The Supremacy of Executive Power in Kuwait

Two decades of political turbulence in Kuwait came to a head on the evening of May 10 when Emir Mishal al-Ahmad Al-Sabah announced he was suspending the National Assembly for up to four years, along with seven articles of the country’s 1962 Constitution that relate to parliamentary powers. Multiple issues provide context to the decision to subject the political system to a hard reset that does away, at least for the time being, with the liveliest and most participatory parliamentary body in the Gulf. These issues mainly are related to the years of gridlock between successive governments and parliaments, which increasingly held Kuwait back in a fast-moving region, as well to as a sense that the stasis was getting worse. An added factor, unique to the Kuwaiti case in the Gulf, is the politics of succession whereby the National Assembly had a role in approving the ruler’s choice of crown prince.  This comes against the backdrop of a Saudi-style generational transition as the line of brothers that has ruled Kuwait almost continuously since 1977 approaches its natural end.

Long History of Parliamentary Life

Representative institutions are deeply ingrained in Kuwait’s political landscape in ways that predate and go significantly beyond any of the other Gulf states. A consultative council was elected as early as 1921, and while it was weakened by personal rivalries and soon dissolved, it was followed in 1938 by a more powerful legislative council that sought control over decision-making authority. This body, too, only lasted months before it was forcefully shut down in 1939, but key figures in the 1938 council, including its chairman Abdullah al-Salim Al-Sabah, were pivotal in crafting the constitutional arrangements of the early 1960s, by which time Abdullah al-Salim was ruler of an independent Kuwait. A constitutional assembly was elected in December 1961 to draw up the constitution, which was promulgated in November 1962, followed by elections to the first National Assembly in January 1963.

A near-constant cycle of conflict contributed to an erosion of trust and a gradual breakdown in the working relationship between parliament and the cabinet.

However, the path of parliamentary politics in Kuwait has not been smooth. In 1967, elections to the second National Assembly were marred by allegations of vote rigging, while on two occasions the assembly was suspended altogether, first between 1976 and 1981 and again from 1986 to 1992. The two lengthy interregnums occurred during times of considerable regional turmoil, which heightened the sensitivities of domestic political debates in Kuwait. Former members of parliament (MPs) and civil society groups mobilized each time to pressure the authorities to restore the constitution and reinstate the parliament, with the 1989-1990 pro-democracy movement especially vigorous. History recalls the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 but elides the months-long political standoff that preceded it. The Iraqi occupation broke through the logjam, in large part due to a meeting-in-exile in Jeddah between the Al-Sabah and prominent Kuwaitis in October 1990 as well as US pressure on the Emir to restore the assembly after the Gulf War ended in February 1991.

Kuwait held its first postwar election in October 1992, and for the decade after liberation, the National Assembly completed two full four-year terms (1992-96 and 1999-2003) and lasted for three years in the 1996-99 and 2003-06 periods. By contrast, the 18 years since 2006 saw ten elections, as only one parliament (2016-20) lasted a whole term, following a run of five elections in five years between 2008 and 2013 and before three others in 18 months between September 2022 and April 2024. A near-constant cycle of conflict between elected MPs and governments appointed by the Emir, punctuated by regular cabinet resignations and MPs’ hostile questioning of ministers, contributed to an erosion of trust and a gradual breakdown in the working relationship between parliament and the cabinet. This caused frequent delays and blockage in decision-making, which negatively affected the implementation of infrastructure and investment projects such as a new refinery at Al Zour , as well as the passage of legislation such as an updated debt law.

Executive-Legislative Stalemate

Emir Mishal’s suspension of the National Assembly last month  thus may be seen as an ending of the post-Gulf War political settlement in Kuwait, a moment that has been met with barely a flicker of recognition in the United States and with muted reactions in the other Gulf states as well as in Kuwait itself. Although the decision to do away with the Assembly and suspend seven of the articles in the constitution that concern the role of the Assembly in the governing process came as a surprise to many, it was rather less of a shock to close observers of Kuwaiti politics. (The suspended articles include Article 51, which vests legislative power in the Assembly as well as with the Emir; Article 79, which requires the Assembly to ratify laws; Article 107, which requires new elections to be held within two months of the dissolution of the previous Assembly; and last but not least, Article 181, which prohibits the suspension of the constitution and grants MPs immunity except during martial law.)

Although he only became Emir in December 2023 upon the death of his brother Nawaf al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, Mishal had effectively served as de facto leader since November 2021, when Nawaf’s declining health led him to transfer some of the Emir’s constitutional duties. With a lifelong career in state security and the national guard, Mishal was somewhat of an unexpected appointment as crown prince when Nawaf became Emir in September 2020, if only because he had stayed out of the factional infighting as other senior members of the ruling family sought to position themselves in line for the succession during Sabah al-Ahmad’s rule (2006-2020). Mishal’s security background meant that many in Kuwait viewed him with a degree of wariness, especially those who identified with the political opposition.  They see him as a ‘strongman’ and associated him with the crackdown on public demonstrations during the 2011-12 Arab Spring era.

