Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Kuwait: Democracy in Crisis

While considered a "democratic oasis" in the Gulf, Kuwait’s democracy remains incomplete with significant executive authority vested in the emir.

Kuwait Democracy in Crisis
Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad al-Sabah. YASSER AL-ZAYYAT / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

In May 2024, Kuwait’s Emir Meshaal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah surprised his citizens by dissolving the National Assembly, the country’s legislative authority, and suspending the implementation of some constitutional provisions for up to four years.

The suspended provisions included those granting the National Assembly the power to legislate and approve the emir’s decisions. Articles setting deadlines for holding National Assembly elections were also suspended.

Legislative authority now rests solely with the emir until the decision’s effects expire. The government continues to be headed by the emir’s nephew, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, who was appointed in April 2024.

Consequently, the Al-Sabah family controls both the legislative and executive powers, effectively eliminating popular participation in governance.

Fear of the Democratic Model

Kuwait’s emir expressed his concerns about the country’s model of democracy when he issued a statement dissolving the National Assembly and suspending the Constitution. Al-Sabah highlighted the presence of parties that “exploit democracy to destroy the state,” and emphasized the need to study “all aspects of the democratic process and submit the results of the study and review” to the emir.

According to Al-Sabah, the goal of reconsidering the democratic experience is to work toward amending the Constitution, which has remained unchanged for the past 62 years.

The emir’s statement did not specify the mechanism for amending the Constitution or the party responsible for ratifying its amendment. With the National Assembly dissolved and constitutional articles imposing election deadlines suspended, the emir alone can manage and lead any efforts to amend the Constitution without any external participation. This allows the emir to unilaterally determine the rules of the political game before returning to the traditional parliamentary system.

The dissolution of the National Assembly is not uncommon in Kuwait.

Due to tensions between the Council and successive governments, the National Assembly has been dissolved 12 times since 2005, a span of just 19 years, by a royal decree. Since 2022, Kuwaitis have had to re-elect the National Assembly three times, the last election occurring in early April 2024, just a month before the recent dissolution.

However, what is surprising and unprecedented this time is the complete suspension of parliamentary life by freezing the articles of the Constitution.

Citing Political Unrest

To justify his escalatory step against the National Assembly, the emir cited recent unrest in the Kuwaiti political scene, referring to the fierce confrontations between the executive and legislative authorities in recent years. He noted that this trend had been evident since he delivered his inauguration speech as emir in December 2023, where he accused both authorities of harming the country’s interests with their repeated disagreements.

Al-Sabah’s dissatisfaction with these disputes mirrored the sentiments of the Kuwaiti public, which has long linked the rapid dissolution of successive governments and parliaments to the absence of strategic planning, the inefficacy of government institutions and instability in public policies.

For instance, by early 2024, Kuwait had witnessed the formation of seven successive governments within a period of less than three years, highlighting the impact of political turmoil on the longevity and effectiveness of these administrations.

Al-Sabah presented his decision to the Kuwaiti people as a decisive action against the chaos resulting from this situation, pointing to the National Assembly’s “excessive” use of interrogation rights “in every small and large matter.” He was alluding to a group of Kuwaiti representatives who, just days before Parliament was dissolved, gathered to threaten the official tasked with forming the government with an “immediate” interrogation of his ministers if he did not meet certain conditions in his ministerial formation.

Incomplete Democracy

Among all the Arab Gulf states, Kuwait has historically stood out for its effective parliamentary life, leading some to consider it a “democratic oasis” in a region dominated by absolute monarchies. The Kuwaiti Constitution explicitly declares the state’s system of government as “democratic” and incorporates the concept of “nation sovereignty” from the literature of the French Revolution.

However, it is an exaggeration to describe the Kuwaiti political system as a full democracy or even a constitutional monarchy akin to those in some Western countries. The ruling family retains significant power compared to constitutional monarchies or fully integrated democracies.

For instance, the emir wields the authority to dissolve the National Assembly or dismiss the prime minister and his government if the Assembly is unable to “cooperate with the Council of Ministers,” as stipulated in the Constitution. This makes the emir an arbiter in the frequent disputes between the executive and legislative branches, a role that has been prominent since Kuwait’s independence. Even without such disputes, the emir retains the prerogative to dissolve the Assembly or dismiss the government at any time, should he deem it necessary.

Moreover, the emir is involved in both executive and legislative functions as outlined in the Constitution. He appoints the prime minister and, based on the prime minister’s proposals, other ministers. The premiership is always held by a member of the ruling Al-Sabah family, ensuring that the executive branch remains under the family’s control.

