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Democratic Norms in Kuwait: Changing the Rules of the Game

Many Kuwaitis breathed a sigh of relief in November after Emir Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the country’s ruler, issued a decree pardoning a number of controversial political activists convicted of disrupting Parliament a decade ago. Some of these activists served their sentences and have since been released; others fled the country before they went into effect, and will now likely return from exile. With the issuance of the Emiri decree, many analysts and experts in Kuwaiti affairs have suggested that the returned dissidents resume their political activities, with speculation about a new era in Kuwait that will put tensions of the past behind and look to the future.

However, the differences of opinion that remain within Kuwait raise the question: is the country truly entering into a new phase? The belief that Kuwait’s tensions are being relieved is understandable, considering the positive steps that have already been made, including the pardons and the government’s resignation. Yet it is far from certain that these changes indicate a “new phase,” because the norms of democracy within Kuwait still have not changed. Without changes to the “rules of the game,” members of the government and the parliament will continue to use the same methods, and will eventually repeat the same mistakes that led to the last crisis. Kuwait’s maintenance of democracy needs changes on many levels; some of these changes will be difficult to implement and will require historic and far-reaching steps, but most are comparatively easier to make.

Representing All Kuwaitis

The first idea that will improve the status quo is a substantial increase in the number of elected members of parliament. For sixty years, the number has remained constant at 50 elected members of parliament and 15 unelected. Over those six decades, however, Kuwait’s population has dramatically expanded; it is estimated that the number of eligible voters in Kuwait’s inaugural parliamentary elections numbered roughly 3 percent of the country’s current electorate. A substantial increase in the size of parliament is badly needed to ensure better representation for all, but this change would require a constitutional amendment, for which a supermajority of the parliament would be needed – a hurdle that cannot practically be met in the country’s current atmosphere.

The second necessary change, and a change that is relatively easier to make, is Kuwait’s election law. This change would be possible if both the executive and the legislative branches made a decision to fix the errors present in the current law, which most Kuwaitis openly dislike and which has been a focus of reform efforts for nearly a decade. The current law divides Kuwait into five electoral districts; each district elects ten members, and each voter has the right to vote for only one candidate. This law (“single non-transferable vote”) has made it nearly impossible for the election of a reform bloc in the Parliament that can harmonize with Kuwaiti society and meet the interests of the people. If the authorities do not take the need for a new election law seriously, the country’s political situation will continue to stagnate, and individual interests in government will remain paramount over the public interest.

The third area for change is the bylaws that govern the work of the parliament. These laws currently allow for a single member to question any minister within the government, even the prime minister, without the approval of any other members. This rule has led to broad inefficiency within the government. In many cases, individual grandstanding members of parliament have delayed official business and obstructed relevant work.

Other Practical Reforms

If these three problems are solved, Kuwait’s parliament will become more effective in governing, moving from serving the interests of individuals to serving the public interest. This, above petty political squabbles, is what most of Kuwait demands. In the absence of institutions that work to understand public opinion, it is nearly impossible to precisely know what qualities the country’s citizens desire from their government and parliament. Right now, there is no good reason for not creating institutions, such as polling firms, that serve these functions.

Perhaps because of cultural reasons, the public has not clamored for the creation of these institutions, but their existence will give lawmakers a picture closer to reality, which would release them from illusions about what society wants. In the absence of institutions with hard data about Kuwaiti citizens’ desires, social media has filled the gap, creating and in some cases fabricating news to justify assumptions from individuals or groups.

Kuwaitis are irritated by news of some MPs’ accumulation of wealth, which has been an open secret for decades. Various successive parliaments, faced with popular demands to investigate, have ignored this reality and refused to support the creation of powerful committees to look into the integrity of members. It is clear that the idea of members’ accountability has not been properly implemented in Kuwait’s past democratic experience. Leaving this problem without a resolution increases the anger in the Kuwaiti street; we have seen evidence of this through the months surrounding the 2020 parliamentary elections. The majority in the parliament put the country through a difficult situation that broke down the executive branch’s ability to work and eventually affected people’s livelihoods.

While the political crisis started with calls to pardon dissidents and former members of the parliament, this alone is no longer sufficient. Many members of the parliament have a long agenda, expecting the executive branch to meet their demands, and this will probably put the country into a new crisis that would bring down the government again. In stark contrast to the ongoing idealistic discussion of a “new stage” for Kuwaiti democracy, this will mean an immediate return to the old problems. Another crisis will put the country in a difficult situation in the upcoming year, with the return of pandemic risks that have affected the health and economic sectors, and society’s well-being. Kuwait needs a united front to face the many changes happening throughout the region, including unrest in Iraq following its contested election, a continued escalation in Yemen, and Lebanon on the brink of total collapse. These developments will clearly affect Kuwait’s security, and differing domestic opinions on their causes will stoke further divisions.

Kuwaiti society is a vibrant one that changes with time. Without recognizing societal changes, and putting in place proper rules for the management of society and legislative power in an efficient way, the government will be missing many important opportunities to develop the country, and will only increase tension within the society. As long as members of parliament continue to work for their own narrow interests rather than the public interest, they will create more obstacles for qualified Kuwaitis to be in the right positions to reach the right solutions for the country’s problems. The country needs a proper progressive renaissance; if Kuwaiti lawmakers do not create a development plan with clear features that can persuade the public, apathy toward the government and parliament will only increase, and friction within the society will escalate.

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
Country: Kuwait

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Dr. Rumaihi is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kuwait. He holds a Ph.D. from Durham University and has published more than 20 books about the social and political changes in the Arab Gulf states. He has been an Editor-in-Chief for prominent newspapers and magazines in Kuwait and other Arab Gulf states and was Secretary-General of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature 1998-2002.


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