Kuwait is in the midst of an intensifying political crisis that poses the greatest risk to the country since its liberation after the 1991 Gulf War.
Beset by a stalemate that has seen off nine governments since 2006, the basic division revolves around a struggle for power between the elected National Assembly and a cabinet appointed by the emir.
While Kuwait’s difficulties are distinct from the wider regional upheaval, the Arab Spring has energised the popular and political opposition and crossed hitherto-sacrosanct red lines of permissible dissent.
The result is a showdown between the ruling Sabah family and ever-larger and increasingly assertive segments of the Kuwaiti population.
The current deadlock began in the summer of 2011 when youth groups began calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed Al Sabah, a nephew of the emir.
Their weekly demonstrations escalated in September when news broke of a massive political corruption scandal involving the transfer of funds to 16 of Kuwait’s 50 MPs allegedly in return for supporting government policies.
Tensions peaked in November after the Constitutional Court blocked a parliamentary attempt to question the prime minister over the scandal, and around 100 protesters, including MPs, stormed and briefly occupied the National Assembly building.
Although the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, publicly vowed not to give in to street pressure, tens of thousands of Kuwaitis responded by joining rallies calling for the prime minister’s removal.
A massive demonstration on November 29 drew more than 50 000 people and decisively forced the emir’s hand.
The prime minister was replaced by his deputy, Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak Al Sabah, another senior member of the ruling family, and parliament was dissolved pending fresh elections in February this year. These resulted in an opposition landslide as predominantly tribal and Islamist candidates won 34 seats.
However, tense weeks lie ahead in Kuwait in the run-up to the December 1 vote. The country has long been at the forefront of democratic evolution in the Gulf. Kuwaitis are intensely protective of their constitutional and political rights, and will oppose any renewed attempt to water them down.
With neither the ruling family nor the opposition in any mood for compromise, there seems little prospect for a negotiated way out of the impasse.
Instead, gloves have now come off on both sides, with the rising tide of opposition demanding nothing short of an elected government and a game-changing end to Al Sabah dominance of executive power.