- Kuwait is the most liberalized Arab monarchy. Its National Assembly, though constrained by the royally appointed government, is chosen through competitive voting and wields considerable power, meaning that elections have real significance for the country’s politics.
- The September 2022 elections yielded an opposition-led parliament with a mandate to carry out much-needed reforms, especially regarding corruption.
- Yet implementing those reforms will require cooperation with the royal government, and tensions between the government and the National Assembly have paralyzed policy making in recent years.
- Early signs since the elections suggest that the government may be willing to give some ground, thus restoring a more productive relationship with parliament and bringing the possibility of real change. The alternative is another year of institutional paralysis and more snap elections.
On September 29, Kuwait held general elections for its unicameral parliament. The local chapter of Transparency International monitored the contest, which by all accounts appeared competitive and fair. Opposition-affiliated candidates, primarily from tribal, Islamist, and liberal backgrounds, secured 28 of the 50 contested seats, while nearly two dozen incumbent MPs, mostly pro-government lawmakers, failed to hold their spots. Two female candidates won office—the highest number in a decade.
The new opposition-dominated National Assembly held its opening session on October 18. It has a mandate to undertake landmark reforms and to address popular grievances, above all fighting corruption. Yet although Kuwait’s parliament has more power than its counterparts in other Arab monarchies, it cannot pass legislation without the cooperation of the royally appointed government. The coming months will determine whether the royal government meets the opposition’s demands, thus bringing much-needed reforms and political change to Kuwait, or whether the gridlock that has come to paralyze the country’s politics continues.
POLITICS IN A HYBRID REGIME
Kuwait ranks as the most liberalized autocracy in the Middle East. Its 1.5 million citizens enjoy more associational and civil liberties than most other Arab states offer. Despite an uptick in repression since the Arab Spring, Kuwaitis only occasionally suffer heavy-handed policing. Sensitive talk about royal affairs, national security, and foreign policy is forbidden, but most other issues are fair game. Public spaces and social media burst forth with criticism and satire about how the Kuwaiti state allocates—and often mismanages—its wellspring of oil wealth. Vibrant social movements advance important issues like women’s rights, political reforms, and anti-corruption, the latter of which catalyzed provocative protests during the Arab Spring.
This underscores the paradox of Kuwait’s hybrid regime. On the one hand, this is no democracy. The ruling Sabah dynasty commands the pecuniary and executive powers of an authoritarian monarchy. It has vast oil wealth and controls the judiciary, security forces, and other levers of state power. Hereditary succession, rather than the ballot box, dictates the position of emir, who appoints the government; this prerogative enables senior Sabah princes to monopolize the position of prime minister and other senior offices. Political parties are not legal; MPs must run for office as individuals. And as in other Gulf kingdoms, the rights and prosperity of citizens do not extend to non-nationals, including millions of expatriate workers as well as stateless residents (or bidoon).
Yet on the other hand—and herein lies the significance of last month’s elections—Kuwait also features an elected and pluralistic parliament that serves as the centerpiece for national politics. Unlike elected assemblies in the other Arab monarchies, such as Bahrain, Jordan, or Morocco, Kuwait’s legislature has teeth. MPs frequently form blocs and coalitions to facilitate concerted resistance against the Sabah-led royal establishment. Opposition-minded MPs can challenge the latter by refusing to approve the emir’s government, questioning ministers, withdrawing confidence, and blocking draft laws introduced by the government.
The government cannot pass laws without parliament. But parliament cannot hold sessions to debate legislation or propose reforms unless the government is seated and present. Unless the emir suspends parliament altogether and rules by decree—something that has occurred only twice in Kuwait’s history—policymaking therefore requires a delicate balance between parliament and government.
