May 22, 2024

IntelBrief: Kuwait Faces an Uncertain Future After Legislature is Suspended

AP Photo/Jaber Abdulkhaleg

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The May 10 suspension of Kuwait’s elected National Assembly by the country’s ruler has raised doubts about whether Kuwait’s political system will remain the most free and open of the Gulf states.
  • The parliament suspension reflects longstanding frustration among government supporters as well as opponents that Kuwait’s economic development had stagnated.
  • Unhindered by oversight from an opposition-dominated elected legislature, the government is expected to try to advance infrastructure rebuilding projects and attract more foreign investment.
  • The Amir’s move, although not motivated by foreign policy considerations, will likely move Kuwait closer to its more authoritarian Gulf allies such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

For the past six decades, Kuwait has stood out as among the freest and open Arab states of the Persian Gulf, centered on the country’s 1962 constitution and its vibrant, elected National Assembly. The Assembly’s broad powers, including the ability to interpolate appointed ministers, have enabled the body to serve as a forum for holding the government accountable. Legislative and quasi-legislative consultative assemblies in the other Gulf states were established far more recently and have significantly less scope of authority than Kuwait’s parliament.

Legislative assemblies in the other Gulf states either have all-appointed upper houses the same size as an elected lower house, or have unicameral bodies in which half the seats are appointed. In Kuwait, 50 assembly seats are elected, and a maximum of 15 seats are occupied ex-officio by government ministers. Over the past decade, Kuwait’s National Assembly has been dominated by oppositionists, mostly left-leaning figures who, in the past, supported Arab nationalist causes and currently argue for preserving the country’s generous social welfare benefits and against offering significant concessions to foreign investors and joint venture partners. The leadership and government, dominated by members of the Al Sabah family, have historically enjoyed the support of Kuwait’s large merchant families who seek to maintain their influence over Kuwait’s energy and export-import-dominated economy.

On May 10 – five weeks after the latest national election, in which oppositionists yet again prevailed – the 83-year-old Amir Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah suspended the Assembly and key provisions of the Kuwaiti constitution, including a mandate that a new parliament must be elected within two months of a dissolution. Sheikh Mishal, himself only in office since the death of his half-brother and predecessor, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, in December, proclaimed the assembly suspension would last a “maximum” of four years. A suspension of that duration, if implemented, would rival the longest suspensions in Kuwait’s history (1976-81 and 1986-92).

Amir Mishal, whose background includes heading key domestic security institutions, justified his action, in part, by implying the assembly’s opposition to the reappointment of the Minister of Interior and other demands constituted a threat to the country’s “high national interests.” More broadly, the suspension reflected the Amir and his allies’ frustration – much of which is widely shared even among many Al-Sabah critics – that National Assembly grilling of ministers and failure to enact key legislation had caused Kuwait to fall behind its more economically vibrant Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies, including the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

Domestic criticism of the move was mostly muted, including among assembly deputies recently elected and now out of power, although one outspoken former assembly deputy reportedly was arrested. Free of an assembly veto threat, the Amir can now more easily appoint a Crown Prince, which he is constitutionally required to do within one year of accession (by December 2024). Others expect Amir Mishal will also use the suspension to try to address intra-ruling family and other disputes that have long contributed to policy gridlock.

The Amir’s move transferred all legislative powers to the cabinet, making his ministerial appointments crucial to breaking longstanding logjams on key issues, particularly diversification of the economy and reducing Kuwait’s dependence on the exportation of crude oil. On May 12, the Amir appointed a new cabinet, headed by Shaykh Ahmad Abdullah Al-Sabah as Prime Minister, according to royal decree. Shaykh Ahmad, Amir Mishal’s nephew, was previously appointed Prime Minister in April, following the April 4 National Assembly election. He had previously headed the Amir’s Diwan, serving essentially as Chief of Staff of his office, and his appointment as Prime Minister signaled the Amir’s intent to exercise more direct influence on the affairs of government than did his predecessors. However, the Amir’s return to office caused many incumbents, including the ministers of oil, finance, and foreign affairs, to raise questions about the degree to which policy would materially change. Still, those who supported the Amir’s suspension, as well as critics, hope the government will be able to achieve progress on such issues as resolving an acute shortage of housing and upgrading the dilapidated road system, as well as reining in the overly generous social welfare system that National Assembly oppositionists had always insisted on expanding further.

There is broad acknowledgment that the Amir and his prime minister need to move quickly to fill the many empty posts throughout the bureaucracy, as well as implement a new budget law and laws to crack down on widespread corruption. Without assembly obstruction, the government, perhaps seeking to emulate the economic model of the UAE, is likely to pursue extensive foreign direct investment (FDI). Foreign investors have largely bypassed Kuwait in favor of its more economically diverse and welcoming Gulf neighbors. The assembly had previously blocked a number of energy and other joint ventures with foreign partners, deterring investors from undertaking large positions in Kuwait’s key sectors. The leadership might also look to undertake “mega projects” such as those pursued by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) in Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, Kuwait might have difficulty pursuing underdeveloped industries such as tourism, in part because alcohol is banned, and Kuwait generally lacks historical Islamic sites and other sites such as those in neighboring Saudi Arabia.

The most fundamental questions about the Amir’s suspension of the National Assembly center on the future of Kuwait’s democracy, and whether the Amir will move to a more authoritarian model that goes against Kuwait’s history and traditions. Experts believe the suspension might be accompanied by a gradual tightening of controls on the media and the shrinkage of political space more generally. The Amir’s suspension announcement stated a committee to amend the constitution would be formed, heightening concerns that electoral laws, district boundaries, and other parameters might change when elections return.

Some fear Amir Mishal might envision changing the constitution to provide for a legislative body that resembles the Federal National Council in the UAE, in which half the seats are elected, half are appointed, and the electorate is limited. Any constitutional amendment is sure to disappoint oppositionists who have long campaigned for additional assembly powers, including the ability to elect a prime minister. Oppositionists also want to legalize political parties to supersede the informal political groupings referred to as “political societies,” an evolution that would promote more cohesion around policy platforms.

Regional experts are asking whether the Amir’s suspension of the National Assembly will have any implications for Kuwait’s regional orientation. The suspension was linked almost entirely to domestic political factors, and not, as some speculated, to the regional context of the ongoing war in Gaza. Kuwait’s foreign policy is unlikely to change much, if at all, although Amir Mishal might continue to try to raise Kuwait’s global profile that had diminished after the death in 2020 of Amir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah. He was foreign minister for decades before ascending to the country’s leadership in 2006, and had served as a key mediator on many regional issues.

Kuwait has long ruled out normalization with Israel until the establishment of a Palestinian state is well along in the process, and Amir Mishal does not seek to reorient Kuwaiti policy on that issue. At the same time, observers of Kuwait assess that Amir Mishal’s more authoritarian tendencies will bring the country closer to its less democratic GCC allies, particularly the UAE, whose leader, Federation President Mohammad bin Zayid Al Nahyan (MBZ), publicly supported the Kuwait Amir’s dissolution of parliament. During the assembly suspension, Kuwait might also mute any differences, including over shared oil fields and other issues, with Saudi de-facto leader MBS. Although U.S. officials oppose any backsliding on democracy by a key Gulf state, there are no indications relations with the United States, including the presence of about 13,500 mostly U.S. Army personnel in Kuwait, will undergo significant alteration under Amir Mishal.