As Kuwait gears up for its first parliamentary elections since the US occupation of Iraq, it is economic and social issues that are coming to the fore.

Muhammad Khalifa, a member of the present parliament, says: "We are buried under a mound of problems and don't have a clue what to do about it."

“We used Saddam as an excuse all these years to do nothing. We lulled ourselves into complacency."

A bitter election campaign is already underway, rife with allegations of government incompetence, fraud and corruption, even against members of the ruling al-Sabah family, in power since 1752.

"One lesson we ought to learn from Saddam's fate is to give more power to the people," said Islamist parliamentarian Walid Tabtabai. "The top post in the government should go to an ordinary citizen so he can be accountable."

Economic reform needed 
  
Despite its oil wealth, Kuwait has seen little economic development since the early 1980s, unlike the neighbouring emirates of Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain.

"There's a lack of vision in the government. We haven't had a major development project for three decades," said former information minister, Saad bin Tiflah.

The largely state-run economy is heavily dependent on oil exports. Foreign and private investment is minimal and the bulk of state income is spent on wages in the cradle-to-grave welfare state of 850,000 Kuwaitis.

Ninety percent of Kuwait's workforce is state-employed. The government speaks of privatisation but finds it hard to rid itself of its traditional role of providing jobs, cheap education, housing and healthcare.

Job for life

Kuwait's women may watch
parliament sessions, but they
won't participate in July's elections

"The government is up against the wall. It cannot give everyone a job and cannot force private businesses to hire them," said Ahmad al-Bagdadi, a professor of political science.

"Government offices are so overcrowded with staff that some employees are told to go home and just come at the end of the month to pick up their pay," he said.

Economists cite a "hidden unemployment" rate of 50 percent as most government positions are described as unproductive. Analysts predict even dimmer prospects for a new generation of baby boomers. About half of Kuwaitis are under 15.

"What we need is privatisation. The government does not have the knowledge to run the industry and it does not have the courage to give it up to the private sector," said leading Kuwaiti economist Jaasim al-Sadduun.

Coming elections

Kuwaitis go to the polls July 5 to elect a new parliament, but analysts question whether voters will seize the chance to back reforms at home.

The elections "may not present the kind of change one wishes to see and the ball will be less in parliament's court and more in the government's" to follow up on reform, says leading political analyst Shafiiq Ghabra, head of the American University of Kuwait.

Out of a local population of 885,000, only 136,715 are registered to vote on July 5 to elect the 50-member parliament.

Women are not allowed to vote or run for political office.