Online Exclusive

Will Kuwait’s Next Parliament Be Its Last?

The Gulf kingdom has been a rare democratic experiment. But gridlock and the Emir’s mounting impatience with Kuwaiti politics may be on the cusp of bringing it to an end.

By Sean L. Yom

March 2024

Last month, Emir Mishal al-Sabah, the ruler of Kuwait, dissolved parliament. While disbanding the legislature hasn’t been uncommon — the body has been dissolved three times since June 2022 and twelve times since 2006 — this time the rationale was unexpected. Unlike in the past, the justification wasn’t the typical stalemated tug-of-war between the royal government and the elected body. Rather, the impetus was a speech delivered by a member of parliament that criticized the Emir — and thus breached the ruler’s “inviolable” status under the Kuwaiti constitution. Snap elections are now scheduled for April 4. But after decades of political gridlock, some Kuwaitis fear that their next parliament may be their last, especially if the body remains as strong-willed and obstreperous. An Emir who has lost patience with his country’s democratic experiment may think the time is right to rule by decree. If so, Kuwait will have descended to the same royal absolutism that typifies its Gulf neighbors.

Decades after its liberation from Iraqi occupation during the Gulf War, the fact that Kuwait has become the Arab state with the best chance for gradual, peaceful democratization may seem absurd to some observers. At first glance, Kuwait is a wealthy rentier state, one with the world’s sixth largest oil reserves, ruled by a hereditary monarchy and located in the authoritarian black hole of the Arabian Gulf. Its centuries-old dynasty appears similar to Saudi Arabia or Qatar’s in its executive primacy. The Kuwaiti Emir appoints the prime minister (always a royal) and his government, while controlling financial, police, and judicial institutions. Other royal princes use their vast wealth and influence to secure their own fiefdoms within the economy and state ministries, ensuring the Sabah family retains its position atop the state.

Yet Kuwait’s similarity with other Gulf kingdoms ends there. Kuwaiti politics has liberal qualities that provide citizens an astonishing range of civic and political rights. Since before Kuwait’s independence in 1961, national identity and culture has revolved around the sacrosanct norm that the Sabah family cannot rule without popular consent. That social contract underlies Kuwait’s hybrid political system: Kuwaitis can vote in legislative elections, disparage feckless officials, and organize loud protests — actions unimaginable in other Gulf kingdoms.

Kuwaiti civil society has always been home to vociferous critics of Sabah rule, with its accompanying corruption and excesses. They have pruned the monarchy’s absolutist impulses over time by reversing press censorship and ending heavy-handed repression. By doing so, they have made it possible to imagine a democratic future in which the Sabah dynasty accepts a purely symbolic role. This also explains why, unlike in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, there exists little revolutionary fervor even among the quarter-strong Shia minority: Kuwaiti citizens tend to see their Sabah leadership as far more inclusive and tolerant than other tribal royal houses.

The ongoing legislative crisis threatens this model because it implicates parliament, the centerpiece of Kuwait’s competitive political order. The unicameral legislature, with fifty elected deputies serving four-year terms, serves as a bellwether for society. Every election brings different independents to the mix, who (since parties are prohibited) embody broader social and political currents. The usual factions include wealthy merchants, urban progressives, Shia representatives, tribal voices, and Islamist movements. They often bicker, and their divergent views make for shifting opposition lines. The same conservative blocs demanding gender segregation in classrooms will join liberals in opposing fiscal austerity. Yet most remain leery of the government and prize parliament as exemplifying Kuwait’s pluralistic identity: Without this hallowed institution, the emirate would be no different than its Gulf peers. From 1976 to 1981 and from 1986 to 1991, then-Emir Jaber al-Sabah suspended the cantankerous body, restoring it both times after popular outcry. Indeed, during the Iraqi occupation, Kuwaiti exiles only promised to back their exiled ruler if he pledged to reinstate parliament once his rule was restored.

All this brings the latest wrangling into sharper relief. Kuwait’s parliament is more authoritative than the figurehead assemblies of other Arab monarchies. It must approve the royally appointed government and vote on every bill. Members of parliament (MPs) can also interpellate, or publicly grill, any minister, and can submit no-cooperation motions against the government, which can trigger its collapse or shuffle. Thus, lawmaking in Kuwait requires a delicate equipoise between the monarchy and parliament. The Emir needs parliamentary approval, garnered through backroom deals and political bargains, to install his hand-picked government and ratify all laws. Since the late 2000s, however, parliamentary factions have become so contentious that such coordination has become impossible, resulting in grinding deadlock. Accusing the government of incompetence and corruption, MPs have rejected government-backed legislation and persistently put ministers on the hot seat, including even royal premiers. Past royal efforts to facilitate more parliamentary cooperation have proven unsuccessful, and resulted in repeated parliamentary dissolutions and frequent government shuffles — eight since 2020 alone.

