KUWAIT CITY (AP) — Several prominent Kuwaiti opposition figures have returned home from a decade of self-exile after getting amnesty from the ruling emir, a long-awaited move celebrated Tuesday that's aimed at ending the political paralysis that has burned a hole in public finances.
Faisal al-Muslim was the latest to be greeted early Tuesday by screams of joy from relatives and supporters who had gathered at the open-air diwaniya, the all-male customary Kuwaiti gathering. Attendees in traditional white robes and checkered headdresses crowded around al-Muslim, jostling to shake his hand.
Al-Muslim is among several opposition Islamist lawmakers who had been sentenced to prison for storming the Kuwaiti Parliament amid the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 as the government moved to grind out dissent. Like many, he fled and had been living in exile in Turkey as the country's remaining opposition pressed the emir to issue a royal pardon and pave the way for their return.
The emir issued the amnesty decree earlier this month as tensions escalated between Kuwait’s fully-elected parliament and emir-appointed government, with angry lawmakers using their limited powers to block the government’s economic reforms.
The royal edict pardoned and softened the sentences of nearly three dozen Kuwaiti dissidents. Well-known former opposition leader Musallam al-Barrak returned home last week with great fanfare.
The political deadlock has bred a worsening financial crisis in the wealthy, oil-rich sheikhdom, with Kuwait’s general reserve fund running dry. The parliament, meanwhile, refuses to let the government raise the public debt ceiling and drum up badly needed billions of dollars.
As oil prices plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic, the government continued to pay lavish public sector salaries without addressing the widening deficit, prompting ratings agencies to downgrade Kuwait for the first time in its history.
After al-Muslim returned, Kuwaitis celebrated with tea and a ceremonial sword dance.
“All the houses in Kuwait are very happy by the return of al-Muslim and those who were with him,” said Dokhi al-Hasban, one of the attendees. “The merciful mother...embraces her sons regardless of their minds, their conceptions and their ideology.”
Many parliamentarians, although deeply disenchanted by the political wrangling, say they're energized by the return of key opposition figures.
“The situation doesn't encourage us to be in the National Assembly, but maybe we could have another political role...like as a party or organization,” said former conservative lawmaker Waleed al-Tabatabaie. “We should benefit the youth by our experience.”
Kuwait stands out in the region of Persian Gulf sheikhdoms for its full-throated parliament and history of lawmakers publicly criticizing official corruption.