Voters in Kuwait went to the polls on September 29 to elect a new National Assembly in what was the country’s ninth general election in 16 years and the sixth since 2012. The vote took place on the second anniversary of the death of Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, and against the backdrop of a protracted struggle between Kuwait’s government and its parliament that has defined the rule of his successor, Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah. Opposition and Islamist candidates performed well in this latest election, and voters punished incumbent MPs who were elected in 2020 and perceived as being pro-government. The makeup of Kuwait’s new parliament does not suggest that a solution to any of the deeper, more systemic points of contestation in Kuwaiti politics is imminent, and the difficulties and delays in forming a new government and convening the National Assembly suggest that the standoffs that have become a prominent feature of Kuwaiti politics will almost certainly continue.
The Roots of Political Turbulence
Kuwait’s lively political landscape marks the country as distinct in a region that is not generally known as a hotbed of participatory politics. The unicameral National Assembly, or Kuwaiti Parliament, first convened in 1963, and is a representative institution capable of exerting genuine constraint on the government’s decision-making, in a manner that is unparalleled among other Gulf Arab monarchies—with the partial exception of Bahrain. Nearly half the parliamentary elections in Kuwait’s modern history—nine out of a total of 19—have taken place since 2006, as the two parts of Kuwait’s policymaking apparatus (the National Assembly and the government, which is appointed by the Emir) have consistently clashed and failed to find a way to coexist or to work together. As a result, Kuwait’s economic development has suffered and the emirate has become something of a byword among regional critics for the failures of democratic engagement.
One measure of the political turmoil that has seemingly become endemic to Kuwait is the fact that the National Assembly that was elected in November 2016 was the first in nearly two decades to actually serve its full four-year term.
One measure of the political turmoil that has seemingly become endemic to Kuwait is the fact that the National Assembly that was elected in November 2016 was the first in nearly two decades to actually serve its full four-year term. But even the comparative lull in political tensions during the 2016–2020 parliament and the one that preceded it from 2013 to 2016 (which was shorn of many opposition figures who chose to boycott the July 2013 elections) was unable to resolve the basic points of tension between parliament and government. Two points have been especially persistent. The first is that the government is not drawn from or reflective of the parliament, and the second is the strongly populist streak that runs—by design—through the Kuwaiti body politic. Indeed, the new government of Ahmad Nawaf al-Sabah that was inaugurated October 17 was just a reflection of these two conditions. Only time will tell if it will survive, or meet the fate of many others before it.
The points of tension in Kuwait’s political system are baked into the country’s 1962 Constitution, and have been described by Mohammad Alwuhaib, a professor of political philosophy at Kuwait University, as a contradiction between “a democratic system that grants sovereignty to the nation” and “a traditional monarchical system that gives broad powers to the Emir.” Friction has frequently arisen between Kuwait’s 50 elected MPs and the government, which is unilaterally appointed and must only contain one representative from the National Assembly. In practice, this arrangement has meant that the government is not always able to draw upon political support for its program from the National Assembly, which on occasions has become a focus of opposition to government policies and initiatives, rather than acting as a cooperative partner. The inability of the elected and appointed components of Kuwait’s political system to work together has contributed to the sheer number of parliaments—and governments—that have come and gone, especially since 2006.
Electoral Rules and Clashes Among Elites
The challenge of building a workable political community in Kuwait is compounded by the fact that candidates seek election on individual (rather than party or ideological) mandates, and thereby stake out populist positions on many key issues. The absence of political parties or organized ideological factions has meant that populist initiatives often constitute the most effective way for candidates to gain—and then as MPs, to maintain—public support among their constituents, rather than making an appeal to a broader national interest. For example, the parliament on two occasions pushed for the government to repay consumer debts, both in the 1980s following the implosion of the country’s informal stock exchange and in 2013 when MPs voted in favor of a $2.6 billion package of debt relief to write off losses incurred in the 2008 global financial crisis.
A third issue that has contributed to the country’s political volatility is the tendency for factional struggles within the ruling family to at times intersect with political dynamics in the National Assembly, with senior figures jockeying for position. This occurs because Article 4 of Kuwait’s Constitution gives the National Assembly a role in approving the incoming Emir’s selection of his successor. Putative contenders for succession have therefore felt a need to engage in the politics of alliance-building within the National Assembly to increase their own political “base” and to counter the political capital of any perceived competitor. For example, although there was no crown prince vacancy at the time, infighting in 2011 between then Kuwaiti Prime Minister Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah and then Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah brought about the downfall of both men and added powerful new layers to Kuwaiti political divisions and rivalries.
An important issue that has contributed to the country’s political volatility is the tendency for factional struggles within the ruling family to at times intersect with political dynamics in the National Assembly, with senior figures jockeying for position.
The transfer of power in Kuwait following Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah’s death in September 2020 at age 91 was smooth, and new Crown Prince Mishaal al-Ahmad al-Sabah was swiftly appointed and unanimously confirmed by the National Assembly. The speed and uncontentious nature of the process of managing the succession took many observers of Kuwaiti politics somewhat by surprise, especially given the years of discord that had marred the first period of Emir Sabah’s leadership, from 2006 through 2015. However, any hopes that the succession might herald a new dawn in Kuwaiti politics soon gave way to a renewed and even more intense battle of wills between the country’s legislative and executive branches. A series of high-profile investigations into allegations of corruption and the misuse of public funds reached into the heart of the ruling establishment, pouring fuel onto an already crackling fire.
