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KUWAIT: Visit of controversial Shiite cleric creates political crisis

November 26, 2008 |  8:14 am

Kuwati_emir A rift between the Kuwaiti Parliament and the government of this oil-rich princedom over the visit of a controversial Iranian cleric has escalated into yet another political crisis.

On Tuesday, the Kuwaiti cabinet announced its resignation as three legislators prepared to question Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabahover for allowing the cleric, whom they accused of offending Sunnis, to enter this small Persian Gulf nation a few weeks ago.

The cleric, Mohammad Fali, has allegedly made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammad’s companions, whom the Sunnis revere. Tensions have been reported in the past between the Sunni majority and the Shiite minority in Kuwait.

Although Fali left the country following a wave of protests against his visit, the crisis continued as the three Islamist lawmakers insisted on demanding formal clarifications from the prime minister, a member of the ruling family.

The ruler of the country, Sheik Sabah al Ahmad al Sabah, put on hold the resignation and ordered the ministers to continue attending to their duties until he takes his final decision, according to the State’s news agency, KUNA.

Beyond the sectarian aspect, there is apparently another underlying reason for this political quagmire. Deputies wanted also to question the government over accusations of alleged corruption and economic mismanagement.

With an active elected parliament dominated by Islamist and tribal politicians, Kuwait has a significantly more thriving political life than most other Persian Gulf nations, where absolute monarchy is usually the norm. But many analysts say that the continuous bickering between the cabinet and legislators has slowed down development and the adoption of important economic reforms.

The current deadlock puts at risk a series of economic measures taken by the government to deal more effectively with the global financial crisis creeping into this seventh-largest oil exporter, including a plan to set up a markets regulating body.

In recent months, Kuwait’s stock market has been tumbling as oil prices have plunged and the financial contagion sparked by the U.S. mortgage crisis. The Kuwaiti bourse, the second largest in the Arab world, has been shut down for few days by a court order after small investors have complained about continuous losses. The government decided to pump cash to weather the crisis.

Mustafa Behbehani, a director of consultancy group in the Gulf, told Reuters:

"Uncertainty is the worst thing. Markets don't know whether economic reforms will be executed or not. ... We need to focus on key bills not minor issues.”

The Speaker of Kuwait’s National Assembly, Jassim Al-Kharafi, assured that there would be no dissolution of the Parliament, which could aggravate the political crisis.   

Kuwait’s emir or his predecessors have reshuffled governments or dissolved parliament five times since 1976.

-- Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: Kuwati ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. Credit: Associated Press