February 9, 2018

Kuwait’s Government Unlikely to Ease Austerity Despite Opposition Pressure

Kuwaiti Prime Minister
Kuwaiti Prime Minister Jaber Mubarak al-Hamad al-Sabah addresses the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
by Scott Weiner

Since the opening of the Kuwaiti Parliament’s current session on December 19, 2017 opposition members of parliament have moved aggressively to stymie the government’s austerity agenda. These efforts appear to have raised serious concerns within Kuwait’s government. While it has implemented austerity measures, the extent of opposition hampers government attempts to allay public concern over Kuwait’s long-term prosperity. Compounding these domestic concerns are important regional issues, including the fall of oil prices from historic highs, the ever-present threat of malign Iranian influence, and tensions among Kuwait’s Gulf Arab neighbors, which will soon enter their eighth month. Given that the government’s efforts to strike a bargain with the opposition have failed, there is an elevated chance that the coming months will see the Kuwaiti executive take stronger legislative and executive action to ensure the implementation of its austerity agenda. This may include dissolving Parliament, a crackdown on corruption, or attempting to circumvent the Parliament to implement laws.

Kuwait’s opposition consists of a loose group of tribal, Islamist, and independent MPs. Before Parliament had even returned from its 2017 summer recess, MPs were already making plans to oppose the government’s austerity agenda. In the first week of the Parliament’s session, for hours opposition MPs interpolated Acting Minister of Information Mohammed Abdullah al-Sabah, a member of Kuwait’s ruling family, and filed for a vote of no confidence.

Kuwait’s Cabinet Resigns

The government seemingly perceived the extent of opposition pressure in Parliament to be untenable, and the entire Kuwaiti Cabinet resigned on October 30, 2017 to disrupt the opposition’s momentum. As per Kuwaiti law, Parliament held no meetings until a new Cabinet was appointed on December 11. The makeup of the new Cabinet also indicated the government’s concern. While most Cabinet ministers were reappointed, the minister of oil was replaced and the minister of finance was reassigned as deputy prime minister and state minister for cabinet affairs. The oil and finance portfolios are significant because they both relate directly to the same austerity policies opposition MPs steadfastly oppose, and the removal of these ministers specifically suggests that the reshuffle was a response to opposition pressure.

The new Cabinet also included Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah in the posts of defense minister and first deputy prime minister. Nasser is the emir’s eldest son and served as head of the Emiri Diwan from 2006 to 2017. Nasser’s appointment is likely intended to position him to ensure the continuity of the stewardship of Kuwait by a direct descendent of the current emir. His appointment at this particular moment suggests that opposition pressure incentivized the leadership to act.

The Opposition Senses Opportunity

The Cabinet reshuffle was likely intended to appease opposition MPs while protecting the executive’s long-term policy agenda. However, its practical effect was to signal the current government’s susceptibility to opposition tactics and influence. As a result, the opposition worked vigorously to obstruct the government’s agenda. On the same day Parliament reopened and new ministers were sworn in, opposition MPs walked out to protest the jailing of their colleagues for storming the Parliament during protests in 2011. The opposition members also immediately focused their political attacks on Social Affairs and Labor Minister Hind al-Sabeeh, who has introduced many Kuwaiti austerity efforts to the public, and who retained her position during the Cabinet reshuffle. Opposition ministers interpolated Sabeeh on January 23. Their questions were directly related to austerity concerns, focusing on possible cuts to benefits for government employees; subsidies for water, electricity, and gasoline; and the ratio of expatriates to Kuwaitis in the workforce.

While Sabeeh survived a no-confidence vote against her on January 31, future interpolations are a virtual given and may focus on the royal family. MP Riyadh al-Adsani has threatened to grill Prime Minister Jaber Mubarak al-Hamad al-Sabah, the emir’s nephew. This would be the prime minister’s second grilling since May 2017. Reports also suggest opposition MPs may be planning to grill Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Khaled al-Jarrah al-Sabah, a member of the ruling family who previously served as minister of defense.

Stronger Government Action

Interpolations harm the government’s current agenda in a number of ways. First, they distract from and slow down the implementing of austerity policies in a country whose 2018-19 budget projects a $17 billion deficit. Additionally, they harm the government’s ability to foster public confidence in the long-term future of the country. Finally, they project low confidence in Kuwait’s leadership as it tries to mediate a regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and its allies, and Qatar.

Given that reshuffling the Cabinet and behind-the-scenes negotiations have not worked, Kuwait’s government may now turn toward more direct maneuvers to ensure the success of its agenda. First, if interpolations continue, particularly if they target royal family members, the emir may call for a constitutional dissolution of Parliament. Such a move would deny the opposition further momentum and might give the government an opportunity to coalesce stronger parliamentary support.

Second, the government may follow some of its regional counterparts and focus on the issue of corruption as a way of pressuring the opposition to support its policies. While opposing austerity is popular among Kuwaiti citizens, so too is going after corruption. While it is highly unlikely Kuwait’s government would arrest prominent members of society akin to its neighbor Saudi Arabia, focusing on anti-corruption legislation would force opposition MPs to either support the government’s policy or risk being at odds with their constituents.

Finally, the government could focus on austerity measures that do not require parliamentary approval such as adjustments to Kuwait’s sovereign wealth fund and investment in the country’s private sector. Such moves would effectively move Kuwait toward a more financially sustainable position. However, they would reduce public buy-in to the government’s plans and might serve to limit the influence of citizens over the government’s policies.

Scott Weiner is an adjunct professor of political science at George Washington University. His research examines kinship politics in Kuwait and Oman.