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A Break from the Past: Kuwait’s Path Toward Reform and Development

In recent years, Kuwait has faced a number of political challenges that have opened serious divisions within its relatively homogenous society. However, the farewell address given by the late Emir of Kuwait, Nawaf Al-Ahmad, known among the people as the “Emir of Pardons,” reunited nearly everyone in support of the political system Kuwaitis had long accepted.

In fewer than 20 years, Kuwait has lost three Emirs. Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad died in January 2006, followed by Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad in 2020, and finally Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad, who passed away on Saturday, December 16, 2023. Kuwait’s late emir was the 16th ruler of the Al-Sabah family and the sixth since Kuwait announced its independence and adopted its modern constitution in 1961. Nawaf Al-Ahmad was one of the shortest-serving rulers in Kuwait’s recent history, in power for only three years.

The reign of Sheikh Nawaf was not without crises, especially in domestic politics. By royal decree, the monarchy repeatedly dissolved the Kuwaiti National Assembly amid rampant political strife. This led to multiple snap elections, which failed to resolve the split between the government and the opposition and added to the turmoil. Only days before his death, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad issued a comprehensive pardon that offered clemency to nearly all political prisoners and exiles—leading to his popular nickname.

With Sheikh Nawaf’s passing, Kuwait has entered a new era. A new emir, Sheikh Mishaal Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, has been named the seventeenth ruler of the small Gulf state. Many Kuwaitis hope Sheikh Mishaal’s time in power will be an era of reform and progress, a much-needed departure from the recent past. Amid the sense of national aspiration, it is important to reflect on the tenets of Kuwaiti society that serve as pillars of security and stability, with the hope of reviving them.

Kuwait’s Strategic Diplomacy in a Turbulent Region

It is critical to recognize the centrality of national unity to Kuwait’s stability. The credibility associated with the era of Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad greatly strengthened social cohesion during a period of extreme tumult across the Middle East. In Kuwait, leaders have often tried to foster a solid public consensus based on respect for the state and adherence to its laws, pride in the country’s past, and faith in its future. For the most part, Kuwaiti citizens have been loyal to the national heritage and have remained optimistic about its prospects.

Kuwait is located at the heart of the Gulf, its small size, and its limited population necessitate the need for strategic partners whose interests align with its own. These partners—of which the United States is perhaps a central one—share a role in preserving Kuwait’s peace and security, as well as that of the region at large. The presence of a deterring partner such as Washington is an essential requirement for Kuwait’s long-term stability and security. Absent international support, Kuwait would be left unprotected and vulnerable—much as it found itself in 1990 during Saddam Hussein’s invasion.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will remain Kuwait’s primary political, military, and commercial arena to secure its survival. The experience of the Iraqi invasion in 1990 highlights the importance of the GCC’s role in safeguarding the independence of states, especially Kuwait, given its history and location. The Council remains Kuwait’s regional shield against foreign intervention, and its leaders should value it as such.

Based on the 1990 invasion, Kuwaiti diplomacy has shifted away from preaching high moral values to depending on a more concrete, realist approach that seeks to deter threats against the country. This comes with adherence to the decisions of the Arab League and maintaining constructive relations with all its neighbors, especially in political consultations on Arab and global issues. It also takes the form of promoting more cooperation in trade and cultural interconnectedness. Kuwait should also take a realistic view of the Arab League’s capabilities, without burdening it with more than it can provide and while respecting the diversity in the priority scale among member states.

International relations and ties with superpowers should remain a priority for Kuwait. We must prioritize and work to strengthen closest extra-regional strategic partners—Britain and the United States. These ties necessitate continued communication, and not only in political consultations. Important bilateral relationships such as these require more investment, trade, and culture, as well as people-to-people contact between Kuwaitis and the political, intellectual, and cultural institutions within Britain and the United States. It is essential to engage with various institutions such as universities and intellectual forums, including visits—especially to the United States Congress—and to important media outlets in Washington. Above all, politics and policy in Western countries are influenced by public opinion: these are realities that Kuwaitis must take into account when engaging with both nations.

