Hungry for change

22 October 2004
These are uncertain times for Kuwait's ruling elite. Old age is catching up with Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah and Crown Prince Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah. With both the ruler and his second-in-command in their mid-70s and taking limited roles in public office, the issue of succession is never far from the mind of most Kuwaitis.

'Change will serve Kuwait's interests and stability,' said head of the National Guard Sheikh Salem al-Ali al-Sabah in late September. 'Key changes [would] herald a new era for the Kuwait people and will serve the country and its stability.'

So frank a statement from such an influential figure has fuelled speculation. A consensus is growing that the emir's brother, Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, will replace the ailing crown prince. Such a move would be controversial as the two positions of head of government and heir to the throne were separated only last year, for the first time since 1961.

Certainly, becoming crown prince would cement Sheikh Sabah's position as the leading light in Kuwaiti politics, even if he does not retain his role as premier. Considered a liberal influence, the prime minister has been behind a number of legislative reforms submitted to the National Assembly (parliament) over the past 12 months, and could use his political weight to further promote a reformist regime.

There is a renewed hunger for change, triggered in part by the removal of Saddam Hussein. Last year's parliamentary elections, in which many new MPs were elected, have also acted as an impetus for change.

There are signs that the government is gradually getting to grips with its erratic liberalisation programme. Privatisation is back on the cards, and a programme to stimulate the private sector is in its third year. Legislation to introduce income tax has also been proposed. But a number of reforms have been hampered by the elected assembly. It has been responsible for three ministerial resignations - those of former finance minister Mahmud al-Nouri, Information Minister Mohammed Abu al-Hasan and Justice Minister Ahmed Baqer - since it was elected last year, and although the latter two were subsequently retracted, the assembly has been a constant thorn in the government's side. Parliamentary grillings have proved so successful that Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah has urged his cabinet members not to resign until their term of office expires.

Al-Nouri submitted his resignation earlier in the year after being interrogated by MPs over alleged misuse of public funds. MPs from the parliamentary Islamist bloc accused the minister of failing to terminate Kuwait's investment in Intra, a Lebanese company that has a majority stake in the region's largest casino in Beirut. Islamist independents - political parties are prohibited in Kuwait - make up 21 of the 50-seat National Assembly, and the bloc has been a vociferous opponent of government legislation deemed to be contrary to Islam. In response, the government has sought to mollify the Islamists' concerns by manoeuvring key figures known to have Islamist leanings into important positions, in the hope they can exert a moderating influence on fellow MPs.

Even the early-September oil sector reshuffle had a political dimension. Ahmed al-Arbeed, the former managing director of Kuwait Oil Company (KOC), was put in charge of pushing ahead with the long-delayed Project Kuwait (see pages 34-36). The project, a major upstream initiative, has consistently been the most contentious issue in parliament since it was first proposed in 1998. The government blames the assembly for blocking legislation allowing foreign firms to win the concessions necessary for the project to go ahead. Al-Arbeed may be able to use his influence to ease the passage of the bill, which is expected to be proposed to parliament when it convenes in late October.

The battle of Project Kuw

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