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The Changing Same in Kuwait: New Cabinet, Persistent Challenges

As a result of internal disputes between cabinet members and the intense questioning of ministers by members of parliament, the government of Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak resigned on November 14th. This decision was preceded by protests of hundreds of Kuwaitis who demanded serious reforms that would put an end to systemic corruption. The cabinet’s resignation is an indicator of simmering tensions among the government, the parliament, and the Kuwaiti society. Overshadowing the new cabinet is the looming 2020 parliamentary elections which will affect how the parliament interacts with the new cabinet. The members of parliament (MPs) are likely to intensify their questioning of the new government on pressing issues in order to increase their prospects of reelection. The new government is also more gender-balanced and unprecedented in some respects, which appears to have addressed some of the grievances. However, it is unlikely that the formation of the new government will resolve the tensions. The ramifications of the crisis that led to the resignation of the former cabinet could possibly remain relevant until, at the very least, the election of the next parliament.

The crisis started with a series of questioning by the members of the Kuwaiti National Assembly (Majlis Al-Ummah). The first that was summoned is the Minister of Finance Dr. Nayef Al-Hajraf in October 2019.[1] However, prior to his appearance, the Minister was nominated as the incoming GCC Secretary-General for April 2020. This was followed by a questioning session of the Minister of Public Works and Housing Affairs, Jinan Bushihri. During the heated exchange, around 20 members of parliament reportedly submitted a vote of no-confidence against Minister Bushihri. Ultimately, Bushihri announced her resignation at the end of the parliamentary session. In an expression of frustration, she lamented the alleged influence of business interests within parliament saying, “The companies are now stronger than Abdullah Al-Salem Hall [Parliament].”[2] [3] A third request to question a Minister was submitted and this time for the Minister of Interior Sheikh Khalid Al-Jarrah, a member of the royal family. This third round of questioning coincided with a document leak by the previous Minister of Defense, Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah (son of the Emir), in which he requested clarification from both the previous Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak and Ministry of Interior Sheikh Khalid Al-Jarrah regarding roughly $800 million that went missing from the Kuwait military aid fund in 2017.[4] Due to the fact his inquiries were ignored, the now-resigned Defense Minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah boycotted weekly cabinet meetings.

Another important aspect of this political crisis is the increasing popular demands for reforms. Prior to this chain of events in early November, former Kuwaiti MP Saleh Al-Mullah called for popular demonstrations against rampant corruption. In response, hundreds of Kuwaitis gathered in front of the parliament building calling for the departure of both the executive branch and the legislature.[5] The demonstrations came at a controversial time in Kuwaiti politics when the Speaker of the Parliament Marzouq Al-Ghanim submitted a draft law concerning Kuwait’s stateless ‘Bidoon,’ an issue that has been lingering since the 1960s.[6]

Due to corruption and allegations of missing public funds, Kuwaiti leadership wanted face-saving solution for the outgoing PM. Therefore, days after the resignation of the cabinet, the Kuwaiti Emir requested the resigned Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak to form a new government but the outgoing PM declined the offer.[7] However, the outgoing PM ultimately apologized for not being able to take on the task. Given the alleged association with missing defense funds, the decision to offer the PM the position, only to have him turn it down was likely a mutual one.

The new government announced on November 17 is expected to be short-lived, as the election of a new parliament is scheduled to take place in November of 2020. Given the alleged association with missing defense funds, the decision to offer the PM the position, only to have him turn it down was likely a mutual one. In the case that the parliament is dissolved, it would eventually prompt an early dissolution of the existing cabinet until a new parliament is elected.

Regardless of the current political tensions, it is noteworthy to mention that the composition of this new cabinet is unique and, in many mays, unprecedented. It may turn out to be Kuwait’s most technocratic government in recent memory. The new cabinet includes the highest representation of female ministers in Kuwait’s history. The three cabinet-level officials have been appointed as Minister of Finance (a first for the entire GCC), Minister of Public Works and Housing Affairs, and Minister of Social Affairs. An additional breakthrough is that the newly sworn-in Minister of Interior is the only non-Royal to ever hold the position.[8] The cabinet also includes two MPs, now occupying the posts of Minister of Information and State Minister for Youth Affairs, and Minister for Services Affairs and State Minister for National Assembly Affairs. Despite some of these history-making appointments, they have not been without controversy, as the new female Minister of Social Affairs is reportedly under scrutiny for comments in 2011 criticizing the GCC military intervention in Bahrain.

Another concern mentioned by the Prime Minister, was that significant political factions chose not to take part in this cabinet’s formation due to the perception of its limited term. For example, the new PM’s offer of a cabinet position to a member of the Islamic Constitutional Movement (Kuwait’s Muslim Brotherhood), was turned down.

Amidst the backdrop of these changes, there are important policy decisions pending, which require close collaboration between the cabinet and the parliament. The Kuwaiti government faces several outstanding fiscal dilemmas related to lowering the budget deficit. This issue could be a source of tension between the government and the parliament. The first fiscal issue pertains to the implementation of the Value Added Tax (VAT), which can expect a parliamentary challenge if the government tries to prepare the legal framework to enact the new measure in 2021.[9] Though it is yet unclear if the new cabinet will make any decision regarding these expected taxes, the issue will nevertheless remain a highly divisive topic between the government and legislators in Kuwait. Second, as another tool to lower the budget deficit, the government is expected to work toward increasing government bonds from 10 billion to 20 billion Kuwaiti Dinars.[10] However, it is still unknown if the new Prime Minister will make progress on this pressing issue prior to the new elections. Additionally, legislative action addressing the Bidoon case could also set in motion a clash between the government and the legislature, especially in light of last month’s bill from the Speaker that seeks to resolve the issue. All of these factors together affect the relationship between the cabinet, the parliament and the people and will require a careful balancing act.

 

References:

[1] “هايف يستجوب الحجرف من محورين: استقالة وزير المالية واجبة” AlQabas, October 14, 2019

[2] “استقالة وزيرة الأشغال الكويتية بعد جلسة استجواب عاصفة” AlSharq Al-Awsat, November 13, 2019

[3] “وزيرة الأشغال الكويتية جنان بوشهري تعلن تقديم استقالتها” RT, November 12, 2019

[4] “صندوق الجيش الكويتي .. حرب تصريحات وبيانات بين وزيري الدفاع والداخلية” Elbalad, November 17, 2019

[5] “احتجاجات في الكويت ضد “الفساد” و”سرقة المال العام” AlHurra, November 6, 2019

[6] “الغانم: قانونا البدون والجنسية بعد الافتتاح” Aljarida, October 10, 2019

[7] “جابر المبارك يعتذر لأمير الكويت عن منصب رئيس الوزراء” Aljazeera, November 18, 2019

[8] Khalid AlKhalidi, “الحكومة الكويتية الجديدة: مجموعة من المفارقات,” AlAraby,  December 18, 2018

[9] Ghaida Ghantous and Andrew Torchia, “Kuwait to postpone VAT implementation to 2021, says parliament committee,” Reuters, May 15, 2018

[10] Iman Ghali, “تحليل.. 7 تحديات أمام الحكومة الكويتية الجديدة” Mubasher, December 2, 2019

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