Kuwait’s modern political crisis has many causes: it stems from personal and institutional factors, economic problems, and the diverse alignments of different political factions.
Across Kuwait, there has been much discussion in recent weeks about ways to end the nation’s ongoing political crisis. This crisis, which has steadily grown worse over the past decade, has significantly disrupted the functions of the state, hindered the productivity of civil society organizations, and demoralized ordinary Kuwaitis. It has also exacerbated the problems of the COVID-19 pandemic, which damaged Kuwait’s healthcare system and stretched its finances to the breaking point; if the ongoing crisis persists, and current economic trends continue, there is a very real chance that the state of Kuwait will become insolvent.
To end the crisis in Kuwait, it is first necessary to uncover the cause of the polarization which has wracked Kuwaiti society. When searching for the causes of polarization, we find that its major cause has been the interruption of fruitful dialogue between political actors, and inflexible opinions about solutions. Social media has played a key role in this dilemma, mainly through the dilution of expert voices among a large number of commentators, and the formulation of “echo chambers” that divide Kuwaitis into opposing, self-polarizing spheres. These conditions have led to the rise of sectarian and tribal prejudices to a frightening degree, even threatening Kuwait’s peace and social cohesion.
Chaos in Kuwait
In recent months, the Kuwaiti government’s dysfunction has been increasingly apparent: Kuwait formed two governments, suspended the Parliament work for a month, and repeatedly questioned ministers and Cabinet officials for taking actions to implement the law. Even restrictions enacted in light of the pandemic were attacked, although these laws were made with a clear interest in public safety. In questioning the government’s COVID-19 response, it seemed that the only goal was to criticize, and possibly to cancel the existing law without a good alternative (or even a good reason). In this atmosphere, there is no “middle ground”; no one has advocated for a moderate position, with the unfortunate result that Kuwaitis must choose between supporting the government line in every respect or supporting total chaos.
Some commentators blame the Kuwaiti Constitution, now in its sixtieth year, for the current impasse. While the general text of the Constitution is still applicable for the current problems, it is clear that there are provisions that must be reviewed in light of Kuwait’s changing demographics. For example, although the population of Kuwait has doubled seven times since writing the constitution in 1962, the size of Parliament has remained unchanged, at 50 seats – meaning that each MP now represents seven times as many constituents as he or she would have in the 1960s. Moreover, the Constitution erred in not regulating political parties; in 2021, it is simply not possible for a community or a state to organize legislative elections without political parties. In the absence of parties, the society automatically resorts to traditional forms of government to organize itself – in this case, tribalism and sectarianism – and nepotism rises within narrow electoral bases. This chronic dilemma was discussed by many experts in Kuwait, both on traditional media platforms and on the Internet. However, the most frank discussion so far has remained far from the levers of power, and therefore far from those who have the authority to fix Kuwait’s problems.
A Flawed Electoral System
Many Kuwaitis believe that the country’s election law is deeply flawed. Per the existing rules, Kuwait is divided into five electoral districts, each of which has ten members. However, Kuwaiti voters can only vote for one candidate – meaning that, in many cases, the ten elected MPs from each district represent a very low portion of the total votes cast. This system also favors candidates who are able to cultivate the loyalty of a small but influential base, contributing to polarization within Parliament. Many Kuwaitis have advocated for common-sense reforms of the electoral system – namely, increasing the number of electoral districts, increasing the number of representatives per district, and allowing Kuwaitis to vote for more than one candidate – as well as more controversial proposals, such as setting aside a number of Parliament seats for women. These reforms, whether implemented wholly or in part, will likely decrease the tension in Parliament, expand the circle of participation in government, and reduce extreme political polarization.
The Kuwaiti public sent a clear message through the results of the most recent elections in December 2020 – namely, the failure of a large number of incumbent MPs of the 2016 parliament. However, although Kuwait’s “opposition” nominally won the 2020 election, it is not monolithic; it consists of a number of different factions, including liberals, nationalists, and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of these groups, despite their ideological underpinnings, will quickly shift alliances based on personal benefit; a common tactic is to temporarily join together to remove a minister, generating news and raising their profile but not actually serving their constituents. This lack of organization will undoubtedly complicate efforts to pass broad electoral reforms that could benefit the wider public.
Public Service, or Private Enterprise?
There is another dimension to Kuwait’s current turmoil: the effect of the rentier economy on the political behavior of Kuwaitis and their representatives. The Kuwaiti economy, unlike more traditional industrialized and service-based economies around the world, relies almost exclusively on the state for employment and investment. Therefore, as the state is the only source of employment, some look at public service mainly as a way to obtain benefits and privileges, rather than a civic duty.
Thus, Kuwait’s main problem is not in its laws, but in the intentions of some of the elected officials; rather than seeking to uphold the law, they seek personal enrichment. This unfortunate pattern has meant that, after sixty years of electoral practice and nearly twenty parliament sessions, there is still a remarkable lack of experience in Kuwait’s elected government, straining relations between the legislature and the executive branches. This inexperience has led successive emirs to dissolve parliaments and call for early elections – which causes turmoil and often fails to solve the underlying problems.
In short, Kuwait’s modern political crisis has many causes: it stems from personal and institutional factors, economic problems, and the diverse alignments of different political factions. It is also affected by the awareness, or lack thereof, of the Kuwaiti citizenry at large. These problems have been exposed by social media and increasing involvement of the public, but social media has created its own problems, often muddying the waters of truth and allowing the loudest and angriest voices to dominate public discourse. While successive parliaments and cabinets failed to reform the electoral law, this must be the first step to end the current crisis. However, in the absence of a unified national strategy to combat political polarization and prioritize effective government, the turmoil is likely to continue.
Dr. Mohammad Al-Rumaihi is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kuwait. 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.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.