New Government in Kuwait, but No New Politics

On Monday Kuwait announced its sixth government since Sheikh Jaber Mubarak al-Hamad Al Sabah assumed the premiership in 2011. The latest cabinet reshuffle appeared aimed at improving relations with the current parliament (the National Assembly) which is seen as more favorable to the government. Yet almost immediately, members of parliament, once solidly in the pro-government camp, attacked the new formation. The previous speaker of the parliament, Ali al-Rashid, declared the government a failure and urged the premier to resign, even alluding to the fate of the Mubarak government in Egypt.

The ruling family-led government is back in the driver’s seat after a tumultuous few years which saw a pronounced rise in opposition activity driven by youth-led street protests. The current parliament is seen as providing the best opportunity in years to serve the government agenda, or at a minimum, to survive its full term. Yet there are few signs that Kuwait’s dysfunctional politics are at an end. Continued popular discontent provides a rich environment for populist politicians challenging the executive branch. Factionalism within the ruling family may be contributing to confrontations within the National Assembly. A weakened-but-still-resolute opposition has vowed to announce on January 16 a new campaign championing a full parliamentary government.

The reshuffling of the cabinet followed the constitutional court’s rejection of petitions to annul the parliamentary elections of July 2013. The same court had scrapped the last two parliaments—one dominated by the opposition, the other by government loyalists—due to procedural flaws leading up to elections. While the last two elections witnessed boycotts in protest of new voting procedures promulgated unilaterally by the Emir, the most recent elections saw the return of some elements of the opposition, allowing the government to further isolate the rejectionist wing of the protest movement.

Many observers saw this as a golden opportunity for the prime minister to open a new page with an invigorated government program. Most were disappointed. While seven new ministers were sworn in, there were few new faces. Instead, ministers were selected with an eye to appease the current parliament and to consolidate key alliances. In seeking a better working arrangement with the mostly pro-government National Assembly, all ministers facing interpolation by legislators were dropped. This includes the two female ministers—Rula Dashti at the ministry of planning and development, and Dhikra al-Rashidi at the ministry of social affairs and labor—the latter of which was replaced with the new cabinet’s sole female, newcomer Hind al-Sabeeh.

There was an injection of some younger faces at ministries of housing and finance—the two ministries most likely to take political heat. Housing has been declared the government’s top priority after the National Assembly conducted a highly-publicized poll to determine the main concerns of citizens. Yet the new housing minister and sole Shia representative, Yasser Aboul, will face entrenched interests and the unwillingness of the government to surrender new land, conditions that perennially stymie government attempts to meet the rising demand for subsidized homes. Finance Minister Anas al-Saleh has the confidence of the business community, but he will have to deal with the contradiction of parliamentary proposals to raise housing outlays, child subsidies, and military benefits. The International Monetary Fund and previous finance minister have warned of the unsustainability of Kuwait’s fiscal course.

The cabinet also saw a rise in the number of Islamist ministers, notably drawn from the Salafi trend. The Salafi movement in Kuwait has experienced sharp political disagreements between Salafi activists who followed the opposition into the parliamentary boycott and others who counseled greater loyalty to the government. Ali al-Omair, one of the most prominent members of the parliamentary Salafi Alliance, became the second MP brought into the cabinet, appointed to the plum position of oil minister.

The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, continues its stay in the political wilderness, again shut out of top government posts. The Muslim Brotherhood once had members serve in the cabinet, but its relations with the ruling family have worsened under the current Emir. Led by a younger and more activist cadre, the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM), is now solidly in the opposition.

This confrontational stance offers some dangers for the broader Kuwaiti Brotherhood organization given the current regional environment, most notably the crackdown on the Egyptian Brotherhood and it designation as a terrorist organization. The head of Muslim Brotherhood social organization, the Islamic Reform society, issued a statement defending the organization and asserting its independence from international Brotherhood organizations as well as Kuwaiti political societies. The organization is indeed granting greater independence to its political wing, which now forms an integral part of the Opposition Coalition.

The Opposition Coalition—which includes tribal populists, activist Salafis, new youth movements, and some leftists in addition to the Muslim Brotherhood—has been plagued by its own internal divisions and erratic decision-making. The actions of the ruling family-led government, deploying both the carrot of state resources and the stick of legal prosecution, have encouraged defections. The government has also benefitted by a popular desire for stability and national unity as the more promising early years of the Arab Spring have fallen to violence and conflict in Egypt, Libya, and especially Syria.

Still the clearly weakened Opposition Coalition has not yet collapsed. Its leader, the firebrand former parliamentarian, union official, and member or the powerful Mutair tribe, Musallem al-Barrak, has promised to announce a new political program on January 16. It is expected to include calls for constitutional amendments to support the goal of an elected government and full parliamentary system—a political path most Kuwaitis are not yet prepared to follow.

To fully marginalize the opposition the government must show concrete improvements in its ability to execute government programs and provide public services. Most Kuwaitis are pessimistic. The younger generation appears less tolerant of the old ways of doing business. They voice a desire for a new kind of politics: more open to innovation, more public-minded, and less beholden to private interests, or sectarian factionalism. Kuwait’s current political formation—both the government and opposition—seem unable to deliver.

Kristin Diwan is Assistant Professor of Comparative and Regional Studies at the American University School of International Service and a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

Image: Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah and newly appointed Kuwaiti Oil Minister Ali Al-Omair. (Photo: Yasser al-Zayyat)