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MENASource May 20, 2024

Parliament was dissolved in Kuwait and hardly anyone noticed

By Richard LeBaron

Perhaps because of the intense focus on other parts of the Middle East—particularly the ongoing Gaza war—the rest of the world took only passing notice of the May 10 suspension of parliament by the recently appointed Kuwaiti Emir, Sheikh Mishal al-Ahmed al-Sabah. The reasons for the suspension are unique to Kuwaiti internal politics, but boil down to the ruler deciding that the parliament, elected on April 4, was exceeding its authority and impeding economic progress. The conflict between the opposition-dominated parliament and the appointed cabinet is not new, and this is not the first time the parliament has been suspended. Suspensions also occurred in 1976 and 1986, and no parliament has served a full term since 2016.

The emir’s move certainly did not evoke a strong public reaction from Kuwaitis themselves. They are not known for manning the barricades in political protest, and some of them are likely just as frustrated as their emir with the lack of progress in the country—a country that is simultaneously wonderfully rich and utterly unable to diversify its economy away from producing oil and managing the cash that oil sales produce. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that Kuwait’s real gross domestic product will actually decline by 1.4 percent in 2024, lagging behind its Gulf partners. Partly because of opposition in parliament, Kuwait has not been a welcoming destination for foreign investment. Kuwaitis and foreign investors still recall the 2008 cancellation of a $17-billion Dow Chemical investment in petrochemicals as emblematic of the difficult environment for major foreign investment.


Other Kuwaitis are likely waiting to see how strong the repression will be. A well-known Islamist and former member of parliament, Walid al-Tabtabaie, was arrested a day after the suspension on May 11, reportedly for a tweet suggesting foreign interference in Kuwaiti affairs—in other words, Gulf state support for the emir’s actions. Although Tabtabaie will likely consider his arrest a badge of honor, it will also serve as a warning to others who might consider publicly opining on their leadership’s actions. However, Kuwaitis will not abandon their tradition of having a say in their politics. They can be expected to find ways over time to express themselves and demand accountability from the ruling Sabah family.

Regional reaction has also been muted. Uniquely, Emirati President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed quickly called his Kuwaiti counterpart to offer his support, noting the utmost value of stability. The sultan of Oman, Haithan bin Tariq, was in Kuwait for a previously scheduled state visit ending May 14. He did not comment on internal Kuwaiti matters, but there was some press spin that the visit was a show of support for Sabah’s moves. Other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and regional leaders have been silent, perhaps quietly pleased that Kuwait’s longtime experience with a parliament with some genuine power has been quashed for the moment.

And what about the United States’ reaction to the backsliding of democratic norms in Kuwait? No public statements emerged from the White House or the US Department of State. An anonymous State Department official told me, “We are aware of the developments regarding the Kuwaiti parliament suspension and are monitoring the situation closely.”

In other words, this is not a fight the United States will pick. The reasons for this reticence could range from a simple lack of bandwidth to deal with what is considered a relatively minor matter in the Middle East to a more serious weighing of current priorities. Sabah is known as a reliable security partner, and Kuwait has been a generous and flexible host for US military installations. Thousands of US Army personnel have served at or passed through Camp Arifjan, and Ali al-Salem Air Base has provided a key hub for US aircraft.

Although Kuwait and Bahrain reportedly asked the United States not to use bases located on their soil for any attacks on Iran in reaction to its April 13 retaliation against Israel—which came in response to the killing of senior members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) at  Iran’s embassy compound in Syria—these bases remain extremely useful.

But it is not impossible to balance concerns for security and stability with support for political liberalization. On April 15, Kuwait celebrated the nineteenth anniversary of Kuwaiti women achieving the right to vote, prompted by the George W. Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” in the Middle East. That very year, the United States was also pursuing a major war in Iraq, with Kuwait as the critical entry point for US forces. At the time, President Bush was instrumental in convincing Emir Sheikh Sabah to push this measure through the Kuwait parliament. Liz Cheney, a State Department official at that time, came to Kuwait to celebrate the granting of female suffrage.

Democracy mattered then. It still matters now. 

Ambassador (ret) Richard LeBaron is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as US Ambassador to Kuwait and in a number of other senior diplomatic positions in the Middle East and Washington. He is a member of the Advisory Council of Global Ties US. Follow him on X: @RBLeBaron.

Further reading

Image: A Kuwaiti citizen drops his ballot into a transparent box after voting to elect new candidates for members of Parliament, in Kuwait City, Kuwait, April 4, 2024. REUTERS/Stephanie McGehee