After the parliamentary elections in May, and a summer recess of almost four months, Kuwait’s National Assembly returned to work on 27 October with key committee posts now held by newly elected, progressive leaders.
In the wake of the change, parliament’s liberal MPs are hopeful that they will be able to push through major reforms to reinvigorate the country’s economy, which has stalled since the global downturn hit the region late last year.
Kuwait’s electorate voted in the country’s first three female MPs in May this year
When Kuwait went to the polls in May, hopes were high among the electorate that the country’s legislative and executive bodies would change. For three years, Kuwait’s development has been paralysed by infighting between an Islamist and nationalist-dominated parliament, and a governing cabinet weakened by criticism of its stewardship of the economy.
But the elections proved change is possible, delivering a more liberal parliament, which includes the country’s first three female MPs.
Three key parliamentary committees, which have the power to pass or veto legislation prior to parliamentary approval, are now chaired by MPs regarded as progressive liberals, posts previously held by conservatives. The question now is whether these committees will be allowed to act.
The country’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah returned his nephew, Sheikh Nasser Mohamed al-Ahmad al-Sabah, to the head of government as prime minister.
In turn, Sheikh Nasser has done little to change the cabinet that resigned at the same time as him in March 2009 to avoid parliamentary hearings over alleged misconduct. By retaining the status quo, Nasser has allowed the potential for parliamentary disputes, which have so often stalled the business of parliament in the past.
But Rola Dashti, one of the first women to chair the parliamentary health and education committees, and a member of the finance committee, says the change in committee leadership will be instrumental in encouraging change in Kuwait. “There is no question that people want to see the country move forward,” she says.
Dashti is joined by fellow female MP Massouma al-Murabak in chairing the health and education committees, and a liberal, Yousef Al-Zalzala, now heads the finance committee.
“Progressives have won the vote to become chairs of the committees and we will vote through new legislation, which I think will give the country the momentum it needs,” says Dashti.
On 17 November, the finance committee will ask the National Assembly to approve legislation covering the restructuring of consumer debt – a key issue in the country since the late 1990s. The next day, it will approve a bill calling for the creation of a new stock market regulator before putting it forward for parliamentary approval.
Senior bankers in the country describe this legislation in particular as “crucial” to the country’s credibility as a financial centre.
Later this month, a five-year plan formulated by Sheikh Nasser’s government and containing provisions for the creation of major companies to work on public projects and create jobs in the emirate will be put to the vote again after vetting by the finance committee.
“I think the bills will go through,” says Dashti. “However, there is still the question of grillings.”
Grilling is the word used in Kuwaiti politics to describe the formal interrogation of ministers of state over any perceived wrongdoing. It is these grillings that have derailed each of the five administrations Sheikh Nasser has formed since he became prime minister in 2006. Each successive cabinet has resigned rather than have its senior ministers interrogated.
The emir has dissolved parliament three times in as many years as a result of these resignations, stopping progress on new legislation.
Sources in Kuwait report that conservative MPs have either filed applications, or plan to file them, for the grilling of five cabinet ministers including the prime minister.
Besides grilling Sheikh Nasser, there are plans to interrogate Defence Minister Jaber al-Mubarak, Finance Minister Mustafa al-Shamali, Interior Minister Jaber al-Khalid, and Public Works Minister Fadhel Safar.
Kamel al-Haramil, a local independent economic analyst, is blunt in his appraisal of the chances of reform in Kuwait.
“If you ask me are there going to be any changes to the way things are, to the projects and laws planned, then I would have to say no with this government,” he says. “I do not think there is going to be any change.”
If the government refuses to submit to interrogations or resigns, as it has done so often in the past, the emir will likely dissolve parliament and the committees’ work will be wasted, says one senior lawyer with close links to the government. “Rumours are already flying around that if things do not move forward he [the emir] will suspend parliament in January and just start pushing things through,” he says.
However, Dashti says that legislative consensus is possible by the end of November. “From here to 20 November, a lot of things are going to be happening,” she says. “By the end of [the week ending 13 November] I will have submitted a draft law for the economic structuring of the country. Things are happening.”
With a faction of MPs bent on grilling senior members of Kuwait’s cabinet, Dashti’s optimism about her reforms could be dashed by Kuwait’s enduringly adversarial parliament.