The Kuwaiti authorities released an opposition leader from prison on Thursday, a move that was celebrated by critics of the Gulf nation’s powerful dynastic regime.
Musallam al-Barrak, a former parliament member and critic of the ruling family, was detained on Monday after he publicly asked the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, not to “take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy,” according to the BBC.
He was arrested in his home on Monday evening. He and his lawyer later argued his the charge -- insulting the emir -- was based on unverified rumors and comments taken out of context.
Al-Barrak was released on bail of US$35,545 and is still under investigation. “I trust the emir... but maybe he has received bad information from those around him,” he said on Thursday, according to Reuters.
Al-Barrak is not the only high-profile figure to criticize the al-Sabah regime. Kuwait has what is arguably the most modern and open political system in the Arabian Peninsula. Its parliament is directly elected, and officials are free to criticize the dynastically appointed emir and his ruling family.
But the emir still wields power over these elected officials, as evinced by the fact that he has dissolved parliament on four separate occasions since 2006.
Dissent is worrisome for Kuwait. It is on the uppermost edge of the Arabian Peninsula, a region whose West-friendly governments are growing uneasy due to simmering unrest. The past year has already seen a popular uprising in tiny Bahrain, as well as a violent conflict in Yemen between the U.S.-backed government there and Al-Qaeda terrorist groups. The other peninsular countries -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman -- remain relatively stable, though conflicts everywhere are bubbling beneath the surface and sometimes erupt into small-scale protests.
Kuwait’s next elections are scheduled for December, but opposition groups -- who have made an increasingly strong showing in elections of the past few years -- are boycotting because they allege that recent electoral changes, implemented this month, will render it unfair.
Tens of thousands of Kuwaitis hit streets to protest those changes on Oct. 21. Authorities responded with stun grenades and tear gas, according to the BBC, and at least 40 people were wounded. The incident prompted the government to place a ban on large public gatherings.
In an environment like this, al-Barrak’s warnings about autocracy may stoke even more of the dissent that the regime is keen to suppress.