Much attention has been paid in recent months to the improved relationship between Kuwait’s government and members of its National Assembly (parliament). The renewed optimism surrounding the development of the oil-rich state’s economy centres on this improvement. But what led to the turnaround in mood, and more importantly will it last?

Kuwait Parliament 2009 Elections
Islamic (Sunni) Islamic (Shia) Liberal Nationalist Pro-Government
13 8 16 5 8

Historically, the rapport between the governing cabinet – hand-picked by the prime minister, who is himself directly appointed by the Emir – and the democratically elected parliament has been poor. Nationalist and Islamist members of parliament (MPs) have long clashed with the government, which is largely composed of the ruling Al-Sabah family, over issues ranging from press freedoms and obscenity laws to the involvement of international oil companies in the country’s hydrocarbons sector.

Since the current Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohamed al-Ahmed al-Sabah, was first appointed in 2006 by his uncle the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, he and his cabinet have resigned five times and the National Assembly has been dissolved on three occasions.

Thawing relations

The most recent round of resignations and dissolutions came in March 2009, when Sheikh Nasser resigned his post to avoid parliamentary questioning over a series of complaints including alleged inconsistencies in his office’s finances. However, the Emir asked him to stay on and dissolved parliament.

But following the parliamentary elections held in May 2009, observers have noted a slow thaw in the relationship between the legislative and executive arms of the country’s government. In early February, the National Assembly passed the government’s four-year economic development plan, with 53 out of 56 MPs and cabinet members voting in favour of the programme. It was the first long-term programme to be passed in more than 20 years.

“There is huge support for this plan,” a senior member of the government’s planning committee told MEED on 3 February, a day after the vote. “It is a real change from the past few years. The vote was almost completely unanimous.”

Businessmen and politicians in the country point to three changes as being central to the improving relationship. First was the appointment in May of a more liberal parliament, which is open to the government’s plans. The second was the groundswell of public opinion that turned against some of the government’s most outspoken critics in 2009. And last was the return of former oil minister Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Ahmad al-Sabah to government.

Ahmad is a smart guy.He’s getting things done. What he needs to do now is work hard to get the public onside

Kamel al-Harami, economic analyst

In the May poll four women MPs were elected to parliament for the first time, not just in Kuwait but in the Gulf. The appearance of Massouma al-Mubarak, Salwa al-Jassar, Aseel al-Awadhi, and Rola Dashti in parliament has inspired confidence in many that real change is afoot in Kuwait.

Islamic groups dominated parliament in 2008 and 2009, but they suffered at the hands of the electorate, and most of the new MPs are seen as taking a more liberal stance. In particular, only one out of four MPs from the conservative Sunni Islamic group Hadas was returned to parliament.

Of the 50 MPs elected in Kuwait’s five districts in May 2009, 20 were changes from elections in May 2008. Of these, 15 had never been elected into the legislature before. Pro-government and liberal MPs now make up about 48 per cent of parliament, and according to Dashti there is now enough support for “sensible” government legislation approval that Sheikh Nasser can count on a majority in parliament for most of his plans.

Key fact: Of the 50 MPs elected in Kuwait’s five districts on 16 May 2009, 20 were changed from elections in 2008

Turning tide

A source close to the government says the election results also gave Sheikh Nasser’s government a sign that public opinion had turned against the politicians, who had brought years of debate and internal wrangling but little in the way of real development. With parliament changed, it was now up to the executive to prove that it was up to the job.

“The people have spoken; they have asked for change,” local economic analyst and former oil industry executive Kamel al-Harami said at the time. “The challenge now is for the government to take it from here. We need a prime minister with a vision who can pick ministers who are experts in their field.”

However, the Emir dashed the hopes of many in returning Sheikh Nasser to the premiership in May. The prime minister in turn selected a cabinet little changed from that which had resigned alongside him two months earlier. Given the lack of change in the government, seen by many as both toothless and directionless, businessmen and politicians alike expected the government to remain incapable of pushing through any major investment plans, such as a $15bn refinery or the long-mooted development programme.

But according to observers with close ties to the country’s political establishment, it was the appointment of former oil minister Sheikh Ahmad to the post of deputy premier for economic affairs, domestic affairs minister and housing minister that proved the greatest catalyst for change.

