Kuwait’s new Cabinet was sworn in on March 3, six weeks after the previous Cabinet had resigned after mounting tensions between the government and the National Assembly and amid a growing sense of urgency in the political and economic challenges facing the country.
The inclusion of four new ministers in the Cabinet lineup, and especially the appointment of a former member of parliament as Minister of Justice and Deputy Prime Minister, is an attempt to bridge the differences between the government and parliament that have so often been the source of political gridlock in Kuwait.
Kuwait’s National Assembly, which often challenges the government on a wide range of issues, is illustrative of arguably the most advanced, if sometimes raucous, democracy in the region.
The 50-member National Assembly, founded in 1963, is directly elected by Kuwait’s citizens. While some have lamented that the assembly sometimes contributes to gridlock on government initiatives, especially economic and development planning, Kuwaitis generally take pride in a democratic institution now entering its seventh decade.
This latest clash between the government and the National Assembly has its roots in a series of interlocking crises that formed the backdrop to a year featuring the smooth leadership change in Kuwait with the death of Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah in September 2020.
Allegations of large-scale corruption, including one linked to the explosive fallout from the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia, have, since 2019, roiled the Kuwaiti political and economic elite, including members of the ruling family and senior officials. These allegations emboldened Kuwait’s political opposition, which secured 24 of the 50 seats in the most recent election National Assembly election in December 2020.
There had been hopes that Kuwait’s smooth leadership transition, in which the new Emir, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad Al Sabah, swiftly appointed a Crown Prince without any of the factional infighting and jockeying for position that some had predicted, would herald a new and more consensual approach to politics.
A meeting between Sheikh Nawaf and opposition representatives shortly before Emir Sabah’s September 29 passing had kindled some expectation of a ‘détente’ that might draw a line under the fractious relationship that opposition figures had with Emir Sabah, dating back to political upheaval in 2011-12.
This was evident in requests from the opposition that exiled political figures be allowed to return to Kuwait and an amnesty granted to people convicted of storming the National Assembly in November 2011.
Any initial sense of goodwill largely evaporated in December when the government and parliament locked horns over the re-election of Marzouq al-Ghanem to the Speakership of the National Assembly he has held since 2013. A scion of two of Kuwait’s oldest and most influential families, al-Ghanem faced immediate demands from his removal from a majority of MPs but was re-elected amid turbulent scenes with the support of Cabinet members who cast their votes as ex officio members of the National Assembly.
This initial confrontational approach set the tone for what followed as 38 MPs backed a motion to question the Prime Minister over claims of constitutional irregularities in forming the government, leading ultimately to the Cabinet submitting its resignation on January 13.
The latest formation of a government took place after consultations between the Prime Minister and representatives of Kuwait’s parliamentary blocs and a one-month suspension of parliamentary sittings.
While only four of the sixteen members of Cabinet were ultimately changed, they included the Minister of Interior, Anas al-Saleh, who had become a lightning rod for opposition criticism, whose secondary role as deputy prime minister was taken by one of the new appointees, Minister of Justice Abdullah al-Roumi.
Bader al-Saif, an assistant professor of history at Kuwait University, observed that, as a former MP and deputy speaker, al-Roumi was ‘well respected by opposition and government’ and that the composition of the new Cabinet signaled an attempt at reconciliation on the part of the government.
Moving forward, the priority for the new government will be whether they can work with the National Assembly to pass an urgently needed debt law that would enable Kuwait to address a rapidly deteriorating fiscal and balance of payments crisis.
However, a new public debt bill that would allow Kuwait to return to international markets for the first time since 2017 and borrow up to US$65 billion has been stalled for months, in part due to the mistrust between parliament and government over the handling of public finances.
While oil-rich Kuwait remains one of the wealthiest countries in the world, its liquidity crunch has already caused Fitch to downgrade its outlook on Kuwait’s sovereign debt from ‘stable’ to ‘negative’ and the Ministry of Finance to warn that it could run out of money to pay public sector salaries.
In the absence of progress on the debt law, Kuwait has resorted to short-term measures, such as withdrawals from its General Reserve Fund, to plug immediate gaps, that are poor substitutes for a long-term solution.
The challenge for policymakers in Kuwait is that questions of public finance tend to form the sharpest flashpoints between government and parliament and bring out the populist streak among MPs. The at times raucous politics of the Assembly sometimes thereby inhibits effective economic and development planning for the medium- and longer-term, such as what is needed to address the debt issue, and contributing to gridlock .
The economic challenge has of course been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.
The more likely scenario for Kuwait may therefore be that the political standoff continues, especially if opposition MPs that already have vowed to file another motion to question the Prime Minister follow through, and that Emir Nawaf eventually calls for fresh elections to break the impasse, especially over the debt law.
Meanwhile, building on the tradition of the late Emir Sabah as one of the most respected and revered elder statesmen in the region, Emir Nawaf and the government have not missed a beat in pressing ahead with the Kuwait’s widely admired role in regional security, and in facilitating dialogue and reconciliation among the GCC states.