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Kuwait - Politics

The present fractures in Kuwaiti political and social life stem from the failure of the mid-20th century social compact between the Al Sabah and the demographically growing Bedouin or tribal communities, which was intended to offset the political influence of the downtown merchant families. In exchange for tribalist support, the government offered them nationality and jobs in the police and army; the trend continues today with the government staffing the bureaucracies of several ministries with large numbers of tribals, many of whom are assessed by Kuwaiti liberals as having only limited qualifications. But the tribals failed to respond to the ruling family's largesse with loyalty or with a sense of commitment to Kuwait as a nation. Instead, the tribes have increasingly focused their energies on expanding tribal political power with the aim of advancing specific tribal agendas, functioning as de facto political parties for the benefit of tribal members.

While Islam provides an important backdrop for the tribes and forms a core part of their identity, most of them are motivated more by a desire to enhance their particular niche in society than by a desire to spread fundamentalist Islam. When it has served their purposes, however, tribalists have not hesitated to ally themselves with fundamentalists, including Salafists and Islamists, such as the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM-Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood) to advance their own interests.

The 1961 Constitution and National Assembly worked very well when political participation was limited to the well-entrenched, largely urban and self-interested merchant class, a handful of "intellectuals," and the ruling Al Sabah. Half a century later, participation has expanded to include a generally unruly and often resentful but demographically dominant Bedouin population with tribal and Salafist tendencies. Originally courted by the Al Sabah as a counterweight to the powerful merchants, this group now wields great disruptive power and seems intent on breaking down the old system of patronage, alleged corruption and mutual accommodation, mostly to ensure that they get more of the spoils. Traditional methods of governance based on face-saving consensus, or "ijma", and ultimate respect for the ruling family no longer achieve the desired results.

Citizens have only a limited, indirect impact on control of the executive branch, as the constitution stipulates that the country is a hereditary emirate. The 50 elected National Assembly members (along with government-appointed ministers) must by majority vote approve the emir’s choice of crown prince (the future emir). The crown prince must be a descendant of Shaykh Mubarak Al-Sabah and meet three additional requirements: that he has attained the age of majority, is of sound mind, and is a legitimate son of Muslim parents. The National Assembly may remove the emir from power with a two-thirds majority vote if it finds that any of these three conditions is no longer accurate. The law provides citizens with the right to change their representatives in the legislative branch of government, and citizens exercised this right in practice through elections.

The government does not recognize any political parties or allow their formation, although no formal law bans political parties. Well-organized, unofficial blocs operate as political groupings, and members of parliament formed loose alliances. Some tribes held illegal primaries to maximize their members’ chances for election to the National Assembly. Assembly candidates must nominate themselves as individuals.

The government restricted freedom of speech, particularly in instances purportedly related to national security. The law also specifically prohibits material insulting Islam, the emir, the constitution, or the neutrality of the courts or Public Prosecutor’s Office. The law mandates jail terms for anyone who “defames religion,” and any Muslim citizen may file criminal charges against a person the citizen believes has defamed Islam, the ruling family, or public morals. In December 2010 authorities shut the local offices of the Al Jazeera television network and withdrew its accreditation after it broadcast footage of police using force to break up an unauthorized gathering of oppositionists and subsequently gave airtime to opposition parliamentarians who strongly criticized the government for the police actions. On December 23, the Ministry of Information announced that Al Jazeera's offices would reopen as soon as the administrative process was complete, but they remained closed at the end of 2011.

Kuwait's 50-member parliament has legislative powers and the authority to question ministers, including members of the ruling al-Sabah family. Unelected cabinet ministers also become members of parliament. Senior members of the ruling family hold all top cabinet posts. Kuwait, a Western-allied oil exporter, avoided large-scale protests during the Arab Spring when some rulers in the region were overthrown. Despite the parliament’s relatively strong powers, the emir still has the final say in all state affairs.

Directly elected: 50 members are directly elected. At least one of them will join the Cabinet. (It is not possible to simultaneously serve in the Cabinet and as an MP. Therefore the number of directly elected MPs will decrease by the number appointed to the Cabinet). MPs who join the Cabinet can resign at any time and take back their parliamentary seats. Cabinet ministers who were not elected as members of the National Assembly are considered ex officio members. They can vote at the National Assembly, except in votes of confidence.

