Challenges Facing Kuwait’s Parliamentary Democracy

Watching Kuwait’s seemingly dysfunctional political scene gives one the impression that the country is on a course toward endless instability and disorder. Last June’s round of parliamentary elections—the third in three years—resulted in the opposition winning a majority of seats, 29 out of 50, which inaugurated yet another period of disagreement between parliament and sitting Prime Minister Ahmad al-Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah. The present parliament is practically a replica of another that was elected in September 2022, but that was annulled by the Constitutional Court in March 2023. The court then reinstated another assembly that had been elected in 2020, and that was, in turn, dissolved by royal decree in May 2023 to make way for the June election. Since 2006, Kuwait has had ten parliamentary elections in a region—encompassing the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—where active parliaments are indeed an anomaly, and where legislative branches are typically subservient to the power of strong monarchies relying on historical legitimacy and hydrocarbon riches to assert their dominance.

The political scene in Kuwait has not been very stable on the executive branch side of the governing equation either. Following the June elections, PM Ahmad al-Nawaf announced the formation of a 15-member cabinet, which, according to the constitution, will join the elected parliament to constitute the National Assembly. But just a few weeks into his tenure as finance minister, Manaf Abdulaziz Al-Hajeri resigned, to be replaced on September 3 by a newcomer, Fahd Abdulaziz Al-Jarallah. Before this latest cabinet, the country had seen seven others over the previous three years. The most important reason for this parliamentary and executive turnover is disagreements between the legislative and executive branches of government that have on numerous occasions forced the royal palace to either dissolve parliament because of perceived overreach in investigating the government or individual ministers, or to dismiss the government because it could not work with parliament or obtain parliamentary approval of its work.

The swinging pendulum between periodic legislative elections and formations of short-lived cabinets in Kuwait calls into question the long-term feasibility and success of this cohabitation between a monarchical system and a constitutionally mandated parliament.

The swinging pendulum between periodic legislative elections and formations of short-lived cabinets in Kuwait calls into question the long-term feasibility and success of this cohabitation between a monarchical system and a constitutionally mandated parliament. Unique as it is in the GCC, the process has not always been as difficult as it has proven in recent years. Kuwait was previously able to surmount the challenges of smoothing this seemingly contradictory institutional setup. But new domestic, regional, and international conditions have burdened both society and polity, have made older mechanisms of elite compromises harder to achieve, and currently threaten the long-term institutional and social strength of a once stable state.

Domestic Economic Challenges

Perhaps the most damaging outcome of the ongoing political disharmony in Kuwait is the uncertainty it generates in achieving and maintaining the economic development and diversification that other GCC states have been able to initiate. The discord between frequently dissolved and elected parliamentary bodies and often-dismissed and re-formed cabinets has deprived the country of the institutional stability, mechanisms, regulations, and structures necessary to guarantee a smooth transition away from an oil-driven economy that is subject to price and production fluctuations. Kuwait is a member of OPEC and a major oil producer, with a production capacity of 3.15 million barrels per day and some 7 percent of the world’s oil reserves. It also is a gas-exporting country. Hydrocarbon exports account for almost half of its gross domestic product, 95 percent of exports, and 90 percent of government revenue. It is thus a typical rentier state whose stability and future prosperity rest on its ability to remain profitable in this rather narrow sector. This is why institutional instability has to be arrested, and why clear and committed plans must be devised to reduce this reliance on oil-related activities and allow the diversification that many of its neighbors have already embarked on to create the basis for a more stable economy.

Since 1982, Kuwaiti emirs and governments, with parliamentary encouragement and approval, have either handed out cash allowances to citizens or simply forgiven debts they have incurred.

An associated economic problem is the original social contract of the various rentier economies of the Gulf—Kuwait included—which stipulates that the state provides services and resources to the population in exchange for the latter’s fealty and loyalty to the ruler. Since 1982, Kuwaiti emirs and governments, with parliamentary encouragement and approval, have either handed out cash allowances to citizens or simply forgiven debts they have incurred. In 1982, the government bailed out stock market speculators to the tune of $20 billion. In 1991, following the extraordinary circumstances of the Iraqi invasion and Kuwait’s subsequent liberation, the government forgave all Kuwaitis’ consumer debts to allow them to return to normalcy. In 2011, former Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah distributed 1,000 dinars (almost $3,250 in today’s dollars) and free food rations to every Kuwaiti for 13 months. And in April 2013, the government, with overwhelming parliamentary support, agreed to pay some $2.6 billion to cover unpaid personal loans taken out before 2008, supposedly because commercial banks charged high interest rates for the loans. Such practices cannot continue if Kuwait is to set itself on a steady and rational economic course to both address fluctuations in the oil market and prepare for diversifying its economy.

Other urgent problems negatively affecting the economy include both corruption and parliament’s inability to investigate and oversee governmental and agency practices if royal family members are involved. Kuwait ranked 77 of 180 on Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perception Index. Said corruption has unfortunately affected parliament, government, and the public sector, and has involved bribery, money laundering, misappropriation of funds, and government-funded patronage schemes. The case of royal family member and former Prime Minister Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah a few years ago was illustrative of the problem. However, he repeatedly got the emir’s nod to form a government despite parliament’s objection to his appointment, until he and associates were supposedly acquitted by a Kuwaiti court. Disagreements about questioning royal officials must be resolved if the basic tenets of parliamentary democracy are to be preserved in Kuwait. Either the al-Sabah family must rescind its royal immunity in favor of parliamentary investigation or parliament must abrogate one of its functions as overseer of executive authority, two possibilities that would undoubtedly cause more political problems.

