Kuwait’s path to political stability and reform

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Kuwait, Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah

In December 2023, Kuwait experienced a significant shift in its political landscape when Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah ascended to power as the new Emir. This change in leadership was solidified by the National Assembly’s pledge of allegiance. However, in an unprecedented move, Sheikh Mishal decided to dissolve the newly formed parliament, which was scheduled to hold its first session within the week, and further suspended the National Assembly for its entire four-year term. This action included the suspension of relevant constitutional articles, effectively halting the legislative functions of the country for the duration.

This development raises profound concerns about the implications for Kuwait’s democratic rights, economic reforms, and overall national development over the next four years. The emir’s decision to suspend the legislative arm of the government has sparked widespread debate and uncertainty across the nation.

In Kuwait, the emir holds the position of head of state and is responsible for selecting the prime minister. Together, they appoint the council of ministers. The legislative power, however, traditionally lies with the National Assembly, which consists of up to 50 members elected by the people. The National Assembly plays a crucial role in holding ministers accountable through public questioning during sessions and has the authority to call for votes of no-confidence against the Cabinet. Conversely, the emir and the Constitutional Court possess the authority to dissolve the National Assembly, creating a system of checks and balances.

The Kuwaiti constitution, operational since 1963, has provided a framework for governance and legislative power. However, political stability has been elusive. In July 2023, an attempt was made by the parliament to revoke the Constitutional Court’s power to dissolve the National Assembly, a response to the court’s controversial decision to reinstate the previous parliament following national elections, which had plunged the country into political chaos. This incident underscores the persistent unease within Kuwait’s political environment.

In a bold move, Sheikh Mishal issued a royal decree amending seven constitutional articles. Among the most notable changes were amendments to Article 107, which now mandates a new election within two months following a dissolution, and Article 181, which explicitly prohibits the suspension of the constitution. These amendments signal a significant shift in Kuwait’s constitutional and political framework.

The recent dissolution of the parliament is particularly notable as it had only just formed following public elections held in April 2023. Since 2006, Kuwait has witnessed 12 dissolutions of parliament, reflecting a prolonged period of political instability. The current suspension marks only the third time in history that the National Assembly has been suspended since its establishment in 1963. The first suspension occurred in 1976 under Emir Sheikh Sabah Al‐Salem Al‐Sabah and lasted five years. This suspension included alterations to constitutional articles to revoke press freedoms in an effort to prevent attacks on various regimes. The second suspension, in 1986, was prompted by constant clashes between parliament and the Cabinet amid heavy political tensions, bomb threats, and dropping oil prices. It lasted for six years. Both suspensions eventually ended due to public pressure.

Even before the formation of the most recent parliament, there had been widespread abuse of democratic processes and tools. Legislators frequently overstepped their positions, using Question Time to engage in disrespectful and even threatening behavior towards the Cabinet. Threats were made concerning the emir’s choice of crown prince, leading to constant stalemates and legislative blocks. These actions prevented progress on crucial international business deals and essential national economic reforms needed to transition away from oil dependency. Additionally, there were growing concerns among the general public about increasing corruption within state institutions. Despite numerous requests and warnings from the emir for more respectful and constructive democratic behavior, these issues persisted.

In response to this crisis, a new Cabinet has been installed, with Sheikh Ahmad Abdullah Al-Sabah as the prime minister. This new government will now face the daunting task of running the country over the next four years without the legislative support of the National Assembly. Sheikh Mishal has announced plans to explore how best to move forward with reforms to Kuwait’s democratic system. This period of suspension, while drastic, is seen as a necessary step to address the severe dysfunction and corruption that had plagued the legislative process.

Although Kuwait has temporarily lost its parliament, an institution elected by the Kuwaiti people and secured through the struggles of past generations, the absence of elections over the next four years raises concerns about the erosion of democratic principles. Kuwait’s unique position within the Gulf Cooperation Council as a nation with a democratic legislative parliament is at risk. Preserving this democratic framework is crucial for the country’s future stability and development.

While this period of transition is necessary, it will inevitably be a time of concern and uncertainty for many. However, the mechanisms of democracy had been severely exploited for selfish and political purposes, and corruption had taken root, adversely affecting the country and its economy. The hope is that, after four years, Kuwait will emerge with a more effective system of governance that truly serves the interests of the entire nation.

In the interim, political stability is imperative for implementing serious reforms. These reforms are essential to address major geopolitical challenges and to develop Kuwait’s economy and infrastructure. Such measures are crucial for facilitating a transition away from oil dependency, ensuring a sustainable and prosperous future for Kuwait.

This period of reform and stability aims to lay the foundation for a more resilient and robust democratic framework, one that can better withstand internal and external pressures while promoting economic diversification and growth. It is a pivotal moment for Kuwait, one that holds the potential to redefine its political and economic landscape for the better.

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