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.
Pro-reform, opposition candidates made significant gains in the 29 June 2006 parliamentary elections, an outcome seen by many Kuwaitis as a vote for reform and against corruption. As is usual, MPs organized themselves into blocs through which they cooperate on a common legislative agenda and coordinate with other MPs and the Government. What could be termed loosely as the Opposition was composed of three blocs: the Popular Action Bloc (9 MPs), the National Action Bloc (8 MPs), and the Islamist Bloc (17 MPs), giving the Opposition a two-seat majority in the 65-member Parliament. While these blocs shared similar objectives on political reform, there were otherwise significant differences among them, particularly on social, religious, and foreign policy issues. There is also a 12-member Independent (pro-Government) Bloc and the 16 Cabinet Ministers who serve as ex officio MPs and always vote as a bloc.
Some MPs are also members of political associations, which operate outside Parliament; political parties are not officially recognized by the Government. The largest and most well-organized of these is the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM), the political arm of the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood, which had six MPs in Parliament. Other political associations vary in size and degree of organization; some are no more than informal groupings of like-minded individuals. The Iran-leaning, Shi'a National Islamic Alliance (NIA) and the conservative, Sunni Salafi Islamic Grouping (SIG) each had two MPs in Parliament.
Tribal, familial, and personal relations also play a role in determining MPs' positions on particular issues, especially when they are called upon to exercise their wasta (connections) on behalf of a relative, friend, or constituent. Twenty-four of the 50 elected MPs were of tribal origin: Awazim (7), Mutran (4), Eneza (3), Ajman (3), Rashayda (3), Otban (3), and Shammar (1). The urban-tribal division is an important distinction in Kuwait and one with significant political implications; tribal MPs tend to be either Islamist or pro-Government, whereas liberals rarely have tribal affiliations. In addition, in spite of being 30-35% of the population, there are only four Shi'a MPs in Parliament, a fact most observers blamed on divisions within the Shi'a community.
Relations between Kuwait's executive branch and Parliament were consistently tense since the current Amir, Shaykh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al Sabah, came to power in January 2006. Parliamentarians kept the government on the defensive with accusations of corruption and mismanagement, and the GOK's efforts to recapture the initiative were largely ineffective. This impasse produced a series of "grillings" (interpellations), both threatened and actual, against government ministers. As a result, five ministers resigned or were forced out from January to October 2007. Due to this contentious relationship, Parliament was largely ineffective and failed to pass much needed political and social reform legislation. Meanwhile, MPs demonstrated a disturbing preference for constituent pandering and politically motivated grillings, as opposed to tending to the people's business.
The Amir remains the bottom line of leadership authority in Kuwait, to the extent that he chooses to exercise it (which is increasingly rare). Senior officials know that the Prime Minister wields only such authority as he is granted by the Amir, who is generally exempt from open criticism. In forming his government in 2008, the Amir for the first time divided what had been a combined portfolio into two, Crown Prince and Prime Ministr, which had been a longstanding subject of discussion. This may have been a deliberate move to create a separate "lightening rod" for the National Assembly in the person of the PM, keeping the CP inviolate.
Prime Minister Shaykh Nasser was selected by the Amir for this position precisely because he represented the least common denominator: non-controversial, diplomatic in his bearing and background, and unlikely to rock any political boats. His previous two terms as PM have ended with the Amir abruptly dissolving the National Assembly when its criticisms of government policies and ministers, and the PM himself, got out of hand. Although well-liked on a personal level, Shaykh Nasser is perceived as a politically incompetent, protocol wonk whose record is tarnished by his failure to construct and effectively manage his cabinet. The current Crown Prince, Shaykh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah, is similarly (and correctly) viewed as being an extremely decent and nice, weak and ineffectual leader, thoroughly disengaged from politics.
Kuwait's Cabinet resigned en masse 04 March 2007 on the eve of a scheduled parliamentary vote of no confidence on Health Minister Shaykh Ahmed Abdullah Al-Sabah. The Cabinet, the 23rd since Kuwait gained independence in 1961, lasted only eight months. The Amir then began the customary consultation period before appointing a new Prime Minister, which most expect to remain Shaykh Nasser Mohammed Al-Sabah, the Amir's nephew. Once appointed, there was no time limit on the Prime Minister to form a new Cabinet, unless specified by Amiri decree; however, normally this process takes less than two weeks. Parliament automatically recessed until the new Government was formed. In the meantime, the previous Cabinet served as the "caretaker Government." The resignations represented a victory for opposition parliamentarians, particularly Islamists, whose questioning of the Health Minister on February 19 precipitated the Government collapse.
A year later, the resignation of the Kuwaiti cabinet on 17 March 2008 provoked the fifth parliamentary dissolution in Kuwait since 1976, and the second since 2006. As such, this dissolution continues a broader trend of political impasse followed by parliamentary dissolution. Despite the suspension of all election-related activities due to the recent death of the former Amir Shaykh Saad Abdullah Al Sabah on May 13 [he had ruled briefly in 2006], voting still took place on 17 May 2008. As widely predicted, both Shi'as and Salafis gained parliamentary seats in the Kuwaiti May 17 elections. Shi'a did not make the gains they desired, but the background of those elected was significant. Four of the five are hardliners and their election underscores an increasingly important sectarian political line in Kuwait.
