By Sylvia Westall and Mahmoud Harby
KUWAIT, Dec 19 (Reuters) - In a room scented with incense, twelve men in long traditional robes sip sweet tea and debate the political future of Kuwait's tribes at one of many "diwaniya" across the country, a tradition of evening social gatherings older than Kuwait itself.
The issue looms large in the tribal areas after changes to the voting system ahead of a parliamentary election on Dec. 1 sparked a boycott by opposition politicians, including tribal leaders who said the changes would have worked to their disadvantage in particular.
The dispute shows that the imbalance in power between those "inside and outside the wall" - refering to the series of walls that used to surround the capital area from the 18th to 20th centuries - is alive and well, said Fawaz al-Adei, a lawyer who was at the diwaniya.
"Tribes make up only a small part of the financial system, there is no real representation in government," he said, clacking his yellow prayer beads. "It is mostly people from the urban areas who control the media, who make the decisions."
The perceived divide is one of the sources of tensions in the major oil producer and could become more problematic as the tribal population grows, becomes more prosperous and demands more political power.
In the Saber al-Nasser area where the diwaniya took place some 20 km (12 miles) outside Kuwait City, police had to use tear gas and make arrests to disperse local youths protesting the voting changes in rare clashes in recent weeks.
The Interior Ministry said the protests were unauthorised and that people had attacked police and damaged property.
Opposition politicians boycotted the election on the grounds the changes imposed by Kuwait's ruling emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, would prevent candidates that were not pro-government, including tribal figures, from winning a majority.
As a result, more than half of the lawmakers in the new National Assembly which opened on Sunday are newcomers to politics.
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Descendents of Kuwait's old merchant families mainly live in the urban areas while the outlying areas tend to be home to people that were more recent arrivals to the Kuwaiti state.
Many were naturalised after Kuwait's independence from Britain in 1961. Analysts say this was part of the ruling family's strategy of tempering the influence of the other powerful families by bolstering support in parliament.
Despite having traded their more nomadic traditions for air-conditioned homes and sleek cars decades ago and entering higher education and skilled professions, people from the tribes are still viewed by some city folk as socially inferior.
The conservative tribes started out as loyal to the al-Sabah monarchy, which offers its citizens a generous welfare system. It provides secure state jobs for many people from the tribal areas, especially in the police and army.
But with greater sophistication has come a greater desire for political and social status, people at the diwaniya said.
"Fifty years ago, we were not educated enough to change our position or the conditions we live in," said Jasser al-Muteri, a 45-year-old lawyer.
"If you came to this diwaniya even 30 years ago you would not find people with more than a secondary school education. Now you find lawyers, engineers and graduate students," he said, gesturing at the men seated on plush chairs.
The men said people from their districts were stereotyped in the Kuwaiti media and that while opposition MPs from tribal areas were often quoted, little effort was made to speak to the people themselves.
At a separate women's gathering upstairs from the diwaniya, a woman who gave her name as Om Abdullah said dialogue was needed to bring the two communities closer.
"The government and the prime minister and the emir should come to the common ground for negotiating," she said.
Another woman, Om Therma, said people from her district needed to be treated with more respect and voiced frustration at the way police had dealt with the protests in the area.
"I am the mother of four attorneys and three engineers but the government fired tear gas at us and there is no respect in that," she said.
Kuwait bans political parties but its political system is generally acknowledged as the most democratic in the Gulf Arab region thanks to its elected parliament which has legislative powers. Still, the emir has the final say in state matters and selects the prime minister who forms a cabinet. Top portfolios are traditionally held by ruling family members.
The December election was the fifth in the Gulf Arab state in six years. In an election in February, tribal candidates performed strongly and joined with mainly Islamist MPs to form a majority opposition bloc which put pressure on the government.
Under that voting system, citizens could select four candidates using four votes of equal weight, which meant candidates could call on supporters to cast their additional ballots for allies in the 50-seat legislature. Under the new system, Kuwaitis get one vote only.
The candidate who won the most votes in February was Musallam al-Barrak, a tribal politician who was later arrested for remarks at a rally deemed to undermine the emir's status.
Saleh al-Saeedi, a political science researcher who has carried out a study on Kuwaiti families based on voter registration data, estimated that people from tribal backgrounds form slightly more than half of the electorate.
He said candidates from tribal areas were particularly successful under the old system thanks to their social ties.
"They have links, they organise between the groups. In this fight the city people are just not as well organised," he said.
Critics say some of the tribal MPs used the last parliament to settle scores rather than concentrating on legislation needed to develop the Kuwaiti economy.
Pro-government MPs also say their tribal counterparts, who are Sunni Muslims, can be hostile towards minorities, like the Shi'ite population, and are not supportive of womens' rights.
The move by Sheikh Sabah, whose family has ruled for 250 years, to change the voting system brought tens of thousands of Kuwaitis of all stripes out to the street in Kuwait City on the eve of the vote, including urban citizens.
The government said the aim was to bring the system in line with those of democracies elsewhere and in a speech on Nov. 21 the emir urged Kuwaitis to vote, not protest, to seek change.
"We have the great challenges of fighting corruption and (the) reform of state bodies, (the) educational system, public services, health, water, transport, roads, housing and job creation," he said, touching on themes tribal and other candidates have campaigned on in the past.
Back at the diwaniya, Mutlak al-Muteri, the eldest man in the group, said a big problem was the structure of the political system.
"It is a worldwide principle that the minority should follow the majority and not vice versa," the 75-year-old said.
The men in the room said that the security services and judicial system discriminate against the tribes.
"There was a protest in Rumathiya, another part of town, and there was not even a police car there. Why do they come here? Is it because we are tribes or because of our political ideas?" said 22-year-old fireman Majd al-Radwi.
The men said the government should be more representative.
"The tribes are more than 50 percent of the population and now the government is confronted with the tribes," said Jasser, the lawyer.
"The government does not have the power to suppress the tribes now."