With Parliamentary Suspension, Kuwait Has More to Gain Than Lose

Aerial view of Kuwait's parliament building. (C) Shutterstock

(Editor's note: This paper was finalized on 30 May 2024 - before the recent appointment of Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Sabah as the new Crown Prince of Kuwait)

On 10 May 2024, Kuwait’s parliament, the hallmark of political liberty in the Gulf Arab region, was suspended by Emir Meshaal Al-Ahmad for up to four years. In a region that abounds with autocratic regimes, Kuwait’s elected body possesses genuine powers, not only with the ability to enact laws but also subject ministers to interpellations. The announcement came a few weeks after the April polls had concluded for a new legislature under Emir Meshaal’s reign. The move is only the third time in the country’s political history, after two episodes in 1976 and 1986, of unconstitutional rule in Kuwait. In institutional terms, parliamentary dissolutions are no stranger to the timeline, but these suspensions have typically led to elections for a new Assembly held 60 days after a dissolution in accordance with Articles 83 and 107 of the Constitution. This time, the ruler’s decree includes the suspension of constitutional provisions, with the corollary being amendments proposed by an expert committee within six months. The revisions must be approved by the cabinet and the Emir, before being submitted either to a public referendum or the next Assembly in the next four years.

The Emir’s bold stroke did not occur in a vacuum. Since the passing of Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad in September 2020, subsequent parliaments have failed to complete their four-year term. In the last five years, four elections have been called. Worse, the Cabinet, too, has been a revolving door, with a rotating cast as MPs attempted to influence ministerial appointments — an Emiri prerogative. Kuwait has been plagued by bureaucratic infighting that bore witness to the outbreak of fisticuffs in the parliamentary chamber and the cabinet’s boycott of Assembly sessions. The final months of 2023, also the twilight of the late Emir Nawaf Al-Ahmad’s reign, produced signs of legislative-executive reconciliation. Not only were dissidents pardoned by decree, the then-Prime Minister Ahmad Al-Nawaf, also the late Emir’s son, survived a motion of no confidence initiated by MPs and oversaw the parliamentary approval of a legislative roadmap that prioritized political reforms and raised the standard of living.

Yet, with the passing of Emir Nawaf last December, the inaugural address by the newly sworn-in Emir Meshaal came down hard on both the government and parliament for colluding in “decisions that harm national interests”. The figurative slap-in-the-face implied not only that the apparent political reset represented a devil’s bargain, but also implied that more deep-seated problems persist. The change of tone signaled renewed political tensions, as the ruler’s no-nonsense approach suggested that both political and economic overhauls were overdue. While many observers viewed the recent actions as a regression from democracy, they should be interpreted as a pause to address systemic issues (stamping out corruption, administrative and infrastructural fixes, and constitutional amendments), and pave the way for economic progress. Additionally, as the paper discusses below, the unanswered question of succession complicates Kuwaiti politics, prompting a jostle for influence behind the scenes.

Stamping his mark with a direct Emiri approach

The ascension of Emir Meshaal alters the approach of his predecessor Emir Nawaf — dubbed the Emir of Pardons — and ushers in a new era aimed at correcting underlying chronic problems. As Crown Prince previously, he was delegated constitutional powers early in his predecessor’s reign, prompting his engagement with opposition MPs before issuing warnings in October 2022 that he would hold parliamentarians accountable should they incite divisiveness. Later in June 2023, he lamented that time has been wasted to “settle scores, fabricate crises and irresponsible practices that have been the subject of resentment”. Ultimately, his patience ran thin with the pardons issued previously, citing related “repercussions” impacting the “[wrongful] transfer of jobs” and the “the citizenship file […] changing Kuwaiti identity”. These amount to what he calls “the extent of harm to the country’s interests”. To prevent lawmakers from exploiting government positions for political gain, all new appointments, promotions, and transfers within the public sector were frozen.

But Emir Meshaal’s approach, exemplified in his swearing-in speech, is crystalized in a three-pronged action plan. First, rooting out corruption, what the Emir described as having reached “state facilities,” including “security and economic institutions”. The country has been rocked with high-profile scandals including the mismanagement of military funds, such as the inflation bills for Eurofighter typhoon jets and the misappropriation of approximately 240 million dinars ($800 million) worth of military assistance funds by a former defense minister. Money laundering charges were also uncovered in the 1 Malaysian Development Berhad (1MDB) case that passed through Kuwaiti hands, which found the son of a former prime minister guilty. Similar examples will now be closely monitored by Kuwaiti authorities, as the Public Prosecutor is now called upon to intervene. Fahad Al-Yousef, returning as Minister of Defense and Interior (and First Deputy Prime Minister), stated categorically in a recent speech that “no one is above the law, regardless of their position and status,” highlighting more will be done to safeguard public funds. It remains to be seen how far Nazaha, the country’s anti-corruption authority, and the State Audit Bureau, will go to provide effective oversight.

