With a mix of condemnation, maneuver, and strategic calculation, Gulf countries are navigating the current crisis.
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Over the past several decades, student unions and clubs have played an important role in the lives of Gulf Arab students, both in local universities and abroad. Most Gulf Arab states have some form of student organization, inherited from the days of the first Gulf students who studied abroad in the 1940s and ‘50s and were influenced by that era of Arab solidarity and activism. While some student unions have been a force for change within their societies, others remain focused on campus life and are apolitical and under the supervision of the state.
For political and social impact, none can compete with the National Union of Kuwaiti Students – particularly its flagship charter in the United States. Boasting 13,000 members and an annual budget that exceeds $2.2 million, it has frequently stretched its mandate well beyond the normal assistance with college and grant applications, visas, and logistics. The NUKS-USA leadership, selected through fiercely contested elections, often reflects the partisanship of Kuwaiti national political movements that seek to cultivate young proteges from among its ranks. Yet at other times, NUKS-USA has coalesced into movements of reform, significantly altering Kuwait’s national political trajectory.
A Unique Student Union
NUKS was established in Cairo in 1964, its leftists and pan-Arabist politics manifested in the work of the union and its constitution. Today, NUKS branches are in Kuwait as well as Egypt, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, and the United States. Although unlicensed and unregistered as a civil association in Kuwait, NUKS chapters enjoy “de facto” recognition by the Kuwaiti government as a legitimate representative of students. NUKS demonstrates a high degree of independence, with elections supervised by an executive committee elected by students that is composed of representatives from different NUKS chapters.
These elections set NUKS-USA apart from the other Gulf student organizations in the United States. The Saudi Student Club and the Omani Student Association actively support the needs of students but remain apolitical and monitored by their cultural attaches. Free from direct governmental interference, NUKS-USA students form lists that campaign for elections based on a national, academic, ideological, and, sometimes, political agenda. In the words of one student list competing in elections, NUKS-USA is “not limited to serving students. It is the place from which principles and ideas are instilled.”
Exacerbating Social Polarization
NUKS-USA elections have become a battleground for liberals and Islamists competing on the Kuwaiti-national level, particularly after Islamists broke the liberals’ 14-year winning streak in 2016. The liberal current in Kuwait felt that it had lost its stronghold – the only NUKS chapter that promotes liberal interests. Meanwhile, the conservative current was looking forward to re-establishing a new “Islamist” foothold.
These student proto-parties demonstrate clear affinity and sympathy with their ideological comrades in Kuwait, hosting partisan events and supporting policies backed by these political societies back home. This extreme polarization has invited interference from politicians and members of parliament, business elites, media outlets, government officials, and nongovernment organizations. The political movements have reciprocated by providing political and financial support: funds that the student lists can use for their events and travel expenses to bring supporters to attend – and vote at – the annual conference. Moreover, the union’s success relies heavily on political support to meet students’ demands. Members of parliament introduce legislation on NUKS-USA’s behalf and facilitate meetings with senior officials, including the prime minister.
Funds are also needed for campaigning. Student lists hold campaign rallies in different U.S. states to listen to students’ concerns. These vary from direct student interest – “Would you work hard to raise students’ salaries?” – to national issues – “Where does the party stand regarding protests in Kuwait?”
Sectarianism and tribalism are considerable factors in student elections, regardless of ideological identification. Committees differentiated by tribe and sect form prior to elections to endorse a party – an extension of the social reality in Kuwait. For all of these reasons, critics of such student organizations believe these kinds of student elections reproduce the status quo instead of encouraging critical and liberal-minded thinking.
And, indeed, the social polarization and political partisanship of student elections has at times endangered widespread support for the student unions in Kuwaiti society. The union’s annual budget is highly dependent on government support, including from the emir, prime minister, and state-owned enterprises. NUKS-USA’s budget has fluctuated: In 2016, it was $1,7677,166; in 2017 it was $577,491; in 2018 it was $501,366; and in 2019 it skyrocketed to $1,440,157. The years the budget dropped were when the conservative party, which was perceived to have a more opposition-oriented agenda, won NUKS-USA elections.
Some members of parliament attempted to restrict student politics, especially after the student unions became more sympathetic toward the political opposition. In 2014, they proposed a new “law of organizing student unions,” which would have brought the unions under the supervision of the state and forbade them from interfering in political issues, just like is done by their Gulf Arab counterparts. In response, student parties from both sides of the aisle united and unanimously rejected the proposal as an attempt to “muzzle” students. In 2015, a demonstration by a large group of students at NUKS-USA’s annual conference in support of the imprisoned opposition leader Musallam Al-Barrak prompted some members of parliament to demand revoking those students’ government-funded scholarships. Amid rising tensions in national politics and among student lists, NUKS-USA elections were under the spotlight of the government, and ministerial committees were formed to monitor elections in the following years.
Advocating Social and Political Reform
While the student unions reflect some of the political issues of Kuwait, they have also at times played a leading youth role in pressing for positive change in support of reform and the country. This was evident in the pivotal role NUKS-USA played during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. NUKS-USA held a national convention in Virginia featuring U.S. and Arab officials to raise awareness about the occupation of Kuwait. NUKS-USA organized student volunteers to assist the U.S.-led coalition fighting to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait in translation and logistics. It also mobilized 2,600 protesters in front of the White House and reserved an hour daily on a radio and television station to spread its message to the world.
NUKS-USA, as an organization, was also one of the most active student movements in advocating for reforms in Kuwait: women’s suffrage in 2005, the Orange Movement for electoral reform in 2006, and the “Dignity of Nation” protests against political corruption in 2012. In the Orange Movement, NUKS-USA appointed a special committee to lobby members of parliament, raise awareness of the corrupt electoral system, and advocate for participating in events and protests. More recently, NUKS-USA has organized media campaigns condemning the revoking of citizenship of some Kuwaiti nationals to suppress dissent and advocating for pardoning former opposition members who were accused of storming the Parliament amid protests in 2011.
The highly politicized Kuwaiti student unions nurture Kuwaitis’ commitment to participating in public affairs and national politics. This well-established system offers a “dress rehearsal” for civic engagement and provides important skills preparing students for public and professional life. However, there are still challenges in managing the tensions among students resulting from student politics. In the end, the debate continues over whether student politics offers a means to reform Kuwait’s national politics or simply reinforces the status quo.
is a former research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, researching Gulf politics, society, and culture.
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