The Kuwaiti political situation has reached a deplorable stage, marred not only by bureaucratic infighting between government branches, but also by outbreaks of fisticuffs in the parliament hall. As early as January 2021, the first cabinet under Emir Nawaf submitted its resignation amid brewing legislative-executive tensions, prompting many to speculate on Prime Minister Sabah Al-Khalid’s return. Assured of Emiri confidence, Sabah Al-Khalid later announced a new team, after more than five weeks of consultations with past and present government officials.
Despite new ministerial faces – reflecting the government’s conciliatory stance – the political impasse has worsened from March, as opposition MPs were relentless in their criticism of the cabinet. Notwithstanding an Emiri appeal for “constructive cooperation,” one opposition representative insisted that the fresh line-up is far from the “salvation” the country needed. Uncertainties soon evolved into personality politics, as the government’s opponents grew into a 31-man bloc in a bid to foil any cabinet plans. The result is ongoing disjointed politics, disrupted parliamentary sessions, and calls for Emiri intervention. The latest budgetary bill was passed amid controversy, while harmony between ministers and MPs remains a distant reality.
New Cabinet, Old Targets
Four new cabinet faces meant the dismissal of (Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs) and replacing three other disputed ministerial appointments (Justice, Commerce and Industry, and Housing Affairs) with technocrats. Al-Saleh previously received heavy-criticism as Interior Minister, but was retained in the January cabinet without a specific portfolio. A surprise choice in the new cabinet is veteran Abdullah Al-Roumi, a former opposition politician respected by both sides of the coin, now appointed as the new Minister of Justice. He equally heads Nazaha (the Anti-Corruption Authority) and assumes the senior position of Deputy Prime Minister. Additional reshuffle and reinvention of ministerial portfolios hint at the government’s vision, including labels such as “renewable energy,” “information technology,” and “urban development”. Besides the Prime Minister, four other ruling Sabah members continue to preside over Interior, Defence, Foreign Affairs, and Health. A noteworthy observation is how the portfolio of Cabinet Affairs was tactically added to foreign minister Sheikh Ahmad Nasser Al-Mohammed’s current responsibilities, making him the right-hand man of the Prime Minister.
Yet, disregarding the goodwill extended by the government, opposition MPs were far from contented, persisting in fault-finding. For instance, as Kuwait entered a partial lockdown on March 7, vehicles became stuck in a traffic paralysis as many raced to beat the deadline. This prompted MPs to criticise the Health Minister for mismanaging the crisis, implicating the Prime Minister by association. The government’s most vocal critic – MP Bader Al-Dahoum – continued receiving huge audiences at his house, despite the Interior Minister’s reiteration of health protocols. The political turmoil did not change the opposition’s key targets: the Prime Minister Sabah Al-Khalid and the Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanim. The latter’s re-election as Speaker last December was especially contentious.
The months of March and April witnessed pivotal events that ignited a political crisis. First came the decision by the Constitutional Court in mid-March to revoke the National Assembly membership of Bader Al-Dahoum. What was controversial lies in the timing of the law that stipulates the ban on those who have insulted the Emir from running for public office. Although this law was drafted by the previous parliament, and passed only after Al-Dahoum’s conviction, his removal still stood. A few days after the Court’s decision, the country’s “top leadership” intervened to defuse tensions, by releasing detained opposition activists after a gathering that violated health restrictions. Yet, Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanim’s subsequent management of the Al-Dahoum case restored the status quo. On March 24, 34 MPs demanded a vote on Al-Dahoum’s membership, but the Speaker’s refusal a week later gave the impression that political decisions were made unilaterally.
By the end of March, the political situation further deteriorated in the Assembly session where the new cabinet was sworn in. Despite doubts on whether the session would proceed, it materialized with just one vote over the quorum, thwarting the opposition’s boycott tactic. Here Al-Dahoum’s membership was officially declared null and void, but taking the spotlight was the Prime Minister. Having received a previous request to impeach him for the “selectivity in legal application” by MPs Mohammad Al-Mutair and the now-ousted Al-Dahoum, the Prime Minister then called for a vote to postpone any attempt to interrogate him till late 2022. The vote was taken. The result? In the Prime Minister’s favour, albeit controversially. PM Sabah Al-Khalid has since become insulated from political scrutiny. Following heated exchanges, the opposition issued a statement: they labelled the events a “black day” in Kuwaiti democracy.
