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Saturday, July 17, 1999 Published at 15:47 GMT 16:47 UK

World: Middle East

Kuwait's royalty backs women

Kuwait: The only Gulf Arab state with an elected law-making parliament

The ruling royal family in Kuwait has urged the country's newly-elected parliament to approve a controversial law granting women full political rights.

If the bill becomes law, Kuwait will become the first Gulf Arab state to allow women to vote and stand for parliament.

This prospect has alarmed Islamist MPs, who have vowed to veto the decree.

Parliament is also being asked to approve another 60 decrees, including reforms aimed at opening up more of Kuwait's economy to outside investors.

Dogged by disputes

In its first session since the all-male electorate went to the polls two weeks ago, Kuwait's ruling Emir, Sheikh Jabar al-Ahmad, appealed for cooperation between the MPs and the non-elected cabinet.

[ image: Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah wants to recognise women's role]
Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah wants to recognise women's role
"I look forward to harmonious hearts and one approach in the face of danger," said the emir, who had dissolved the last parliament on 4 May because of hostility between the two powers.

The call was echoed by his cousin, the Crown Prince and Prime Minister, Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah.

The 50-seat parliament, known as the National Assembly, is split between conservative Islamists, liberals and a minority of pro-government MPs.

In the opening session, former Finance Minister Jasem al-Kharafi was elected as speaker of the house. He is expected to be less confrontational with the government than his predecessor, Ahmed al-Saadoun.

Shortly before being elected, he told legislators that Kuwaitis were in "dire need for solidarity" to face the challenges of the next century.

'Confrontation imminent'

Over the coming months, Kuwaitis will be watching closely to see whether the new parliament will be able to work more constructively with the newly-formed government.

The previous parliament was locked in almost continuous dispute with the non-elected cabinet over a wide range of issues, but one of Kuwait's leading political analysts - Jassem al-Saadoun - is already pessimistic.

He has been quoted as saying Kuwait is approaching a fresh political crisis, with confrontation imminent between parliament and government.

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