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The emir and crown prince of Kuwait will soon mark two years in power with freshly minted institutions: a new prime minister and government along with a prospective Parliament and attorney general. These measures are the outcome of Emir Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah’s speech in June – delivered by Crown Prince Meshal al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah. The speech ushered in a new doctrine: one thus far marked by a “system pause” that however does not preclude “forceful measures.”
The June speech contained many firsts. The emir affirmed his resolute adherence to the constitution in a very detailed manner outlining various ways it could be contravened, all of which he asserted he would not resort to. Second, the emir committed not to interfere in the upcoming elections, including that of the speaker of parliament. Third, the emir highlighted his role above the three branches, stressing that the direct management of the country is relegated to the executive and legislative branches. Fourth, he openly critiqued the government. Fifth, the emir framed the dissolution of Parliament as a decision he made at the people’s request. Finally, and most important, the speech contained a veiled reference to “forceful measures” if there is a “return to what we were in” in reference to the events of the past few years.
The overarching theme of the speech was “correcting Kuwait’s political path,” a phrase that frequently appeared in the speech. But can this path be set without radical reforms initiated by the leadership? And if standoff and stagnation continue after elections, will there be a temptation and rationale set for “forceful measures” that could take Kuwait off its constitutional bearings?
A Strategic “System Pause”?
Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy that defies politics as usual. A site of contentious politics that has fallen prey to itself, Kuwait uneasily blends elements of presidential and parliamentary systems in a region unaccustomed to either.
The turnover to a new national leadership in 2020 was an opportunity for a reset. But operating under the same manual – one largely devised by the late emir – was a tempting interim step with elections around the corner. Instead of the December 2020 election results dictating the direction of leadership positions, both the prime minister and speaker of parliament remained in position. Yet they were at odds with an increasingly growing parliamentary opposition. That colored the tense events of 2021.
While the executive and legislative branches engaged in their usual bickering, the new leadership was quietly working out elements of its transition. New personnel came first following a mass departure of the late emir’s appointees and induction of new faces across the royal courts. A second noticeable transition moment was the emir’s endorsement of a national dialogue and his subsequent granting of a calculated amnesty for 36 individuals. More was expected from the dialogue, but no breakthrough was forthcoming largely due to its implementation by the same political class that instigated the tensions. The attempt to broker a compromise, therefore, did not result in a fundamental change in the country’s volatile environment.
Notwithstanding this missed opportunity, the move gave some breathing space for the country and its political class. This divides 2021, the emir’s first full year in power, into two contrasting periods. The unprecedented escalation of the first six months was met by a stark de-escalatory trend during the latter part of 2021. But reverting to business as usual in 2022 was inevitable because neither an inclusive dialogue nor total amnesty were forthcoming and root causes of tensions were not addressed.
The repeat mode (government formation, interpellations, government resignation) may have also frustrated the country’s incoming leadership, spurring the rise of its new doctrine starting with an elongated pause in the system: a government and Parliament in limbo since the government’s resignation in early April. Intended or not, the “pause” is a new intervention in a system hostage to an addictive repeat mode. The pause strategy serves multiple ends and can be read in different ways. Opposition members of parliament viewed the pause as an assault on the constitution and a precursor to suspending some of its clauses. This led a majority of the members of parliament to participate in a well-calculated sit-in protest in Parliament and host heavily attended lectures at their diwaniyas across the five electoral districts.
Another view of the pause was relayed in the June speech: It gave the leadership the opportunity to “pause, contemplate, and reconsider,” leading to the formulation of its doctrine. The pause also attempted to break the political system’s addictive cyclicality. In contrast to the late emir’s frequent recourse to parliament dissolutions and prompt naming of prime ministers and other officials, the pause comes at the other end of the spectrum. The leadership employed patience as a political tool in the hopes it would defuse tensions and provide breathing space for all parties to remember and internalize the intended purposes of Kuwait’s political order as embodied in the constitution. The new leadership tolerated the slow formation of four governments under its watch in less than two years but did not readily revert to dissolution, even if it meant – for now – adopting a third way that neither ignores nor readily implements the letter of the constitution.
Several commentaries claimed the June speech ended the associated tensions. But the speech did not break the pause. It instead rationalized it and even offered a roadmap, revealing a new doctrine in the making characterized by two paths: “pause” and “forceful measures.”
