The challenges of Kuwait's deadlocked political system
In late June, the Crown Prince of Kuwait, 81-year-old Sheikh Mishal Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, announced the dissolution of the Kuwaiti parliament following a dispute with the government.
The dissolution was the result of an open-ended sit-in inside the parliament complex by more than 16 lawmakers for eight days, who demanded the formation of a new government through elections.
Since the inauguration of the 16th parliament in December 2020, four cabinets have been formed, all of which have resigned. In the latest resignation, Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al Sabah submitted his cabinet's resignation to the crown prince on 5 April, three months after it was sworn in.
Months earlier in February both the interior and defence minister had resigned in protest over the questioning of other ministers by parliament.
"Over the past two decades, there have been several crises between the parliament and the government in Kuwait, leading the Emir to dissolve the parliament 10 times"
Foreign Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al Mohammed - a member of the royal family - was questioned by parliament earlier in the month over allegations of corruption and the misuse of public funds. He survived a no-confidence vote, but his interrogation was called an “abuse of power” by fellow ministers.
With the resignation of the cabinet, it was agreed that the former prime minister would continue his work until the new government begins, which caused a rift between the parliament and the government.
Some lawmakers protested the decision and asked the Emir to dissolve the parliament and hold a new election.
A unique politics
Kuwait’s politically active parliament is unique in the Gulf, with 50 elected members.
“The Kuwaiti parliament is the most independent legislative body in the Gulf and has a history of opposing government policies through the use of such strategies as ‘grilling’ in which a minister is called to the parliament to answer questions,” Douglas Silliman, president of the Arab Gulf States Institute (AGSIW) and former US ambassador to Kuwait and Iraq told The New Arab.
The formation of the parliament traces back to the history of Kuwait itself and its ruling dynasty, which necessitated the need for consultation.
Oliver John, President of Astrolabe Global Strategy and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, told TNA that in the pre-oil era, merchant families were economically stronger than the ‘Al-Sabah’ ruling family and this meant the need for the ruling family to consult with the people.
After the discovery of oil, this balance could well have changed, but the role of citizens was instead protected in the Kuwaiti constitution and the parliament found a valuable place in the Kuwaiti political landscape.
“Kuwaitis were willing to push for their rights and to make their voice heard. After Kuwait’s liberation from the Iraqi invasion, Kuwaiti citizens pushed their leaders to reinstate parliament,” Oliver John said.
“Kuwaiti women, who were disenfranchised, demonstrated for the right to vote ... Kuwaitis also pushed their parliamentary representatives to actively advocate for their interests.”
Nonetheless, over the past two decades, there have been several crises between the parliament and the government in Kuwait, leading the Emir to dissolve the parliament 10 times.
Conflicts between the parliament and the government are rooted in various factors. One of the key tensions is the lack of effort by political leaders and the ruler of Kuwait to implement political and economic reforms.
Kuwait has gained a reputation as a conservative and somewhat lethargic emirate of the Gulf. While neighbours race ahead through top-down, state-led projects of economic diversification and energy transition, Kuwait sometimes appears content to settle into a rather comfortable retirement, with money prudently stowed away abroad.
“There are several reasons for Kuwait's relative inaction on diversification and energy reforms. There is a lack of urgency and commitment from the high leadership. Also, many in the parliament defend constituent benefits without longer-range thinking,” Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident scholar at AGSIW, told TNA.
The presence of a large number of conservative Islamists - due to relative political freedoms in Kuwait - and ageing leaders have made Kuwait resistant to significant changes and reforms.
“Religious conservatism continues to resonate with many and finds expression through elected politicians,” Diwan said.
The second reason is the government's lack of responsibility. According to the tradition in all kingdoms of the Persian Gulf, the government is not answerable to any authority domestically, and with its oil wealth, it does not see the need to commit to the people and civil society.
This situation in Kuwait is better than others, but the government still tries to avoid accountability to the parliament.
“The government does not shy away from delay and obstruction tactics, such as not attending sessions or delaying interpellations,” Luai Allarakia, Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond, told TNA.
The government tries to disrupt the parliament's functions by influencing it and appointing its supporters, like Marzouq Al-Ghanim, the speaker of the parliament. The government interprets vague laws and regulations through the constitutional court and the assistance of the speaker of the parliament in its favour, undermining the credibility of the parliament.
This procedure has led to increasing conflicts between the government and the parliament, and as a result, the easiest solution is the repeated dissolution of the parliament by the Emir.
"Kuwait seems to be trapped in a cycle of parliament challenging ministers and the Emir calling for new elections"
What happens next
The voting system in Kuwait is tribal and ethnic, so there is a high possibility that the opposition will be in the majority in the next elections, considering the public spirit. Therefore, society will probably again witness tensions between the parliament and the government.
The Kuwaiti parliament has many tools to exert influence on the government, but it is not able to form a government based on the will of the representatives or one that is answerable to the parliament. This causes constant friction.
"Kuwait seems to be trapped in a cycle of parliament challenging ministers and the Emir calling for new elections," Diwan said.
In addition, the parliament in Kuwait does not enjoy a sense of unity. Like other Arab parliaments such as Iraq, they often fail to reach a consensus on issues, with ethnic interests and differences of opinion ultimately undermining collective decision-making.
“The opposition is very fragmented and has no clear list of priorities and goals beyond the removal of the PM (which was achieved since he quit his post) and the removal of the speaker of the parliament (which has technically been achieved but in reality, the former speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanim can still run for elections win and then run again for the speaker’s post and win). So really the opposition has not announced any clear set of policies or reforms,” said Allarakia.
Allarakia proposes three solutions to resolve differences between the parliament and the government. First, ambiguous items in the constitution and internal regulations of the National Assembly should be amended to prevent arbitrary interpretations of the laws in favour of the government.
“There is a need for serious and deep reform of the parliament’s rules of procedure to streamline and clarify the process of legislation to avoid conflicts over the parliamentary calendar and the order of bills.”
Second, a new law should be passed to recognise political parties that are currently banned in Kuwait. Through political parties, the government could more easily pursue its negotiations with the opposition, and priorities could be determined based on party policies rather than personal differences.
And finally, there is a need to revise the interpellation, or ‘grilling’, process in order to reduce its individualistic nature.
"Conflicts between the parliament and the government are rooted in various factors. One of the key tensions is the lack of effort by political leaders and the ruler of Kuwait to implement political and economic reforms"
Interpellations are particularly easy to put forth in the National Assembly, with only one member needed to invoke this right.
Often manifesting out of frustration over the inability to legislate, they can be driven by personal rivalries, blackmail in retaliation against political enemies, or in exchange for personal favours, and even as a show of strength to constituencies.
The challenging process of disputes between the parliament and the government shows that the political climate in Kuwait has not yet reached maturity. However, Kuwaitis can make this new election an opportunity for political revival.
Dr Mohammad Salami holds a PhD in International Relations. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern policy, particularly in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. His areas of expertise include politics and governance, security, and counterterrorism.
Follow him on Twitter: @moh_salami