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Contextualizing Kuwait’s Political Crises

The current political crisis in Kuwait is nothing new. Indeed, the newest political deadlock is just the latest in a long line of situations I have discussed in my previous work about “the policy of crises.” It is an interesting fact about political turmoil in Kuwait that whenever a new crisis emerges, many believe that it is unique—despite the fact that the country and political establishment have found themselves in this position before. This poor understanding of political history in Kuwait contributes to ineffective management of the issue at hand. Instead of addressing the core root of the problems facing Kuwait, lawmakers and leaders resort to superficial solutions or leverage their own personal power to bring about a stopgap resolution to the crisis. This has been Kuwait’s experience over the last six decades.

From Crisis to Crisis

Major crises have been a main feature of Kuwaiti politics since the beginning of the constitutional era in 1963. The costliest of these crises came in December 1964, when 31 parliamentarians refused to swear in the government’s ministers, thereby interrupting the work of the state for a month. Back then, Prime Minister Shaikh Sabah Al-Salem delivered a speech to the Emir asking to dissolve the parliament in retaliation for its insurgent behavior. However, Emir Shaikh Abdullah Al-Salem requested that the prime minister simply change the make-up of the cabinet, citing the potential political crisis that may have erupted if Al-Salem’s plans were implemented. One of the many consequences of the 1964 crisis was the resignation of the speaker of parliament, Abdulaziz Al-Sager. When the crisis ended, the new government clashed with parliament over laws it saw as unconstitutional—further deepening the crisis and causing many lawmakers to resign in protest.

Three years later, and even before the embers of earlier political tension had cooled, the government dissolved the municipal council. This move wasted over $650 million in government funds. That year, the country’s parliamentary elections were marred by accusations of corruption and ballot forgery. In 1971, a new parliament was elected, which enjoyed a relatively stable and productive tenure. In 1975, however, the crisis returned. The government dissolved the parliament and appointed a select committee to investigate alleged constitutional loopholes. The committee’s work led to a significant overhaul of the election laws and an expansion of the number of voting districts from 10 to 25. Again, in 1985 the parliament was dissolved, sparking political controversy and backlash. This cycle of crisis would continue until the Iraqi invasion in 1990. Although Kuwait has witnessed greater political stability since that time, it is clear that crises form a common theme of the country’s political life. It is almost an integral part of the political system itself. Therefore, resolving these crises at a fundamental level—so that they do not reemerge later—should mark a core objective of Kuwaiti political elites. The time for superficial remedies to this political ailment has long passed.

Since 2003, when the title of crown prince was separated from the position of prime minister, top government officials have avoided tough scrutiny from their peers in parliament. Shaikh Sabah Al-Ahmad did not have to face any questioning by the parliament until he became Emir. Since 2006, nearly 31 requests for questioning have been submitted—an average of two per year.  The inability of parliament to properly oversee the government has fostered a sense of increasingly severe political instability in the country over the past decade and a half. In numbers, the Parliament requested Prime Minister Shaikh Nasser Al-Mohammad for 12 questioning sessions, 11 times for Prime Minister Shaikh Jaber Al-Mubarak, and eight times for Prime Minister Shaikh Subah Al-Khaled. Instead of acknowledging parliament’s duty to question the government, Kuwait’s political leadership has simply dissolved parliament to quash its efforts at conducting oversight.  Parliament met six times behind closed doors to discuss the questionings. All of these numbers may feel overwhelming, but they represent a very real and bitter divide between the government and the parliament. Indeed, stonewalling from the government has even caused a prime minister to resign due to a “lack of collaboration” between the two governing bodies.

Absent Significant Reforms, Difficult Times Ahead

There are legal remedies to the crises that have embroiled the Kuwaiti political system. However, none of these legal measures substitute for a political resolution to the underlying schism between the Kuwaiti Parliament and the government. Thus, a legal approach to solving the crises will not prove fruitful in the long run. Even if the government remains in power, the current lack of popular trust in its work will render the cabinet incapable of managing the state and society effectively, despite the resources it possesses. This same trust deficit also applies to a number of parliamentarians, thus hampering their work.

Kuwaiti politicians and citizens can learn several lessons from Kuwait’s previous political crises. These experiences have shown that simply dissolving parliament does not provide a permanent resolve the crisis. The period of political obstruction in 2021 illustrates this problem. Nothing came out of this ordeal but recrimination and further distrust. Kuwait’s experiences in 1976 and 1986—when the parliament was dissolved for a total of five years in both cases and the cabinet operated unilaterally without the supervision of the parliament—also proved disastrous.

Without a serious appreciation of the history of the Kuwaiti political system, these experiences will remain unhelpful. Unless lawmakers and government leaders acknowledge that superficial solutions to political crises merely set the stage for future ruptures, this pattern of political instability will persist.  Removing a cabinet member or PM will not resolve the country’s problems. Kuwait has seen two prime ministers removed and parliaments dissolved before, and in all of these cases, the underlying problems were left unresolved and festered. Therefore, Kuwaiti politicians must reassess the methods they use to resolve crises and seek a more conciliatory crisis management framework. Otherwise, the country will sink deeper and deeper into this political quagmire.

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

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Dr. Ghanim Al-Najjar is a professor of Political Science at Kuwait University, previously a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. He is also director of the Center for Strategic and Future Studies and editor of the Gulf Studies Series Journal, UAE. Dr. Ghanim Al-Najjar has been a visiting scholar at several universities, including Harvard’s Human Rights Program, Law School, and the Kennedy School of Government. He has lectured in more than 43 universities, academic institutions, and think tanks around the world.

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