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Middle Eastern Studies
Volume 47, 2011 - Issue 3
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Original Articles
Elite Rivalry in a Semi-Democracy: The Kuwaiti Press Scene
Kjetil Selvik
Pages 477-496 | Published online: 19 May 2011
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Kuwait's liberalization of the press and publication law in 2006 sparked a threefold increase in the number of Arabic language newspapers that defied conventional wisdom about print media decline and also survived the world financial crisis. The article provides a political explanation for this puzzle, arguing that newspapers serve as political instruments in elite rivalries in Kuwait's semi-democratic setting. It qualifies the idea of newspapers as civil society institutions and shows how political control is reproduced in a liberal context. It thereby contributes to our understanding of the role of the press in hybrid regimes.
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The author is grateful to Drs. Ghanim al-Najjar and Stig Stenslie for comments on this article.
1. G. Doyle, Media Ownership: The Economics and Politics of Convergence and Concentration in the UK and European Media (London: Sage Publications, 2002).
2. ‘Kuwait Corruption Levels on the Rise’ Kuwait Times, 4 June 2009, http://www.zawya.com/Story.cfm/sidZAWYA20090604042143/Kuwait%20Corruption%20Levels%20On%20The%20Rise (accessed 22 Jan. 2011).
3. See M.A. Tetrault, ‘Kuwait's Annus Mirabilis’, Middle East Report Online, 7 Sept. 2006, http://www.merip.org/mero/mero090706.html (accessed 19 March 2010).
4. If a minister fails to adequately explain the parliament's inquiries it can lead to a vote of no confidence and the minister's forced resignation.
5. Suspicion stemmed from the high frequency of interpellations as well as the prosaic nature of some of the issues raised.
6. M.A. Tetrault, Stories of Democracy: Politics and Society in Contemporary Kuwait (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).
7. R. Azoulay, ‘Entre marchands, effendi et l'Etat: changement social et renouvellement des élites au sein de la communauté chiite koweitienne’ (Master Thesis, Insitut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, 2009).
8. 1) The National Democratic Alliance; 2) the Democratic Forum; and 3) the Kuwaiti Work Umbrella.
9. 1) Al-tajammu‘ al-islami al-salafi (The Islamic Salafi Alliance); 2) Al-haraka al-salafiyya (The Salafi Movement), and; 3) Hizb al-Umma.
10. Tajammu‘ al-‘adala wa-l salam.
11. Tajammu‘ al-mithaq al-watani.
12. Al-tahaluf al-islami al-watani.
13. S.M. al-Ghazali: Al-jama‘at al-siasiya al-kuwaitiya fi qarn, 1910–2007 (Kuwait: al-Mu‘allif, 2007).
14. Author's interview with Sajed al-‘Abdeli, 30 Dec. 2008, and Haila al-Mekaimi, 28 Dec. 2008.
15. F. al-Waqiyan, al-Sahafa al-kuwatiya: ta'rikh … wa-‘ata’ (Kuwait: al-Riyadi, 1994).
16. For instance, Muhammad Musa‘id al-Salih, Sami al-Munayyis and Ahmad al-‘Udwani all wrote for al-Ba‘tha.
17. Kuwait's first airplane and first oil tanker were later named al-Kadhima after the newspaper.
18. F. al-Waqiyan, al-Sahafa al-kuwaitiya, pp.78–83.
19. W.A. Rugh, The Arab Press (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1987).
20. A. Baaklini, G. Denoeux and R. Springborg, Legislative Politics in the Arab World: The Resurgence of Democratic Institutions (Boulder, CO and London: Lynne Rienner, 1999).
21. al-Waqiyan, al-Sahafa al-kuwaitiya, pp.155–7.
22. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Musa‘id worked in pearl diving during the 1930s and later gained wealth from general trading and contracting business. He invested in hotel business in Kuwait, Lebanon, Dubai and France and was one of the largest shareholders of Alahli Bank which he established with others in 1967. He also established an aluminium factory in the 1960s.
23. A lawyer from a wealthy group of families known as al-Qun‘at, Muhammad Musa‘id al-Salih was also an active trader, establishing a net of contracting and construction companies, airline agencies and an aluminium factory.
