Insight: A Conversation With Amer Al-Hilal

Insight: A Conversation With Amer Al-Hilal
By Francis A. Clifford Cardozo
Arab Times Staff
Reprinted from ‘Arab Times’ (6th October, 2008)

Interpellation is a democratic right of the Parliament and it should be exercised prudently, particularly as a means to gain transparency keeping in mind the interests of the Kuwaiti populace, says Amer A. Al-Hilal. Kuwait has always been a vanguard for development and openness and many visionary plans implemented in other Gulf countries took shape in Kuwait, he adds. In an interview with the Arab Times, Al-Hilal spoke on an array of issues ranging from interpellations, tribal primaries and women’s emancipation to graft.

Q: Was the government justified in banning the tribal primaries? It was widely assumed that the authorities failed to act on the primaries held by the liberals.

A: I believe there is a lot of misconception about the primaries. I am of the view that a primary encompasses the following criteria: people publicly set a time and date and ask members of a sect or tribe to converge at a certain point by having the ballots ready.

Sometimes it is pre-determined as who is going to contest the elections and this is certainly unfair for it denies an opportunity to a potentially qualified candidate.
Contrary to the general perception that the government turned a blind eye to the primaries held by the liberals, I reckon that they merely indulged in what can be best described as consultations. In simple words, when certain political blocs decide to meet or talk in an open and transparent manner at a diwaniya or elsewhere, it does not amount to a primary.

Having considered all aspects of the tribal primaries, I feel the government took the right step in banning them. I support a democratic system whereby people cast their ballot at the polling booths and tribalism must not be encouraged in any form. Regrettably this phenomenon has assumed momentum in the past few years.

From what I viewed on TV, both parties, including the security authorities and certain tribes appeared to be at fault. Some elements provoked the security forces to act by pelting them with stones. On the other hand, the authorities used excessive force to deal with an issue that could have been handled in a diplomatic manner.

Q: A majority of the parliamentary interpellations were said to be born out of personal interests. Do you agree that the grilling tool was misused?

A: Interpellation should not be used to settle political scores or to suit one’s own partisan ends. Lamentably, this is what we have been seeing of late.
Having said that, it is not the parliament’s duty to implement developmental plans and in the same way it is not the parliament’s job to provide electricity, water, social services etc.

It is the government’s responsibility to provide these services to the general public. And as long as there is mismanagement and lack of transparency and inability of the government to push through reforms, then you will see more and more parliamentarians sensing a lack of leadership as an indication for them to use the grilling tool. Some of the grillings were based on valid points but most of them were not.

Q: Are you referring to mismanagement in the government establishments?

A: Kuwait has always been a vanguard for development and openness and many visionary plans implemented in other Gulf countries took shape in Kuwait.

For instance, the concept of Free Trade materialized in Kuwait in the Sixties. Similarly, many good ideas with regards to privatization, free market reforms etc originated in Kuwait.

Kuwaitis have always been great tradesmen but something went terribly wrong in the last decade or so as people started moving away from their origins and became more extreme, less self-reliant; they began relying on government help. A lot of Kuwaiti companies have carved a niche for themselves on the global arena and Kuwaitis are very smart investors, innovators and have played an important role in the development of other countries. If you look at the banking sector in Kuwait, for example, the talent pool is amazing.

The problem is that the government is a stumbling block to the development of the country; this is largely due to the fact that we have 93 per cent of the Kuwaiti workforce employed by the government. And the government sees the private sector not as a partner – the way modern states do – but as a competitor.

We have a management that is static because people remain in the same positions sometimes for decades whether they are civil servants or undersecretaries and this leads to a culture of mismanagement, favoritism and corruption.

There are gaffes by both the legislative and executive bodies as certain individuals are not effectively utilizing their positions to bring about progress and it all boils down to personal interests.

Q: The Parliament is only three months old and some parliamentarians have threatened to grill some ministers, including the prime minister. Are we about to see another political crisis or what?

A: The proposed grilling of the prime minister is something unprecedented in the history of Kuwait and if the parliamentarians take that route, then we are likely to see dissolution of the Parliament.

Reshuffling government in a frequent manner is impeding the progress of the country, including major developmental projects with regards to infrastructure, water, electricity, health and education. Changing ministers won’t solve the protracted problems as the system, employees, under that minister have to be effective as well.