EMBOLDENED OPPOSITION AND WORSENING GRIDLOCK
That balance, however, has broken down over the past decade as opposition-dominated parliaments have repeatedly clashed with the royal government. Politics has abided by an endless cycle: The emir appoints a new government, which parliamentary opponents challenge; bickering and threats of questioning ministers precipitate cabinet shuffles; snap elections then occur, but the rancor carries over to the new government and parliament. Both Kuwaiti and Western commentators bemoan this stalemate, not least because it has prevented the passing of crucial legislation on public financing, including this year’s budget. This is a pressing issue, given Kuwait’s chronic budget deficits and economic underperformance compared to more prosperous Gulf states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Kuwait’s recent royal succession has not improved matters. In September 2020, Emir Sabah al-Ahmad passed away. The next in line, Crown Prince Nawaf al-Ahmad, was already ailing when he became the new emir, but the changeover elicited some hope for relaxing tensions with the opposition. Soon, however, Emir Nawaf’s half-brother, Crown Prince Mish‘al al-Ahmad, assumed most rulership duties due to the emir’s frailty. Under his watch, relations between government and parliament continued deteriorating. One-time concessions made by the emir last year in the hope of creating dialogue between parliament and government ministers, such as the amnesty of 35 political dissidents, failed to sway critical MPs. Frictions culminated in a parliamentary sit-in this past June, prompting stern warnings from the crown prince that any further political instability would trigger harsh measures. Many Kuwaitis interpreted this as a threat to suspend parliament and rule by decree. Such a move would likely prompt intense popular criticism.
SIGNS OF A SHIFT?
Will these latest elections augur a fundamental shift and break this deadlock? It is too early to tell, but some signs point to yes. In the days after the elections, leading MPs refused to approve the government of Prime Minister Ahmad al-Nawaf, the emir’s son. This proposed cabinet included just one elected MP, the bare minimum required by law, while retaining key figures and conservative officials from the previously detested one.
On October 16, however, the prime minister responded to the opposition’s criticism by presenting a reshuffled government to parliament, swapping a majority of the ministers for new officials. The proposed cabinet notably includes two newly elected MPs, including oppositionist Bader al-Mulla, who has been nominated for the powerful role of oil minister—a position usually held by a Sabah prince, or else by an entrusted state official. The coming weeks will show whether parliament will work with this government, but the surprisingly thorough reshuffle suggests a royal willingness to give ground. The Kuwaiti press, for its part, has raised hope that the two sides can move beyond past conflicts to craft a more productive relationship.
UNDERSTANDING THE STAKES OF OPPOSITION
Elections are crucial to Kuwait’s future because the parliaments they create are central to any future democratic transition. Most Kuwaitis desiring democracy envisage a gradual shift toward constitutional monarchy, whereby the Sabah dynasty would peacefully relinquish its grasp over the state in favor of parliament, which would form the government as in other parliamentary democracies. Such a transformation would require slow, negotiated compromises between opposition in parliament and the regime. It will not likely involve revolution: Most Kuwaitis see the Sabah dynasty as an important national symbol, just like parliament, and desire not to overthrow it but rather to make it more accountable.
Opposition is not new in Kuwait. The country has a rich tradition of pluralism, and many different social forces have contested Sabah rule over the past century. These include wealthy merchants in the 1920s through the 1950s, Arab nationalists in the 1960s and 1970s, Sunni Islamists and Shi‘a voices (the Shi‘a comprise more than a quarter of the citizenry) in the 1980s and 1990s, and a hodgepodge of secular liberals, tribal leaders, popular activists, and Islamists today. Indeed, that the Sabah dynasty allowed for an elected legislature at all upon gaining independence in 1961 was a major concession given to the Kuwaiti opposition at the time.
Traditionally, opposition in parliament has maintained a tense but working relationship with the royal government. The political landscape changed after the 1990-91 Gulf War, however, making cooperation more difficult. One reason is that tribal communities, previously a source of reliable support for the monarchy, became more critical during the 2000s, thanks to a younger generation of more liberal tribal activists seeking economic and political reforms. Another is that elections became flashpoints of national tension. In 2006, civic activists succeeded in recrafting the elections law, which changed a system of 25 two-member districts into one with five 10-member districts and bloc voting. This helped reduce vote-buying and clientelism at the ballot box, since citizens now had a greater number of votes to expend.
