Politics: waiting for the endgame to begin

08 February 2002

Kuwait's diwan watchers have been busy of late, trying to discern the signs that warn of imminent political change. Ill health, old age and declining energy have been eating away at the dynamism of leadership in Kuwait in recent years and some think the point of crisis is fast approaching.

'It would seem that the endgame is about to begin,' says a Western diplomat in Kuwait. 'Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah [the current foreign minister and deputy prime minister] took effective control last February and he's consolidating his position, keeping his head below the parapet and avoiding controversy. But this caution is only serving to highlight the weakness of the government and the lack of leadership.'

Rumours of an impending reorganisation of the ruling family have been circulating in Kuwait City since the mid 1990s, but their current intensity has no precedent. 'With the ill health of the emir [Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah] well-documented - though probably exaggerated - the crown prince [Sheikh Saad al-Abdulla al-Salem al-Sabah] arguably even less healthy and largely marginalised, and Sheikh Sabah biding his time, there is a growing feeling that the issue has to be addressed,' says the diplomat. 'But the advocates of change might well be disappointed.'

This anticipated change could come on one of two fronts. The most radical would be the stepping down of the emir or the crown prince, moves that would lead to fresh juggling between the Al-Salem and Al-Sabah branches of the ruling family. More likely is a government reshuffle intended to give the impression that a new era is to be ushered in. In early January, Sheikh Sabah went to the lengths of briefing the local media that there were no imminent plans to alter the composition of what is seen as his government. The announcement was interpreted as meaning the core portfolios - the ministries of defence, the interior and information - were not likely to change hands, but that some of the lesser ministries - such as housing and public works - might be redistributed before long.

'Sheikh Sabah has made it clear that he wants to avoid confrontation, and that he has no interest in expending his own political capital at this stage: he is in no rush,' says a senior Kuwaiti businessman. 'We are in a transitory period in which people jump at shadows. The excitement over the emir's return, and all the feelings of national pride this provoked also stirred up feelings of frustration. But this alone won't force the top three to abandon their plans.'

However, generational change is unavoidable and there are a number of younger members of the ruling family keen to win their spurs. Notable among them are Sheikh Mohammed Sabah al-Sabah, the deputy minister for foreign affairs, widely regarded as an intellectual heavyweight, Sheikh Ahmed al-Fahad al-Sabah, the popular information minister with a strong following in the National Assembly, and Mohammed al-Khaled al-Sabah, the influential interior minister.

'These three are competent and capable of working together,' says the businessman. 'They are in their 40s and 50s, they are experienced and they have the energy to deal with the National Assembly.'

The 50-seat elected house is the last piece in the jigsaw of Kuwaiti politics, and it has been a constant thorn in the side of successive governments, pointedly raising corruption allegations and stifling reformist legislation. 'Kuwait is the only political country in the Gulf and in some ways we pay the price for this,' says the businessman. 'The Islamist, the tribal and most other members of parliament (MPs) have constituencies and business interests that give them a huge vested interest in the status quo. But equally, the assembly can't take all the blame for governmental inertia. There are a number of figures very happy to half-heartedly propose legislation and then let it flounder. The government hides behind the opposition in the National Assembly.'

However, the dynamics of the troubled relationship between government and parliament are also about to change. MPs face elections in July 2003 and the jockeying for positions among prospective candidates will soon be fully under way. Perhaps it already is within the ruling family itself.

Tom Everett-Heath

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