The Emir of Kuwait chews the fat with the Queen and David Cameron

When I started writing this blog post (yesterday) it wasn’t clear whether David Cameron would be meeting the Emir of Kuwait on the Gulf leader’s current visit to Britain. He is though. His Highness Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah has a slot in the prime ministerial diary for later today. He is a monarch after all.

The Emir’s trip to these shores is a state visit. You know. A meeting (or should I say “audience”) with the queen. (See this rather atmospheric pic at Windsor Castle yesterday, courtesy of Hamad Al-Sabah (@hmalsabah)’s Twitter feed). Naturally there’s a mix of political meetings and attendance at “banquets held by HRH the Prince of Wales and HRH the Duke of York”. (I think there’s quite a lot of banqueting to do when you’re a royal, of either the western European or Gulf state variety…).

But, leaving aside the feast of duck confit, seared petite lamb chops seasoned with figs and apricots, and iced pears in a bed of wine-soaked raspberries (OK, I made this bit up), what about the political context here? It’s not good. Kuwait’s monarch arrives in Britain as his own country is gripped by something approaching a crisis. In recent weeks there have been mass demonstrations in the emirate with widespread calls for a boycott of this Saturday’s parliamentary election.

And … the Kuwaiti authorities have cracked down. During mass protests in several sites in Kuwait City in October peaceful demonstrators were attacked by riot police using tear gas and stun grenades. On 21 October the Kuwaiti authorities tried to attach a muzzle. They said they were invoking a 1979 ban on gatherings of more than 20 people. (Later this was apparently un-invoked - is there such a word? - but then Kuwaiti Interior Ministry officials muddied the water even more by saying they wouldn’t tolerate demonstrations of 20-plus people anywhere other than in Kuwait’s Erada Square. No marches, no large spontaneous gatherings). Meanwhile, latest reports suggest demonstrations are to be allowed ahead of the weekend’s elections. Let’s see how this all pans out.

And then there have been the arrests … the most high-profile has been that of the veteran former opposition MP, Musallam al-Barrak (he was the longest-serving MP in the Kuwait, a sort of Dennis Skinner figure). After growing official antagonism over his role in anti-government protests during the last year, he was arrested on 29 October and charged with “undermining the status of the Emir” after directly criticising the monarch at a public rally. Meanwhile, at least five other former opposition MPs have been summoned for questioning for making remarks concerning the Emir.

As I say, Kuwait is in near-crisis. Add to the present problems the simmering discontent of more than 100,000 stateless residents of Kuwait (the Bidun people), and you have a pressure cooker of a country.

Going back to the Emir’s hectic schedule during his UK trip, I see he’s due to visit Sandhurst where, says the British Embassy in Kuwait website, “many Kuwaiti and Arab royals and senior military staff received their training”. It’s also a military establishment that recently received a £3 million donation from the king of Bahrain. I have no problem with this, but I do think Gulf states should come away from their (not infrequent) visits to the UK - including to Sandhurst - with the strong idea that cracking down on peaceful protesters is a thoroughly bad idea. There - that’s food for thought.

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