Dissolve parliament to save the state

Ahmed Mustafa , Tuesday 14 May 2024

The Kuwaiti parliament has often been a thorn in the side of the government, but this time the situation is rather more serious, reports Ahmed Mustafa

Dissolve parliament to save  the state


It’s not uncommon for the Emir of Kuwait to dissolve parliament and call for a new election. This often happens when MPs target a minister, undermining the continuity of the cabinet. But the decision by Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah on Friday was somewhat different. It marks the end of parliamentary life as it has been known since the 1960s, together with the suspensions of some constitutional articles and a vow to revise the democratic process “in its entirety”.

In fact, the suspension of parliament-related clauses of the Kuwaiti constitution happened twice before, in 1976-1981 and 1986-1992: two failed attempts to amend the constitution. The reason was parliamentary disruption of the executive body of government. But this time, it seems the Emir is determined to make a serious change.

Kuwait has maintained a different form of governance from other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, though like other Gulf countries hereditary rule applies, with the head of state always from the family of Al Sabah. The Emir appoints the cabinet, with members of the ruling family occupying the main posts and other ministers selected by the elected MPs. And parliament in Kuwait has a greater say in policy than in any other GCC legislative body.

I remember covering parliamentary elections in Kuwait in 1996, describing the process in my reports for the BBC at that time as the most transparent in the Arab world. Yet the late Khaldoun Al-Naqeeb, the prominent Kuwaiti sociologist, told me then that people in Kuwait still vote on family lines in a “tribal way”. He also talked about corruption, since many politicians were looking for perks through becoming partners to foreign companies interested in the Kuwaiti market.

Though the latter tendency is common, not only in the Middle East but even in Western democracies, the leverage the Kuwaiti constitution grants MPs has made them more disruptive to the government’s work. This also helped some opposition movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, to have more sway in Kuwait than in other GCC countries.

In his televised speech on Friday, the Emir said that he had made the move “to save the country”: “Unfortunately, we have faced some unimaginable, unbearable difficulties and impediments… We were left with no option other than taking this hard decision to rescue the country and protect its higher national interests and the resources of the nation,” Sheikh Mishal said. In a firm tone, he vowed: “I will not let democracy be exploited to destroy the state.”

Quickly, some media reports suggested that the Kuwaiti leadership “is worried about Qatar’s Muslim Brotherhood influence in parliament and parts of the state administration”. But that has been refuted by many in Kuwait and the Gulf. The Emir, who came to power last year, stressed “corruption” as a main reason behind his decision. He said that lawmakers were encroaching on the powers of the head of state, including choosing a crown prince: the royal family member who handles day-to-day affairs in the oil-rich country.

A knowledgeable source in Dubai told Al- Ahram Weekly that Kuwait is “trying to follow the path of the rest of [the GCC countries]. Saudi Arabia was never happy about their experiment. Since the collapse of the Arab Spring, its days have been numbered… Plus they’re desperate for some neoliberal development projects to go through. Parliament has held them up.”

Now, the Emir and his cabinet will assume the legislative role of parliament during the four years of the suspension. The amendment of the constitution is going to be a “historic step”, as the Kuwait University professor Badr Al-Saif said. He wrote a long commentary on his X (formerly Twitter) account detailing the anticipated constitutional reform expectations. He said that “the founding fathers noted that, despite their ability to amend the constitution in five years, it had remained unchanged for 62 years.”

The move was welcomed by many in Kuwait and in neighbouring countries. Gulf leaders commended the Emir’s decision and expressed their support for his leadership. Many around the world, especially in Western circles that were not happy with the Kuwaiti stance on many issues, especially the Gaza war, were content with curbing Islamist influence in Kuwait – expressed mainly through fundamentalist MPs.

The people of Kuwait are looking forward to seeing the impact of the decision on their daily lives. There had been complaints about deterioration in services and nepotism in official administration. Kuwaitis now expect better living conditions that can make up for loss of democracy.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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