In March 2022, a Kuwaiti court acquitted former Prime Minister Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah and other senior officials, including former Defense Minister (and also a senior member of the ruling family) Khaled al-Jarrah al-Sabah, of the charge of embezzling funds. The court’s decision bandaged one of the bleeding sores in Kuwaiti politics, which was an issue in the most recent National Assembly election in December 2020—although it was still subject to heavy criticism from members of Kuwait’s vocal political opposition. In the days after the ruling, 13 MPs unsuccessfully submitted a request that the National Assembly meet in a special session to discuss the case with representatives from the State Audit Bureau as well as the Royal Diwan. By March 2022, however, the National Assembly had largely ceased to function effectively or to take up serious business due to the cumulative effect of the near-continuous deadlock between parliament and government that had been in effect since 2020.
Much of the 18 months that elapsed between the previous National Assembly elections in December 2020 and the resulting parliament’s eventual dissolution in June 2022 was spent in political stasis, even as issues such as charting an economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and navigating fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began to multiply. The inability of both government and parliament to find a working relationship led the Kuwaiti Cabinet to resign in January 2021, and then again in November of that year—although on both occasions the Emir asked Prime Minister Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah to stay on and form a new government. The Cabinet resigned a third time in April 2022 ahead of a motion of no-confidence against the prime minister in the National Assembly. And while the government continued on in a caretaker capacity, it was announced in July that Ahmad Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, son of the Emir and then Minister of Interior, had been appointed prime minister.
Sabah al-Khalid’s appointment occurred just one month after matters came to a head when, in June 2022, Crown Prince Mishaal al-Ahmad al-Sabah gave a televised speech in which he announced the dissolution of the National Assembly. Speaking on behalf of the Emir, whose ill-health led him to delegate many of his powers to the crown prince in November 2021, the crown prince stated that the Kuwaiti political scene’s “personal interests and behaviors…threaten national unity” and warned Kuwaitis “not to miss the opportunity to correct the course of national participation” lest there be a “return” to earlier modes of governance and subsequent “measures of heavy impact.”
The Latest Round of Elections
It was against this backdrop—of a largely absent Emir, an empowered deputy with a career steeped in matters of national and state security, and a near-complete breakdown in the relationship between parliament and government—that the latest elections on September 29 occurred. Although 27 new faces will enter the National Assembly—including 16 first-time MPs—the political composition of this parliament appears to presage just as much of a confrontation with the government as its predecessor had. MPs aligned with opposition groups performed well in this election—although those with Islamist rather than tribal backgrounds fared better—while 20 incumbents who were seen to be pro-government lost their seats. An initial attempt on October 6 by the prime minister to form a government fell apart as multiple ministers immediately resigned amid questions over whether the proposed lineup could secure political confidence.
Although 27 new faces will enter the National Assembly—including 16 first-time MPs—the political composition of this parliament appears to presage just as much of a confrontation with the government as its predecessor had.
The question many in Kuwait, as well as those who follow Kuwaiti politics, may now be asking is what happens next, especially bearing in mind the crown prince’s reference to “measures of heavy impact” in his June speech. One deadline for the National Assembly to convene (within two weeks of the election per the Constitution) has already passed. The new government has been formed before the planned meeting of the new parliament on October 18. It may be that the removal of members of the old guard such as former Prime Minister Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah and former Speaker of the National Assembly Marzouq al-Ghanim from the scene will reduce the sting of parliamentary critics since both officials were previously lightning-rods for the discontent of opposition MPs in the 2020–22 assembly. The return of Ahmed al-Sadoun, a veteran MP who was first elected in 1975 and is a former speaker of the assembly, may also have an impact, especially if al-Sadoun returns to the speaker’s chair and is able to restore a modicum of political order.
No More Muddling Through
What may also become clear when the new assembly convenes is that Kuwait can no longer muddle through without enacting systemic change in a system of governance that has manifestly failed to provide political stability, and that showed signs of breaking down altogether during the last parliament. The rise in oil prices this year has certainly boosted government revenues and given Kuwait’s leadership the breathing space it needs to recover from the economic and fiscal pressures of the pandemic years.
However, the breakdown of a functioning relationship between the country’s different political branches has impeded progress on key issues such as the passage of a public debt bill that would allow Kuwait to return to international markets for the first time since 2017 or on politically sensitive matters of economic reform such as the imposition of a value-added tax that all other Gulf Arab states besides Qatar have now introduced. The modern history of Kuwait has witnessed two periods when the country’s leadership decided that it could do without a National Assembly, between 1976 and 1981 and again between 1986 and 1992. Some hear in Crown Prince Mishaal al-Sabah’s words a warning that the “nuclear option” of forgoing the presence of a functioning assembly altogether may not be unthinkable if the current political standoff fails to resolve itself.
Feature image credit: Instagram/KUNA