Laws of Associations
Law 24, issued in 1962, controls the political and legal framework within which civic organizations in Kuwait operate. According to Law 24 the Ministry of Social Affairs monitors associations that receive state subsidies. Amendments to Law 24 in 1965 prohibited associations from engaging in political activities. Law 24 does not govern the Kuwait Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The Kuwaiti constitution allows for freedom of assembly, but this is seriously restricted in practice, especially by the law of public assembly issued on 1979 by Emiri decree while the parliament was suspended. The law was approved by parliament on 1981 when its suspension was lifted. The 1979 law stipulated that Kuwaiti citizens must obtain a permit from the authorities before they hold any public meeting or organize any public rally. As of today, Kuwaitis who want to hold or organize public meetings or rallies need only to inform the authorities of their intention rather than wait for its approval or a prior permit. On the other hand, there are no formal political parties in Kuwait, but quasi-political groups of Bedouins, merchants, moderate Sunni and Shi’a activists, secular liberals, and nationalists are organized. Political parties are illegal in Kuwait, though members of parliament conform to unofficial national blocs. Kuwaiti civil society is made up of public interest associations, trade unions, and many informal groups. Activists who belong to the Kuwaiti fundamentalist faction declared on January 29, 2005 the establishment of the first political party in Kuwait and the Gulf countries, despite the fact that there is no political parties law in Kuwait. The Secretary General of the new party "The Nation's Party," Dr. Hakem Al-Matairi, said that the party was established to confirm the people's right to participate in choosing their governments according to pluralistic principles, to transfer power through peaceful means, and to accomplish the task of applying the provisions of Islamic Law (Shari'a) in all walks of life. The new party recruits women in its ranks in a special branch of the party. The Kuwaiti government refused to license the new party, called its founders for interrogation and later released them. The Nation's Party did not gain legitimacy or the right to political activism.
The government gives partial financial support to some politically oriented civil society organizations and has the right to dissolve them at any time. Trade unions, however, cannot be dissolved without a court ruling. The General Confederation of Kuwaiti Workers, the Kuwait Oil Company Workers Union, and the Federation of Petroleum and Petrochemical Workers are the important trade union federations in the country.
Almost all associations registered as public benefit societies receive funds from Kuwait's government. In addition, they receive other benefits from the government, such as reimbursements for traveling expenses to certain conferences or missions, allowance of a limited number of government employees to work for some organizations on a leave basis, and the arrangement of grants for specific projects. These state funds are not necessarily sufficient for operating a civil society organization, depending on the type and scope of the society's activities. Many active organizations, therefore, do their own fund raising, which usually generates income far exceeding the government funds they receive.
Associations and Unions
Particularly noteworthy are the cooperative societies, which informally perform civic as well as economic tasks. Their primary function is to purchase foodstuffs and household goods and distribute them through retail outlets. The cooperatives control more than 80 percent of the retail food market. Each Kuwaiti resident over 18 years of age is eligible to subscribe to the neighborhood’s cooperative societies. Subscribers are entitled to a share of the cooperative society’s annual profit, and all subscribers, including women, have the right to vote. To serve on the board of a cooperative is one way of developing a base of support in a particular neighborhood and is a common step toward launching a campaign for election to the National Assembly. The Ministry of Social Affairs has considerable supervisory powers over these societies’ activities. The minister may, for example, dissolve the elected board of a society if he deems it to be involved in inappropriate activities, or if funds have been mismanaged.
Workers have the right to join unions, but the government has restricted this right by only allowing one union per occupational trade. Also, there is only one trade federation of unions in Kuwait. Only 5.6% of the workforce was part of a union or labor group in 2002. According to labor laws, workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively, but in reality, this is rare and strikes are almost unheard of. On the other hand, the Kuwaiti government rejected efforts in March 2005 to oblige every expatriate who wants to leave the country, even on vacation, to obtain a written approval from his sponsor. The government said this would violate article 31 of Kuwait's constitution, which stipulates that an individual's freedom of residence and movement should not be restrained, except in accordance to stipulations of the law.
In Kuwait, there are 55 societies with 40,000 members organized with diverse goals, such as gender reform, political and economic liberalization and the promotion of Islamic values. In addition to these official societies, there are numerous public meetings in homes, collectively called Diwaniyas. Their number has increased in recent years, and they play an important role in the political process. Though most GCC countries have Diwaniyas, they typically do not exercise the same role elsewhere as they do in Kuwait.
Media and Government Regulations
The 1961 Press and Publishing Law governs the media in Kuwait. According to Kuwait's constitution, freedom of opinion and press is guaranteed within the limits of the law. After the Iraqi invasion, Iraqi forces had taken over all media, but a few Kuwaiti newspapers and Radio Kuwait managed to operate outside the country. In 1992, the government lifted censorship following Kuwait's return to sovereignty and removed other press restrictions. The Council of Ministers, however, retains the authority to suspend newspapers. The Ministry of Information runs the government press and the radio and television broadcasting stations. Copies of all publications need to be submitted to the ministry in advance for approval. The ministry does not grant license to magazines with a political focus. The General Organization of Printing and Publishing controls the printing, publishing, and distribution of informational materials.
The Ministry of Information operates the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) and the three stations of Radio Kuwait and the Kuwait Television station. Although no Kuwaiti television stations are privately owned, residents have access to satellite broadcasting without government interference. There is also a Kuwait Satellite Channel for viewers abroad. The constitutional court in Kuwait has strengthened the principle of free expression in the Kuwaiti society. Discussing and respecting divergent opinions is one of the most prominent features of societal discourse in Kuwait. The government emphasized the citizen’s right to political participation, although this right is restricted to male members only.