Second, intertwined with weeding out corruption, is tackling citizenship fraud. While naturalization can be traced back to the sixties, such policies became increasingly employed across the seventies and eighties to ensure the political support of new social groups for the government. Rampant manipulation of Kuwait nationality, however, meant the mushrooming of cases with dual citizenship, which are said to threaten the social fabric and potentially destabilize politics. A recent example is the imprisonment of a Saudi national, who forged Kuwaiti nationality and worked in the country’s Ministry of Justice, seizing 315 thousand dinars in public funds. The Emir clarified that he would not condone instances of those who “benefited from the country’s bounties without right,” having revoked the citizenship of more than 50 people since March. This reflects an admission that citizenship benefits were being exploited and vulnerable to foreign interference. Prior to the April 2024 elections, public debate erupted over the possibility of preventing naturalized citizens from voting or contesting the elections. Since the parliamentary suspension, the government has moved more aggressively to confront this problem by establishing a public hotline to report citizenship forgery. Authorities will continue to pursue citizenship issues, including the eligibility of naturalized citizens to run for elections, through a newly formed investigation panel.

Third, constitutional amendments are expected to prevent another political paralysis in the country. The Emir’s recent televised speech on 10 May referred to the exploitation of democracy through the exertion of “parliamentary pressure” that led to “serious violations” by some governments. Kuwait’s previous attempt to revise its Constitution in 1980 under the late Jaber Al-Ahmad failed. For that reason, Emir Meshaal’s remarks affirmed that changes are overdue to stay in touch with current realities. For now, the suspended articles in the Constitution redirect legislative powers to the Emir and allow the cabinet to run the show. But questions hover primarily over the degree of legislative powers that the Assembly will hold, if and when reinstated. Qualitatively, Kuwait’s parliament has enjoyed greater power than other representative assemblies of the region because it can (1) vote on legislation; (2) override the Emir’s vetoes with a simple majority; (3) remove confidence in ministers (per Article 101). The incessant use of power (3), however, has deterred competent personalities from accepting cabinet appointments. This will likely be altered.

Caught in the winds of change: the legislative and executive powers

The drastic measure of withholding the parliament was only taken after Assembly members had refused to heed warnings from the Emir since his time as Crown prince. The political deadlock, exemplified by the fact that only the 2016 Assembly managed to complete its full term since 2003, meant the current situation had become draining. Two similar suspensions in 1976 and 1986 occurred under vastly different circumstances. Then, the parliament tried repeatedly to obtain accurate information on Kuwait’s financial position — particularly oil-related activities — which was met by a bullish government and the threat of dissolution (that later materialized). In present times, the Assembly is more concerned with short-term gains for various constituencies. Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, wrote in a commentary that recent parliamentary priorities adopt a “clear populist appeal,” ranging from state employee salary increments to reforms in the public tenders law to remove the requirement for local commercial agents. Such short-sightedness meant that the parliament overlooked its most important role: to serve as a credible check on the government.

Despite repeated signals by the Emir that transgressions would not be tolerated, prospective MPs freshly elected from the April 2024 polls overstepped their boundaries. It became evident in the Emir’s later public announcement that parliamentarians were jostling behind the scenes to influence ministerial appointments and, more worryingly, the choice of an heir. If the leadership had intended for the latest elections to introduce a fresh setup, there was likely disappointment by the mere 22% rate of change in parliamentary composition. This meant an Assembly as combative as the last, although the consolation was a decent voter turnout at 62.1%. As an invited international observer for this year’s elections and the June 2023 polls, the air of fatigue and vexation was obvious to the author.

The final straw came when 30 MPs teamed up to publicly reject the return of the Minister of Defense and Interior, Fahad Al-Yousef. This was perceived as a challenge to the Emiri prerogative of appointing his ministers, which was later raised in the Emir’s speech that spelled the end of the parliament. Likewise, Emir Meshaal denounced attempts to interfere in his exclusive right to select a Crown Prince. Hamad Albloshi, an associate professor of political science at Kuwait University, wrote in a book chapter entitled “A Political System in Crisis” that because leadership transition in Kuwait is not hereditary and, instead, moves horizontally, “competition within the ruling family […] has been evident inside and outside parliament”. This contest has evidently boiled over and enraged the Emir. The gravity of the issue is reflected by the latest charges brought against MPs (Musad Al-Qarifa, Hamad Al-Olayan, and Anwar Al-Fikr) for challenging the Emiri powers — and his inviolable character as stipulated in the Constitution.

The result is now a government, operating without electoral buy-in, and having to live up to high public expectations. The newly-formed cabinet presents four new faces while observing a representative quota. Led by the experienced hand of Ahmad Al-Abdullah, who served as the head of the Crown Prince’s court among other ministerial positions, the government composition raises eyebrows. While it consists of a record number of PhD holders, it also has the lowest number of Sabah ministers. The tradition holds that the House of Sabah members take on three main portfolios besides the prime ministerial one: interior, defense, and foreign affairs. This time, only one — Fahad Al-Yousef — presides over both interior and defense but is not an eligible candidate for Emiri succession due to his lineage. That many Sabah members were left out of the current cabinet signifies an internal vetting process for an heir is underway. Nevertheless, a technocratic government is not enough: bold and decisive measures must be taken to lift Kuwait from the doldrums.