Embracing and Modernizing Participatory Governance

Following years of domestic tension, it is important to revisit the principle of participatory government as a critical component of the state, as formulated by Kuwait’s first post-independence ruler, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem. This value reinforces the role of Kuwait’s legislative and judicial institutions and organizes the rules that guide the state actions. The Kuwaiti people should always remember that the constitution ensures collective rule, guaranteeing that the government represents a popular will that safeguards the rights of all parties. From these rights springs the security of the nation.

To uphold these constitutional principles and further strengthen the nation’s security and stability, it is imperative to consider the role of the judiciary. The independence of the judiciary should remain sacrosanct in Kuwait. The judiciary’s functions in Kuwait are multifaceted: it fosters equality among the people, fights corruption, and highlights Kuwait’s commitment to the preservation of human dignity through its contributions to, and presence in, relevant international organizations. These important roles are the legacy of Sheikh Nawaf’s predecessor, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad, who brought Kuwait to the forefront of global humanitarian gatherings. His work in this regard earned him the title of ”Emir of Humanity.”

Acknowledging the foundational role of the judiciary in shaping a just and equitable society, it becomes equally important to address the broader developmental aspirations of Kuwait. There is no escaping the developmental leap that the people of Kuwait expect if the country is to keep pace with the trajectory of the rest of the Gulf. This requires the expansion of Kuwaiti infrastructure, technological modernization, continued economic innovation, the fostering of initiatives that will boost the private sector, and the state’s gradual privatization of state-owned companies.

To create a modern vibrant economy, Kuwait needs an overhaul for its education system. It behooves state authorities to reform the education system in Kuwait, which has long followed an antiquated pedagogical approach that leaves Kuwaiti youth unprepared to enter the modern global workforce.  It is necessary for Kuwait to explore ways to enable critical thinking to play a more central role in teaching methods, moving away from the rigidity of rote learning that has long dominated the nation’s curricula. Criticism has intensified in recent years as Kuwait’s education system has continued to fall behind its peers, despite calls for reform.

Demographic, Security and Political Challenges

Demographic composition remains one of the most significant sources of concern for the state of Kuwait: no matter how active the Minister of Interior and his apparatus are, as long as more than half of Kuwait’s population are noncitizens, the nation will remain in a continuous state of security discomfort. Of course, achieving the desired ratio will take a long time and may not be realized, leaving security concerns looming over the internal atmosphere.

Perhaps most contentiously—one of the most important conditions for long-term stability is the continued respect for the authorities and separation of powers. This includes a clear understanding of the Kuwaiti government, including the limitations of the powers allocated to the legislative and executive branches. The constitution has drawn the boundaries between the two sides. Despite this, the executive authority’s space is not immune from some parliamentarians’ attempts to encroach upon the government’s prerogatives in appointments, promotions, and even sensitive security issues. The only protection for each party from the other’s machinations is respect for the lines of authority, adherence to the law, and understanding that the highest priority must always be what is best for Kuwait rather than one’s own interests. Undoubtedly, there is a significant role for the Prime Minister’s office or the National Assembly in safeguarding the rights of both sides without domination by any party.

While recognizing the importance of adhering to constitutional boundaries and respecting authorities in political matters, it is equally crucial to turn our attention to the expectations of Kuwait’s citizens regarding economic and infrastructural development. All citizens of Kuwait expect the government to present a comprehensive strategy that includes plans to boost economic development and infrastructure expansion. The important thing is for Kuwait to embrace the challenge and cultivate its human capital to drive sustainable development. There is a sharp Kuwaiti eagerness to overcome the stagnation that has seized the country’s spirit and muddled its people’s aspirations.

The Kuwaiti people expect great things from this new era of national politics. There is great confidence in the capabilities of the new Emir, Sheikh Mishaal, in steering the ship and navigating the nation toward a brighter horizon. Kuwaitis hope for a wise leadership that elevates the country’s interests above parochial and personal preferences to achieve security, peace, and meaningful development.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Politics & Governance

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His Excellency Ambassador Abdulla Bishara was the first Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council between 1981 and 1993. He also held several positions in Kuwait’s Foreign Ministery: Permanent Representative to the UN, Kuwaiti Ambassador to Brazil and Argentina, and Foreign Service Officer. Currently, he is the president of the Diplomatic Center for Strategic Studies and a board member of the advisory body of the GCC Supreme Council.

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