This does not imply I am giving a clean cheat to the government for the latter sometimes enjoys toying with the Constitution by limiting freedom. A case in point is that the government enacted laws that curb meetings or gatherings which are guaranteed by the Kuwaiti Constitution. It also recently caused a public uproar by instructing all NGOs and societies in Kuwait to deal with international organizations only through the ministry of social affairs.

This is a direct violation of the Constitution and personal freedom of speech. However, the move was opposed tooth-and-nail and this prompted the government to back down.

Q: Can political blocs in Kuwait fill the vacuum left by parties?

A: Unofficially, we have political parties in Kuwait whether it is the National Democratic Alliance, Islamic Constitutional Movement or Salafists. I believe in political parties for it is the natural step in the evolution of democracy whose time has come.

Political parties may not have worked very effectively in the Arab world but there is no reason why we cannot make it work in Kuwait and customize it to our needs.

I think political parties in Kuwait will be a jolt in the arm of democracy because they will jump-start certain ideological platforms in a transparent manner. People will know who they are voting for, their ideology, platform and the political party will ultimately be accountable whether they deliver the goods or not.

Political parties will encompass a list of names for a voter to choose from each district; and the citizen may not vote for an independent candidate; instead may vote for political party itself. Additionally, women will have a greater chance of getting elected to the parliament if political parties offer them seats.

Q: The plan to transform Failaka into a tourist hub has already hit a road block. The opposition to the project is growing by the day…why are the parliamentarians dead against the project?

A: We need to seriously introduce tourism in Kuwait and this fits perfectly into the government’s plan to transform Kuwait into a financial hub. Any development that takes place in Kuwait, be it Silk City or the development of Failaka should wholeheartedly be encouraged.

There are some elements who fear exterior influences hitting the fabric of the society and these elements consistently criticize tourism or entertainment in general, be it cinema, cable or otherwise; they ignore the real dangers or bad influences creeping into the society such as liquor, drugs, and prostitution.

Q: Is the crime graph in Kuwait a cause for concern?

A: The authorities need to enforce the full extent of the law if crime is to be eradicated in Kuwait; you need to cut the head of the snake.

We have to exert greater efforts in tacking drug trafficking for it tarnishes the image of our country. But if people are caught and released or handed light sentences, then it is not going to serve as a deterrent.

Kuwait in the Sixties and Seventies did not have such problems even though we were much more open and liberal society.

Q: Who is to be blamed for the rise in crimes?

A: I attribute the spurt in crime to a certain caliber of demographic communities. We have tens of thousands of workers coming to Kuwait, who are bachelors and they have their needs – physical or otherwise. The social crimes have increased with the influx of marginal labourers and lack of rule of law.

This does not mean the government should raid people’s homes at will but the important thing to do here is to get down to the bottom of the matter. The need of the hour is accountability and full implementation of the law.

When the law is not fully implemented it leads to chaos and corruption that seeps into every facet of the society whether it is a factory spewing poison in Umm al-Haiman or whether someone getting kick-backs in the ministry to shield illegal activities.

The authorities have to crackdown on visa traffickers who are hurting the Kuwaiti image abroad and tarnishing the country’s rights record; they were the bone of contention with regards to the recent labour strikes and demonstrations.

Q: What are the problems being faced by residents of Umm al-Haiman?

A: There are certain areas in Kuwait where cancer rates are very high. There are factories built next to residential areas that continue to spew dangerous toxic material into the air and the authorities have failed to act on such issues.

Kuwait is in great need of enacting environmental laws. These companies need to abide by the environmental code and not, for example, dump toxic waste in the ocean as was the case in Messilah. Such occurrences will continue as long as there is no accountability.

Q: Is graft to be blamed for the environmental ills plaguing the country?

A: I think corruption plays a big role because people continue to do what they do thinking that they can go scot-free. You hear about a variety of fraud cases but seldom you see people being prosecuted.

Q: Visa trafficking has taken center stage following the labour demonstrations. Who should be facing the music?

A: According to newspaper reports, there are some 80,000 illegal workers in the country. The demographic population balance has shifted uncomfortably to a situation that is detrimental to the safety and prosperity of the country.

When you have a large number of workers who are jobless for they were conned back home and then in Kuwait; these workers get frustrated after losing everything. Some have been staying in the country illegally for many years as they do not have their passports. In such a scenario, the amnesty is a step in the right direction.