The number of Ministers shall not exceed one third of the number of the members of the National Assembly (currently 16). They must include at least one member of the National Assembly. This brings the parliament's total membership to a maximum of 65. The 16-member Cabinet formed in December 2016 comprises one elected member. The National Assembly thus comprises 49 directly elected members and 16 Cabinet members.

Kuwait - 2023 Politics

On 06 June 2023, Kuwait held its second parliamentary election in a year, a snap election called amid its ongoing political crisis that has seen a shuffle of the parliament numerous times in recent months. This was Kuwait’s third election in three years; its 10th since 2006. This time, 207 candidates were running, a 10-year low, according to local daily al-Jarida. Kuwait is a constitutional, hereditary emirate ruled by the Al Sabah family. While there is also a democratically elected parliament, the Amir holds ultimate authority over most government decisions. The most recent parliamentary general election, considered generally free and fair, was held in September 2022. The constitution stipulates the country is a hereditary emirate. Kuwait has a monarch from the ruling al-Sabah family, Emir Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah, but his paternal half-brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Meshaal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah has recently taken on a larger role. The emir holds the most powerful position in the country and appoints the prime minister who, in turn, appoints the cabinet. The country’s prime minister is Sheikh Ahmad al-Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the son of the current emir. The country’s 65-seat National Assembly has more influence than in other Gulf monarchies, challenging the executive branch at times. Fifty seats in the parliament are up for grabs in election. The remaining 15 are appointed by the emir. The 50 elected members of the National Assembly (plus government-appointed ministers) must approve the Amir’s choice of crown prince by majority vote conducted by secret ballot. According to the Succession Law, the crown prince must be a male descendant of Sheikh Mubarak Al Sabah and have attained the age of 30, possess a sound mind, and be a legitimate son of Muslim parents. The National Assembly may remove the Amir from power by a two-thirds majority vote if it finds that any of these three conditions were not met. Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government agents; arbitrary arrest; political prisoners and detainees; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including censorship and the existence of criminal libel laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations; restrictions on freedom of movement including the right to leave the country; serious government corruption; government harassment of domestic human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including domestic or intimate partner violence; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and the existence and use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults. There were many reports that individuals had to pay intermediaries to receive routine government services. Police corruption was a problem, especially when one party to a dispute had a personal relationship with a police official involved in a case. There were numerous allegations in the media that police favored citizens over noncitizens. There were several reports of corruption in the procurement and bidding processes for lucrative government contracts. Numerous activists representing stateless persons of Arab heritage – known as Bidoon – reported mistreatment at the hands of authorities while in detention. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the media estimated the Bidoon resident population alone at more than 100,000, while the government reported the Bidoon population to be approximately 88,000. There continued to be allegations from individuals that they were subjected to unlawful detention and physical and verbal abuse in police centers and State Security detention centers. Multiple transgender individuals reported cases of rape and physical and verbal abuse by police and prison officials. The government alleged that most Bidoon residents concealed their “true” nationalities and were not actually stateless. The Kuwait Times reported that the Ministry of Interior had deported 30,000 expatriates during 2022, of whom 660 were deported judicially, with the majority deported administratively. Sources indicated that expatriates were deported for “drug use, fighting, theft, brewing alcohol, and expired residencies”. Detainees facing “state security” charges were routinely denied access to their lawyers, interpreters, and document translators in advance of hearings. Authorities held some detainees beyond the maximum pretrial detention period of six months. The length of pretrial detention did not equal or exceed the maximum sentence for the crime. NGOs familiar with the judicial system reported that they believed the number of judges and prosecutors working at the Ministry of Justice was inadequate to process cases in a timely manner. Judges who are Kuwaiti citizens receive lifetime appointments until they reach mandatory retirement age. Noncitizen judges held one- to three-year renewable contracts. The Supreme Judicial Council may remove judges for cause. The government continued implementing a “Kuwaitization” initiative launched in 2021 to recruit more of its own citizens for public sector employment, including in the judiciary. Generally, the judiciary was independent; however, noncitizen residents involved in legal disputes with citizens frequently alleged the courts showed bias in favor of citizens. In some cases, legal residency holders – principally foreign workers – were detained and deported without recourse to the courts. There were many reports of persons detained for expressing their political views. These individuals were given the same protections as other detainees and the government permitted human rights groups to visit them. Throughout the year the government continued to arrest individuals on charges such as insulting the Amir, leaders of