24. A 2008 court order later ruled that 30% of al-Siasa belongs to Jabir al-‘Ali's sons.
25. Disagreements among the Marzuq brothers later affected the newspaper as Khalid al-Marzuq was forced out by his two younger brothers, Ahdi and Faysal.
26. According to Ahmad al-Khatib, the palace and succession struggle was the fundamental reason for the un-constitutional closure of parliament in 1976. See A. Khatib, al-Kuwait min al-imara ila al-dawla [Kuwait: From Emirate to State], 2nd edition (Casablanca: al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-‘Arabi, 2007).
27. A. Baaklini, G. Denoeux and R. Springborg, Legislative Politics in the Arab World: The Resurgence of Democratic Institutions.
28. The Ministry of Information temporarily closed 6 publications in 1976, 6 in 1977, 12 in 1978, 11 in 1979, 6 in 1980, 5 in 1981, and 1 in 1982. See al-Waqiyan, al-sahafa al-kuwatiya, pp.185–9.
29. Under normal circumstances the Kuwaiti authorities do not issue official directives on media content.
30. Author's interview with Anas Rusheed, 6 April 2009.
31. Freedom House, ‘Freedom of the Press 2008 – Kuwait’, 29 April 2008, http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4871f612c.html (accessed 9 Sept. 2009)
32. There are also certain social limits. Hedaye Sultan al-Salim, the editor in chief of the weekly al-Majalis, was shot in her car on her way to work some 8 years ago because she had mentioned a tribe by name and criticized it. The assassin, Khalid al-Azimi, said he was taking revenge for the dignity of his tribe (Awajim) because she had humiliated them. There were rumours afterwards that the gun al-Azimi had used belonged to the Kuwaiti police. The court sentenced al-Azimi to death, but MPs from the Awajim tribe were pressing the minister of the interior to release him.
33. Arab. ‘ma la yakun hunak ashadd fi qanunin akhar’.
34. Freedom House, ‘Map of Press Freedom – 2008’, http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page= 251&year=2008 (accessed 1 June 2010). Freedom House however still considers the Kuwaiti press only ‘partially free’.
35. Author's interview, 9 March 2009.
36. Before ‘Alam al-Yawm, Ahmad al-Jabr and ‘Abd al-Hamid al-Da‘as ran the advertising newspaper Kull Thulatha. They belong to the al-Shamar and al-Mutayri tribes respectively.
37. The Popular Bloc (al-takattul al-sha‘bi) is led by veteran politician Ahmad al-Sa‘dun and includes tribal-affiliated MPs like the charismatic Musallam al-Barrak.
38. Before oil, the al-Saqr merchant family was supporting the ruler through collecting pearls, transporting goods from India, Africa and beyond, and breeding camels and sheep. After oil, the family expanded its business ventures to a range of big projects.
39. M. al-Rumaihi, ‘waqfat wada'’, Awan, 3 May 2010, http://www.awan.com/pages/first/308304 (accessed 4 May 2010). Observers believe the financial problems had their roots in disagreements between the prime minister and the editor in chief which made the former withdraw his funds
40. ‘Kuwait's Third Newspaper in 18 Months Shuts Down its Presses – The National’, n.d., http://www.thenational.ae/news/worldwide/middle-east/kuwaits-third-newspaper-in-18-months-shuts-down- its-presses (accessed 28 Dec. 2010).
41. Among others Mahmud Haydar controls the electronic newspaper Zoum, the private TV channels al-‘adala and al-Funun, the sole private radio Marina FM, and the SMS service Barlamani.
42. Al-Nahar is also targeting the Shi‘a segment, but less explicitly than al-Dar.
43. Somewhat surprisingly, the Muslim Brothers have not invested in the new press scene in a similarly straightforward manner. Their political arm, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM), has so far not created its own daily newspaper, although this is being considered. The Brothers tried the indirect approach of dominating ‘Adnan Muhammad Al-Wazzan's newspaper al-Wasat, but were left without a proper mouthpiece because of the latter's failure. On the other hand, the ICM has two weeklies, al-Haraka and al-Mujtama‘, and columnists in most Kuwaiti newspapers.
44. Other Jana‘at families are al-Mutawa‘, al-Sirri, and al-Musallam. Members of this group usually intermarry and reject the idea of marriage with non-Jana‘is, although this has relaxed in recent years.
