On August 3, 2010, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion with Mohammad Boshehri, director of planning for Power Station Projects at the Kuwaiti Ministry of Electricity and Water and member of the Kuwaiti Democratic Forum, and Hiba Khodr, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, and assistant professor of public policy and public management in the Department of Political Studies and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut. The panel explored the public policy making process in the Gulf, with particular focus on the interaction between the general public and policymakers in Kuwait and Qatar. The event, which was followed by a lively question and answer session, was moderated by Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, and attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic, and media communities.
Hiba Khodr began the discussion by explaining the value in a comparative study of policymaking in the Gulf. She noted, first that increased understanding will enhance communication between the public and the government and create greater citizen involvement in governance. And second, that deeper comprehension of the policymaking process may help create openings for leaders to draw upon the knowledge and talents of actors and institutions outside of the government, thus leading to more intelligent and effective policymaking.
Khodr continued with a discussion of the specific mechanisms of policymaking in the two countries. The general perception is that policies in the Gulf are decreed by a small number of individuals; Khodr’s research findings suggest this might not be entirely true. Instead, she described the Gulf system as having a “strategically controlled ripple effect.” Policymaking decisions, she said, begin with the head of state and his family circle, then are evaluated by a circle of public officials; policies are next reviewed by researchers and policy entrepreneurs; finally, policies reach the circle of non-state actors, such as the media and the public. Non-state actors still have only an embryonic impact on policy in Kuwait and Qatar.
Khodr argued that Kuwait is a “hesitantly democratizing” nation in the region, with a free press, a number of political societies that contest elections, a legislature, and an increasingly active civil society. Qatar, on the other hand, has been slower to liberalize.
In both states, the heads of state and their families take the lead on policy formation, and set the tone for public participation.
Mohammad Boshehri discussed the Kuwaiti model of policy formulation, which he described as “very developed.” He outlined the nation’s process of transition toward democracy, starting by describing the tribal system that dominated before Kuwait’s independence in 1961. In this system, the leader made decisions with minimal consultation. After independence, however, there was popular demand for a constitution. The parliamentary system was introduced in 1962 and represented an entirely new era in the nation’s development. Boshehri highlighted that Kuwait has distinguished itself in the region because it has embraced the democratic process.
Boshehri emphasized that Kuwait’s media plays an important role in advocating for laws that serve the public good and mentioned instances in which citizens were able to influence policy. In 2006, for example, a group of young Kuwaitis launched a nationwide campaign for reducing the number of electoral districts from 25 to 5 to help overcome divisive tribal and familial loyalties. The measure was passed, illustrating the growing power of the public in policymaking. In 2009, activists called the “Group of 26” challenged the proposal of some members of Parliament to cancel citizens’ debts, countering that government money could be used in a more effective way. According to Boshehri, examples like these prove that, in Kuwait, “civil society organizations can reach the highest levels [of government].”
Boshehri also stressed that diwaniyat, or informal salons, remain important for activating political life. In addition, he underlined the high degree of free political expression in Kuwait; in fact, anyone, with the exception of the emir, can be directly criticized. Because the Kuwaiti population tends to discuss politics and policy decisions as part of daily life, Boshehri posited, the population understands the decision-making process and is more eager to become involved in it.
Following the panel’s remarks, a question and answer session covered a range of issues, including the interplay between domestic and foreign policymaking and the means of enhancing democracy in both nations. One attendee asked if the Qatari political system is likely to become more democratic in the future, allowing for more popular involvement in policymaking. Khodr explained that Qataris seem to be involved in the policymaking process through discussions in the informal majalis, similar to Kuwait’s diwaniyat, as well as through newspapers and a state-owned radio program. It remains to be seen, however, what role the large expatriate population will play. Already, expatriates are involved in senior levels of government, with some policies even being drafted in English.
One audience member observed that the implementation of policies, after they have been made, seems to have stalled in some Gulf nations. Boshehri answered that the Kuwaiti government sometimes lacks a clear-cut objective for policies, making it more difficult to them to be implemented effectively. He noted, however, that the Kuwaiti government now has a development plan and is working to develop clearer goals for its policies. Khodr added that the execution of policies is often delayed due to the culture of public institutions. For example, someone who was not personally involved in a policy may not take interest in carrying it out, and this behavior can hamper effective execution.
Another audience member asked how it would be possible for Kuwait to have democracy without legal parties and full freedom of expression. Boshehri replied that Kuwait does not yet have complete democracy; it is making progress on political reform. One obstacle is that some Kuwaitis have a vested interest in a tribal system and that transitioning away from this takes time. Boshehri explained, “Democracy is not just ballots. It is a change in many aspects of life. It is a transition. We are at least having an acceptable level of democratic transition and should be optimistic about what has been achieved.”