In June 2022, in the midst of a protracted standoff between government and parliament that was unusual even by Kuwaiti standards, Mishal gave a televised speech in which he announced the dissolution of the National Assembly and called fresh elections. Speaking on behalf of the Emir, Mishal addressed head-on the breakdown of the working relationship between the executive and the legislature, and urged Kuwaitis “not to miss the opportunity to correct the course of national participation so that we do not return to what we were before” as he pointedly added that “this return will not be in the interest of the country and the citizens, and in the event of its return we will have other measures of heavy impact.” At the time, his statement was seen as a warning that the ruling family’s patience with the political system was running low, and that the leadership was prepared to take further action should the parliamentary elections, which were held in September 2022, not lead to any change in practice.

The Triumph of Executive Power

What happened next likely was the straw that broke the camel’s back as Kuwait lurched from one political crisis to another. The National Assembly elected in September 2022 lasted for less than six months until the Constitutional Court annulled the electoral results in March 2023, on the basis of discrepancies in the decree that had dissolved the previous parliament. (This move hearkened back to two previous instances, in 2012 and 2013 when the Court intervened to annul the results of Assembly elections on procedural grounds.) A new election held in June 2023 failed to break the impasse, as many of the incumbents from the annulled 2022 Assembly were re-elected—only for that Assembly to itself be dissolved in February 2024 due to “offensive and uncontrolled” statements by MPs that appeared related to comments about Mishal’s inaugural speech as ruler.

After the April 4, 2024 election, which again returned many of the incumbents from the previous two Assemblies, the highly capable prime minister, Mohammed Sabah Al-Sabah, who had only been in office for four months, declined to lead a new government. Mohammed, who holds a PhD from Harvard University and whose return to public life in January after nearly 13 years, was widely welcomed, was replaced as premier by Ahmad Abdullah Al-Sabah, a former minister of finance and oil whose most recent appointment, in 2021, was as head of Mishal’s court. One week after the election, Mishal pushed back the convening of the new parliament until May 14, in apparent violation of Article 87 of the Constitution, which requires the Assembly to meet within two weeks of the vote. While the delay was not unprecedented, having happened in 2022, the expected convening of the new assembly on May 14 was overtaken by the Emir’s May 10 decision to suspend it.

As he announced the suspension of the Assembly and the seven articles of the constitution, Mishal referred to “unimaginable, unbearable difficulties and impediments.”

As he announced the suspension of the Assembly and the seven articles of the constitution, Mishal referred to “unimaginable, unbearable difficulties and impediments” that meant that “the recent turmoil in the Kuwaiti political scene has reached a stage where we cannot remain silent.” He added that he would “not allow…that democracy will be exploited to destroy the state.” Without going into further details, the Emir claimed that unnamed political actors were interfering in the process of selecting a crown prince. Under Article 4 of the Constitution, a crown prince must be appointed within one year of an Emir coming to power and secure the approval of a majority of the National Assembly. On June 1, nearly six months after he became Emir, Mishal appointed Sabah al-Khalid Al-Sabah, a former prime minister (2019-22) and foreign minister (2011-19) as his heir apparent.

The naming of Sabah al-Khalid as crown prince removes one element of uncertainty about the direction of leadership in Kuwait and may end the skirmishing between senior figures in the ruling family who had fancied a chance of entering the line of succession. Although Sabah does not belong to the Al-Jabir and Al-Salem lines that have ruled Kuwait since 1915, and thus breaks the mold, he is connected to each through his maternal grandfather on the Al Jabir side and his father-in-law on the Al Salem side. With decades of experience in the foreign ministry, including three years as ambassador to Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, as well as in national security, the 71-year-old Sabah is a finely balanced choice as the eventual successor to the 83-year-old Mishal, and gives predictability to Kuwait going forward. With the National Assembly out of the picture, Sabah took the oath of office promptly on June 2 before the Council of Ministers, visibly signifying the shift in political power from the legislative to the executive.

Going forward, much will depend on what the government does now that parliament can no longer function as a brake on the development and implementation of policy. If officials can move ahead with measures that make meaningful progress in upgrading Kuwait’s aging infrastructure and diversifying the overly oil-based economy, they may be able to develop a narrative justifying the Emir’s heavy measures. This may become apparent only over a period of years, which may be why Emir Mishal publicly gave a timeline of up to four years for the suspension of parliamentary life. If little changes in reality, however, there is a risk that the absence of an assembly causes a public backlash if dissatisfaction with the status quo grows. So far, there has been no repeat of the mass demonstrations that marked the last major confrontation in 2011-2012. But in both the previous long periods of suspension in the 1970s and 1980s, it took several years for public and political pressure to build for the reinstatement of the Assembly, and the same may happen this time around.

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.