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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)

Lessons from the Past: Overcoming The Dissolution of the Kuwaiti Parliament

On May 10, Kuwaiti Amir Shaykh Mishaal al-Ahmed al-Sabah announced the dissolution of the country’s parliament, whose members had only been elected one month and six days earlier. This dissolution, unlike any that Kuwait has more commonly experienced in recent years, is set to last up to four years. In the amir’s words, after the majority-opposition parliament expressed disapproval of an appointed member of cabinet, the monarchy was “left with no option other than [to take] this hard decision to rescue the country and protect its higher national interests and resources of the nation.”

Over the course of the next four years, according to the amir, the appointed government will undertake a “revision of the democratic process in its entirety.” This event marks a noteworthy and concerning break in the normal conduct of parliamentary politics in Kuwait—the Gulf state with the most powerful elected legislature independent of the ruling family, which has operated without interruption since 1992. Nonetheless, this is by no means the only time the amir has used his authority to dissolve parliament and to suspend articles of the constitution requiring its election within two months and its approval of draft legislation.

Historical Parallels

In 1976, Amir Shaykh Sabah al-Salim al-Sabah (r. 1965-1977) became the first Kuwaiti monarch to dissolve parliament in this way, just 14 years after the country adopted a new constitution establishing the legislature. Shaykh Sabah explained his decision “with a heart and soul full of sadness and pain, as conditions have deteriorated in our beloved country to an extent I have never imagined possible.” The amir asserted that he was suspending parliament “in order that freedom may continue to exist in our country with more steadfastness and stability, and in order that it may be enjoyed by all our people.” Like Kuwait’s current monarch, he cited the lack of cooperation between the legislative and executive branches and “unjust attacks” on ministers made by members of parliament. The same day, Shaykh Sabah issued restrictions on the press and suspended key articles of the constitution, effectively allowing him to rule without parliamentary oversight.

In many ways, Shaykh Mishaal has adopted the rhetoric of the 1976 dissolution to justify his own, with the need to safeguard Kuwaiti stability and democracy front and center in the government’s messaging. Members of the cabinet, including members of the royal family, had suffered harsh criticism at the hands of MPs—a step too far, apparently, for the current amir.

Another Kuwaiti amir has dissolved parliament in response to internal and external strife. In 1986, Shaykh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah (r. 1977-2006) announced the dissolution of parliament shortly after an attempt on his life and after a series of violent terrorist attacks wracked Kuwait. This dissolution also took place amid the Lebanese civil war, Iran-Iraq war, and heightened tensions between Kuwait’s Sunni and Shia populations. International politics, then, were arguably much more important to the 1986 dissolution than in this year’s. Shaykh Jaber justified his decision to suspend parliament as a response to the “abuse of democratic life” and suggested that some lawmakers were “exploiting the constitution for personal gains, spreading dissention and obstructing cooperation between the legislative and executive powers.”

Amir’s Authority Assertion

In all three of these dissolutions, the amirs presiding have made clear that they, not the Kuwaiti people or even the Constitutional Court, who oversee the rules of the game in terms of parliamentary participation in the country. Though Kuwait’s amirs have not outright opposed electoral government, they have demonstrated their belief that there must be a limit to the power of elected government, and that this limit may be imposed by the amir at will.

Of course, we know that parliament was restored after the previous dissolutions: in 1981, albeit under different electoral districting, and in 1992 following the liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s forces. In both cases, popular protests against the abrogation of parliamentary authority slowly emerged as Kuwaitis became increasingly skeptical of the government’s promises to restore constitutional order. The most recent dissolution has largely been met with silence on social media, at least among politicians and MPs, because so much remains uncertain.

In 1976 and 1986, internal ruling family politics played a role in the dissolutions. Amir Shaykh Mishaal must soon name a crown prince. In fact, he legally has one year since ascending to the throne, which he achieved in December 2023. And while the crown prince constitutionally must be approved by parliament, with this body dissolved, the amir may have more freedom to name a successor without worrying about legislators’ opinions.

Parliamentary politics, though often blamed for gridlock in Kuwait, has long set the country apart from its neighbors. The parliament formed the core of political life in Kuwait. The legislature and the unique status it holds in the Arab world were points of pride for Kuwaitis, who broadly supported the institution despite its shortcomings. This is evidenced by the fact that the people have consistently exercised their right to vote. Indeed, last month’s election saw 62 percent turnout, despite taking place during Ramadan and severe voter fatigue. Given this long history of participatory politics, it will be difficult for parliament to be suspended for an extended period without either promised reforms being delivered or without popular demonstrations eventually emerging. While institutions may be suspended with the wave of a hand, a political culture cannot so easily be changed.

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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