x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Kuwait's national pride gets second wind

The Hala February Festival arrives to unite the country after an eruption of anger from thousands of tribesmen enraged by the broadcast of an 'urban' Kuwaiti's definition of what makes a true national.

KUWAIT CITY // When thousands of tribesmen protested against a Kuwaiti who questioned the legitimacy of their citizenship last year, the cohesion of this tiny Gulf state was put to the test. But now, with festivals, conferences and a new law, Kuwaitis promoting national unity are starting to fight back.

"We started the parade with a half kilometre flag carried by around 400 people," said Waleed al Jassim, the general director of the Hala February Festival, an annual month-long event, which began on the date the emir took the throne, January 29. "Nobody's asking us to do this, we like to do it. We believe in our emir and we love our emir." The annual festival includes competitions for shoppers, a circus and exhibitions by painters. Mr al Jassim said they are distributing badges with the flag and pictures of the emir, and the festival's slogan, "Kuwait for people who love it", was inspired by their leader's recent speech.

The speech that Mr al Jassim was referring to came in the wake of a protest in December, when about 5,000 tribesmen, incited by remarks made by an "urban" Kuwaiti on satellite television, poured into the city's streets. The man, Mohammed al Juwaihel, said true Kuwaiti nationals were those who hailed from within the walls of old Kuwait. It seems the emir's warnings against the spread of chaos and disorder have stirred Kuwaiti activists to try and do something about it. As the Hala February's shopping festival was underway in one of the country's malls this week, another, unrelated group were beginning their own campaign to promote the idea of a united Kuwait in the same place.

The conference was run by the Thawabit (core values) Society, which is made up of well-known Kuwaitis from business, the parliament, trade unions and the tribes. Over the next five years they will tour the country in an attempt to spread the message encapsulated in their logo: portraits of seven people of varying sex, dress and colour in a row, with all their features hidden by a stretched national flag.

"It's about loving Kuwait: all Kuwaitis are one, there is no difference," said Khalaf al Enezi, 18, a student who has been enthused by the society's message and volunteers his time. "There are different cultures here, but we don't think the differences are important." One of the conference's speakers, who represents the country's bankers, Nasser al Marri of Noor Financial Investment Co, said: "The idea behind this movement, is to make sure that everyone in Kuwait accepts that there is one type of citizen."

Mr al Marri said the group will teach people about their rights and obligations as citizens. He said the project is not related to the protests sparked by Mr al Juwaihel, and denied that there is any problem with national unity in Kuwait. . Other Kuwaitis are not so sure that everything is harmonious in the state. Abdullah Alhajeri, a professor of modern history at Kuwait University, believes that the Kuwait's historical development has produced a fractious society, and this problem has grown in recent years.

Mr Alhajeri said in the past only people from Kuwait's old city were called Kuwaitis and the tribesmen of the surrounding lands were known by their tribal names. When the state was formed in 1961, encompassing both urban and rural areas, it used the name Kuwait, but some city-dwellers never really came to terms with their Bedouin neighbours taking their city's name. The problem is exacerbated by "citizenship cards", Mr Alhajeri said. When the state was formed, it decided that those who settled before 1921 would get first-class cards, while many of the Bedouin nomads who came later received second-class status. As a result, they were banned from elections.

But in 1996, the electorate was expanded to include those with second-class citizenship, radically changing the make-up of parliament. When a flood of new politicians started to lobby for their tribes' interests, gaining around half the seats, the old elite became concerned, he said, and that's why rich merchants have funded Mr al Juwaihel to speak on their behalf, he claimed. The divisions that remain from the formation of the state could be tempered by a new law to promote national unity which will be presented to the emir in "the next couple of days", said Khalid al Mathkour, who heads the body responsible for drafting the law.

After it is presented, the law will begin the lengthy legislative process. "School curriculums and activities should be aimed at raising students' awareness about the spirit of national identity," Mr Mathkour said in an article in the local press. "Mosques should also be used as a podium to spread this message, particularly in Friday prayer. Additionally, there is a need to develop media content that promotes national identity."

Hundreds of tribesmen gathered again this week, but this time it was for a celebration of culture, at a poetry recital organised by another festival currently running in Kuwait called February Nights. "They are talking about famous people in the past: Arabian warriors and leaders of the GCC countries," said one of the organisers, Ahmed al Kholaifi, as the well known Saudi poet, Ziad bin Naheet, entertained the crowd.

"People love their country and in these national days we all feel as one," he said. jcalderwood@thenational.ae