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Members of parliament take part of the new Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Meshal Al Ahmad Al Sabah's oath ceremony at the National Assembly in Kuwait City, Kuwait, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023. Sheikh Meshal Al Ahmad Al Sabah is sworn in as the 17th Emir of Kuwait after his predecessor Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah, died in the age of 86 on Saturday. (AP Photo/Jaber Abdulkhaleg)

Kuwait’s Legislative Stalemate and Prospects for Reform

On April 4, Kuwait held its fourth parliamentary elections in as many years. This vote was the first under the leadership of Amir Shaykh Mishaal, who came to power in December 2023 after the passing of his predecessor, Amir Shaykh Nawaf. Anxiety loomed ahead of the election; some observers feared that this could be the last regular Kuwaiti election, as rumors swirled about shadowy efforts to alter the constitution to allow for a longer dissolution of the legislature.

The manner in which the previous parliament had been dissolved—only eight months after the Kuwaiti MPs had taken their seats—also affirmed the prerogative of executive authority. That dissolution came about after a speech in which MP Abdul Karim al-Kandari used “offensive and inappropriate” language regarding the amir in his criticism of the executive branch of government. Many worried that Amir Shaykh Mishaal would use al-Kandari’s words as pretext to curtail the powers of the parliament.

But the election went forward, and turnout reached 62.1 percent, a surprisingly high number given voter fatigue and a historic pattern of low voter turnout during the holy month of Ramadan. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with the limits of parliamentary power and gridlock between the executive and legislature, most Kuwaitis still see utility in voting, reaffirming the centrality of the Kuwaiti National Assembly to political life in Kuwait.

New Parliament, Perennial Problems

Overall, the recently elected parliament resembles the one that came before it, which would suggest that, unless the composition of the Kuwaiti cabinet changes, the tensions between the previous parliament and cabinet will remain. Indeed, out of the 46 incumbents from the last parliament who chose to run again, 39 were re-elected, including former speakers of parliament Marzouq al-Ghanem and Ahmed al-Saadoun and the only female MP, Jenan al-Bushehri. The broad-based opposition retained its majority, winning 29 of the 50 seats—the same figure held by opposition MPs in the previous parliamentary session. About half of the seats went to tribal candidates, and eight Shi’a MPs won seats. The Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM), the Kuwaiti wing of the international Muslim Brotherhood, saw its share of seats decrease from three to one, while several other independent Islamists also won seats.

Because Kuwait’s most recent election failed to effect meaningful change in the legislature’s make-up, rumors that further steps would be taken to improve its functionality have persisted. Shortly after the election, Amir Shaykh Mishaal announced that parliament would not convene on April 17 as scheduled, but on May 14. This delay was primarily explained due to the fact that Prime Minister Shaykh Mohammed Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, who only recently re-entered politics for the first time since 2011, refused to form a new cabinet. Such a delay is not unprecedented; in October 2022, the opening of parliament was delayed for a similar reason, and in 2016 a comparable situation arose, though in that case parliament ultimately reconvened within two weeks of the election. The move for delay is based on Article 106 of the Kuwaiti Constitution, which allows the amir to institute a single one-month delay at the beginning of the parliamentary session without parliament’s approval.

The postponement has nonetheless led to considerable concern about whether parliamentary life will return to normal when the body reconvenes in May. It has also sparked a spirited debate on social media about whether Article 106 of the constitution applies to a legislature that has not yet met; former speaker of parliament Marzouq al-Ghanem has suggested that it does not, leaving the Amir’s actions open to legal review. Some, including Ghanem, claim that the amir’s decree violates Article 87 of the Constitution, which requires the legislature to meet within two weeks of its election. Indeed, many MPs insist that it is unconstitutional to delay a session of parliament when the legislature has not yet met, and it is unclear whether the government will change the schedule of when parliament begins meeting as a result.

Next Steps

Ultimately, it is likely that parliament will return as scheduled in May, if not before then. If it does not, the amir will undoubtedly face mass protests from a Kuwaiti population accustomed to and actively involved in the electoral process. The next question that arises, however, is how long the new parliament will then last, given that the body—like its predecessor—is dominated by members of the opposition.

In his first speech as amir, Shaykh Mishaal made it clear that he remains keen to reform both the cabinet and parliament. Indeed, in his first speech to parliament, he said that both institutions were “harming the interests of the country and its people.” The previous parliament had been drafting measures for a new electoral commission and had approved of increasing the number of votes per person from one to two, as well as introducing party-like lists to replace Kuwait’s highly unpopular single non-transferable vote system. Indeed, changes to voting mechanisms and greater electoral oversight could change the parliament’s composition, but likely would not reduce the power of the opposition in any meaningful sense.

Another factor may eventually force Amir Shaykh Mishaal’s hand—the requirement that he name a crown prince within one year of his accession to the throne. Crucially, the National Assembly must vote to approve the amir’s selection, giving the parliament a measure of power over the country’s future. As a whole, then, despite the shortcomings of Kuwait’s parliamentary system, the legislature and its members remain central to political life in Kuwait. Dominated by a broad-based popular opposition, the National Assembly will continue to urge reforms to the existing organs of government. How the parliament’s conceptions of reform align or clash with that of Amir Shaykh Mishaal, however, will remain central to political discourse and gridlock in the years to come.

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. Courtney Freer is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow at Emory University. Previously, Dr. Freer was Assistant Professorial Research Fellow at the LSE Middle East Centre. From 2015-2020, Courtney was a Research Officer for the Kuwait Programme at the LSE Middle East Centre. Her work focuses on the domestic politics of the Gulf states, particularly the roles played by Islamism and tribalism. Her book Rentier Islamism: The Influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gulf Monarchies, based on her DPhil thesis at the University of Oxford and published by Oxford University Press in 2018, examines the socio-political role played by the Muslim Brotherhood groups in Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. She previously worked at the Brookings Doha Center and the US–Saudi Arabian Business Council. Courtney holds a BA from Princeton University in Near Eastern Studies and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the George Washington University.  


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