A “System Reset” Through Radical Reforms
A pause in itself is insufficient to renew Kuwait. This was implicitly recognized in the speech – it framed the next elections as a last chance to avoid the status quo before the regime resorts to “forceful measures.” The political system, the malpractices of the past, and the ensuing culture are more prone to reproducing conflict (the status quo) than conciliation. Unaccompanied by a system overhaul and drastic reforms, asking people to “choose wisely” in the next elections is an invitation to repeat mode. It is not because the people are not aware of the challenges confronting them – they are, especially the youth majority. But the system does not give them the bandwidth to operate freely in light of restrictive electoral laws, shrinking freedoms of expression, and multiple identities competing with the national one.
A call for national unity is politically correct but devoid of meaning without firm government policies that uphold and advance it. Decades of mismanagement and imprudent policies cannot be eradicated in time for an election cycle in less than six weeks. That is why the speech is possibly setting the stage for a system reset if conflict resurfaces after the inauguration of the next government and Parliament. The return of tensions would culminate an elongated pause that has largely characterized the past two years.
The new government can do a lot during the pause phase to avert a move to “forceful measures.” It should champion radical reforms like repealing laws that restrict freedoms; pursuing an administrative overhaul by abolishing the civil service bureau and upending employment in the public sector; reorienting the wealth distribution mechanism with equitable rent distribution via stocks, not salaries; uprooting leadership, especially at the undersecretary and assistant undersecretary levels; entrusting youth with sensitive files; seeking a general amnesty from the emir for politically motivated cases; reinstating the 2006 electoral law while paving the way for comprehensive electoral law reform that regulates political parties; liberalizing lands and initiating speedy construction; abolishing the tenders law and kafala system; and, most important, reformulating the nationality law to resolve citizenship issues regarding the bidun population. Such urgent policy initiatives should be forcefully lobbied at Parliament and transparently executed by an agile, capable, and harmonious government team.
What the incoming Parliament can do meanwhile is shun the personalization of politics, work on a realistic reform program, and heed the emir’s plea for cooperation with the executive branch. This can translate into different behaviors, such as avoiding the early interpellation of the new prime minister. But the Parliament can only do that if there is a willing partner on the other side of the aisle – a capable statesman envisioning and advancing a new Kuwait.
The Temptation of “Forceful Measures”
Being cautiously hopeful is necessary given Kuwait’s instability and inertia. But precedent, the festering of old school thinking, and the limitations of Kuwait’s political system suggest that the executive branch will not deliver what is needed in time, and Parliament will not easily forgo its oversight powers. That would mean an end to the pause phase and the return of the status quo: paralysis, inept government, and a rowdy Parliament. Kuwait would then witness the second route of the new doctrine – the “forceful measures” – alluded to in the June speech. The reset would avoid a senseless repeat mode and come after exhausting the pause strategy.
One possible reading of “forceful measures” is resorting to martial law (or Article 69 of the constitution). Martial law has been declared twice: in 1967 for seven months amid the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and in 1991 for three months following liberation from Iraq. The constitution does not specify the types of emergencies that might call for martial law, leaving it to law no. 22 of 1967. Four of the five scenarios justifying martial law relate to security or external threats. Article 1 notably includes a fifth scenario: domestic unrest. Therefore, martial law in the coming months is not farfetched if tensions resurface, and Kuwait’s repeat mode is back in motion.
Article 69 stipulates parliamentary approval for this move within 15 days if in session or at its first meeting thereafter. Meanwhile, Article 181 safeguards the Parliament from martial law in that the government cannot dissolve Parliament after declaring martial law. But Parliament can be dissolved right before declaring martial law and the suspension of certain clauses of the constitution then enter into effect based on the powers vested under martial law per Article 181. That means two months of martial law could pass without parliamentary oversight until elections take place per Article 107. Any variation of this scenario is possible, and it depends on duration and choice of suspended clauses.
If this takes place without discussion with Parliament and civil society and absent a clear roadmap featuring radical reform during the martial law phase, the move will likely cause discontent among the population. These scenarios are hypothetical in the absence of a clear directive on the issue but demonstrate the significance of the June speech for what it clearly states and, more important, what it merely implies.
Hope and Dread Await New Era in Kuwait
Kuwait’s “new doctrine” has the potential to usher in a new era. It can lead to radical change for the better, further decay, or entrenchment of the deadlocked status quo. The stakes are high for Kuwait and advocates of representative politics in the region.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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