Regional and International Entanglements

Kuwait’s regional environment has gradually improved since the dangerous days of the Iraqi invasion in 1990. Indeed, the containment of the Saddam Hussein regime following Kuwait’s liberation, and later after the 2003 American invasion that ended Baathist rule in Iraq, prevented the recurrence of an existential threat. Although it is likely that the legacy of Iraqi irredentism may still clandestinely remain ensconced in one form or the other in Baghdad, Kuwait today has found a modus vivendi with Iraqi politicians that can spare it the worry of being the subject of future threats to its territorial integrity and independence. What remains—at least publicly—of old geographic disputes is one along the northwestern corner of the Arabian Gulf over the two states’ territorial waters. But bilateral discussions about resolving that issue are ongoing, and both sides appear to be willing to make the necessary compromises. It is also important to mention that in 2021 Iraq satisfied the final payment of reparations to Kuwait for the damage caused by the occupation of 1990, the total of which was some $52.4 billion, thus ending a source of tension between the two countries.

Iraq satisfied the final payment of reparations to Kuwait for the damage caused by the occupation of 1990.

Kuwaiti concerns also include Iran—although its leaders would like to maintain a cordial relationship with Tehran and remain neutral in Iran’s disputes with other GCC states. Kuwaiti authorities have on numerous occasions announced that Iranian spy cells have been discovered in the country, such as those found in 2010 and 2015, the latter of which resulted in the expulsion of the Iranian ambassador and 14 other diplomats. In both instances, Iran lodged protestations that it had nothing to do with the cells. Still, a serious concern in Kuwait today is one related to a dispute over the al-Durra gas field in the Arabian Gulf, to which Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iran all claim rights.

While Iraq and Iran constitute important elements in Kuwait’s regional relations, current tensions within the GCC should be of greatest concern to Kuwaiti policymakers. After all, Kuwait cannot forget the dangers to the GCC and its member states resulting from the eruption of the 2017 Gulf crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, which lasted for three and a half years. Indeed, former Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah declared that a military invasion of Qatar had been averted, an achievement that was reached following Kuwaiti and American mediation in the early months of the crisis. Today, there are evident tensions in Saudi-Emirati relations that make collective GCC action even more difficult at a time when the gulf region is subject to serious uncertainties, despite the latest rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran that was brokered by China in March 2023. Given the multiple directions in which the GCC’s two major powers—Saudi Arabia and the UAE—could steer the alliance, Kuwait, along with Qatar and perhaps Oman, might soon find itself unable to accommodate either. It would then be easy to imagine the Gulf devolving into a political situation lacking the GCC as a collective organization dedicated to common action and guided by a foreign policy that generally safeguards common interests.

Internationally, however, Kuwait continues to enjoy cordial relations with the United States, a situation that could arguably be considered the best guarantee for the country’s security and stability. The two nations have an ongoing strategic dialogue that encompasses all aspects of bilateral relations, and a similar dialogue was inaugurated last March between Kuwait and the United Kingdom. Kuwait is also a major non-NATO ally, and the United States utilizes some eight military bases in the country, where it stations thousands of troops to deploy to Iraq, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. Such military presence must raise concerns among Iran-friendly Shia militias in Iraq, which puts Kuwait in an inconvenient and potentially challenged position every time Iranian messages are delivered to the United States regarding issues of no direct concern to the small emirate itself.

The Importance of Institutional Stability and Cohesion

It is less likely that regional or international concerns for Kuwait will be the decisive factors in its future stability, social peace, or prosperity, although they have their own impact and import. Rather, it is the current and continuing instability in the institutional mechanisms of governance that will decide whether legislative and executive authorities can effectively cohabit and cooperate, or whether Kuwait’s experiment in parliamentary democracy will ultimately fail. After all, legislative power in neighboring GCC countries is limited compared to that wielded by royal palaces and families. These countries’ well-being seems not to be affected by the dominance of executive bodies, and indeed, they appear to be thriving (at least economically) in the absence of true democratic rule.

It is thus incumbent upon Kuwait’s elites, from the palace down to the government and parliament, to find the necessary constitutional, institutional, and political compromises to once and for all avoid the disagreements that have over the last few years stymied good and sustained governance. No country trying to surmount economic problems and launch itself on a necessary road to diversify from an overdependence on hydrocarbons should be delayed by disagreements over policy choices that could be solved through compromise. If such compromises necessitate parliamentary restraint in overseeing executive actions and policies—to a degree that is not illegal or unconstitutional—then parliament would do well to refrain from overreaching. On the other hand, if parliament finds it necessary to investigate illegal or corrupt activities by executive branch officials, including by royal family members, then it should vigorously and effectively undertake its oversight function. Kuwait’s version of a parliamentary democracy worked well for a long time, and it is therefore crucial for the country’s security and stability that it return to the workable compromises of the past.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Insight Photography