Key fact

In the past five years, there have been six governments, three elections and three dissolutions of parliament

Source: MEED

For a country once viewed with envy by its Gulf neighbours, few Kuwaitis are celebrating its slow steps towards a genuine constitutional monarchy. At the moment, disarray seems to be the order of the day. A hung parliament, dissolved parliament, boxing, wrestling, fights and circus stunts – the Kuwaiti political scene has witnessed it all over the past five years.

Democracy in Kuwait stopped in the 1960s and 70s … Now, parliament just looks like it is after revenge

Kuwait oil industry source

“Democracy in Kuwait stopped in the 1960s and 70s. It was great then, but the people have changed and the government did not develop to keep apace,” says a source in Kuwait’s oil industry. “Now, parliament just looks like it is after revenge.”

The National Assembly was the scene of chaos in mid-May when a debate over Kuwaitis held at the US’ Guantanamo Bay prison camp descended into a brawl between Shiite and Sunni parliamentarians. Kuwait’s newspapers ran various scathing reports on the incident.

“Our parliamentarians displayed their hidden talents. I have to stand corrected when I previously accused them of being good for nothing – they are value for money when it comes to entertainment,” wrote Ziad Alyan in the Kuwait Times.

Heightened tension

Embarrassing as it was, the fist fight came amid a heightened sense of tension between the two groups after Kuwait dispatched naval forces to its neighbour Bahrain to help quell a Shiite-led protest movement. Shiites make up almost a third of Kuwait’s 1.1 million population.

For now, the excitement has passed. Parliament is on its summer recess and will resume in October. In the meantime, a committee has been formed to investigate the tension between the legislative and executive branches.

Gradual and negotiated reform has been part of Kuwaiti politics for many years. The country’s reform record in the past decade has been relatively significant. In 2006, women were given the right to vote and run for parliamentary seats. At present, there are four female MPs. Kuwait has also opened itself up, changing its press laws to allow new newspapers to be published and breaking the government’s monopoly on television media with the launch of the privately owned Al-Rai channel in 2004.

But reform tends to be issue specific and focused on domestic issues. One of the reasons for this is the general support for the basic outline of Kuwait’s political system – respect for the ruling Sabah family and the constitution.

Kuwait’s cabinet is formed without the need for a vote of confidence from parliament. Once formed, parliament can question its ministers – a formal procedure in which ministers appear personally to answer questions – and if it is not satisfied, it can withdraw its confidence in a minster. The prime minister usually stands above this, but parliament has the option of non-cooperation, leading to the appointment of a new premier, or dissolution of parliament and new elections. This is what has led to the political crisis of the past five years.

Parliament has been aggressive in the questioning of ministers, a process known as grilling in Kuwaiti political parlance, particularly when it comes to public spending and contracting.

While reformers feel able to seek changes within the political system, there appears to be little sense that the constitution should be challenged. The issue of members of the ruling family occupying ministerial posts and the premiership generates constant debate, for example. But nobody challenges the fact that a new cabinet does not require a vote of confidence by parliament, as this is enshrined in the constitution.

There is a feeling that [the prime minister] is a block to development and incapable of working with MPs

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, London School of Economics

Nonetheless, traditional boundaries are moving. The crown prince is no longer an automatic choice for prime minister and members of the ruling family have been subject to grilling. Parliament has also brought down several ministers, making it clear that they lacked majority support, although not always proceeding with a non-confidence vote.

Questioning authority

Receiving the sort of attention usually reserved for a sporting event, a parliamentary grilling is a highly confrontational step when the minister concerned is a leading member of the ruling family, who often regard the spectacle as beneath their dignity.

The ability and willingness to use these tools has varied over time. If the Emir feels parliament is too willing to use its tools, he can suspend it.

This has left parliament free to criticise the prime minister without indirectly criticising the Emir. Since 2006, parliament has been empowered, achieving an unprecedented level of collective action. Parliament now effectively forms the opposition.

The participation of the Sabah family in the cabinet is a growing source of tension, focused on the personality of the prime minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah.

