With the majority of Kuwait’s population under the age of 35, the outcome of the 2020 National Assembly (parliament) election will likely have a significant impact on the future of the country’s young population.
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Although young Kuwaitis make up the majority of the population, many of the issues they are concerned about are absent from the political discourse in this year’s election campaign.
“Unfortunately, some of the main topics that affect the youth, like the housing crisis and the job market, have not come up for discussion this year as much as other issues like the demographic imbalance and electoral reform,” Bader Al Najjar, a political activist, told Gulf News.
The issues that affect Kuwait’s young population are not new problems; they are issues that have worsened over the years “due to inefficient planning on the government’s part. The issues that Kuwait faced over the past 20 years are the same issues we face today, except they are much larger,” Khalefah Al Ghanim, a PhD candidate in political science, told Gulf News.
Young Kuwaitis have always been an important factor in politics as the number of young voters has increased in recent years. During the 2016 elections, around 36 per cent of all votes were cast by young voters.
Kuwaitis aged 21-35 make up over 55 per cent of legal voters, according to Kuwait’s population census. While women make up the majority of registered voters in Kuwait, based on the 2019 data from the Ministry of Interior, around 80 per cent of eligible young women are not registered.
Taking part in the Sajelni (‘register me’) campaign, Al Ghanim helped set up the first ever voter registration drive in Kuwait with the aim of registering as many young Kuwaitis as possible, with a focus on women. According to the Sajelni campaign, female voters under the age of 35 are almost twice as likely to be unregistered as their male counterparts.
Due to the pandemic, the registration period (usually February to March) was cut short this year. Thus, there isn’t updated data on the number of young registered voters.
Hopes from 2020 elections
Although the majority of registered voters in Kuwait consist of young Kuwaitis, their priorities are not reflected in national policies.
Both Al Najjar and Al Ghanim are considered as part of Kuwait’s youth and when asked what they want most from this year’s elections, they said: “I want to see a large turn out in this year’s elections. I also want to see people voting for good candidates who will fight corruption and stand by freedoms,” Al Najjar said.
“Political reform – but we won’t get that unless there’s more political mobilisation on the part of candidates and voters,” Al Ghanim said.
Involvement in elections
While young Kuwaitis have always participated and volunteered in election campaigns, in recent years the youth have had considerable impact especially when it comes to political advertising and marketing.
“The younger generation are more tech savvy and so they are being asked by the candidates, especially the older ones, to help manage their campaigns and get their message out online,” Al Najjar said.
In recent years, there has been a surge in youth-led media outlets from podcasts and news shows to the rise of young political analysts and academics.
“Young voices surely dominate society, culture and academia, but this isn’t reflected in political participation unfortunately. There also needs to be more representation of young women in these areas,” Al Ghanim explained.
As for voter trends when it comes to youth, Al Najjar pointed out that young Kuwaitis tend to shy away from voting norms, like voting for people based on their family. That said, he mentioned the youth tend to change their mind more quickly and are unpredictable in their voting patterns.
One of the main political issues that affect young Kuwaitis is the ongoing housing crisis. Certain benefits come with being a Kuwaiti citizen, one of which is that every Kuwaiti family has the right to obtain a house or plot of land. While that is a right, many young Kuwaitis are worried about their chances of securing housing in the immediate future for several reasons.
According to Sharifa Al Shalfan, an architect and urban planning consultant,
there are a couple of reasons that have led to the housing problem: (1) land prices in Kuwait are very high, usually averaging around 250,000 Kuwaiti dinars for a 400 square metre plot, which is the average sized plot in the country and (2) the inaccessibility of getting a mortgage from commercial banks.
In addition, “There is a lack of different types of housing, as houses and apartments are the only available choices. In other words, there are no multiplexes [a structure that is built like a house and then is divided into apartments], townhouses and very few options to attain plots of land smaller than 375 square metres,” Al Shalfan told Gulf News.
As of 2020, there are 91,077 Kuwaitis on the wait-list for a government-subsided house, based on the statistics from the Public Authority for Housing Welfare (PAHW). Last year the PAHW saw the highest number of people added to the wait-list, around 6,260.
Both Al Najjar and Al Ghanim pointed out that it takes about 20 years until one is granted public housing.
Al Shalfan pointed out that the housing problem keeps deepening due to the fact that “the government assumes that everybody wants the same thing: from land size and housing type to location.”
Taking part in a research study, Al Shalfan revealed that around 50 per cent of Kuwait’s metropolitan area is undeveloped.
“Access to land rather than land shortage is the problem. But the problem is that the government is building housing projects in areas that require one to commute long distances to work, have no general amenities and that are located away from Kuwait City, where many family members live,” Al Shalfan said.
Another issue that young Kuwaitis are facing is access to the job market, especially in the governmental sector. “Employment is harder and harder to come by as a new generation enters the labour market, a large number of young graduates wait multiple years to apply for a job in the public sector, and as each graduating class increases in size, ‘wasta’ [the Arabic term for nepotism] is taking precedence in employment, leaving a large number of graduates to either settle for a desk job that has nothing to do with their degree or remain unemployed,” Al Ghanim explained.
As a consequence of young Kuwaitis being unable to get a job, many end up voting for candidates they know will provide them with a job in return.
According to the International Labour Organisation, youth unemployment hit an all time high in 2020, rising to 16.49 per cent.
While the public sector is unable to handle the influx of young Kuwaitis looking for jobs, the private sector also struggles with hiring young Kuwaitis; 80 per cent of them in 2019 refused to work in the private sector, governmental statics show.
History of Kuwaiti youth and politics
Young Kuwaitis have been involved in a series of political events in recent years from the 2006 movements calling for amendments to the electoral law to the 2005 women’s movement.
There have been several demands by the Kuwaiti people to change the electoral law, one of which was the 2006 Nabiha Khamsa movements, which demanded that the electoral districts be reduced to five, instead of 25.
The young activists who led the Nabiha Khamsa movement were successful in their battle as they voted in parliamentary candidates who were in favour of changing the electoral law and, when elected to office, moved on to amending the law.
Similarly, in 2005, many of those advocating for women’s right to vote and run for office were Kuwait’s youth.
While young voters have historically been a major force behind political reform in Kuwait, “over the last five years, young voters haven’t been as active as they have been historically because of a large number of government restrictions on civil liberties that have hampered their ability to express themselves publicly,” Al Ghanim mentioned.
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