Kuwaiti Dissidents Return Home After Emir’s Pardon

Three Kuwaiti dissidents returned home on Monday after ten years of self-imposed exile in Turkey. The three politicians were recently pardoned by Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, as part of his efforts to appease opposing legislators, who have held the country in a state of gridlock.

Jamaan al-Harbesh, Mubarak Al-Waalan, Salem Al-Namlan were greeted by a crowd of supporters at the airport. “We thank his Highness the Emir for his generous initiative that would come only from a generous leader,” declared Harbesh as he was leaving the airport. Opposition MP Muhannad al-Sayer concisely surmised that “This provides a glimmer of hope for cooperation.”

In 2011, Kuwait was rocked by a wave of pro-democracy protests. After more than a dozen parliamentary members were revealed to be taking bribes, more than 60,000 citizens joined the movement taking part in sit-ins and demonstrations at the capitol. On November 16, a crowd of protestors stormed and briefly entered the parliament building. In response, the Kuwaiti government arrested several youth activists and sentenced the three dissidents who returned home this past Monday.

In the 2020 elections, opposition lawmakers made gains into parliament. For months now, they have been locked in a stand-off with the government. Al-Shabah’s pardons represent a partial acceptance of the opposition’s demands. Anti-government legislators have also demanded that Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah stand before parliament to be questioned on corruption allegations and his handling of the COVID-19 in the country. However, a motion passed in March gives him immunity from questioning until 2022.

Kuwait has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. 92% of Kuwait’s export revenues come from oil, and the deflation of gas prices over the past year led to the country posting a record budget deficit in 2020. The situation has somewhat improved since then, but political tensions have prevented Kuwait from diversifying its economy, leaving them particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in the market. As the world transitions to clean energy, Kuwait’s economy will only worsen.

But this threat, in conjunction with the opposition’s gains in the 2020 election, have empowered the country’s pro-democracy movement. Monday’s pardons are cause for hope on two fronts: first, the government will negotiate its way out of its current gridlock, and second, the country will continue to gain freedom in the coming years.