Kuwait emir just enacted biggest political changes in decades. What happened?

Kuwait emir just enacted biggest political changes in decades. What happened?
Kuwait's parliament has been described as the envy of the Gulf region, but the emir's new changes threaten the independence of this body, critics say.
3 min read
13 May, 2024
Emir Meshal announced some of the biggest political changes in Kuwait in years [Getty]

Kuwait's emir announced on Friday evening some of the most sweeping changes to his country's political system in decades, with parliament dissolved (again), parts of the constitution suspended, and possible alterations to its democratic institutions.

Emir Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad al-Sabah and his new government will effectively rule Kuwait by fiat for the next four years, while the political process is re-assessed sparking fears that a major curtailing of individual freedoms is underway.

Sheikh Meshal insists that considerable reforms are needed to root out corruption and increase efficiency, amid a period of political and economic stagnation in Kuwait, as other Gulf states move on with ambitious diversification programmes.

Who is Emir Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad al-Sabah?

Sheikh Meshal was crown prince when his 86-year-old brother, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, died in December, seeing the title of emir pass on to him.

He had spent decades working with Kuwait's ministries of interior, defence, and security services, earning him a reputation as a more authoritarian figure than his predecessors.

His pivot toward Saudi Arabia and close relationship with UAE ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed did little to stymie these concerns.

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How does Kuwait's political system work?

Kuwait is ruled by an emir who appoints a cabinet, traditionally dominated by members of the ruling family, that decides key political decisions.

Yet its 50-seat National Assembly, elected by the public, wields considerable influence compared to other Gulf legislatures with MPs able to block the passage of legislature and grill ministers.

MPs are generally aligned to the government, independent, or in opposition with considerable clashes between the latter parliamentary faction and ministers in recent years.

Kuwait parliament - economy [AFP]
Kuwait is known for its lively parliament and free relatively free elections [Getty]

Despite lively political debate existing in Kuwait, criticising the emir is not tolerated with politicians, activists and even royals detained for crossing this political red line over the years.

What happened?

On Friday evening, Sheikh Meshal announced that parliament would be suspended with powers of the National Assembly passing onto his cabinet.

The most controversial edict was the suspension of some articles of the constitution, particularly those covering the parliament, for a period of "no more than four years" while Kuwait's political process was reviewed and amended. 

The 83-year-old ruler said the sweeping measures are necessary due to the "unhealthy atmosphere" in Kuwait, which had led to the proliferation of corruption in state institutions. 

It also follows years of political deadlock, which some analysts believe has hindered the progress of crucial economic reforms needed to move Kuwait into a post-oil age.

A fresh election was held in April, the fourth in four years, but some politicians have refused to participate in the new assembly hinting at further political obstacles.

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Why is this controversial?

Kuwaitis have long been proud of their democratic traditions and the relative independence of the country's parliament.

While Kuwaiti emirs have frequently dissolved the parliament, none have made serious alterations to the constitution since the Gulf War period.

Sheikh Meshal said that he would "never allow the misuse of democracy to destroy the state, because the interests of the people of Kuwait, which are above all", ultimately outlining his priority on national interests over individual political freedoms.

Many Kuwaitis have welcomed the emir's tough stance, saying that corruption was so rife and that parliament's blocking tactics were so harmful that tough action was needed.

Others fear the emir's pronouncement is the first step in curtailing Kuwait's relative freedoms and that a path toward authoritarianism is now in motion.