Kuwait’s National Assembly convenes on 15 February following the election held on 2 February. After nearly two weeks of feverish speculation, a new government was appointed by the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, on 14 February. The Cabinet contained ten new ministers (out of 16) but notably did not include any representative of the Islamist-led opposition bloc in the National Assembly. Nor did it contain any women, who are consequently unrepresented in the Cabinet for the first time since they were granted the vote in 2005, just as they are now absent from the National Assembly after the four female MPs elected (for the first time) in 2009 failed to win re-election.
It remains to be seen how long the new government of Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak Al-Sabah survives; the 2 February election was Kuwait’s fourth in the last six years. Sheikh Jaber was appointed the caretaker Prime Minister in December 2011 after persistent street protests and an escalating corruption scandal brought down the government led by the previous Prime Minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed Al-Sabah.
The results of the 2 February election reflected deep levels of frustration and even anger among Kuwaiti voters with the current governing class. Although formal political parties do not exist, MPs affiliated with opposition blocs won a landslide victory, claiming up to 34 of the 50 parliamentary seats, of which the various Islamist groups took 23. This gives the new National Assembly significant leverage over the government as it can force votes of no-confidence in ministers (up to and including the Prime Minister himself) with a simple majority vote of 26 MPs. With no shortage of issues dividing the appointed government from the elected parliament, future clashes seem inevitable, and do not portend a stable political outlook.
Indeed, the major opposition blocs held marathon talks among themselves on 13 February to formulate the terms of any decision to accept any Cabinet positions that might be offered to them (as per the Kuwaiti constitution, each Cabinet must contain at least one elected MP). The talks among 36 opposition and independent MPs resulted in a demand for nine Cabinet positions to give them a majority in the 16-member government, as the price of their agreeing to enter into (and work with) the government. After only being offered three positions (which still would have been a milestone in Kuwaiti politics), the opposition blocs declined to join, leaving just one MP (Shuaib al-Muwaizri) independently joining the Cabinet as Minister for Housing and Parliamentary Affairs.
Looking beyond the election results and the composition of the new Cabinet, several deeper issues stand out. One is that talk in the few days immediately prior to the announcement of the new government that the positions of First Deputy Prime Minister or Minister of Interior might be allocated to non-members of the ruling family did not materialise. In Kuwait, as in the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, the so-called ‘sovereign ministries’ of Interior, Defence, and Foreign Affairs, have long been the preserve of the ruling family, and the appointment of non-royals to these positions would have represented a significant departure-point. Yet it did not take place, with both positions being filled by a senior ruling Sheikh (Ahmed Humoud al-Jaber Al-Sabah) amid reports that the ruling family was divided over the issue, with strong familial opposition being reported by local newspapers. After having raised the prospect of their appointment (which also became an issue during the election campaign itself), the question now is one of whether (and to what extent) the ruling family will be prepared to concede or share political power in Kuwait.
This is important as it ties into the fractious relationship between the government and parliament. With an opposition-led National Assembly largely unrepresented in the government, the chances for an end to Kuwait’s repeated political crises are slim. The new contours of political opposition became clear on 15 February when veteran opposition MP Ahmed al-Sadoun swept to victory in the race to become Speaker. He defeated his liberal opponent, Mohammad al-Sager, by a resounding margin of 38-26 (reflecting the fact that 14 appointed members of the Cabinet also were able to vote). The fact that al-Sadoun gained 38 votes, all almost certainly coming from the 50 elected MPs, is an indication of the likely scale and depth of parliamentary opposition to the new government. This was reflected in comments made by the high-profile Islamist MP, Waleed Al-Tabtabai, referring to the new government as ‘like a caretaker cabinet.’ Fault-lines have already opened up over Islamist declarations of intent to amend the constitution to make Sharia law ‘the’ rather than ‘a’ source of legislation.
Against this backdrop of continuing political uncertainty and blockages to development, the Governor of the Central Bank of Kuwait abruptly resigned on 13 February, apparently in protest at the rapid rise of government spending and its dangerous implications for long-term fiscal sustainability. Sheikh Salem Abdulaziz Al-Sabah had been in his position for more than 25 years, and his sudden departure hints at disquiet among the senior levels of the ruling family and governing classes over the direction of political and economic developments in Kuwait. Government spending has more than trebled over the past decade of high oil prices, but much it has gone into unproductive public sector wages, subsidies, and grants, further increasing the difficulty of eventually transforming the Kuwaiti economy from one reliant on a comparative advantage in hydrocarbons resources to a competitive economy based on human and social capital.
This provided a sobering reminder of the challenges facing the new Cabinet and National Assembly. Years of political paralysis have held back the economic development and diversification schemes so urgently needed, both to cushion the eventual transition away from overwhelming reliance on oil, and in order to keep up in a region marked by intense and fast-paced competition from Qatar and Abu Dhabi, in particular. The unprecedented size of the street demonstrations last autumn, and the signal achievement of securing the resignation of an unpopular Prime Minister has energised public and political opposition in Kuwait, and this was dramatically revealed in the electoral outcome on 2 February. In this context, renewed clashes between an empowered Assembly and a defensive government seemingly unable to draw on parliamentary support for its actions, seem all but inevitable.