Kuwait Muddles through Its Confusing Politics

Nearly a year has passed since the death, on September 29, 2020, of Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al Sabah, the respected elder statesman of Gulf politics. Emir Sabah’s passing may have left a gap on the regional stage, given his record of six decades of engagement in diplomacy and foreign policy, but it has created a void in the domestic political landscape in Kuwait itself. It is therefore necessary to look at the major issues that have dominated the first year of Emir Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah’s leadership and the prospects for Kuwaiti politics, which is once again in a state of ferment with no clear resolution in sight. Such an examination includes the challenges of charting a road map toward generational leadership transition in the emirate, ongoing points of tension between the Kuwaiti cabinet and the National Assembly, as well as rising economic pressures that cannot indefinitely be put off but lack realistic prospects of political resolution.

End of an Era

Sheikh Sabah was 91 when he passed away in September 2020, after a year of declining health that first became apparent when he had to cancel a planned meeting with former President Donald Trump in September 2019. He had been emir of Kuwait for nearly 15 years; he ascended  to power after a short-lived succession crisis in January 2006 when his immediate predecessor ruled for nine days as members of the National Assembly decided unanimously that he was medically unfit to take the oath of office. Sheikh Sabah’s time as ruler was marked by an initial period of political deadlock that saw six parliamentary elections and more than a dozen cabinets come and go between 2006 and 2013, and then a calmer spell that culminated in the election of the National Assembly in November 2016, which became the first in nearly 20 years to serve its full four-year term.

The fact that Kuwaiti politics was less stormy between 2013 and about 2019 did not denote that any of the contentious underlying issues had been resolved, such as the relationship between the mostly appointed cabinet and the elected (and strongly populist) MPs.

The fact that Kuwaiti politics was less stormy between 2013 and about 2019 did not, however, denote that any of the contentious underlying issues had been resolved, such as the relationship between the mostly appointed cabinet and the elected (and strongly populist) MPs. Instead, a boycott of the December 2012 election and the July 2013 round returned a less confrontational National Assembly, while other would-be candidates were affected by an amended electoral law in 2016 that barred people convicted of insulting the emir from standing in elections. Moreover, even this relatively less contentious political context was marred by the early dissolution of the National Assembly in October 2016 after a standoff with the government over reform of fuel subsidies, and by a series of large-scale corruption crises that emerged in 2019 and led to the resignation of Prime Minister Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Hamad Al Sabah that November.

The fallout from the corruption cases overshadowed much of the final year of Emir Sabah’s life and has continued to loom over the opening months of the rule of Emir Nawaf al-Ahmad Al Sabah. The allegations, including one linked to the explosive fallout from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal and another over $789 million said to have gone missing from the Army Fund, have implicated members of the ruling family and senior officials and further sapped public trust. In a move unprecedented for Kuwait, the former prime minister, Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak, was detained in April 2021, as was Sheikh Khalid al-Jarrah Al Sabah, a former Defense (2013-17) and Interior (2017-19) minister. A leaked court document also indicated that Sheikh Jaber had repaid $180.7 million in funds that prosecutors had accused him of misappropriating.

Key Issues Unresolved

Observers of Kuwait were taken somewhat by surprise by how swift and outwardly smooth the transition from Emir Sabah to Emir Nawaf was, especially in the rapid nomination and confirmation of a new crown prince, Sheikh Mishaal al-Ahmad Al Sabah, who was sworn in (at the National Assembly) on October 8, 2020, only nine days after Sheikh Nawaf became emir. (By comparison, the period between Sheikh Sabah becoming emir and Sheikh Nawaf being sworn in as his crown prince in 2006 was five weeks.) The element of surprise was rooted in the protracted struggle between Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammed Al Sabah and Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad Al Sabah as they long sought to position themselves as potential heirs to Sheikh Nawaf. The campaign between the former prime minister and deputy prime minister has contributed significantly to the polarizing instability in Kuwaiti politics as each camp includes members of the political class and the media.

The fact that the Al Sabah quickly cohered around the choice of Sheikh Mishaal as crown prince in 2020 has only delayed the moment when the ruling family must identify a next generation of leadership to eventually take over.

However, the fact that the Al Sabah quickly cohered around the choice of Sheikh Mishaal as crown prince in 2020 has only delayed the moment when the ruling family must identify a next generation of leadership to eventually take over from Emir Nawaf, who is 84, and Crown Prince Mishaal, who is 80. Rule in Kuwait has come to resemble the Saudi-style succession from brother to brother in recent decades and has only transitioned from one generation to another twice in the past century, in 1921 and again in 1977. As with the Al Saud, the Al Sabah have had to contend with an aging leadership and are now grappling with the same uncertainty and seeming lack of consensus over the pathway to a younger cohort of leaders that existed in Saudi Arabia prior to the startling rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

For all the political gridlock during his time as emir, Sheikh Sabah was a skilled practitioner at maintaining a working degree of order within the ruling family and the Kuwaiti political establishment. A 2008 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks noted that Sheikh Sabah was nicknamed “the Crocodile” for “his tendency to come up quietly smiling and then ‘whack with his tail’ anyone who gets out of line.” As crown prince, Sheikh Nawaf developed a reputation for standing back, one that seems to have marked his time as emir so far. In this context, Sheikh Mishaal has become important, creating a National Security Council, under his leadership, in March 2021 and visiting Saudi Arabia at the end of May. Ties between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait had been strained by the prolonged shutdown of two oil fields in the Neutral Zone along their border and by a visit by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Kuwait in September 2018. This visit was cut short over disagreements that included Kuwait’s preference for a diplomatic resolution of the Qatar blockade.