Oppositional Tactics, Public Sentiment
With the perceived immunity of the Prime Minister, the opposition then opted for indirect tactics – targeting personalities by association. In early April, 23 MPs submitted an “unprecedented motion” demanding the dismissal of the Speaker, with one MP from the Islamic Constitutional Movement proposing an amendment to the assembly’s internal charter in order to do so. Politics continued to turn ugly, as the opposition pressed on with further requests to impeach the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Health, and Finance, three of whom stem from the Sabah ruling family. These indirect tactics were employed to pressurize Sabah al-Khalid’s cabinet into capitulation.
Another scheme was to prevent any regular Assembly session from taking place – at least those without the Prime Minister’s impeachment on the agenda. Opposition MPs proceeded to take the front row seats usually occupied by cabinet ministers during parliamentary proceedings. Although this strategy failed as the executive branch matched this move with a boycott of their own, its impact was seen in the grassroots. As the suspension of systematic sessions became a subject of popular resentment, these grievances were seemingly heard as the Speaker announced special, issue-oriented Assembly sessions. These have since been the norm.
Amid the political chaos, public perception could also be drawn from a by-election that sought to fill the vacant seat left by Al-Dahoum. Obaid Al-Wasmi, a strong government critic, announced his candidacy after almost a decade of boycotting parliamentary elections. Not only did his victory in late May prevent the addition of a pro-government MP, but his votes also hit a record-high – exceeding 43,000. By defeating his fourteen rivals, whose combined votes scored less than 8 per cent of the total, Al-Wasmi’s triumph signaled huge public backing in the ongoing political debacle. This electoral contest in the fifth district, known for its tribal constituents, made his success even more significant. His victory had transcended the tribal barrier.
Budgetary Woes: Resolved?
The latest political squabble surrounds the state budget, passed during a special session in late June without any technical discussion. As Abdullah Alkhonaini and Salman Naqi write, the crux lies in the inability to hold the government accountable, when parliamentary oversight is usually conducted via the Audit Bureau. The budget decision was taken by a slim winning margin, with 30 MPs refusing to vote, while ministers voted from the entrance of the parliament hall – an unprecedented sight. The annual budget, tied to government expenditure, involves monetary issues tied to the citizen, including wages, corporate subsidies, and social security. According to the Ministry of Finance’s report, a fiscal deficit of $12.1 billion is expected for the fiscal year from April 1. This follows Finance Minister Khalifa Hamada’s warning in March that the recovery in oil prices remains inadequate (now hovering around $70 per barrel), when the required oil price for budget breakeven point is $90 per barrel.
While closing the fiscal deficit remains a priority, any solution thus far has proved unfavourable, at least to the parliament. As the General Reserves Fund (GRF) is nearly exhausted, proposals to draw from another Sovereign Wealth Fund component, the Future Generations Fund (an intergenerational savings platform), have been rejected by the parliamentary financial committee. Likewise, proposals allowing the government to issue bonds were turned down last year. Fiscal reform would require time and decisive implementation, which has been a struggle in this protracted political crisis. If Kuwait continues to embrace quick-fix solutions, as a Bloomberg report writes, the country will build a “cumulative budget deficit of $184 billion over the next five years”.
Intervention from the top: renewed hope?
On June 4, the bloc of 31 issued a statement denouncing the Speaker and Prime Minister as culprits with “a direct aggression on the rights of people and their powers”. This statement accompanied calls for the Emir to intervene. By late June, the Crown Prince Sheikh Meshaal Al-Ahmad received opposition MPs, in an audience described as “frank and serving the interests of Kuwait”. The positive after-effects of this meeting remain to be seen. As the National Assembly enters its three-month summer recess, the Emir warns that boundaries should not be transgressed, and that heavy-handed measures remain at his disposal. Kuwaitis need only look as far as the 1986 unconstitutional parliamentary dissolutions, after which a proposal materialised for an appointed, rather than elected, council (majlis al-watani). Kuwaiti politics needs to rise above personality differences, reach a compromise, and emerge from a “dust storm” to make crucial decisions on Kuwait’s future.