The role of prime minister has traditionally been filled by the crown prince. But this changed after parliamentary elections in 2006, when the Emir decided not to appoint Crown Prince Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah as prime minister, opening the door for ministers to grill the premier.

“The red line is increasing. You couldn’t grill the prime minister before,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow and deputy director of the London School of Economics’ Kuwait programme. “[Kuwait is] moving towards a more open system where senior figures can be criticised. More important figures will be seized on for grilling.”

Precarious position

During his three-year term, the previous prime minster, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, was barely questioned. This is in contrast to the incumbent Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah, who since 2006 has survived numerous manoeuvres to bring him down. In June, he evaded a non-cooperation motion after being questioned for favouring relations with Iran over Kuwait’s Arab Gulf neighbours. Only 18 members of parliament voted for the motion, falling short of the 25 votes required to unseat the prime minister.

He had previously survived a no-confidence vote in late December 2010 and another grilling in response to the government’s use of force to break up a meeting of academics and parliamentarians. It was the eighth of his tumultuous five-year tenure, which has seen six different governments, three elections and three dissolutions of parliament.

“Discontent has coalesced on the prime minister. There is a breakdown of trust and a feeling that he is a block to development and incapable of working with MPs,” says Ulrichsen.

More than 2,000 Kuwaitis gathered on 28 May near Kuwait City’s main Safar square for a peaceful protest to demand the resignation of Sheikh Nasser “for the sake of Kuwait”.

This was a significant number compared with other protests in Kuwait and considerably more than would be expected in the UAE, Saudi Arabia or Qatar. The protest also took place despite warnings from Interior Minister Ahmad al-Humoud al-Sabah, made on 25 May in an interview with the official Kuwait News Agency (Kuna), that security authorities would “not allow any demonstrations or processions outside this square.” Kuwait’s more robust system allows for protest as a kind of safety valve to diffuse tension, but within limits.

The prime minister is now also accused of breaching the constitution because of his refusal to face parliamentary questioning over alleged squandering of public funds, as well as financial irregularities.

The main sources of tension between the government and the opposition are corruption and economic mismanagement.

Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad, the former deputy prime minister and minister of development and housing, resigned on 9 June after refusing to face a parliamentary inquiry questioning his finances and role in the Kuwait Olympic Committee. “He was one of the prime minister’s proteges and sometimes described as the great hope of Kuwait’s ruling family, so this was a major scoop for the parliament,” says a Kuwait City-based source.

On 29 June, the National Assembly launched a probe into a $900m enhanced technical services agreement signed in April 2010 between state-owned Kuwait Petroleum Corporation (KPC) and UK/Dutch oil major Shell Group for the development of Kuwait’s Jurassic gas resources in the north of the country.

According to Kuna, the investigation follows complaints by some parliamentarians over KPC’s budget. The move has been seen as a clear indication of the kind of opposition the government can expect as it prepares to launch a raft of multibillion-dollar downstream oil projects.

It would not be the first time that such projects were held up by politics. There is a long-held belief that Kuwait cannot take any big decisions because of the stand-off between the government and parliament.

Contracts cancelled

The US’ Dow Chemical faced similar opposition and was forced out of a $17.4bn petrochemicals joint venture in 2008. And in 2007, the South Korean engineering firms awarded deals to build a new refinery at Al-Zour saw their contracts cancelled under parliamentary pressure.

Schemes envisaged in the early part of the past decade, such as the $2.6bn Subiya Causeway linking Kuwait City and the Subiya Peninsula, have progressed no further than the design stage after eight years of work.

Replacing the current prime minister would be an easy solution to Kuwait’s ongoing political paralysis. But it would only be a short-term fix. Each member of the royal family comes with his own set of political enemies and would soon be beset with the same issues. The more radical change to a direct election of the premier or parliamentary approval of cabinet members would require the reformation of the constitution, which has not changed in five decades.

A simpler first step would be to defuse the tension surrounding the process of grilling a cabinet member. “The system is geared towards confrontation. There is no mechanism for avoiding criticism in Kuwait short of resignation. The stakes are too high. It needs to be delinked from the threat of resignation,” says Ulrichsen.