An economic upswing is needed

With the removal of the political gridlock, reforms are sorely needed on the economic front. The September 2023 report by the International Monetary Fund notes that “frequent changes of government, and the political impasse between government and parliament, have impeded important fiscal and structural reforms”. The same report advises the introduction of broad-based revisions such as “curtailing the [public] wage bill,” gradually “phasing out energy subsidies,” and improving “non-oil private sector-led growth” to absorb new, young labor market entrants. These findings are echoed by Issam Al-Tawari, a Kuwaiti academic and the Managing Partner at Newbury Economic Consulting, who told the author in a personal conversation that the “privatization program of targeted government sectors has been stalled, leading to many missed opportunities”. Citing examples such as the shelved upgrade of postal services and the delay in privatizing Kuwait Airways, he attributed these to the “lack of political will” and a “parliament refusing any government plan that would shake their voter base”.

Another major plan that lost momentum is the North Economic Zone (Silk City) comprising Mubarak Al Kabeer port slated for Chinese investment. The initiative was previously spearheaded by the now-deceased former deputy prime minister and defense minister Nasser Al-Sabah, but later met parliamentary roadblocks and is now put on ice. A similar megaproject of such scale, if introduced now, will provide the Kuwaiti leadership with renewed impetus to take the country forward, while maximizing the four years during which government performance is not contingent on parliamentary consent. It is equally instructive to note that Emir Meshaal recently returned from his Middle East tour and would have been encouraged by his neighbors’ economic successes — as opposed to his country’s stagnation.

The Crown Prince conundrum

The biggest question in Kuwaiti politics remains one of succession. The prized position of Crown Prince remains vacant and has implications on the nature of rule — particularly parliamentary life — as the current Emir is aged 83. Without the necessity of parliamentary approval for the nomination of a Crown Prince, the Emir has wider breathing space to make a careful and assured selection. The start of Emir Meshaal’s previous tenure as Crown Prince took only seven days after the death of the late Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad. Fast forward to the present, it has been half a year into the current Emir’s rule without notice of a successor. In the immediate Gulf region, Kuwait’s leadership is the most advanced in age. A member of the ruling Sabah family close to the inner leadership circle told the author in a personal conversation, on the condition of anonymity, that there is little pushback among senior members — at least those who are past or present statesmen — over the selection of a young heir. That Emir Meshaal has bided his time in decision-making is indicative that the consideration of a younger candidate — deviating from the tradition of seniority — is serious.

As for specific Sabah members in contention, there could be a dark horse in the midst. The Harvard-trained economist, Mohammad Al-Sabah, who recently left the prime ministerial post, was perhaps ahead of others considering his outstanding qualifications. But his declination to serve in a cabinet without legislative checks could prove consequential. The Crown Prince position is insulated from ministerial grilling that a Prime Minister is susceptible to. Other possible candidates such as Ahmad Al-Nawaf, the son of the last Emir and former prime minister, together with Ahmad Al-Fahad, the surprise appointment for the previous defense post, are both excluded considering their roles in the resigned government that Emir Meshaal blames for sabotaging public interest. If seniority remains an essential requirement, then Nasser Al-Mohammed (aged 83), the Emir’s nephew who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2011, would be a plausible choice. A younger claimant is Sabah Al-Khalid (aged 71), who managed various portfolios ranging from security to diplomacy before becoming prime minister from 2019 to 2022. Skills in statesmanship are usually preferred, although Emir Meshaal’s background in security and intelligence is an exception from the norm. Regardless, the successor must stem from the line of Mubarak Al-Sabah — the country’s eighth ruler.

Short-term pain for long-term gain?

It is evident that there are chronic problems that Kuwait’s leadership must address. Political stability will now serve as a prerequisite for economic development. Crucially, the absence of an institution — the National Assembly — should not be seen as closing the door on Kuwait’s democratic experience. Precursors to the parliament, such as the 1921 and 1938 councils, are examples the country has come a long way. The parliamentary suspension equally allows for overdue administrative fixes that affect livability, such as road maintenance. The relatively muted public response towards the Emiri intervention signifies relief. What is urgently needed is an inclusive blueprint that takes the country forward.

Kuwait’s democratic road is best encapsulated by joint governance — between the ruler and the ruled. When parliament was suspended in 1986, the Monday Diwaniya (diwaniya al-ithnain) movement emerged three years later, serving as a reminder that the checks on executive power run beyond a mere elected body. Over time, as Kuwaitis increasingly anticipate the resumption of parliamentary life, they must also not forget the parameters of civil liberties which encompass press freedom and the right to hold public meetings. After all, the Constitution itself offers hope: Article 175 specifies that any amendment should work towards the “increase of the guarantees of liberty and equality”.


The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.