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On 18 June, the Emir of Kuwait, Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, suspended parliament for a month to head off an escalating row between the cabinet and parliament, the latter of which was about to publicly grill the interior minister over the country’s citizenship laws. Two days later, the constitutional court stepped in with its own ruling that declared the sitting (but newly suspended) parliament to be illegal and called for the reinstatement of the previous parliament. The court’s rationale was that an emiri decree this past February—which called for elections after the previous parliament was dissolved in December—had been unconstitutional, thereby nullifying the elections that followed. Twenty-four parliamentary members resigned in protest, at least seventeen of whom also belonged to the reinstated (previous) parliament, a move that could prevent the old assembly from reconvening. The court’s legally binding move was unprecedented, but the ensuing chaos is not entirely out of character with the continuous state of turmoil that has characterized Kuwaiti politics of late.
The back-and-forth dynamics may seem confusing, but when they are understood as tactics in a larger battle for power, a clearer picture begins to emerge. In short, conflicts within the royal family, as well as between the royal family and opposition forces in society, are being played out publicly through the country’s political institutions. It is hard to say if anyone is actually winning, but the country as a whole certainly seems to be losing. There have been seven cabinet reshuffles and four parliamentary dissolutions in just six years, with a fifth parliament likely before the year’s end. Such gridlock has hampered much-needed economic and infrastructure reforms. Additionally, it has made many Kuwaiti citizens frustrated with the country’s increasingly dysfunctional political system, and has provided a veneer of credence to some regional claims that democracy is a dangerous game with which to experiment.
A Little Context
In discussing Kuwaiti politics, it is always difficult to decide where to start. The mid-1700s is one popular choice. According to the national narrative, it was at that time that the leading families of Kuwait convened to determine who would take over the emerging country’s governing duties. Two of the leading merchant families are said to have declined in order to maintain their focus on commerce, while the al-Sabah family agreed to govern, with the consent of those gathered. The story provides insight into the ethos of power sharing in Kuwait and of a national sense of indigenous democratic credentials. Until the advent of oil, the rulers were heavily dependent on Kuwait’s merchant families to fill the state coffers. After oil (and independence from Britain), a social contract in the form of a constitution was ratified. In keeping with Kuwait’s “democratic ethos,” the constitution spelled out a unique system of power sharing between the royal family and an elected parliament, which prevented absolute royal authority. Over the last fifty or so years, several power struggles have occurred between the royal family and the parliament, including two unconstitutional dissolutions of the parliament. In that context, the current state of affairs might be seen as just another chapter in Kuwait’s tumultuous political story. What is unique today, however, is that the royal family itself is internally divided, society has become alarmingly fragmented, and the parliament is proving increasingly aggressive.
The al-Sabah family has two main factions derived from the sons of Mubarak al-Sabah, who ruled around the turn of the twentieth century: the al-Jaber and al-Salem branches, which have historically alternated control over the post of emir. Until recently, that is. In 2006, Shaykh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah died. He was from the al-Jaber branch and was succeeded by the Crown Prince, Shaykh Saad, of the al-Salem branch. Shaykh Saad abdicated after nine days at the post due to poor health and was replaced by the current emir, who is from the al-Jaber branch. Then, breaking with tradition, the new emir appointed two other al-Jaber relatives to the second and third posts of succession, thereby shutting the al-Salem branch out of the emirship for the foreseeable future. Many analysts believe that much of the current friction in the country is a manifestation of this continued conflict between the branches of the al-Sabah house being played out through various proxies. For example, members of the al-Salem branch are said to support certain obstructionist parliamentarians, sponsor politically charged media outlets, and create chafing within the royal family itself.
Kuwaiti society is also increasingly being defined according to identity politics. The country’s traditional political class has been dominated by the hadhari, the urban elites who trace their lineage to the pre-oil era of Kuwait. In contrast, the badu are people with traditionally nomadic backgrounds, who are seen as newer arrivals and the result of naturalization projects in the 1960s and 1970s. Neither group is monolithic, but they are often caricatured as an elitist liberal upper class versus a conservative and tribal middle class, the latter of whom have swelled in number to quickly surpass the hadhari population. Adding to this volatile mix are disconcerting Sunni/Shiʿa divisions (on the rise in the wake of the Arab uprisings), stark generational divides (with the majority of the population under thirty), and growing debates about “Kuwaiti authenticity” (e.g., the recent parliament was suspended to stop a questioning of the interior minister over Kuwait’s citizenship laws and the presence of dual citizens). Such divisions contribute to an emotionally charged political atmosphere in which various identity groups are constantly circling their proverbial wagons and battling for parochial interests, rather than looking out for the interests of the nation at large. All societies, of course, have their social and class divisions, but in the absence of formal political parties, these particular divisions have become defining features of the legislative landscape. Political ghettoization appears to be the inevitable consequence.
