Kuwait’s modernist drive faces political setbacks

Kuwait’s diplomatic initiatives have been lauded by the international community but, at home, less-publicised internal power struggles rage.
Sunday 05/05/2019
Deepening uncertainty. A 2013 file picture shows Kuwaiti Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah attending a conference at Bayan Palace on the outskirts of Kuwait City. (Reuters)
Deepening uncertainty. A 2013 file picture shows Kuwaiti Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah attending a conference at Bayan Palace on the outskirts of Kuwait City. (Reuters)

Medical woes of Kuwaiti Deputy Emir and Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah have called into question the line of succession in the oil-rich Gulf state.

Sheikh Nawaf, at 81, eight years younger than his half-brother Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, has been in and out of hospital for the past year for medical tests. Despite his tumultuous health, details of a possible succession remain either unknown or shrouded in secrecy.

Kuwait’s diplomatic initiatives have been lauded by the international community but, at home, less-publicised internal power struggles rage.

Progress on Kuwait’s Silk City brought to the surface old disagreements over the purpose and scope of the development project. The plan that Sheikh Sabah’s eldest son Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah tabled is as controversial today as when it was first proposed to the National Assembly.

The ruler’s pronounced motive is to strengthen commercial partnerships with neighbours Iraq and Iran and generate alternative means of income for the oil-dependent emirate.

Without a clear line of succession, disputes on and beyond the Silk City project, threaten to compromise Kuwait’s political and economic ambitions.

As part of the drive to erect a new metropolis, a $3.6 billion causeway — the fourth largest in the world — was inaugurated. The causeway was a joint enterprise by a Korean consortium and Kuwait’s Combined Group Contracting Company and is to facilitate travel between northern and southern Kuwait and cut the hour-long commute to 20 minutes.

Kuwaiti investor Ali al-Salim was critical of the mammoth causeway’s completion. “It’s cart before the horse,” he said on Twitter, adding that “a land-route already exists.” “Other than the causeway, progress has been limited,” Salim wrote.

The wider plan promises to upgrade Kuwait’s infrastructure and diversify economic growth from oil. However, the feathers that the proposal initially ruffled have yet to be smoothed over as Kuwait debates implementation of the high-priced megaproject.

The absence of strong leadership has stalled government plans for economic reforms. Attempts to reduce state spending in 2018 were pushed back and a series of cabinet reshuffles have not led the country any further down the reform path.

Plans for the ambitious Silk City project followed a similar trajectory as Kuwait’s divided political house struggles to consent to a plan of action.

Before officials can invite foreign firms into Kuwait’s business market, Crown Prince Nawaf, despite his questionable health, must win approval of all rival political camps.

Although legislation passes the assembly, the emir reserves the final say on what happens.

There appears to be no consensus between the government and parliament over laws that will determine how Silk City will be handled from bidding to administration and legal oversight. Draft laws on the powers the governing board should be granted caused rifts and a disapproving National Assembly. The start date of construction has been pushed back.

Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, said the deal “will be a very hard sell.”

Kuwaiti MP Safa al-Hashem slammed the laws presented to the national assembly as “the most dangerous” she has seen, Reuters reported. Her concerns, like other MPs, are that an empowered board might weaken parliamentary oversight.

The other contention centres on alcohol, which Hashem said would undercut the government’s constitutional rights and undermine Kuwait’s Islamic identity.

Members from Kuwait’s Islamist camp defended the prohibition of alcohol in the Muslim country and cautioned MPs against importing the Dubai-model, in which the state allows foreign visitors to consume alcohol.

“Kuwait is Arab, Islamic and predominantly conservative,” Islamist MP Mohammed al-Dallal said, Reuters reported.

Without a common vision and intergovernmental cooperation, Crown Prince Nawaf is absent at a time when he is needed the most.

The absence of a united political front threatens to alienate future investors and the political future of a country where development remains heavily dependent on oil wealth.

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