Corruption Inquiry Rocks Kuwait



CAIRO — Two of Kuwait’s largest banks thought it a bit suspicious when about $92 million was transferred into the accounts of two members of Parliament.

So the National Bank of Kuwait and the Kuwait Finance House alerted the public prosecutor, who decided last week to open an investigation not just into those suspicious deposits, but also into the account activity of seven other members of Parliament, as well.

Kuwait is a wealthy nation that has managed to appease the public and avoid the kind of tumult that has swept other Arab nations. But even in Kuwait, where allegations of corruption and kickbacks are endemic, the sheer size of the deposits has set off a fury that is rocking the oil-rich country. Not to mention that investigations, so far, involve 9 of just 50 total members of Parliament.

“This is becoming the Kuwaiti Watergate,” said Shafeeq Ghabra, a professor of political science at Kuwait University. “The reaction at the popular level is that this is proof that the existing government has failed the people. In this context more demands for the resignation of the government are now heard.”

Late last month, the Kuwaiti news media first broke the news that the country’s two largest banks were alarmed by multimillion-dollar transfers into the accounts of lawmakers, said Nasser al-Sane, a former lawmaker who now teaches business at Kuwait University.

But even as public anger soars, the government has remained tight-lipped about the case, only fueling public suspicions, rumor and speculation. In that environment, popular anger at the royal family, and in particular the prime minister, Nasser Mohamed al-Ahmed al-Sabah, has flourished.

“We still have been given no information about the source of this money or who received it,” said Ebtihal al-Khatib, a longtime democracy activist. “Everything is a rumor, and that is one reason people are so angry and have come together, because we want more information. We want to know names, and we want to know the dates they will be tried in court.”

The corruption inquiry threatens to put the government into an impossible position, Mr. Ghabra said. If the emir allows Parliament to remain in place while at least one-fifth of its members are investigated for graft, he risks the growth of ever larger street protests and an erosion of public trust. But if he dissolves Parliament and calls for new elections, public outrage could help usher in a legislature hostile to the monarchy and more assertive in demands for constitutional changes.

“All that the government has in its hand is money, and it thinks it can use it to buy itself time,” Mr. Ghabra said, “but this scandal came about because the government has been using money to buy loyalty” from lawmakers. “We are getting more and more into a situation where money cannot solve the country’s problems. Those who have it do not use it wisely, and the result is a scandal like this that carries a very high political cost.”

Kuwait’s political system has long been seen as one of the most freewheeling in the Persian Gulf, a region whose politics are dominated by absolute monarchs. The emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, is the undisputed head of state, and forming political parties is illegal, but the country has an elected Parliament made up of a wide range of political factions, including socialists and Islamists. The prime minister has always been a member of the royal family, appointed by the emir.

The government has relied on its vast oil wealth to provide Kuwaitis with cradle-to-grave care. But that same wealth has fueled corruption and fed public distrust, said a 2006 United States Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks.

“The rapid rise in oil prices and the accompanying oil boom has fueled corruption in Kuwait,” the cable said. “Kuwaitis are increasingly beginning to ask where all this money is going.”

That undercurrent has burst into public with the latest revelations. Lawmakers have proclaimed their innocence in the local news media, urging Kuwaitis to join protests for the removal of the prime minister planned for this week and demanding that banks throw open their ledgers for investigators. But the royal family has so far remained silent. The emir and the prime minister are in the United States to attend the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, and Parliament is in recess until October.

Observers say the scandal has erupted at a time when Kuwait’s leadership faces challenges on multiple fronts.

For months, Kuwait City has seen sporadic, if mostly small, demonstrations demanding the removal of the prime minister and a move toward constitutional monarchy, Ms. Khatib said. Those demands, she said, have only grown in light of the corruption probe.

Thousands of public-sector employees are also on strike, demanding higher wages and expanded benefits, and opposition lawmakers have urged them to join antigovernment protests. In an interview with The Kuwait Times, Ahmed al-Saadoun, a member of Parliament, said the strikes “could signal the beginning of a collapse because we have a failed and incapable government.”

The New York Times

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