Within the space of four months, the Kuwaiti political scene faced inevitable personnel transformations following the passing of the Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad in September 2020. As the ruling Al-Sabah family decided on their candidate for crown prince, aspiring MPs kicked off their campaigning season in anticipation of the December 5 parliamentary elections. The final month of the calendar year witnessed further pivotal events, including cabinet appointments, the election of the next Speaker of Parliament, and the news of another death in the Al-Sabah ranks – Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad – eldest son of the late emir. The first month of 2021 saw an increasingly adversarial relationship between MPs and ministers, culminating in the cabinet’s resignation on January 11.
Amidst this sequence of political events, public sentiment remains subsumed in a word – hope – but also hope for change, and naturally, change for the better. Yet, as Kuwaiti academic Bader Al-Saif notes, despite the similar turnover rate in both branches of government, Kuwait’s domestic politics exhibit more continuity. Nonetheless, the deduction that continuity does not bode well must also consider the lenses of the Kuwaiti leadership itself. Beyond the ease of succession, the government, led by the Al-Sabahs, seeks equally to juggle immediate challenges and public expectations.
The Transition of Emiri Power
The demise of Sheikh Sabah, widely considered the architect of Kuwait’s balanced foreign policy since independence, raised important questions at home. Beyond the smooth transition of Emiri power to the Crown Prince, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad, all eyes were on designation of the next heir apparent. The eventual decision for Sheikh Meshaal Al-Ahmad, another son of the tenth ruler, Ahmad Al-Jaber, was deemed a conservative choice. Of significance is that the line of succession now resides, at least for the time being, within the Jaber branch of the ruling family, as opposed to the Salem branch.
Further, what is seen as conservative could also be read as a preference for stability. In Kuwait’s case, political stability and seniority with Sheikh Nawaf and Sheikh Meshaal at the helm, whose résumés are heavily associated with the Interior and Defense ministries, could also be translated into a prerequisite for tackling the challenges at home. The death of Nasser, Sheikh Sabah’s son, previously seen as a front-runner for crown prince, can now only mean that, in hindsight, being “fit for office” was also part of the criteria.
A New Cabinet
The initial cabinet appointments under Emir Nawaf pointed to a “technocratic” set-up. The choice of Sabah Al-Khalid as head of government, the Prime Minister, signalled a need for his expertise in foreign policy matters after Sheikh Sabah. Seven newcomers made up the new executive branch, which indicated some willingness to listen to public grievances. Khalifa Hamada, previously the Finance Ministry’s undersecretary, climbed the ranks to head the Finance Ministry, reasserting the leadership’s attention to its coffers. Equally, the reappointment of Basel Homoud Al-Sabah indicated that no chances will be taken in the fight against the coronavirus. For ministerial portfolios such as Foreign Affairs, Public Health and National Assembly Affairs, the same faces had been retained.
Worthy of note are the Interior and Defense portfolios, with the former returned to a Sabah member after a year. Both ministries were assigned to two young sheikhs, and both of the Salem branch. Despite the dwindling Sabah presence in the cabinet over the decades, the three ministries of Interior, Defense and Foreign Affairs have been deemed “sovereign,” that is to say, the prerogative of the family. Beyond what is seen as an evident concession by the Jaber branch, the two appointments underscore more consensus between the two ruling branches than the often-presumed rivalry. That the two young Salems, both two generations below the emir and crown prince, have the approval of the Sabah elders, equally highlights the family’s awareness of generational handovers, which did not seem apparent in October.
The two Salems are not short of credentials. Taking up the Ministry of Defense was Hamad Jaber Al-Ali, who previously served as undersecretary in the same ministry before assuming the strategic post of ambassador to Saudi Arabia, then returned to government as Minister of Information. As for Thamer Ali Al-Sabah, he led the national security apparatus for several years before entering cabinet as Minister of Interior. Both personalities, incidentally, have striking similarities with the political profiles of the emir and crown prince – a further suggestion of the Salem-Jaber resonance in these aspects. More recently, Thamer dispatched security forces into malls amidst the trend of civilian brawls, before tackling another case of local extremists in a show of law enforcement. This could force a rethink of the label “cabinet of doves” as coined by local media outlet Al Jarida.
