BEIRUT It was an open-and-shut case. Kuwaiti cops showed up at the dealer's house and seized more than 22 pounds of cocaine and 165 pounds of hashish. The suspect was accused of drug trafficking and, a few months later, sentenced to death.

But the convicted drug dealer, Talal Nasser al Sabah, was no ordinary Kuwaiti -- he was a member of the Persian Gulf kingdom's ruling family.

Now everyone is watching to see whether the authorities will follow through on the ruling by the independent-minded judiciary or grant Talal the immunity considered a right by royal families throughout the gulf region.

"The people of Kuwait are impressed with the independence of the judiciary and trust, in general, its rulings," said Naser Sane, a Kuwaiti lawmaker. "In other Arab gulf nations, you don't see a court sentencing in this way a member of a ruling family."

Royal clans dominate political and economic lives of the oil-rich kingdoms. It is uncommon to see a royal behind bars, let alone on death row.

But Kuwait has experimented with democracy in ways that distinguish it from its neighbors, which mostly have autocratic political systems.

Nowadays, members of the Sabah ruling family get traffic tickets and have even been jailed for alleged corruption, said Abdullah Ayoub, a lawyer in Kuwait.

"There is no immunity for members of the ruling family just for the reason that they are part of this family," he said.

In June, Kuwait's supreme court upheld the death sentence against Talal, who is in his 50s. His conviction late last year by a lower criminal court was the first such case against a member of the royal family in Kuwait.

Talal "deserves the death sentence . . . for dealing with drugs and narcotics that threaten the security of society and lead its youth into the mire of addiction," the ruling said.

Despite the ruling, Talal still could benefit from the amnesty of Kuwait's ruler, Sabah al Ahmed al Jabbar al Sabah. The emir has the authority to call off the execution.

Although the emir, or prince, enjoys vast political powers, they are not unchecked: A National Assembly elected by the people every four years has the authority to hold the government accountable. Women have been allowed to vote and to run for office since 2005.

Several ministers, some members of the royal family, were forced to resign under popular pressure.

The democratic steps have raised eyebrows in the rest of the Persian Gulf. During one regional meeting, heads of state were shocked when the Kuwaiti delegation had to return home to answer to parliament on a sensitive issue, said a Kuwaiti political analyst who asked that his name not be published.


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