Each February we devote a sizeable portion of our outlook to the future of Kuwait. Every year, we look a little deeper and judge, in our own eyes, the state of the nation. This year, we’re handing over to a few of our favorite people and inviting them to give their views.
From the spheres of design, architecture, social activism, and hospitality, they are each vocal advocates for change. Read on as they cast their minds over Kuwait, reflecting on their corner of society, as they gauge the temperature of the nation and its pace of change today, and look forward to tomorrow.
Our first protagonist is Kuwait’s AlAnoud Al Sharekh – a researcher and academic of global standing, one with a particular interest in women’s rights. Highly valued for her opinions across a host of societal issues, here she speaks to our Simon Balsom – both as an activist, and a mother.
What better base to start from than a consideration of Brand Kuwait? AlAnoud is sanguine in her view – “We’re in a place we can be proud of in terms of our national brand”, she says. “We’ve had a lot of setbacks and disappointments over the years. The occupation of Kuwait in 1990 delivered a cognitive break in our Arab identity, and we’ve had economic setbacks as well and political setbacks. But, all things considered, we’ve established a national brand that is affiliated with a high level of freedom of speech and a very active civil society movement”.
She sees the nation as still transforming. Although with hundreds of years of history, modern Kuwait remains a relatively young entity – but it is one she sees developing with an increased amount of transparency and opportunity for political debate. “The signs here are healthy”, she says, “we’re creating an engaged society”.
“As our national brand matures, it is becoming more inclusive. You don’t need to look back too far in our history to find a time when there were no women visible – this is changing”.
Doors are opening – perhaps out of necessity and driven by the contemporary pressures being felt by many of the world’s nations, but to a greater degree here in the Middle East. For some, the pace of change is too fast. “There will always be dissenting voices, but part of becoming a liberal and tolerant society is being able to accommodate a multitude of voices”. This is, indeed, a distinguishing feature of any aspiring modern democracy.
There is a widespread acknowledgement of change within Kuwait. It has been a fundamental part of the process for many years – a process that has seen highs and lows. When AlAnoud looks across her country today, she senses tempered optimism.
“It is part of the human condition to be more anxious about the future than optimistic” she explains. “Playing in to this within Kuwait right now, it serves some in our society to disseminate an idea of disillusion among our youth. In doing this they succeed in creating a sense of distrust and disconnect between our people and their government and institutions. So, perhaps more than a sense of optimism, today I feel a sense of agency amongst our people – they feel empowered to do something, to be part of the change. Opportunities to become involved are no longer tied to your social status, your age, or your gender as it was before. This is something we can all be optimistic about”.
We consider whether there exists in Kuwait a true sense of a nation. AlAnoud notes that this was far more clearly defined in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Today, we agree, there are many competing identities. Tribalism is an enduring challenge in the face of Kuwait becoming a fully equitable and openly free political nation.
However, through the use of modern technology, everyone can have a voice.
“Social media had made it is easier to become a dissenter, but also equally a supporter. Armchair activism has found its day on social media. But, more importantly than this, the political space has maintained a sense of tribalism. The government has not yet mastered the sense of nationalism to the degree it was achieved before. I’m hopeful though.”
In 2016, AlAnoud founded Ibtkar – a political and strategic consultancy focusing on training the youth, in particular young women, on the opportunities of leadership and dialogue in Kuwait and abroad.
“One of the biggest challenges we face today is that it’s not a level playing field,” she says. “We’re not living in a meritocracy”. With so much untapped potential in Kuwait, through Ibtkar, AlAnoud has set about engaging the youth in order to harness this resource. “We must focus on developing soft skills by finding new ways for them to convey their socio-political concerns in a structured manner. Women aren’t part of our diwaniya culture in Kuwait, so we’re developing a platform for women to be heard. They need to be noticed, and to be given a chance.
“In 2018 we trained 15 women on becoming political leaders, and more on how to run political campaigns”. Part of a series of ongoing programmes, she adds, “The women we work with are appreciative of being part of a network of likeminded individuals. They’re from wideranging and different backgrounds, but it is their common values and issues that bind them. This is the way forward for the future.
What of political office herself? For sure, it seems a logical next step and, while AlAnoud doesn’t rule it out completely, she insists that the time is not yet right.
“As well as giving much to the aims of Ibtkar, a current cause of mine is ensuring women are protected from violence”. Her championing of this through the Abolish 153 campaign is well known. “We still don’t have a women’s shelter in Kuwait. And I’m not sure that me being in political office would be as powerful a tool as being myself as an activist, behind the scenes, while I continue to push this through. Currently, I have access to a multitude of policymakers across the political spectrum. Until the issue of violence against women is fully addressed, I feel can be more useful on the outside”.
Ultimately though, “I stand on the shoulders of giants”, AlAnoud insists. “The women who came before me and fought for their right to get educated, and to participate in the labor force and to participate politically, they paved the way for me. I’d like to think that I’m paving the way for today’s young men and women so they can focus on other issues relevant to them today. None of this can be do without men as our allies. Today, Kuwait’s young men are amongst our biggest allies and supporters.
“I’m very hopeful for the future. I know my daughter has grown up in a society that is a lot less hostile to a woman than the one I grew up in. I hope my granddaughter will not have to deal with health guardianship or nationality issues we still face as women of Kuwait”.
While there remains work to be done, with Kuwait’s social outlook envisioned by patriots such as AlAnoud Al Sharekh, it bodes well for the future of inclusivity, gender equality and, in the end, brand Kuwait.