KUWAIT is a long way from being the Arab world's worst-governed or most oppressive state. Because of the country's enormous oil wealth its citizens have enjoyed generous social services. Foreign labor made it possible for most Kuwaitis to lead comfortable lives. Kuwait's rulers briefly even permitted a parliament and free speech for their critics.
That soon-regretted political experiment ended abruptly in 1986 when embarrassing questions were raised about the ruling family's possible involvement in corruption. Now the Al Sabah family is returning to Kuwait after fleeing Iraq's invasion seven months ago. Confronting it are new demands for power-sharing and social change. The dynasty's traditional and jealously defended absolutism is coming under sharp challenge.
Seeking to rally all Kuwaitis to their cause and to impress Western countries with their liberality, the Al Sabahs in exile began to speak vaguely about reviving parliamentary democracy. The promise is still being made, though a start date is left carefully unmentioned. Also being heard are implicit pledges to develop a less hedonistic, harder-working new society.
Among those pressing hardest for change are leaders of the Kuwaiti resistance movement, who remained to fight Iraq's occupation after most of the 1,000 member royal family had fled. So far few if any are urging the overthrow of the Al Sabahs. But there are demands for a reconvened parliament, for greater press freedom and public discussion of policy issues, for a popular voice in choosing cabinet ministers and for an end to discrimination against Kuwait's Shiite Muslim minority. At the same time many Kuwaiti women who took prominent roles in the resistance movement are demanding suffrage.
True power-sharing is always a resistible idea to any regime used to having things all its own way, which defines the governments of the Arab world. Sometimes, for appearances' sake or to open a safety valve, critics are allowed to take a seat in rubber-stamp legislatures or have their say in the controlled press. But democracy, as the West understands it, simply does not exist. Might Kuwait, emerging from the trauma of occupation, break with this pattern and turn toward more representative rule?
Many of its people, after suffering severely and behaving bravely under foreign conquest, are beginning to insist on their right to freer political and social lives. Kuwait has suddenly become a high-visibility country, likely to remain so as foreign reconstruction help pours in. Its rulers could risk much of the sympathy they have won in the world if they reject the chance to initiate serious reforms. They would lose even more if they act to repress those who seek what by any fair measure are only modest changes. The major post-liberation political question is not why Kuwait should now move toward more democratic government. The major question is why it should not.