of Amiri Diwan, effectively a gatekeeper to the royal family. Crowds were shown transfer documents that showed Nasser making dirty transactions worth millions between March and May 2013.

One document alleged that Judge Faisal Al-Marshad, who heads the Supreme Judicial Council, received more than $50 million last year in illegal bribes. Other judges were also named.

Then Al-Barrak's colleague, an Islamist, stood up and claimed that pro-government MPs had accepted more than $177 million dollars in bribes.

In response – the crowd chanted "The people demand to cleanse the judiciary!"

Although corruption was the big "hook," for last night's event: the opposition groups have a list of other concerns.

The wider issue is around a dysfunctional economy which serves the Kuwaiti elites well, via corruption and bribes, but leaves many parts of the country feeling disenfranchised and underserviced by government. These tensions are now reaching a new breaking point.

Despite being the third largest oil producer in OPEC, Kuwait ranked last amongst GCC countries for "Global Competitiveness," in a report published by the World Economic Forum.

Several of the protesters Memo spoke to cited this report, which saw Kuwait placed last in the Gulf on no less than fifteen categories – including low quality of education (at all levels), poor access to loans, investment and training, lack of support for starting a business, poorly designed legislation and of course bribery.

Looking across to development in Qatar and the UAE, even in Saudi Arabia – it is clear that much more of the oil wealth is being spent on creating better societies.

The organisers of the rally were an impressively cohesive coalition of opposition politicians, political groups and activists. In March, a new umbrella group called the Opposition Coalition was formed, bringing together all opposition parties. This helped unify a sometimes disparate group, who had collaborated on and off since the ousting of Nasser.

The documents that Al-Barrak displayed at the rally were just "blank papers with names and numbers that can't be taken seriously," according to Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah, speaking in Parliament today. The documents are now posted across several Kuwaiti blogs, and the government has, at least, has referred them to prosecutors.

Corruption in Kuwait is not merely a profitable game for the elite and the judiciary; it is a way for the Emir and his family to wield invisible power over Parliament. With rising dissatisfaction over how Kuwait's public services are being delivered, Al-Barrak and the other opposition leaders have touched a nerve not only with the people but also with the Emir, who needs bribes to keep Parliament on side.

Al-Barrak has faced charges in the past for "insulting the Emir," but he remains the longest-serving Member of Parliament (as of 2012, he had been elected for six consecutive terms), and in February 2012 Parliamentary election, he even set a record for the most votes received. With a populist track record, a united opposition behind him, and a successful launch to his "battle against corruption," it will be interesting to see where Al-Barrak, and the Emir, end up.

Al-Barrak summed up his determination to fight on – "The opposition will not find peace until it puts its hand on all threads of this conspiracy."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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