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Kuwait’s Disunited Opposition Finds Grilling Ministers Its Only Way to Fight Back

It is well-documented in existing scholarship that Kuwait’s political system has been in a state of perpetual deadlock for much of the past decade. The parliament usually has enough power to block actions of the executive branch that it opposes, but it frequently does not have the political authority to set its own agenda independent of the executive. This dilemma is exacerbated by the fact that the Emir’s appointed cabinet members, though unelected, are also considered MPs; although they cannot vote in no-confidence votes of fellow ministers, their position in Parliament has still historically allowed them to undermine the opposition’s agenda. The fact that the two branches remain intrinsically linked complicates the opposition’s ability to vote against pro-government policies. Since 2012, the judiciary has also become increasingly active in ruling on politically charged cases, further complicating the political arena and leaving the opposition with only one effective mechanism to advance their agenda: interpellations, or the formal questioning of government ministers. The repeated use of this procedure has escalated tensions between the opposition and the executive branch.

The questioning of ministers has now become the main tool of the political opposition in the Kuwaiti parliament. By grilling ministers about matters of state – in an arena where the questions must be confronted honestly and straightforwardly – members of the opposition demonstrate a commitment to hold accountable unelected segments of the government, as well as to bring up certain political issues that they consider important to constituents. However, repeated interpellations have also made progress towards addressing Kuwait’s other problems – for instance, its fiscal challenges – more difficult, as the turnover in cabinet makes it difficult for one agenda to be implemented. Because interpellations are arranged for a variety of reasons, opposition unity around pushing for a particular policy or agenda has become more difficult, again adding to the current political gridlock.

Vicious Circle: How Interpellations Feed Kuwait’s Deadlock

Since its election in December, Kuwait’s current parliament, like its antecedent, has continued to raise issues related to political corruption and mismanagement with the appointed cabinet. The ideologically broad-based political opposition returned to parliament in 2016 after a four-year boycott and has increasingly used interpellations of unelected Cabinet members as their primary means of providing checks on executive power.

On 17 February, Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, who came to power in September, issued an Amiri Decree invoking Article 106 of the Constitution to postpone the opening session of the National Assembly for one month as of 18 February; he took this action after the entire cabinet resigned in January, following numerous disagreements with parliament and requests in interpellations. The same decree postponing the opening of parliament had been earlier issued in 2012, when the late Emir Sheikh Sabah suspended parliament before a scheduled session could take place in which the former Interior Minister was to be questioned; in that case, the implementation of Article 106 preceded a formal dissolution of Parliament and a new election. Right now, with parliament having re-convened on 18 March, the Amiri Decree resulted from ongoing tensions between the Emir-selected Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah, in office since 2019 and most recently re-appointed in January, and the newly elected MPs in office since December 2020.

As of March 2, a new cabinet was formed under the same prime minister, Sabah al-Khaled, who changed four members of the body in favor of what the press is dubbing “less contentious, veteran politicians.” Still, 12 ministers remain in the same positions, and many members of parliament voiced their intention to question several of them when parliament was reconvened; indeed, the first session of parliament on 18 March involved the presentation of several questions to ministers.

The Judicial Branch Enters the Political Fray

The environment of conflict between Parliament and the executive was further complicated when, on 14 March, the Constitutional Court nullified the membership of key opposition figure Bader al-Dahoum in parliament. The court ruled that al-Dahoum was ineligible from retaining his seat, since he had been convicted in 2014 of insulting the former Emir Sheikh Sabah; the legislation under which he was charged, issued in 2016, had banned those who had been convicted of this crime in the past from running for Parliament. This issue is not new to Kuwaiti politics; it has been raised before, to the consternation of the opposition, which is frequently a target of such allegations.

Initially, an interior ministry committee barred al-Dahoum from running for office, but the Court of Appeals and Cassation later changed this ruling. Since the Constitutional Court’s ruling, al-Dahoum’s tribe – the al-Awazim – has mobilized in support of him. In addition, 28 MPs issued a statement criticizing the court’s decision and stating their intention to amend the 2016 law that led to Dahoum’s removal from parliament. Further, the “Group of 16” from the opposition pledged to boycott the first session of parliament if the issues of amnesty for political crimes and electoral law reform were not addressed. Ultimately, the parliament reconvened on 18 March, with ministers facing a barrage of questions.

Speaker of Parliament Marzouq al-Ghanim, along with 37 of the 50 other MPs, has also been referred to the Public Prosecution for having broken COVID-19 rules on social gatherings, held primarily in December, although the prime minister has ordered these charges to be dropped. While it is unlikely that these MPs will be removed from their seats due to these charges, the fact that they have been brought shows the government’s intention to enforce social distancing regulations, even in the midst of other political developments. Moreover, while this is a clear sign that the judicial branch continues to play an increasing role in Kuwait’s politics, its equal chastisement of the government and the opposition in different measures suggests that it has not actively come down in support of either side.

On the whole, the latest developments have demonstrated the difficulties of the ideologically broad-based political opposition in Kuwait to coalesce behind specific policies for political reform, relying instead of interpellations of individual ministers. These interpellations, in turn, have raised tensions between the executive and judiciary on one side and the legislature on the other, perpetuating gridlock both in the government’s agenda and in that of the opposition that favors the implementation of political reforms like changes to the electoral law and the 2016 defamation law.

Dr. Courtney Freer is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a Research Fellow at The Middle East Centre at London School of Economics and Political Science.

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

Dr. Courtney Freer, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a Research Fellow at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Dr. Freer’s work focuses on the domestic politics of the Gulf states, with interest in Islamism and tribalism. She previously worked at the Brookings Doha Center and at the U.S.–Saudi Arabian Business Council. She holds a MA in Middle Eastern Studies from George Washington University and a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford. Her book Rentier Islamism: The Influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gulf Monarchies was released in 2018 with Oxford University Press.

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