But we have had amnesty periods before that didn’t really yield quantitative demographic results. I place the blame squarely on the companies which bring the laborers to Kuwait and leave them to fend for themselves.
Kuwaitis are good-hearted by nature but a handful are tarnishing the image of the country and the good spirit that is always been prevalent among Kuwaitis.

Without strong laws in place, people will continue to find ways to make a fast buck – if there are loopholes in the legal system – those loopholes will be exploited and that is human nature. It is about time that these unscrupulous companies are taken to task.

If we are to eliminate visa trade, we have to abolish the sponsorship system that has only caused us headaches from the beginning.

Q: By abolishing the Sponsorship System … do you think the problems of workers can be completely redressed?

A: It is not the only step but it will be a good first step to help curb visa trafficking.

Q: Do you believe the labour demonstrations in the country could have been avoided, especially if the government had brought to book erring companies right at the start?

A: We have always had sporadic labour protests in country but things came to a head this summer. The government knew that there was a major problem at hand but it sometimes acts in denial – like an ostrich – burying-its-head-in-the-ground thinking the problem will dissipate.

For years the government has seen the human trafficking reports by the State Department and other international organizations but the authorities have always taken a defensive stance, saying it was an ‘internal matter’ or the issue was “exaggerated by enemies of Kuwait”.

Now we know those reports were accurate all along. Having said that, the government has taken steps but they are not adequate. In order to put an end to the labour strikes, the companies must pay their workers’ salaries on time, pay their health insurance, offer holidays and sick days as stipulated in the contract besides improving their living conditions.

Q: Newspaper reports have blamed some influential people for indulging in visa trafficking. Is the minimum wage of KD 40 adequate considering the inflation factor?

A: I agree with you. There is no doubt that some influential people were involved in the visa trading and these people need to be exposed. As for the minimum wage, the KD 40 salary is certainly not enough given the rise in inflation, but at least the workers will now know their salary before leaving their country; they should be provided proper housing and a dignified life.

Q: Often, the government talks about transforming Kuwait into a financial hub but we have seen in the parliament constant bickering over anything to do with developmental projects. Given this infighting…do you think Kuwait can become a financial center in the Gulf?

A: Kuwait no doubt has the potential to become a financial center provided it figures out what exactly it wants to do – whether it wants to be petrochemical hub, offshore banking hub or a tourism destination.

And if the country is eyeing to be a financial hub, then we have to update laws and regulations and we have to have these laws in English. How can you attract a foreign company if 9 out of 10 web pages relating to the ministries, laws and regulations are in Arabic? There is a need to introduce the corporate and legal code both in English and Arabic.

Q: What are the factors that have enabled other GCC countries to overtake Kuwait on economic domain?

A: All countries in the GCC, except Kuwait are moving in the right direction and are planning to spend on infrastructure projects. They have liberalized their economies and reworked their laws. For instance, Saudi Arabia spent more than a billion dollars just to update its legal structure. It is imperative to update laws if one is to attract foreign investment.

Another thing is that 95 per cent of the land in Kuwait is under government control which is unbelievable. If they freed just another 20 per cent of it, then it would serve as a booster tonic for businesses in Kuwait and open our real estate to proper foreign investment. One can never underestimate the lack of land in the development of a country; our own private sector here has been grappling with this dilemma for decades with seemingly no end in sight.

Q: Can the proposed Silk City answer the growing housing need of the country?
A: We first heard about the Silk City about four years ago. The plan looked good on paper and the design looked something similar to that built in Dubai. However, I knew then that nothing would materialize because I am a cynical citizen, a cynicism stemming from lack of action throughout the years.

The government is planning to transform Failaka into a touristic spot and we can certainly do that. Tourism need not only involve liquor and night clubs, as naysayers fear, but we can have family oriented tourism and it can be customized to Kuwait.

If the Failaka project continues to draw criticism, then Kuwait should allocate a place within its borders wherein we can have a ‘Free Tourism Zone’ with its own laws and regulations. For example, we can establish a zone where entertainment can be less restricted, such as cinemas with lesser censorship, family-style beaches, something in tune with the rest of the Gulf. People who oppose such entertainment avenues should stay clear of them or remain in Kuwait City.

Q: Why do you think women tasted failure in the last two elections?