neighboring countries, or the judiciary; or “spreading false news.” Sentences for organizing public demonstrations amongst the Bidoon, participating in unlicensed or illegal demonstrations against the country’s ruling system, spreading false news, or criticizing the Amir or other leaders on social media ranged from six months in prison to 10 years plus fines for multiple offenses. The law bans certain issues for publication and public discussion. Topics banned for publication include insulting religion, in particular Islam; criticizing the Amir; endangering relations between Kuwait and friendly countries; insulting members of the judiciary or displaying disdain for the constitution; compromising classified information; sorcery; and publishing information that could lead to a devaluation of the currency or create false economic worries. In general, local activists, academics, journalists, and opposition political figures reported they were sometimes contacted by KSS, Ministry of Information, and Public Prosecutor’s Office officials after they had published opinions deemed contrary to government positions. Government officials have broad latitude to interpret what constitutes a crime when criticizing the Amir or the government, and activists can face up to seven years in prison for each count. The courts continued to sentence political activists to harsh prison sentences for charges of criticizing the Amir, the government, religion, or friendly neighboring states. Independent media were active and expressed a variety of views within legally permissible limits. All print media were privately owned, although their independence was limited by law and self-censorship based on fear of prosecution. The government did not permit non-Islamic religious publishing companies, although several churches published religious materials solely for their congregations’ use. The law allows for large fines and up to 10 years in prison for persons who use any means (including media) to subvert the state. In May 2022 the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered state security forces to arrest ruling family member Sheikh Fahd Salem Al-Ali for posting a tweet allegedly criticizing the Amir. Independent media were active and expressed a variety of views within legally permissible limits. All print media were privately owned, although their independence was limited by law and self-censorship based on fear of prosecution. The government did not permit non-Islamic religious publishing companies, although several churches published religious materials solely for their congregations’ use. The law allows for large fines and up to 10 years in prison for persons who use any means (including media) to subvert the state. Ministries of Education and Information censored most English language educational materials that mentioned the Holocaust and required educational material either to refer to Israel as “Occupied Palestine” or to remove such references entirely. Although no law formally bans political parties, the government did not recognize political parties or allow their formation in practice. National Assembly candidates must nominate themselves as individuals. Well-organized, unofficial blocs operated as political groupings inside the National Assembly, and members of parliament formed loose alliances. The election law criminalizes informal tribal primary elections for member of parliament candidates. According to the law, violators could face a prison term of up to five years. Over 2022, several citizens were arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced for participating in illegal tribal primary elections prior to the 2020 elections. In March 3033, the Court of Appeals upheld the sentence of two former MPs for two years in prison for participating in tribal primary elections. Although women gained the right to vote and run for office in 2005, they continue to face cultural, social, and financial barriers to full political participation. For example, some tribal leaders excluded women from running for office by banning them from being considered as candidates for or attending unofficial but illegal tribal primaries. Cultural norms often led to the exclusion of women from local gatherings, called diwaniyas, which candidates attend to lobby for support from influential leaders and voters. The last election was held in September 2022 in which the opposition made significant gains. The election was held after the government dissolved the 2020 parliament in August 2022, in a bid to end the ongoing feud between the government and the elected parliament that has hampered fiscal reforms. Kuwait’s Constitutional Court annulled the September 2022 election in March 2023 and restored the previous 2020 assembly. However, on 01 May 2023, the crown prince dissolved the reinstated 2020 assembly. The election on June 6 is being held because, according to Kuwait’s constitution, an election for a new parliament must be held within two months of the date of dissolution. The government and the elected parliament have been bickering over a controversial bill that proposes the government take over consumer and personal loans of Kuwaiti citizens. The government says the move would be too expensive, costing almost $46bn in public funds. MPs argue it would cost significantly less, less than $6.5bn. The ongoing rift between elected lawmakers and an appointed cabinet has resulted in a decay of social services like healthcare and education. Despite holding one of the world’s largest oil reserves and having a strong fiscal and external balance sheet, the turmoil has stalled much-needed investments and reforms. The Kuwaiti citizenry, of which there are about 750,000 registered voters (2022 estimate) out of a population of about one million, according to a 2023 estimate, was driven to the polls in 2022 buoyed by a royal promise that Kuwait would enter a new era. The election also led to a majority opposition presence, with a number of establishment politicians voted out. It also saw the return of women, absent since 2020, to the parliament with the election of two women MPs, Jinan Boushehri and Alia al-Khaled, in an election where some 22 women ran among 305 candidates.

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