It may be little coincidence that relations between the government and the National Assembly have deteriorated in recent months to the point that, now, there is barely a working relationship at all.

It may be little coincidence that relations between the government and the National Assembly have deteriorated in recent months to the point that, now, there is barely a working relationship at all. Members of Kuwait’s political opposition capitalized on public anger at the corruption cases and secured 24 of the 50 seats in parliament in the December 2020 National Assembly elections. After the elections, the government and parliament locked horns over the reelection of Marzouk al-Ghanem to the speakership of the National Assembly, which he has held since 2013. A scion of two of Kuwait’s oldest and most influential families, al-Ghanem faced immediate demands for his removal from a majority of MPs but was reelected amid turbulent scenes with the support of Cabinet members who cast their votes as ex officio members of the National Assembly.

The initial confrontational approach set the tone for what followed as 38 MPs backed a motion to question the prime minister, Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid Al Sabah, over claims of constitutional irregularities in forming the government, leading ultimately to the cabinet submitting its resignation in January 2021. Emir Nawaf tasked the prime minister with forming a new government, which he did in early March after consultations with representatives of Kuwait’s parliamentary blocs and a one-month suspension of parliamentary sittings. However, the replacement of four cabinet ministers, including the Minister of Interior, Anas al-Saleh—who had become a lightning rod for opposition criticism—failed to significantly placate opposition MPs, who sought unsuccessfully to block the swearing in of the new cabinet in April and criticized a decision to postpone all parliamentary questioning of the prime minister until 2022.

A sign that the political deadlock in Kuwait is set to continue and deepen was illustrated in the results of a by-election to the National Assembly that took place in May 2021.

A sign that the political deadlock in Kuwait is set to continue and deepen was illustrated in the results of a by-election to the National Assembly that took place in May 2021. The by-election arose after Bader al-Dahoum was stripped of the seat he had won resoundingly in the December 2020 election by a final ruling of the Constitutional Court, declaring that al-Dahoum should have been barred from running for the National Assembly due to his involvement in the storming of the Assembly during large-scale political protests in November 2011. In the resulting by-election in May, Obaid al-Wasmi, another prominent member of the political opposition and a former MP, won almost 44,000 votes, by far the highest number any candidate has secured in Kuwait’s history of parliamentary elections, going back to 1963. Al-Wasmi’s landslide demonstrated not only the increasing strength of the “tribal vote” in Kuwaiti politics but also the ability of candidates from tribal backgrounds to appeal to significantly wider political constituencies.

Is “Muddling Through” Still an Option?

To be sure, the political opposition in the National Assembly lacks consensus of its own on policy objectives and the degree to which it should negotiate with the government on specific issues. So long as there are no changes to Kuwait’s electoral law or to procedural (and constitutional) aspects of the way politics is conducted, and the government and parliament coexist, little in practice is likely to change. The populist streak that has long been such a characteristic feature of Kuwaiti politics continues to complicate efforts by the Kuwaiti authorities to respond to public policy challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the oil price collapse of 2020 that, itself, followed years of growing budget deficits. Can Kuwait continue with a status quo politics based on gridlock and, if so, for how long and at what cost?

Whereas officials in other Gulf states responded to revenue declines by scaling back subsidies and introducing a variety of new taxes and fees on their citizen and resident populations, the maneuverability of Kuwaiti authorities was constrained by the difficulty of securing National Assembly support for such measures.

Oil price rises in 2021 may have alleviated some of the direct economic pressures in a country heavily reliant on the oil sector as a share of government revenue; however, they have not done away with the underlying fiscal challenges that still face Kuwait. Kuwait has not run a budget surplus since 2014 when the long oil price boom that began in 2002 ended, and fiscal deficits have risen sharply. Whereas officials in other Gulf states responded to revenue declines by scaling back subsidies and introducing a variety of new taxes and fees on their citizen and resident populations, the maneuverability of Kuwaiti authorities was constrained by the difficulty of securing National Assembly support for such measures. It was this blockage that led to the 2016 dissolution of parliament, as noted already, and it is the political sensitivity of doing anything that might affect the social contract between state and citizen that meant that almost 72 percent of spending in the budget proposed in June 2021 will go to salaries and other entitlements.

Kuwait’s deteriorating fiscal and balance of payments position poses several problems for the new leadership under Emir Nawaf. The political tensions and mistrust over the handling of public funds have held back progress of a public debt bill that would allow Kuwait to return to international markets for the first time since 2017 and borrow billion. While Kuwait remains one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the authorities have had to resort to short-term measures, such as withdrawals from its General Reserve Fund, to plug spending gaps, actions that are poor substitutes for a long-term solution. The challenge for policy-makers remains that issues of public finance are the sharpest flashpoints between government and parliament and bring out most strongly the populist streak among MPs. This, in turn, inhibits definitive decision-making and effective planning for the medium- and longer-term. There seems to be little sign of any imminent shift in these dynamics even if, in other areas, Kuwait faces a more benign regional context with the resolution of the Qatar blockade, the easing of US tensions with Iran, and a less assertive (at least for now) Saudi Arabia next door.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC (ACW), and a Baker Institute Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University. To learn more about Dr. Ulrichsen and read his previous publications Click here