Protesters are seeking to break the exclusive grip on power by the ruling family [EPA]

Protesters in Kuwait have joined those calling for reform in the Gulf region by demanding sweeping changes in how their oil-rich country is run.

Hundreds massed outside the main government building on Tuesday where key offices, including that of Kuwait's emir and the prime minister, are housed.

Sheik Nasser Al Mohammed Al Sabah, the prime minister and nephew of Kuwait's emir, is accused by pro-reform groups of stifling political freedoms and muzzling dissent.

One of the protest slogans read: "Leave! We Deserve Better!" Others waved banners saying: "New country with a new prime minister."

Other protesters chanted in Arabic: "The people want corruption to go" and "Leave, leave Nasser [the prime minister]" as they stood in front of a large banner which read: "A new government, with a new prime minister, with a new approach."

Just six members of the Kuwaiti youth group Kafi (Enough) were in front of parliament in the early hours of the morning.

Abu Khalid al-Owaihan, a protester, said: "All the people here want to change the prime minister because he hasn't done anything for the country over the last five years. We want a new country with hospitals. There are very few of them and the level of education is very low."

Protesters are seeking to break the exclusive grip on power by the ruling family, which holds all major government posts and controls the oil riches in the world's fourth-largest producer.

Demonstrations have been going on in Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia, three of the six member states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) to which Kuwait also belongs.

Last month, police used tear gas to disperse protests by descendants of desert nomads demanding Kuwait citizenship and the generous state benefits that come with it.

Although the protests mark the first in Kuwait since the stunning Arab uprisings, the oil-rich Gulf nation is no stranger to political showdowns.

Kuwait has the region's most powerful parliament and opposition legislators have waged open battles against the ruling system, including nearly bringing down the prime minister two times with no-confidence votes.

The rallies were timed to dovetail with the return of parliament from a nearly month-long recess.

One of the first acts was the swearing-in of the new interior minister, whose predecessor was dismissed in January following an uproar when a suspect accused of illegal liquor sales was beaten to death in police custody. 

Source: Agencies