Captain Moonlight's Notebook: Emir of Kuwait in free election shock

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The Independent Online
THERE was an election in Kuwait three weeks ago which was not reported in the press and probably went unnoticed even among the camel corps at the Foreign Office. It was not the sort of poll that would make your average diplomat sit up and take notice, but as a guide to the popularity of the ruling al-Sabah family, for whom we fought a war with Iraq two years ago, it was rather significant.

It was the second defeat the emir and his family had suffered at the hands of Kuwaitis in three months and will most likely put the al-Sabahs off democracy for good. I find it curious that nowadays we no longer hear the words 'democracy' and 'freedom' when Kuwait is mentioned.

The elections took place at the emirate's most prestigious sports club, the Arab Sports Club, which has dominated the football scene in the Gulf for decades thanks to the generous fees it pays to its English soccer managers. You have to go back to the weeks immediately following the allied 'liberation' of the emirate from Iraq on 27 February 1991 when the emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, broke club tradition by appointing his son, Sheikh Bandar al-Jaber al-Sabah, chairman. The chairman had always been elected.

Not only did this junior member of the family refuse to hold an election for the club's executive but he dismissed 1,500 members for not having paid their membership dues on time. More than half the 1,500 were Shia Muslims who were well-known for their less than adulatory support for the al- Sabahs, all members of the Sunni branch of Islam. A court subsequently upheld the dismissed members' case against being unfairly booted out and also against the 'illegal' appointment of Sheikh Bandar as chairman. It set 20 February as the date for the election of a chairman and an executive.

The sheikh's slate - Brotherhood and Co-operation - suffered a humiliating defeat. A rival group - Children of the Club - led by a businessman, Muhammed al-Mulla, won more than 75 per cent of the vote and Mr al-Mulla is now chairman. Only a few months earlier, Kuwait's merchants had rejected an al-Sabah list of candidates to run the local Chamber of Commerce, opting for a team led by a well-known opposition figure, Jassem al-Saqur, a newspaper proprietor. My representative in Kuwait is uncertain whether this is a harbinger of the future. He will only go so far as to say it is worrying.

(Photograph omitted)