The Middle East Channel

Political showdown in Kuwait

Political showdown in Kuwait

Kuwait’s Emir on Monday took the unprecedented step of activating article 106 of the constitution, giving him the right to suspend the National Assembly for one month. It marked the first time in Kuwait’s 50-year parliamentary history that the assembly has been suspended in this way, although it was twice dissolved unconstitutionally (in 1976 and in 1986), and has been dissolved constitutionally four times since 2006 alone. Two days later, the Constitutional Court issued an even more momentously abrupt decision as they ruled that the February 2012 election was void and ordered the return of the previous assembly. The ruling by Kuwait’s highest court is final and cannot be challenged, and followed a challenge to the constitutionality of December’s decree that called for new elections following the dissolution of the previous assembly on December 6 2011.

Both actions took politicians and the public completely by surprise. They herald the beginning of Kuwait’s deepest political crisis since the post-liberation restoration of parliamentary life in 1992. Leading opposition MP Musallam al-Barrak, who had gained the highest number of votes in Kuwaiti electoral history in the February election, immediately described the court ruling as "a coup against the constitution." While unexpected, these moves did not occur in a vacuum. Rather, they represent the culmination of a period of escalating instability as two broader trends in oppositional politics intersected with deep divisions within Kuwaiti society.

The February 2, 2012 election had produced an opposition landslide, as predominantly Islamist and tribal candidates won 34 out of the 50 parliamentary seats. Their gains came largely to the detriment of Kuwait’s well-established liberal and merchant elites (as well as the four female MPs who all lost their seats). The results reflected the sharp bifurcation in Kuwaiti society, in part between a traditional political class dominated by hadhar (settled) urban elites tracing their lineage back to the pre-oil era, and newer arrivals largely from tribal backgrounds (badu) as a result of the large-scale naturalization projects of the 1960s and 1970s. Although far from monolithic in social or political objectives, debates and clashes over the direction of policy often took on cultural and class-based overtones and became as much a struggle for the future orientation of Kuwait as a contest for political power.

In addition to this volatile mix, an intergenerational shift has added to the reconfiguration of Kuwait’s political culture. Since 2006, new youth movements have appeared on the scene. Initially mobilizing around demands to change Kuwait’s electoral districting, they became known as the "Orange Movement" in a reference to Ukraine’s color revolution in 2004-5. In a precursor to the methods of political organization that so powerfully reshaped the parameters of protest in North Africa in 2011, they used text messaging, internet blogging, and online social networks to coordinate and plan their activities and articulate their demands for reform.

The emergence of these new social groups tested Kuwait’s creaking parliamentary machinery to its limit. In particular, they exposed the weaknesses in the balance of power between an elected parliament and an appointed cabinet. Uneasy at the best of times, it has become almost unworkable over the past decade. Beginning with the separation of the posts of Crown Prince and Prime Minister in 2003, the bar of oppositional politics has steadily risen, encompassing such milestones as the first interpellation of a sitting Prime Minister in 2009, and culminating in the mass popular demonstrations that eventually ousted Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al-Sabah last November. Although the separation of powers in 2003 was motivated largely by the Crown Prince’s debilitating illness, it nevertheless signalled that the Prime Minister was fair game for political opposition and public criticism.

The result has been political paralysis and a succession of stalled development projects. Constant friction and an inability to work together hampered the five-year premiership of Nasser Mohammed. Three elections failed to produce decisive results, and seven different cabinets rose and fell with depressing regularity. Meanwhile, a series of major projects, such as the planned construction of a fourth oil refinery and a $17 billion joint venture between the Petrochemical Industries Company and Dow Chemical, were cancelled after parliamentary threats to scrutinize and reopen the agreements. With neighbouring Qatar and the UAE powering ahead with regional mega projects and Saudi Arabia massively expanding its own petrochemical and value-added industrial sectors, Kuwait became a laggard in a region it had once led in development.