A: I beg to differ on this issue. I think women made strides in the recent elections, especially Aseel Al-Awadi. I feel that more women need to vote for themselves and if they do that, then you will see a lot of female parliamentarians.

As parliamentarians, women would deal with issues that their male counterparts wouldn’t espouse such environment, divorce, education, health and social. There is a great need to highlight these matters and I certainly would welcome it. I feel they will work in a more conscientious and less political manner.
Women in Kuwait certainly have a tougher time in reaching higher positions and even though we have women Ambassadors, CEOs, Ministers and Doctors, there is a lot to be conquered on the female professional battlefield.

Q: How do you see the future of Kuwait?

A: I sense cynicism and sadness among my generation (and the younger one) for they are seeing the rest of the Gulf countries forging ahead in building modern states while we have our heads against a wall as there is a feeling of hopelessness.

Thousands of people such as myself fought alongside the Americans during the invasion of Kuwait, others bravely fought within the Kuwaiti resistance. We did it because we loved it and because we thought that Kuwait would come back stronger, better and wiser. That hasn’t been the case.

And now to see Kuwait with electricity and water problems, mismanagement, labour demonstrations and rise in extremism … these are disturbing trends that are killing the spirit of young Kuwaiti men and women.

I am concerned about Kuwait. I want my kids to be raised in a safe and prosperous environment, an environment with a real future where the best of their abilities can be groomed and used, not only to make a decent living, but to build a better Kuwait. I wish this for everyone, Kuwaitis and expatriates alike.

It is a worrisome situation to see the way Kuwait is squandering its windfall, its finances, by not investing in human resources, infrastructure or tourism projects so when oil runs out at least we will have something to fall back on.

I admire the UAE because its leadership saw the writing on the wall and diversified their economy. The other countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar are also moving in the right direction. Their approach is one of efficiency and openness and they believe in investing in their own country first but in Kuwait it is the opposite.

Q: What are the factors fuelling the Islamic currents in the country?

A: I have no issues whatsoever with the Islamists as long as they tackle corruption, implement reforms and fight injustice in our society.

However, if they start playing political games and turning a blind eye to burning issues, then I don’t regard them as Islamists. This is because a true Muslim will speak out against corruption and treat everyone equally.

Q: Are you satisfied with the way the Islamist MPs are going about their jobs?
A: I think some of them are doing their jobs by taking up issues such as corruption and healthcare issues but sadly they are a minority.

Q: Who is responsible for this? Is it not the electorate?

A: That’s right.

Q: Can you elaborate on the monopoly aspect?

A: The board members of co-ops don’t have the experience in dealing with food companies. They don’t effectively negotiate with the vendors, many board members do not have any wholesale or retail expertise at all, the co-op board seat is just another ladder in the political platform. Monitoring and price checks are rarely implemented by them or the state.

The food market in Kuwait should be liberalized and I would like to see more foreign and local supermarket chains in Kuwait. I’d rather prefer to have a Sultan Center, a Carrefour, a Safeway in my neighborhood than a co-op. The co-ops have failed in their mission to offer goods at fair or subsidized prices. If you go to some private supermarkets you will find that the goods at the private supermarkets are sometimes cheaper than the co-ops. There is a complete lack of regulation by the government not just on food prices but also expiry dates and content.

In general, I am against co-ops because they are a thing of the past.

Q: The Gulf is no longer considered an oasis with the rise in the standard of living while salaries have been stagnant for a long time…. Many are unable to afford the rising cost of living. What are your views on this issue?

A: That’s true. As a private sector manager, I have trouble recruiting skilled people from overseas because of the high cost of living in Kuwait; it is not feasible for skilled workers to take up jobs in the Gulf, especially when the standard of living in their respective countries has improved. The package here might not be worth the move for them.

Nevertheless, I am positive about the future of the Gulf; there is a lot of development going on in the region. Saudi Arabia has shown determination to improve the living standards in the country and I hope Kuwait will join the bandwagon. I have always believed that in order for Kuwait to survive the dangerous geopolitical environment, it must liberalize and open up to foreign investors. The more foreign multinational companies can invest in Kuwait, the more of a stake they will have in our country’s security and stability. And that can serve as a geopolitical buffer as well. Time is running out, Kuwaitis want tangible results and not just empty rhetoric. True nationalists are individuals who pursues the betterment of their country and don’t back off when the chips are down. Right now the chips are down and we need people to help jump-start the country from its careless slumber.