In legislative matters, the emir has the power to sign and issue laws after their approval by the National Assembly, as “no law shall be issued unless the National Assembly approves it and the emir ratifies it.” The emir can veto any law passed by the Assembly.

In addition, convening sessions of the National Assembly is among the emir’s duties, and he can postpone sessions if he chooses. In urgent situations, the emir can issue decrees with the force of law unilaterally and can suspend the Constitution to commandeer legislative authority, as has occurred recently.

Orléanist Parliamentary System

The Kuwaiti political system cannot be completely described as authoritarian, nor can the civil and political rights granted by the Kuwaiti Constitution be ignored in comparison to other Gulf Arab systems.

The scope of freedom granted to the local press is considered wide compared to most neighboring countries, although this freedom ends when it comes to criticizing the emir or the ruling family. Political life in Kuwait has also witnessed diversity, including liberal, conservative, and Arab and Islamic nationalist trends (both Sunni and Shiite), which is usually reflected in the composition of the National Assembly after each election.

Regarding political participation, the National Assembly retains the power to cast a vote of confidence in ministers after submitting interpellations, enabling it to achieve a minimum level of accountability. The National Assembly has exercised this authority effectively in the past.

However, it is important to note that the National Assembly does not have the power to dismiss the government, withdraw confidence from its president or give the government a vote of confidence upon its appointment. All these powers remain the prerogative of the emir alone.

This situation prompts some to describe the Kuwaiti system as an Orléanist parliamentary system, akin to some old European monarchies before the French Revolution which combined parliamentary representation with the king retaining executive power.

In this sense, the government becomes more of a facade that the prince places before parliamentary accountability, rather than authority being expressed through popular representation embodied in parliament, as is the case with modern parliamentary systems or constitutional monarchies.

As a result, the powers of the Kuwaiti Parliament – the National Assembly – are very limited, even when compared to some other Arab monarchies that rely on parliamentary representation, such as Jordan and Morocco.

Political System Problems and Causes of Political Unrest

The Kuwaiti political system provides a framework for understanding the recurring political unrest, as evidenced by the frequent collapse of successive governments and parliaments. The National Assembly, striving to establish itself as a partner in political decision-making and strategic planning, faces governments that neither represent it nor the representative democracy produced by elections.

Instead, these governments reflect the power dynamics imposed by the ruling family, opposing both the National Assembly and representative democracy.

This dynamic is the primary cause of persistent tensions between the legislative and executive branches, characterized by mutual intrigues and conflicts. The nature of this system also explains the presence of a permanent opposition majority within the National Assembly, in contrast to the governments appointed by the emir. This opposition keeps the Assembly in a constant state of turmoil, contradicting the essence of a parliamentary system, which mandates the formation of power from a parliamentary majority with its own political agenda.

In such an environment, the goal of the majority in the National Assembly shifts from producing a government that reflects its aspirations to imposing decisions that serve the electoral interests of representatives, engaging in media showmanship through repeated interrogations, or political blackmail. This has led to widespread dissatisfaction among Kuwaitis with the nature of debates within the National Assembly.

Therefore, it can be argued that the ongoing political unrest in Kuwait stems from the limited scope of the democratic experiment and the restricted popular and democratic representation in government. It is neither fair nor accurate to claim that the crisis is due to the Kuwaitis’ lack of preparedness for democracy or their misuse of democratic tools, as the emir suggested in his speech.

Analyses and Feedback

Reactions and analyses of Al-Sabah’s move varied both within and outside Kuwait. Internally, activists and journalists approached the decision with caution and composure, advocating for its limited impact and duration, and emphasizing the preservation of the country’s democratic achievements. Many expressed hopes for the emir’s return to activating pending constitutional articles without compromising freedom of expression.

Externally, Al-Sabah received significant support from his royal counterparts in the Arab Gulf states. Certain media outlets, aligned with these counterparts, characterized the decision as a justified response to perceived abuses of democracy in Kuwait. Some observers suggested that the Kuwaiti emir, who assumed power just five months prior to the dissolution of the National Assembly, is aligning his governance approach with that of younger royals in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

This approach involves consolidating control over influential sectors in preparation for ambitious development and economic initiatives, aimed at addressing internal challenges.

It’s important to consider the timing of the decision and the prevailing political circumstances. Al-Sabah’s move coincided with a period where many Arab regimes were wary of the popularity of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and certain Shiite factions with ties to Iran’s foreign policies. The ruling family in Kuwait has historically been sensitive to the influence of these groups within its borders and their impact on Kuwaiti political dynamics.

Therefore, the emir’s decision can be interpreted as a preemptive measure to forestall any significant opposition that may impede the country’s foreign policy objectives.

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