This decade-long trajectory of opposition converged in 2011 with a second set of protests inspired by (but not derivative of) the momentous changes taking place across the region. Initially small-scale, anti-government protests started in June and called for the resignation of the Prime Minister. They escalated exponentially in September following the uncovering of a political corruption scandal involving the transfer of funds and payment of bribes to up to 16 MPs. Furthermore, a wave of strikes involving oil sector and customs workers and employees at Kuwait Airways added to the perception that the government was floundering and losing its grip. So, too, did the resignation of the capable Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed Sabah Al-Sabah, in October, in protest over allegations that overseas money transfers to MPs were made through Kuwaiti embassies without his knowledge.

Popular and political tensions peaked in mid-November after the Constitutional Court blocked a parliamentary attempt to question the Prime Minister over the corruption scandal. Around 100 protesters stormed and briefly occupied the National Assembly building on a night of high drama on November 16, and attendance at rallies calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister swelled to tens of thousands. Despite the Emir’s vows not to bow to street pressure, a final, mass demonstration on November 28 drew more than 50,000 people and culminated in the replacement of the Prime Minister and the dissolution of parliament a week later.

However dramatic these events were, even to seasoned observers of Kuwait’s rumbustious politics, they failed to address the root causes of Kuwait’s flawed political structure. The new Prime Minister, Sheikh Jabir Mubarak Al-Sabah, was previously the deputy Prime Minister, and while he was more popular than his predecessor, the fundamental fault-lines running through Kuwaiti politics remained unchanged. These were on full display both during the turbulent election campaign — which featured an attack on a television station and the burning down of one particularly divisive candidate’s campaign tent — and in its aftermath, as all sides digested the opposition landslide. It took nearly two weeks of tense negotiations to form a government, with the opposition Majority Bloc demanding nine cabinet positions (out of 16) and then rejecting the government’s offer of three posts. That would in itself have been a milestone in Kuwaiti politics, but the opposition refused to join the cabinet, setting the stage for the fireworks that followed.

In the four short months of its existence, Kuwaiti parliamentarians filed eight interpellations against government ministers, two of whom resigned — Finance Minister Mustafa al-Shamali on May 23 after a marathon grilling session, and Minister of Social Affairs and Labour Ahmed Abdullatif al-Rujeib on June 12, ahead of a scheduled interpellation. In addition, firebrand opposition MP Mohammed al-Juwaihel had filed a motion to question the Minister of Interior, Sheikh Ahmed Homoud Al-Sabah, on Tuesday, but that was overtaken by the Emir’s decree suspending the assembly.

The parliament also became known for a series of measures proposed by tribal and Islamist MPs that appeared to threaten Kuwait’s record of being the most tolerant and politically progressive society in the Gulf. After an early attempt to amend the constitution to make sharia the rather than a source of legislation failed, conservative lawmakers called for the introduction of "morality police" to monitor the behavior of women in public spaces, overwhelmingly approved a legal amendment stipulating the death penalty for blasphemy (subsequently rejected by the government), and generally reinforced the atmosphere of growing conservatism that saw one man (Hamad al-Naqi) sentenced to ten years imprisonment for a tweet deemed insulting to Islam and to the rulers of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. At the weekend, another MP called for putting on trial "screeching crows" who criticized Saudi Arabia’s recently-deceased Crown Prince Nayef on Twitter.

So where does Kuwait go from here? Aside from the troubling indications of spiralling social and political tensions, there is a danger that the opposition will respond to the voiding of the election by urging its supporters to once again take to the streets. Individual (now-ex) MPs threatened to do precisely this even before the brazenly provocative judgement of the Constitutional Court deprived them of their parliamentary success. Having witnessed how the mobilization of tens of thousands of supporters effectively forced the Emir’s hand last November, an emboldened opposition may well attempt to repeat the trick this time around.

In terms of due process, the ruling by the Constitutional Court cannot by itself dissolve the parliament. This the Emir must do, by reconvening the previous assembly elected in May 2009 in order to dissolve it (correctly) and announce fresh elections, presumably sometime after the end of Ramadan in August. There is already feverish speculation about the ways that the opposition could try to obstruct or derail the process, and the road ahead undoubtedly has many twists and turns. Yet if one thing is clear from Kuwait’s dramatic last three days, it is that the convergence of longstanding tensions (and distrust) between the executive and legislative branches of government have brought the country to the brink of political meltdown.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science