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Anti-Israel Gridlock Makes Kuwait The Odd Man Out

The latest parliamentary election blocked needed change in the oil-rich nation.

By , a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former managing editor at the Daily Star.
A Kuwaiti man casts his vote during parliamentary elections in Kuwait City on Sept. 29.
A Kuwaiti man casts his vote during parliamentary elections in Kuwait City on Sept. 29.
A Kuwaiti man casts his vote during parliamentary elections in Kuwait City on Sept. 29. Photo by YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images

Among the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Kuwait is the odd man out. Mired in chronic political gridlock, the oil-rich nation appears to have no intention of following its neighbors to the south, where change-oriented leaders have been modernizing their societies, diversifying their economies, and redrawing the region’s security map by partnering with Israel.

Kuwait’s ailing, 85-year-old Emir Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah only came to power in September 2020. In June, his 82-year-old brother, Crown Prince Meshal al-Ahmad al-Jaber, acted on the ill emir’s behalf and dissolved the National Assembly, calling for an early election to “correct the country’s path.” On Sept. 29, around 300,000 Kuwaitis went to the polls to elect their 18th parliament since 1962. But instead of jump-starting change, they returned old faces known for their ultra-conservative or Islamist policies to power. Kuwait’s path will not be corrected, and international organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, will continue to press the country for reforms, which the election made even harder to implement.

Kuwait is not a democracy and only ranked as “partly free” by Freedom House, but the National Assembly does play an indirect role in picking the country’s emir. It approves, by a majority vote, an emir-nominated royal for the position of crown prince, who automatically becomes emir if he outlives the incumbent. Voting on the next emir has prompted royals to engage in politics to secure the appointment of a successor. Its parliament also casts votes of confidence on cabinets and can end their tenure. It can summon the prime minister—a royal by tradition—or any of his ministers for a hearing, and it can investigate ministries, contracts, and other government business. Kuwait’s parliamentary shake-up last week was touted as change but was in fact a rehabilitation of retired politicians. Of 50 incumbents, only 22 kept their seats. Although the royals expect the new cast to serve their succession interests, such trust will likely prove to be misplaced. The new parliamentary reshuffle may cause deeper divisions and perpetuate the stalemate.

Among the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Kuwait is the odd man out. Mired in chronic political gridlock, the oil-rich nation appears to have no intention of following its neighbors to the south, where change-oriented leaders have been modernizing their societies, diversifying their economies, and redrawing the region’s security map by partnering with Israel.

Kuwait’s ailing, 85-year-old Emir Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah only came to power in September 2020. In June, his 82-year-old brother, Crown Prince Meshal al-Ahmad al-Jaber, acted on the ill emir’s behalf and dissolved the National Assembly, calling for an early election to “correct the country’s path.” On Sept. 29, around 300,000 Kuwaitis went to the polls to elect their 18th parliament since 1962. But instead of jump-starting change, they returned old faces known for their ultra-conservative or Islamist policies to power. Kuwait’s path will not be corrected, and international organizations, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, will continue to press the country for reforms, which the election made even harder to implement.

Kuwait is not a democracy and only ranked as “partly free” by Freedom House, but the National Assembly does play an indirect role in picking the country’s emir. It approves, by a majority vote, an emir-nominated royal for the position of crown prince, who automatically becomes emir if he outlives the incumbent. Voting on the next emir has prompted royals to engage in politics to secure the appointment of a successor. Its parliament also casts votes of confidence on cabinets and can end their tenure. It can summon the prime minister—a royal by tradition—or any of his ministers for a hearing, and it can investigate ministries, contracts, and other government business. Kuwait’s parliamentary shake-up last week was touted as change but was in fact a rehabilitation of retired politicians. Of 50 incumbents, only 22 kept their seats. Although the royals expect the new cast to serve their succession interests, such trust will likely prove to be misplaced. The new parliamentary reshuffle may cause deeper divisions and perpetuate the stalemate.

Leading the new old pack is former National Assembly Speaker Ahmed al-Sadoun, 87, who was first elected to parliament in 1975. Kuwait is electorally divided into five districts, each with 10 seats. Running in the third district, Sadoun swept to victory with more than 12,000 votes, the highest number in the country’s history. He is expected to retake his old position by succeeding the outgoing speaker, 53-year-old Marzouq al-Ghanim.