Sheikh Ahmad left the oil ministry in 2006 under intense pressure from opposition MPs, but after three years as director of Kuwait’s National Security Agency he has learned a lot about building consensus in parliament, says one highly placed businessman.

“Ahmad is a smart guy,” says Al-Harami. “He’s getting things done and he can move MPs. What he needs to do now is work hard to get the public onside.”

Sheikh Nasser has also been working on improving his image, the government source says. The prime minister’s decision to face a parliamentary interrogation in December 2009 made him the first Gulf leader to directly answer criticism from elected officials.

The questioning was part of a day-long, scrutiny of four cabinet members, which ended with Sheikh Nasser winning a confidence vote – a huge boost to him politically, which also garnered considerable public support.

The passage of the development plan, which will run from 2010-14, was not just a sign that parliament was backing the government, says one Kuwaiti oil industry executive. It was also proof that Sheikh Nasser’s government was capable of providing a genuine long-term strategy for the country.

The plan is part of a wider programme known as Kuwait Vision 2035, which will run in five-year phases for the next 25 years. The current phase sets out clear goals in terms of infrastructure development and the involvement of the private sector, while intentions for the subsequent 21 years are more aspirational, say sources who have seen more details of the plan.

Tony Blair Associates, run by the former UK prime minister, helped prepare the framework for the first part of the plan and the overall ambitions of the 25 year plan, and is now working with Sheikh Nasser’s office on the development of the second phase.

“It is definitely the right idea,” says a source who has seen the vision statement. However, he adds, the plan is still just a plan. “It’s all great on paper, but let’s see how it works out.”

Challenges remain

Although the government has found politicians willing to push through legislation, it still faces MPs’ fresh calls for ‘grillings’, as some are keen to undermine Sheikh Nasser’s authority.

Two of his long-term adversaries Ahmad al-Sadoun and Musallam al-Barrak, of the secular nationalist group Popular Action Bloc, were returned to the National Assembly in May 2009. In February, Islamist MP Ali al-Deqbasi filed a request to interogate the emirate’s information and oil minister, Sheikh Ahmad Abdullah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, over television programmes screened on satellite channels, which he deems offensive to tribal groups.

The information minister will stand up to questioning, sources close to the government say. Once the ‘grilling’ has been completed, he will face a no-confidence vote. If he does not gain support of the National Assembly, it could upset the government’s plans.

Other challenges also remain. A controversial bill called for the government to pay off up to $25bn of personal debt will also be up for debate in the coming year, with the Emir likely to veto the law, which has already been approved by parliament. In a year when the government is keen to push through an expansionary budget, it may find it difficult to justify this to some MPs, especially after eight years of continuous multibillion dollar budget surpluses. The chief argument for wiping debt out is that Kuwaiti citizens do not see enough of the vast oil and gas revenues the country raises.

The return of international oil companies to the country’s oil and gas sector, following UK/Dutch Shell group signing a new enhanced technical services agreement with state oil and gas producer Kuwait Oil Company in February, is also likely to be a source of debate among nationalists.

The planned retender of construction deals on a $15bn refinery project at Al-Zour is likely to attract some controversy. The original contracts were cancelled in March 2009 amid criticism of the way they were awarded.

Political change, however, is a lengthy process, says one senior lawyer based in Kuwait City. “Are things going to improve here in six weeks or six months?” he asks. “No. But maybe over six years. That is how things work.”

Kuwait’s democracy is still relatively young, and remains the most open in the region. The level of debate is far beyond anything possible in other Gulf states. If Sheikh Nasser’s government is able to maintain the current balance between development and public discussions over the role of government, it could become a model for the region in the freedoms it offers.

“In some ways, the existence of a lively political life helps the Emir’s plan to transform Kuwait in the coming years into a financial and commercial hub for the region,” wrote leading Kuwaiti academic Abdullah al-Shayji in February 2009. “[There is] a new saying in the Gulf: ‘Kuwait is the past, Dubai the present, and Qatar the future.’ Surely this is too harsh a judgment of the Kuwaiti experiment, which deserves more serious examination and revision so that it can again become a workable model and inspiration to the region.”