The 2009 parliamentary election, held two months after the emir dissolved the National Assembly, was generally considered free and fair. It was the third election in three years, due to the emir’s previous constitutional dissolutions of parliament in 2006 and 2008. On 16 May 2009, two months after the emir dissolved the National Assembly, tribal candidates gained seats in a parliamentary election that was generally considered free and fair. It was the third election in three years, due to the emir's constitutional dissolution of parliament in May 2006, March 2008, and March 2009. On April 12, police arrested trade unionist Khalid Al-Tahous, a parliamentary tribal candidate, for "incitement against the state" after he told an election rally that tribes would oppose any attempts to enforce the law prohibiting tribal primaries. After being detained for eight days, he apologized for his statements and was released on bail to continue his ultimately successful election campaign.
In addition to the four women elected to the National Assembly in May, the emir appointed a woman as minister of education. There has been a female minister in every cabinet since 2005. There were nine Shia members in the parliament, the most ever elected to the National Assembly since its 1962 founding. There were also two appointed Shia members of the cabinet.
Despite early hopes of some liberals that an era of greater cooperation between the legislative and executive branches might have emerged from the May elections, continuing political posturing by MPs over the summer led most Kuwaitis to doubt that the current crop of MPs will rise above self-serving agendas to act in the interests of Kuwait. There is a widespread expectation on all sides that the Islamist/tribalist opposition will continue to mount attacks on the the Prime Minister and several of his ministers with "irresponsible" (in the view of the elite liberal class) demands that the government absorb private consumer debt and expand healthcare services abroad for Kuwaitis.
Notably absent from the agenda, in the view of many Kuwaiti "progressives" was a long overdue dialogue on labor reforms, TIP, counterterrorism, and healthcare and education reform. In a climate that promised to be contentious, Amir Shaykh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al Sabah, nodding to the Minister of Interior's successful staving off of grilling attacks in June 2009, has publicly encouraged cabinet members to "not be afraid of grilling." [questioning in parliamentary sessions] This admonition is intended to spark the ministers' senses of ownership in their portfolios, but leaves open the question of whether the government will provide them a safety net. Fearing scapegoatism, ministers have historically proved disinclined to embark on initiatives that might subject them to public or parliamentary scrutiny. It remained an open question whether the Amir's remarks will encourage Prime Minister Shaykh Nasser Al-Mohammed Al Sabah himself to face his detractors; he has avoided such an encounter in his last six attempts to run the government.
Few Kuwaiti analysts viewed the May election as having inspired the country's various political and social factions to work towards a common goal. Instead, Sunnis, Shi'a, liberals, conservatives, Hadhar (settled), Bedouin, ruling family members and members of the press have carried out over the summer of 2009a continuing round of public and private skirmishes and maneuvers. In the view of many Kuwaiti analysts, loss of confidence in the country's leadership exacerbated the tendency of Kuwait's various factions to dig in and strategize how best to advance their particular interests.
While most Kuwaiti political analysts perceive the government's inability to bring the factions to brook as a sign of its ineptness, at least a few believe the Amir has subtly but deliberately encouraged parliamentary infighting (by simultaneously backing the PM and some of his rivals in the ruling family, particularly Deputy PM Shaykh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al Sabah) as a means to prejudice citizens against the parliament and sustain their dependence on the ruling family.
His Highness Sheikh Jaber Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah was named Prime Minister on 30 November 2011, and sworn in as Kuwait’s 7th Prime Minister on 04 December 2011. He replaced HH Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, who had served as Prime Minister from 07 February 2006 to 28 November 2011. Prior to becoming Prime Minister, His Highness Sheikh Jaber Mubarak Al-Sabah held the post of First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior and Minister of Defence in July 2006. A year later, in October 2007, he became First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence.
On 5 December 2011, the Amir dissolved the National Assembly due to deteriorating political conditions. The decree was recommended by the newly-appointed Prime Minister, Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah. This is the latest twist in a dramatic few months in Kuwaiti politics. On 28 December 2011, the Amir accepted the resignation of his government. The immediate cause of this was the interpolation (questioning) motion tabled by opposition MPs in Parliament. This is the seventh time in six years that the Cabinet has been dissolved in such a way (on each previous occasion, the former PM – Sheikh Nasser – was re-appointed). The pervious occurrence was in April 2011, against the background of disagreements over Kuwait’s reaction to events in Bahrain.
Following the dissolution of parliament by the Amir, the elections for the new National Assembly took place on 2 February. Polling day was peacefully conducted and official observers declared the elections free and fair. As predicted, Islamists were the major winners – securing 22 out of 50 MPs (the highest number of Islamists ever elected to the Kuwaiti Parliament). These factors make up a large part of the “opposition" movement, which was pivotal in bringing down the former Prime Minister. The major losers were the liberals, whose representation was cut to six MPs. All four women elected in 2009 lost their seats.
