Kuwait’s leadership would be wise to decriminalize criticism of the emir and his relatives, in order to decrease the perceived distance between the palaces and the public, and take an important step in transforming his country into a modern, and democratic, constitutional monarchy. By tolerating non-sham parliamentary elections and a privately owned press, Kuwait’s rulers have made important steps already, but the press must also be allowed to criticize the royals behind the curtain.
Thinking narrowly, one could argue that, if Kuwaitis are restive, it actually makes sense for the emir to stifle dissent. After all, it’s helped other Arab autocrats prolong their rule. But this is a short-sighted strategy that would ultimately prove economically foolish. “Any country that wants to participate fully in the economic life of the planet,” wrote former Chicago Tribune editor Jack Fuller in his 2010 book What’s Happening to News?, “must eventually open itself to what to some regimes must feel is dangerously free expression.”
Al-Sabah may consider opening the doors of dissent to him and his policies a risky proposition, but more dangerous for this elite, I promise, is to sit unquestioned on his royal perch while his country has to cut back its rentier rewards. Embracing more features of legitimate constitutional monarchies would help Kuwait’s fortunate son preserve some of his country’s royal traditions, while giving the people who will have to shoulder the country’s future expenses more freedom to speak about their way forward.