45. He went into business in the 1970s as a stock market broker and benefited from state allocation of land to establish himself in real estate.
46. Author's observation, Kuwait National Assembly, 15 Dec. 2010.
47. Author's interview with; Muhammad al-Rumaihi, editor in chief, Awan, 18 March 2009; Sa‘ud al-Anezi, editor, al-Jarida, 8 March 2009; Yusuf al-Jalahme, editor in chief, al-Ra'i, 3 Feb. 2010.
48. For instance, while al-Qabas and al-Ra‘i are sold for 100 fils, their production costs are 160 fils and 235 fils respectively. Author's interview with Waleed al-Nusif, editor in chief, al-Qabas, 2 Feb. 2010, and Yusuf al-Jalahme, editor in chief, al-Ra'i, 3 Feb. 2010.
49. Author's interview with Muhammad al-Rumaihi, 18 March 2009.
50. Author's interview with Yusuf al-Jalahme, 3 Feb. 2010.
51. Author's interview with ‘Adnan al-Rashid, 7 April 2009.
52. Author's interview with Walid al-Nusif, 2 Feb. 2010.
53. Author's interview with Rida al-Fa‘li, assistant chief manager, al-Nahar, 1 Feb. 2010.
54. Among the newcomers, 'Alam al-Yawm also has its own printing house.
55. Author's interview with Rida al-Fa‘li, assistant chief manager, al-Nahar, 1 Feb. 2010.
56. Author's interview with Walid al-Nusif, 2 Feb. 2010.
57. Al-Sawt was reportedly forced to close because it was 1.1 billion dinars in debt. In 2010, the newspapers Awan and Arrouiah were also shut down.
58. Author's interview with Muhammad al-Rumaihi, 18 March 2009.
59. Author's interview with Anas Rusheed, 6 April 2009.
60. Author's interview with Zayed Zayd, 9 April 2009.
61. Author's interview with Sa‘ud al-‘Anezi, 8 March 2009.
62. Author's interview with Ghanim al-Najjar, 28 Dec. 2008.
63. Doyle, Media Ownership.
64. C.E. Baker, Media Concentration and Democracy: Why Ownership Matters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
65. B.H. Sparrow, Uncertain Guardians: The News Media as a Political Institution (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).
66. See for instance C. Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978); S. Tarrow, Power in Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and D.S. Meyer and D.C. Minkoff, ‘Conceptualizing Political Opportunity’, Social Forces, Vol.82, No.4, (2004), pp.1457–92.
67. Author's interview, 10 March 2009.
68. Author's interview, 10 March 2009.
69. Author's interview, 17 March 2009.
70. Author's interview with Mudhaffar Rashid, 9 March 2009.
71. Author's interview with Abbas al-Mejren, 17 March 2009.
72. Author's interview with Walid al-Nusif, 2 Feb. 2010.
73. Mahmud Haydar is among the rare actors to risk direct attacks on the powerful parliament speaker. For instance, on 1 February 2010 al-Dar published an ‘investigative report’ on the ‘waste and corruption’ of the al-Kharafi-built Jaber Sports Stadium: http://www.aldaronline.com/Dar/Detail. cfm?ArticleID=89163 (accessed 1 June 2010).
74. Author's interview with Yusuf al-Faylkawi, director, Faculty of Media, Kuwait University, 3 Feb. 2010.
75. Author's interview, 17 March 2009.
76. Author's interview with ‘Adnan Rashid, 7 April 2009.
77. Author's interview with Husayn ‘Abd al-Rahman, 4 Feb. 2010.
78. Ibid.
79. Author's interview with Yusuf al-Faylkawi, 3 Feb. 2010.
80. ‘Kuwait shuts Al Jazeera for “meddling’”, n.d., http://www.arabtimesonline.com/NewsDetails/tabid/96/smid/414/ArticleID/163051/reftab/36/Default.aspx (accessed 14 Jan. 2011).
81. Author's observation, Kuwait National Assembly, 15 Dec. 2010.
82. C. LaMay, ‘Democratization and the Dilemmas of Media Independence’, The International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, Vol.8, No.4 (2006), pp. 50–75.
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