Islamist and other opposition forces scored an overwhelming victory in the election in February 2012, but a court ruling declared the vote null and void. The government announced last week that it will hold elections on 01 December 2012. The announcement was the latest move in an intensifying power struggle between Kuwait's western-allied ruling family and the opposition. Kuwait's ruler, Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, ordered changes advantageous to pro-government candidates before the election scheduled for 01 December 2012. Police in Kuwait used tear gas, stun guns and batons on Sunday to disperse tens of thousands of anti-government protesters. Opposition groups took to the streets of Kuwait City 21 October 2012 to protest changes in Kuwait's electoral law that they say would undercut their rising clout in the oil-rich nation. Dozens of people were injured and several others were arrested. The opposition bloc said the recent changes in the parliamentary election system are arbitrary.
Riot police in Kuwait on 31 October 2012 used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse thousands of protesters demanding freedom for a jailed opposition leader accused of insulting the emir. Prosecutors have ordered Musallam al-Barrak held for 10 days while they investigate the charges. Barrack, a former member of parliament, had been accused of insulting the emir by warning the ruler at an opposition rally two weeks earlier against becoming an autocrat. Kuwaiti authorities subsequently banned gatherings of more than 20 people as the country prepares for early parliamentary elections.
Opposition politicians and their supporters held protests starting in October 2012, demanding that the Emir retract the changes to the election law. Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets in Kuwait the on Sunday night [04 November 2012] to protest new election rules ahead of a parliamentary election scheduled for December. Security forces used tear gas to disperse the protesters. The opposition bloc said dozens of protestors were detained in clashes with the forces. Opposition groups said they would boycott the scheduled election.
Opposition groups in Kuwait said they had successfully boycotted the December 2012 parliamentary election held under a new electoral law. Election officials said the turnout for the election was lighter than usual with about 39 percent of eligible voters participating. Turnout for a parliamentary vote earlier in the year was nearly 60 percent. Kuwaitis voted for all 50 of the Gulf emirate's parliament seats. Shi'ite minority candidates won about one-third of the seats, their biggest tally ever.
A Kuwaiti court in June 2013 called for the new poll after deeming the parliament elected in December 2012 unconstitutional. The decision came one year after the previous opposition-led assembly was dissolved for other irregularities, a move that sparked major street protests. While Kuwait had avoided sustained unrest like that recently seen in other Arab nations, many citizens frustrated by political deadlock have publicly voiced their grievances and demanding governmental reform.
Kuwaitis voted for a new parliament for the third time since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. Kuwait held its sixth parliamentary election in seven years on 27 July 2013, a snap vote ordered by its top court after the current assembly was dissolved in mid-June 2013. Almost constant factional infighting and disarray has stalled infrastructure development and held up economic reforms in Kuwait. The election followed protracted political tension in the Gulf state, and observers said it is unlikely to help mend deep-rooted divisions within the country. Kuwait's minority Shia MPs lost more than half of their seats, winning eight seats in the 50-member parliament, down from the record 17 in the December 2012 ballot. Liberal and tribal groups were the main winners. Voter turnout was an estimated 52.5%, higher than expected given the opposition boycott.
Kuwait on 18 December 2015 dismissed criticism by Amnesty International that human rights have been eroding in the country since the Arab Spring protests erupted across the region four years ago. It said it remained an open society based on the rule of law. In a report published a day earlier, Amnesty accused the Gulf Arab state of using a "web of vague and overly broad defamation laws" to crack down on freedom of expression, of shutting media outlets and stripping some critics of their citizenship. The rights group also said there had been an increase in prosecutions over comments deemed "offensive" to the emir.
Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah issued a decree 16 October 2016 dissolving the national assembly after an emergency government meeting. The reason cited for such move, which also brings down the government, was a "lack of cooperation", setting the stage for early elections. One day earlier, parliament speaker Marzouk al-Ghanem called for snap elections in the face of mounting security and economic challenges. Under Kuwait's constitution, early elections must be held within two months of the dissolution of the parliament.
The snap elections on 26 November 2016, Kuwait's fourth since February 2012, were called by the Emir in October after the government said "delicate regional circumstances and... security challenges" required a popular vote. The move, however, was widely seen as linked to disputes between government and parliament over austerity measures, including a sharp rise in state-subsidised petrol prices. State-run television reported on Saturday that voter turnout was high at several polling stations, with some centers reporting 70 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots.
Kuwait's opposition groups have won 24 of the 50 contested seats. Around half of the successful opposition MPs are from a Muslim Brotherhood-linked group and Salafists. A third of the new parliament are new, young members and the Muslim Shia minority was reduced to six seats from nine in the previous house. Kuwaiti voters dealt a heavy blow to members of the outgoing parliament, retaining only 40 percent of them. A majority of those elected have openly said they will oppose any austerity measures by the government to boost non-oil income. The government's overwhelming control in the previous assembly was reduced to a fragile majority.
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.