The Souring of Legislative-Executive Relations
Public doubts surrounding the cabinet remain far from dispelled. Questions hovered over Anas Al-Saleh’s reappointment without a specific ministerial portfolio attached. Al-Saleh was twice submitted to a confidence vote by the previous Assembly when he was Minister of Interior. He was embroiled, notably, in an espionage scandal related to the surveillance of prominent personalities. Despite recent warnings by the newly elected MP Bader Al-Dahum to interrogate Al-Saleh upon his return, his cabinet designation was seen as an act of government defiance. Another disputable appointment was the Minister of Justice, Nawaf Al-Yasin, due to his previous stance against the opposition movement.
The new government continued to operate under scrutiny after the parliamentary sessions commenced on December 15 because of its support for Marzouq Al-Ghanim. A hindrance to the political opposition, Al-Ghanim was expected to fail in his bid for re-election as Speaker, as more than 40 newly elected MPs had declared their support for an alternative candidate, Bader Al-Humaidi. Since the vote was secret, the results revealed that around 13 members did not fulfil their promises by defecting to vote for Al-Ghanim. As cabinet ministers have the right to vote on different issues in parliament, their votes (14 ministers participated in the session) also tipped the equation in favour of Al-Ghanim. The final count showed 33 votes for Al-Ghanim, surpassing Al-Humaidi’s 28.
As a result, PM Sabah Al-Khalid came under fire for refusing to acknowledge public sentiment by supporting a controversial politician. Al-Ghanim’s re-election as Speaker weighed heavily on the government as it was interpreted by the parliament as an uncooperative move. What started out as an Emiri call for harmony between governmental branches eventually led to a significantly weakened position of the Prime Minister. By January 5, three MPs announced the interpellation of Al-Khalid and more than thirty MPs supported it.
Key Domestic Challenges
Corruption and the economic crunch remain the two chief priorities facing the Kuwaiti leadership. On the former issue, Kuwait’s Anti-Corruption Authority, or Nazaha, has been the public face of the government since its inception in 2016. Featuring regularly in media outlets – most recently drawing praise from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – its capacity to uproot corruption remains to be seen. As for economic issues, the oil price decline over the spring of 2020 further intensified calls for economic solutions, which in turn have an impact on the state’s ability to provide public services.
Facing a fiscal crisis, the last parliament refused to renew a debt law that would allow borrowing on international debt markets – a debate that will likely be resurrected. Weaning the country from its reliance on oil, a solution for the long run, requires economic diversification, of which the late Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad was among the main proponents. His plan to develop the northern part of the country, known as the Northern Region Economic Project (or Al-Hareer, “Silk City”), aims to “transform [Kuwait] into an international trade and financial hub,” by means of attracting foreign investments and boosting the tourism sector.
As a component of Kuwait’s own Vision 2035, Al-Hareer was cited during PM Sabah al-Khalid’s inauguration speech to the current National Assembly. The cabinet appointment of Faisal Al-Medlij was therefore no coincidence: named the Minister of Trade, Industry, and Economic Affairs, he had been heavily involved in discussions with Chinese officials about developing the “Silk City” and Boubyan Island. It is evident that the government desires to pick up where the late Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmad had left off, who himself had previously redirected his attention toward fighting corruption, and in so doing revealed a scandal involving his predecessor in the Ministry of Defense.
As the new Kuwaiti leadership strives to satisfy the demands of governance, it must equally respond to public expectations. While the ruling family mulls over ministerial appointments for a new cabinet, they must equally ascertain the level of support needed for executing crucial policies. The episode with Al-Ghanim has undeniably left a sour taste within opposition ranks. The willingness of the legislative branch to cooperate seems dependent on the faces in cabinet, but the MPs too must know the government’s threshold. The contentious words of MP Shuaib Al-Muwaizri, for instance, included a demand to appoint a new Prime Minister other than Sabah Al-Khalid – which may be seen as overstepping boundaries. Acceding to MPs’ requests is encapsulated in the last cabinet resignation, but Sabah Al-Khalid’s return as head of government, confirmed by the latest Emiri decree, is also a sign that the leadership will not bow to public pressure easily. Nevertheless, the hostility in the legislative-executive relationship runs the risk of a downward spiral, when there is a crying need for remedies to pressing problems.