Finally, a new generation of dissenting politicians entered the fray in the 2010s. Backed by youthful Kuwaitis inspired by the Arab Spring, these new oppositionists used grassroots campaigns to launch scathing critiques against the royal establishment. They came from diverse backgrounds, from tribal communities to urban liberals to Islamist blocs. This dissident wave attacked royal corruption, led street protests, and amplified its messaging through social media. Some, like former MP Musallam al-Barrak, became so popular that they suffered targeted repression through trumped-up charges. Alongside them stood older oppositionists, like Ahmad al-Saadoun—a former speaker of parliament who heads the largest opposition bloc, the Popular Action Front, and was selected once again as speaker during parliament’s opening session.
Both these older and new wave oppositionists hold the preponderance of seats in the newly elected parliament. Their criticisms of the royal government are driven not by obstructionism for its own sake, however. They continue to advocate for major reforms that, if granted, would further empower the legislature and restrict the domain of royal power.
CRACKING DOWN ON CORRUPTION
The single biggest demand for reform centers upon corruption. Corruption is endemic within the Kuwaiti state, ranging from small-scale malfeasance by civil servants to bribery, extortion, and graft at the highest levels. Both the Kuwaiti public and opposition groups call for the emir and government to launch a sweeping crackdown against these abuses of power. The Arab Barometer’s most recent Kuwait survey showed that a staggering 97.2 percent of citizens believed corruption existed in public institutions, while 51 percent believed authorities were ignoring it.
Troublingly, over the past decade, almost every echelon of the state—princes, judges, ministers, bureaucrats, and other officials—has been implicated in public scandals involving missing money. In November 2019, for instance, then-Prime Minister Jabir al-Mubarak and several other senior Sabah princes were exposed by a secret investigation embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars from the Kuwait Army’s social fund. Yet in March 2022, all were acquitted of charges in a closed-door trial, news that many Kuwaitis on social media treated with disdain. It is little wonder, then, that many Kuwaitis see corruption as one of the greatest threats to the country, but one that royal authorities seem to only selectively prosecute or ignore altogether.
Kuwaiti oppositionists have long called for a comprehensive anti-corruption campaign in response to this problem. They wish to place all public contracts and spending—including deals involving Sabah royals—under exacting parliamentary scrutiny. They also have advocated for drastic legal reforms, such as imposing universal financial disclosure laws for officials and separating the state-run anti-corruption agency from the royally appointed judiciary to give it greater independence.
Corruption is not the only concern fueling parliamentary resistance against the government. Some call for enhancing political freedom, while others target state spending, housing costs, and other economic problems. Still others, like Islamists, emphasize social and cultural issues. And there are some, particularly liberal MPs, who more explicitly call for greater oversight over the monarchy as a stepping stone to constitutional monarchism. Such voices, including newly re-elected MP Hassan Johar and his Bloc of Five opposition group (to which newly appointed oil minister Bader al-Mulla belongs) represent a small but widely respected minority faction in parliament.
The coming months will reveal whether the royal government accedes to any of these demands, thus restoring a more productive relationship with parliament. If it does not, then Kuwaiti politics will revert back to its previous impasse. That may mean another year of institutional paralysis and, possibly, a new round of snap elections. Such a scenario brings a mixed bag for democratic opposition. Kuwaiti activists and opposition MPs will continue mobilizing, campaigning, and dissenting to plead their case with the public. Yet they will not be able to advance any major reforms, because parliament cannot function without the government.
Sean Yom, a nonresident senior fellow with POMED, is an associate professor of political science at Temple University and a specialist in authoritarian regimes and foreign policy in the Arab world. His publications include From Resilience to Revolution: How Foreign Interventions Destabilize the Middle East (Columbia University Press, 2016); The Political Science of the Middle East: Theory and Research since the Arab Uprisings (Oxford University Press, 2022), co-edited with Marc Lynch and Jillian Schwedler; the POMED report “Democratic Reform in Jordan: Breaking the Impasse”; and numerous journal articles on Jordan, Kuwait, and U.S. foreign policy. He is on Twitter @YomSean.