New political crisis eclipses Kuwait’s diplomatic achievement

Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai said, on Wednesday, that news circulated “about the government’s intention to submit its resignation within the next forty-eight hours,” amid talk about a request to question Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah.
Thursday 07/01/2021
Kuwaiti Parliament Speaker Marzouq al-Ghanim speaks during a parliament session at Kuwait’s National Assembly in Kuwait City, December 22, 2020. (AFP)
Kuwaiti Parliament Speaker Marzouq al-Ghanim speaks during a parliament session at Kuwait’s National Assembly in Kuwait City, December 22, 2020. (AFP)

KUWAIT CITY--Parliament’s control by opposition-leaning deputies reflected early on the National Assembly’s tense relationship with the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Hamad al-Sabah, with local media reporting the cabinet could possibly resign in the coming hours before MPs request that the prime miniser appear before the body to be questioned.

If the government resigns, Kuwait would have its first major political crisis in the era of newly appointed Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah and his Crown Prince Sheikh Mishaal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah.

Earlier this week, the emir and the crown prince scored their first diplomatic achievement since their rise to power following the death of former Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah last September.

After months of efforts and shuttle diplomacy, Kuwaiti mediation between Qatar and four boycotting countries succeeded in ending the dispute, thanks to a strong push by the administration of US President Donald Trump.

On Tuesday, Gulf leaders signed a “solidarity and stability” deal in the city of Al-Ula in north-western Saudi Arabia, bringing Doha back into the regional fold after a three-year rift.

The details of the agreement were not immediately released, and analysts have warned that any deal could be preliminary in nature and may not immediately end all of the measures taken against Qatar.

Kuwait’s jubilation over the deal seemed short-lived, with tensions growing at home and a new political crisis heralding further instability and friction between the legislative and executive authorities.

In recent years, tensions have been a prominent feature of Kuwaiti political life.

The new crisis, however, comes at a particularly precarious time, as the country endures an economic crisis that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and a steep decline in oil prices.

The crisis has grown so severe that the Kuwaiti government has been forced to consider seeking external funds to cover the financial deficit and sustain basic obligations, including payment of salaries to government employees.

At the heart of the move  

Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai said on Wednesday that news circulated “about the government’s intention to submit its resignation within the next forty-eight hours,” amid talk about a request to have the prime minister questioned.

The intended request, according to the newspaper, has garnered significant parliamentary support, with 37 deputies in favour of the move, after Representative Ali Al-Qattan joined their ranks on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, 36 deputies had announced their support for the questioning move, out of a total of fifty representatives in the House of Representatives.

In an indication it is unwilling to face questioning, which was first announced by representatives Thamer al-Suwait, Khaled al-Otaibi and Bader al-Dahoum, the government opted to skip the National Assembly session scheduled for Wednesday.

The government’s absence forced Parliament Speaker Marzouq al-Ghanim to call off the session, as parliament’s internal regulations require government representatives to be present.

The questioning revolves around three axes that are tantamount to accusations against the prime minister. The first is whether he violated constitutional provisions when forming the government by choosing contested figures and ignoring the recommendations of the new parliament, which is dominated by opposition deputies.

Kuwaiti MPs attend a parliament session at the National Assembly in Kuwait City, on January 5, 2021. (AFP)
Kuwaiti MPs attend a parliament session at the National Assembly in Kuwait City, on January 5, 2021. (AFP)

The second axis relates to what MPs consider “the domination of the executive authority” over parliament through the government’s support of Ghanem, who managed to secure his post as parliament speaker again even though 28 representatives voted for another candidate. In addition, the government stands accused of “blatant interference in the formation of Parliament committees.”

Selecting the parliament speaker was at the heart of the first “clash” between loyalists and opposition members in the Abdullah Al-Salem Hall. Opposition MPs argued that Ghanem should not hold the position again, and instead nominated MP Badr al-Hamidi, who narrowly lost the vote.

Following the voting session, the opposition accused the executive authority of manipulating and interfering in the selection process.

The third issue on which the questioning request revolves is “the government’s procrastination in submitting its work programme for the legislative body,” which the opposition considered a “breach of the constitutional obligation” that requires the government to present its programme as soon as it is formed.

From a legal point of view, the government is supposed to question the had of government in its be included in its next parliament session, which is expected to take place in around two weeks.

 Long history 

Throughout Kuwait’s history, frequent disagreements between the government and parliament have led to the fall of successive governments and parliaments being dissolved, stalling political life and hindering much-needed economic and financial reform projects.

The rise of Sheikh Sabah to the presidency of the Council of Ministers was in itself the result of an acute crisis in the government of his predecessor, Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah, who resigned in November 2019 over corruption charges and sharp differences between two of its ministers.

In December, the Kuwaiti emir decided to respect his predecessor’s choice and entrusted the formation of a new government to Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled, who has significant experience in government work.

The Kuwaiti economy, which is mainly dependent on a single resource, oil, faces a $46 billion deficit this fiscal year, which ends in March, according to former Finance Minister Barak al-Sheitan.

To overcome this dilemma, the government is seeking to pass a public debt bill that allows it to borrow $66 billion over 20 years, a project that was rejected by the former parliament.

Political analyst Muhammad al-Dossari ruled out the prospect that the prime minister would appear for questioning, expecting the government to submit its resignation before that.

On the possibility of dissolving parliament, Dossari said, “All options are on the table (before the Emir), and the crisis will continue in view of the current composition of the National Assembly and the differences with its presidency.”

According to the Kuwaiti constitution, if the National Assembly considers that “it is not possible to cooperate with the prime minister, then it can raise the matter to the head of state. In this case, the Emir may dismiss the prime minister and appoint a new cabinet, or dissolve the National Assembly.”

If parliament is dissolved and the next Assembly decides by the same majority not to cooperate with the aforementioned prime minister, he shall be deemed retired from the date of the Assembly’s decision, and a new cabinet shall be formed.

 Reform agenda 

The two authorities’ instability poses difficulties for the Kuwaiti emir, who does not have the experience and charisma of his predecessor, who previously helped overcome severe political crises in the country.

During parliament’s inauguration on December 15, Sheikh Nawaf said that there is a need to devise a comprehensive reform programme to help the country deal with the worst economic crisis in decades. He also warned that there was no time to create new problems.

“There is no doubt that you are aware of what the world and the region in particular are witnessing in terms of new developments, and you have enormous challenges ahead of you, and there is no longer room for wasting more effort, time and potentials on meaningless conflicts, settling scores and fabricating crises,” the emir said, addressing deputies.

Two-thirds of the members of the former National Assembly lost their seats in recent elections, while opposition candidates scored significant gains, which analysts say may hamper the government’s efforts to implement financial reforms to tackle the country’s cradle-to-grave welfare system.

The Kuwaiti parliament has the power to pass legislation and question the prime minister and other cabinet ministers, while it is customary for members of the ruling family to assume more powerful positions, with the Emir of the country retaining the final say on state matters.

Since the results of the December 5 parliamentary elections were announced, numerous parliamentarians have expressed their support for the opposition, announcing their intent to pass legislation to change the electoral law, abolish the one-vote system and regulate the status of stateless people who are locally known as Bidoon.

Parliamentarians have also expressed support for granting general amnesty to some political figures and activists.