Is the Arab Spring headed for the Gulf?

By Ayham Kamel and Willis Sparks

When a Tunisian vegetable vendor's act of suicidal despair ignited fury and demands for change across the Arab world last year, the rulers of Saudi Arabia, the wealthiest and most influential of Arab states, went on high alert. Saudis have grown used to trouble across their southern border in Yemen, and when protests swelled in tiny Bahrain last spring, Saudi troops moved quickly across the 16-mile-long King Fahd Causeway to save Bahrain's ruling family from angry Shia protesters. These exceptions aside, the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies have so far avoided the worst of the region's unrest.

There are signs that may change. In Kuwait -- a member of OPEC and the Gulf Cooperation Council, home to 3.6 million people, and a base for thousands of U.S. troops -- a long-simmering conflict between an opposition-led parliament and the ruling Al Sabah family has reduced Kuwaiti politics to an increasingly bitter stalemate.

The government, led by Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, appoints the prime minister and claims the final word on policy. Reform-minded opposition leaders now say a majority of the 50 members of parliament should be able to appoint the prime minister and that appointees should answer for their performance to elected legislators. Public protests, fueled by uprisings in other Arab countries, have upped the stakes in the battle for control of policy, and in recent months, things have gotten much hotter.

In November, demonstrators stormed parliament and forced the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, the emir's nephew. In December, the emir responded by dissolving parliament. In February, new elections were held and, much to the ruling family's dismay, the Islamist-led opposition won a majority of seats.

In the last few months, opposition leaders have summoned several ministers to answer corruption and mismanagement charges. While the emir did not respond by dissolving parliament, the country's constitutional court then entered the fray by annulling the results of the February elections and ordering reinstatement of the previous (less confrontational) legislature. Kuwait's cabinet resigned on Monday. The emir will probably call for new elections to avoid a confrontation with opposition groups, but public tolerance for this pattern of confrontation and reformation is now more limited.

It's unclear what happens next, but in months to come, Kuwait may be headed for the kind of trouble that its fellow oil-producing Gulf neighbors have worked hard to avoid.

The most obvious risk to Kuwait's stability could come from within the country's ruling family. By tradition, the post of emir is meant to pass back and forth between the family's Al Jaber and Al Salem branches. But with the death of the previous emir, an Al Jaber, in January 2006 following a nearly 30-year reign, a member of the Al Salem branch held the post for just nine days. The current emir, another Al Jaber, elbowed him aside. He is now 83 years old, and there is no clear plan for succession. When he dies, the Al Salems will probably become more assertive to ensure that their branch of the family is not reduced to permanent second-class status within the ruling elite. The Al Jabers will push back.

In addition, as in Saudi Arabia, some within the family worry that the current ruler has moved too quickly on reform, and there is a generation of younger royals who are already competing against one another for access, influence, and power. With every hint that a formal transfer of authority will soon begin, behind-the-scenes fighting will intensify as dozens of power players move to protect and enhance their positions. The resulting conflict could spill into the open -- and at a moment when determined opposition politicians and an increasingly restive public are ready to test their leadership.

Kuwaiti security forces can handle moderate levels of unrest. They've done it before. But an unexpected surge of demonstrations in a moment of divided leadership could provide them an unprecedented test.

That, in turn, could spook investors already worried about the impact of potential Middle East turmoil on the region's oil supplies. It could also bring higher levels of public anger into other Gulf states -- maybe even into Saudi Arabia. Kuwait is not Syria or Libya or even Egypt. It is a wealthy country unused to large-scale public unrest. But like regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran, Kuwait is an authoritarian country facing the medium-term prospect of generational change within the leadership in a volatile historical moment for the region.

That's why it will certainly bear watching in months to come.

Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East and North Africa practice. Willis Sparks is an analyst in the firm's Global Macro practice.