The third contemporary condition of relevance is the increasing aggressiveness of Kuwait’s parliament. In 2003, the late emir separated the posts of Crown Prince and Prime Minister (PM), which made it possible for the parliament to publicly question the PM, who, as the future emir of the country, had previously been “off limits.” Interpellation requests (public questionings of a minister or PM by the parliament) have grown rapidly since 2005 over allegations of corruption and mismanagement in various ministries, leading to several high-profile resignations. The first interpellation directed against the PM himself came in 2009 (a first in any Arab parliament) and culminated in his ouster last December following a series of mass street protests and a public storming of the parliament building. Most recently, the disbanded parliament was locked in a battle with the government over demands that the number of cabinet posts filled from among its ranks be raised from four to nine (of sixteen total seats). During this turbulent period, there have been rampant public strikes and stock market volatilities, and numerous development projects have been delayed or cancelled—not the least of which include the postponement of a 14.5 billion dollar oil refinery and a cancelled seventeen billion dollar joint-venture petrochemical project.
Ultimately, the constant interpellations, demands for greater cabinet posts, and persistent provocations are part of a long-term strategy by parliamentarians to wrest power away from the royal family. Into whose hands would this power go? If the recently disbanded parliament is any indication of the country’s future political direction, things do not bode well for political liberalism. In the six months of its assembly, the Islamist and tribal elements of the most recent parliament tried to amend the constitution to make shariʿa the source of all legislation; called for the introduction of “morality police” in the image of Saudi Arabia to monitor women in public spaces; and approved a law instituting capital punishment for blasphemy (though it was not ratified by the emir). Though many parliament members assert that greater democracy is their rationale for increasing the elected assembly’s powers, many of their legislative actions have certainly appeared undemocratic. Furthermore, if members of the al-Salem branch within the royal family are seeking to undermine the current al-Jaber rule, it is not entirely clear how they would benefit from a weakened monarchy.
In the short term, it is unlikely that the reinstated parliament will have a quorum or the legitimacy to convene, causing new elections to be held sometime after Ramadan. During the interim period, the government will try to implement development packages and reforms in the absence of an obstructionist parliament. However, once a new parliament is elected, the regular grillings and constant deadlock are almost destined to continue. This is especially likely if the elections result in another opposition-strong parliament, which is a distinct possibility. As the battle grinds on into the mid-term, all sides will engage in competing claims of democratic (particularly constitutional) legitimacy for their actions. Much of the population will be continually frustrated with the system and the risk of political apathy will only grow.
Ultimately, these systemic dysfunctions will need hearty doses of capitulation, concession, and coercion from political actors on all sides if they are to be resolved. What the specifics will look like is anyone’s guess, but the outcomes of such politicking in the next couple of years will have significant implications for Kuwait’s future. Will more power be given to the elected assembly in a manner affording greater democracy to questionable democrats, or will the royal family wrest back greater control over the system? Could ceding more power to the public assembly create a kind of “collateral democratization” that might ultimately benefit both the Kuwaiti public and the royal family? Are these goals even compatible and, if so, what would such a system actually look like in practice? Are there alternative concessions, such as granting space for political parties, increasing the number of parliamentary seats, or expanding the cabinet’s portfolio, that may improve the country’s political system without allowing one branch of government to be held hostage so easily by the other? These are some of the real questions lurking under the surface of last week’s events.
For now, it is clear that the current political system is neither monarchial nor democratic enough to exploit the benefits of either. The lesson appears to be that a country cannot balance power effectively between an appointed cabinet and an elected parliament. In an absolute monarchy, the king calls the shots and appoints who he wants to help him govern. By contrast, in a fully democratic system, competing ideologies vie for political dominance through various electoral systems, and the government branches function as a system of checks and balances. But in Kuwait, where the systems are mixed, the executive and legislative branches are inherently locked in a power struggle. This almost guarantees perpetual confrontation rather than some degree of symbiosis. The hybrid approach does not appear to be a formula for effective governance, but may instead be a structural defect that will continue to foster the kind of political chaos for which Kuwait is increasingly known. It could be argued that the real question going forward is not how Kuwait will navigate through the current storm, but rather when (or if) it will be able to effectively repair its sinking ship.
[This article originally appeared on the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore "Insight" series.]
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