The political freedoms Kuwait offers are a long way ahead of those of many of its neighbours. Women can vote and stand for election to the country’s parliament. Sunnis, Shias, conservative Islamists and secular liberals have all been elected to the legislature. Any MP who wants to grill members of the country’s executive can do so.
But Kuwait’s democratic system has become a victim of its own success, with a stalemate between MPs and ministers over the past decade. The country’s National Assembly (parliament) has been dissolved four times in the past 10 years.
Three of them happened between 2006 and 2009, one for each year of rule for the current emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah.
Sheikh Sabah’s long-time prime minister, his nephew Sheikh Nasser Mohamed al-Ahmed al-Sabah, has overseen six cabinets since he first took up the position in early 2006.
Much of the blame for the constant turnover of executive and legislative bodies has been laid at the door of combative MPs, who have long complained of corruption in government and pushed to impeach ministers of state and the prime minister himself.
That MPs are in a position to question the credibility of high-ranking members of the ruling family is remarkable in itself, and is in many ways a sign of the good health of the country’s democracy. But without compliance from the cabinet, Kuwait cannot move ahead.
MPs have a constitutional right to question ministers. If ministers refuse to stand up to scrutiny, the cycle of cabinet resignations and parliamentary dissolutions can only continue, and the emir may decide to suspend parliament indefinitely.
Economic progress is a crucial issue and the government has some radical plans for reform. But without further development of the democratic process, the government is unlikely to make much progress with the economy.