x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Youth take up battle against bureacracy in Kuwait

Young people are tired with a system where, without a wasta, or connection, it's tough work dealing with government offices. Elizabeth Dickinson reports from Kuwait City

Thousands of Kuwaitis protest the government's amendment of the electoral law in November. Many of the young protesters just want their country - on the most basic level - to work. Gustavo Ferrari / AP Photo
Thousands of Kuwaitis protest the government's amendment of the electoral law in November. Many of the young protesters just want their country - on the most basic level - to work. Gustavo Ferrari / AP Photo

KUWAIT CITY // The story spread like wildfire among young Kuwaiti friends because everyone could remember a similar experience. A young man, trying to renew his passport and tired of waiting, called his friend, who in turn knew someone who could help.

That wasta, or connection, wasn't a high-level official or even a bureaucrat. It was the expatriate server who poured tea for employees at the passport office. Sure enough, with the waiter on board, more wasta followed, and suddenly, the renewal was rushed through.

The story may have been told in jest, but one of the most common grievances among young Kuwaitis is not jobs, health care, or even politics. It is the bureaucracy.

From paying parking tickets to passing university exams, 20-somethings here say that getting things done in Kuwait often requires battling a sclerotic, bloated government machine that favours personal connections over fairness.

Patience is wearing thin among university graduates and young professionals. And as opposition forces have taken to the streets in recent months, youth have been front and centre, arguing for a way to introduce meritocracy into a system that values family names more than diplomas.

Many of the young protesters just want their country - on the most basic level - to work. And with more than half the population younger than 25, their calls for legalised political parties and an elected government are getting louder.

In many ways, the calls are unexpected. Kuwait is home to a boisterous parliament and a sprawling welfare system. Kuwaitis receive free education and health care, and up to 80 per cent of the workforce hold high-paying public sector jobs.

Yet handouts alone will not placate people such as a 25-year old demonstrator named Faisal, a civil engineer at one of Kuwait's ministries. He found himself annoyed at a February 2011 government handout to mark the 50th anniversary of independence.

"When we were given 1,000 Kuwaiti dinars [Dh12,944], I thought, OK, this is fun - I can travel. But in the longer term, this can cause inflation, and it did," Faisal recalled. "There is something wrong with the government's logic."

Just two years after returning from studies abroad, the energetic young man, who would rather read a physics paper than a newspaper, finds himself immersed in a political opposition movement.

"I work in the public sector and there is so much dysfunction," Faisal said, attributing it to why he has joined the protests. "But the government doesn't care how it functions; they just want it to absorb as many employees as they can."

Evidence of the bloated bureaucracy is easy to find. Kuwait ranks last among Arabian Gulf countries in the World Bank's Global Competitiveness Report on measures that include ease of starting a business, wasteful government spending and the burden of regulation.

During the past several years, the government has expanded spending on social benefits in moves that analysts have interpreted as ways to pre-empt discontent.

The changes have not come cheap. Last year, the International Monetary Fund warned that mounting government spending could equal oil revenues by 2017, meaning that not a drop of savings from Kuwait's rich hydrocarbon reserves would be saved for the next generation.

Kuwait's youth protesters insist they are not chasing material wealth or patronage. Instead, they argue that they are seeking political enfranchisement as an answer to the near-daily feeling of not having the right connections, name or wasta to get the job done.

"Having a good life means having a good political system," argues Khaled Al Fadhala, 36, a member of the youth opposition for almost a decade. "All the luxuries won't last, and we'll realise we're not managing our way of life correctly."

In many ways, the changes Kuwait's youth are looking for are evident by their own example.

In late December, when opposition forces came together to boycott a parliamentary election, it was the youth that orchestrated an elaborate campaign mixing social media and more traditional handshaking politics. Unlike some of their elders, they are on time to meetings and return phone calls.

"The youth are very different. They're much less hierarchical, they don't want a top-down system," said Mary Ann Tetreault, an American political scientist at Trinity University who has studied Kuwait for three decades. "They're ready to do what it takes to build institutions where everyone gets a say."

Mr Al Fadhala said: "In many ways, our wanting democracy is more honest and pure than someone who is hungry or impoverished. This person needs it; we believe in it."

edickinson@thenational.ae