01/16/2006, 00.00
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Succession in Kuwait raises hope for greater democracy

Changes in oil policy and alliances are not expected. US Vice President Cheney is expected tomorrow. The country's opposition hopes that the new emir will broaden freedom in the only formal democracy in the Arab world.

Kuwait City (AsiaNews/Agencies) – No changes are expected in Kuwait's oil policy and alliances after Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah died yesterday. The political opposition hopes that the arrival to the throne of Jaber's cousin, the ailing 75-year-old Crown Prince Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, might give current Prime Minister, Sheikh Sabah Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah, more leeway to enact reforms.

Son of the late emir, Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Ahmed is said to be liberal-leaning and an advocate of further democratic reforms in what is considered the only Arab country with a "formal" democracy that includes an elected parliament, a relatively free press and a franchise that was recently extended to women. The cabinet in fact includes a woman, Maasouma al-Mubarak, who was appointed minister of planning and administrative development. The capital of Kuwait City also has two women municipal councillors.

Some 195,000 women are on the voters' list, bringing the total number of eligible voters in the emirate to 334,000 in a country of 2,857,000 people, 980,000 of whom are Kuwaiti nationals.

Those without the right to vote include oil technicians, service workers, and Christians who represent 8 per cent of the population.

Opposition politicians, who alleged wide-ranging vote-buying and other forms of corruption in last May elections, have called for genuine reforms in the political process.

The government, for instance, is not responsible to parliament. Under existing rules, the Emir appoints the Prime Minister who in turn chooses the members of the cabinet.

Parliament has real legislative power though for it can block bills proposed by either the Emir or the government.

The quick succession process should guarantee the stability of the country, one of the main US allies in the region. It occurred according to rules laid down by the late Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed who ruled the world's fourth oil producer for more than a quarter of century.

US Vice President Dick Cheney is expected in Kuwait City tomorrow to convey regrets on behalf of US President George W. Bush. He is currently in Cairo (Egypt) and should also visit Saudi Arabia as part of a wider tour of the main US allies in the region.

Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, who was in power when his country was invaded by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, not only was there when it was liberated but was also witness to the Iraqi dictator's removal from power and saw him stand trial.

Forty days of mourning are now to be observed as well as three days during which all public offices will be closed.

The late emir was seen as politically astute. He was widely loved for his reforms in the health and education field, something relatively easy in a country where the annual per capita income is around US$ 20,000.

He was also able to impose reforms such as the right for women to vote and hold public office against the opposition of conservative and Islamists, who represent the only worry for the future of the country over which there is a political consensus.

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