Since a 2013 electoral reform, the Kuwaiti government has been weakening—both physically and politically.

In the neighboring Persian Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, leaders have cultivated new sources of economic growth. In Kuwait, politicking has paralyzed the government and kept the economy dependent on oil revenue.

By expanding trade, including with Israel, the economies of the UAE and Bahrain grew in 2021 by 2.3 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively, compared to Kuwait’s anemic 1.3 percent. Instead of focusing on reforms and trade to grow its economy, Kuwait has engaged in useless politicking. It has pegged change to an octogenarian known for his populism and radicalism. Sadoun gained popularity in part through old-style rabble-rousing against Israel, advocating for “expelling the Zionist occupation of Palestinian territory” no matter how long it takes. He has rejected the two-state solution and called on the United Nations to proclaim Zionism as “a form of racism and racist discrimination.”

In 2013, Kuwait’s royals changed the election system from one where every Kuwaiti citizen picked four candidates in their district to one where each citizen votes for only a single candidate. Voting for multiple candidates makes it possible for politicians to run as allies or on tickets, whereas voting for only one candidate works to divide the vote and block the forming of tickets. The idea was to weaken the formation of formidable Islamist and tribal opposition blocs. For the same reason, Kuwait also prohibits forming political parties or holding primaries among candidates of the same tribe.

Since the electoral reform, the Kuwaiti government has been weakening over the past decade—both physically and politically. In parliament, endless opposition summons and investigations have paralyzed cabinets. Every time a new cabinet got bogged down, the royals called for early elections in an attempt to force a reset. A few months into the formation of a new cabinet, the same paralysis and inertia set back in.

To win over the opposition and overcome the gridlock, Kuwait’s royals have decided on “Palestine” as a rallying cry. Since then, the fear of being tar-brushed as Israel friendly has prompted moderates, such as Ghanim, to put on a populist show, in which he demanded that Israel be expelled from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization of national parliaments that last met in Indonesia in March.

Ghanim also presided over the passage of boycott legislation that closed Kuwaiti territorial waters to ships carrying merchandise to or from Israel. A quick glance at a map shows the utter pointlessness of such a law: Kuwait lies at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf, so unless Israel was to start trading with Iran and Iraq, access to Kuwaiti waters is irrelevant.

Despite his faux populism, Ghanim and his allies were clear-eyed about Kuwait’s national interests, even with regard to Israel. They blocked legislation that would have banned corporations from countries that have ties to Israel from operating in Kuwait—a vast scope that would have restricted foreign investment to a minimum and put further strain on an economy that relies almost exclusively on oil revenue.

After September’s election, Sadoun is expected to reclaim the speakership and preside over a parliament with expanded blocs of Islamists and pro-Iran Shiites, who hold 10 and nine seats, respectively, out of a total of 50 seats in the National Assembly. With Sadoun at its helm, the parliamentary opposition—including the Islamists and Shiites—is expected to hold 30 of the total 50 seats. The Kuwaiti Constitution stipulates that a 15-member cabinet also votes in parliament, except on votes of confidence. This means that the incoming cabinet will almost certainly enlist 15 pro-royal ministers to form a bloc of 35 loyalists to block the opposition.

Although the Kuwaiti emir and crown prince hoped that another round of elections would bring change, the election brought back old faces and reinforced petty politics, suggesting that the stalemate will persist and that divisions will multiply.

Populism among Kuwaiti politicians will continue. But because Kuwait considers the United States to be its closest ally—the unforgotten savior that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991—and thus avoids criticizing Washington, Israel is usually used as a stand-in for populist rhetoric and anti-Western vitriol, which remain an easy way to get public support and mobilize votes.

At a time when the UAE has increased trade with Israel to $1.4 billion during the first seven months of this year, Bahrain enjoys the economic dividends of the peace deal, and even Saudi Arabia is opening up to nonofficial cooperation, Kuwait seems to be heading in the opposite direction. The results of the election suggest that the change Kuwaitis have waited for is dead on arrival.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former managing editor at the Daily Star. Twitter: @hahussain

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