Such impasses provide context for the latest crisis. In his fiery speech, member of parliament ‘Abdelkarim Kandari effectively blamed the Emir for the ongoing political bottlenecks that have paralyzed lawmaking. His words, however, are less important than what followed. When the speaker of parliament moved to delete his invective from the legislative record, 44 fellow MPs voted to keep it — an astonishingly high number given the body’s sectarian and political cleavages. The new government — despite its technocratic composition under reformist Prime Minister Sheikh Muhammad al-Sabah, who promised to reset the fissiparous mood — had become bogged down in the usual tit-for-tat animosity. MPs had already signaled resistance to the government’s proposed economic initiatives, including the introduction of excise and corporate taxes while scaling back generous social welfare programs. With relations quickly becoming tense, the Emir had an easy excuse to dissolve parliament.

Will this restore political normalcy? It is unlikely. Over the past two decades, parliamentary standoffs with the monarchy have been driven by personal vendettas and entrenched divides on both sides. Snap elections have failed to provide the monarchy with a pliant legislature that can be cajoled or bribed into obeisance. At the same time, an unproductive stalemate has delayed much-needed reforms, including economic diversification. It has also allowed systemic corruption and mismanagement to fester, resulting in the eclipse of Kuwait’s once-thriving infrastructure and business sector by the lavish success of nearby Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

Some Kuwaiti observers now fear the nuclear option: that the Emir will suspend parliament indefinitely, and withhold the possibility of reinstatement until future deputies promise to cooperate. Emir Mishal’s own rhetoric, which evinces little patience with the messy nature of Kuwaiti politics, suggests as much. Unlike many past rulers, Emir Mishal did not ascend through the Foreign Ministry and Prime Ministry, but instead through the security apparatus, having been head of State Security (the domestic intelligence directorate) and the National Guard. In his inaugural December 2023 speech after ascending to the throne, he savaged both past governments and parliament for their mutual intransigence, warning that this harmed the interests of the Kuwaiti people. He even rebuffed his predecessor, the late Emir Nawaf al-Sabah — under whom he served as de facto ruler due to Emir Nawaf’s frailty since 2021 — for having signed amnesty bills expunging the criminal records of dozens of political dissidents in a bid to win parliamentary goodwill. All told, this was a shockingly conservative declaration, one that built on his earlier pronouncements that demonized political opposition.

The new leadership has shown other worrying, illiberal signs as well. Shortly after the latest parliamentary dissolution, rumors leaked that the Interior Ministry planned on removing voting rights from many naturalized citizens, thereby shearing potentially 300,000 voters from Kuwait’s 800,000-strong adult electorate. After — or perhaps because of public uproar — the government later clarified that it only planned to crack down upon vote-buying and the practice of holding illegal primaries. This heightens the stakes of the upcoming April elections. Most current deputies, including the aging but prickly speaker, Ahmad al-Sadoun, have declared their intention to run for reelection. Barring the unlikely event of outright electoral rigging, which happened only in 1967, the next parliament will likely prove as pugnacious as past ones.

This summer, Kuwait will face a democratic reckoning. If the Emir suspends parliament, an epic conflict may play out in the streets and the press. For generations, Kuwait has been the liberal outlier in the Arabian Gulf, with its vibrant civil society and elected legislature proof that democratic practices could thrive in the most unlikely of places. Today, some conservative Kuwaitis — including most of the senior royals who lead the Sabah family — bemoan their model when compared to their Gulf peers. They complain that Kuwait is moving backward, and point to the globalization schemes and modernizing vision of other Gulf monarchs who can revamp their states freely, unhampered by an elected opposition. Qatar hosted the World Cup; Saudi Arabia is building trillion-dollar megacities; Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become tourist and business hubs. Kuwait, meanwhile, struggles to pass even simple budget laws.

Yet even as most Kuwaitis complain about their broken system, they blanche at the idea of a more autocratic alternative. From critical social media platforms to the most progovernment newspapers, there have been few outright calls to end parliamentary life. Kuwaitis understand democratic politics are not always efficient, but affirm that surrendering their right to shape state decision-making is nonnegotiable. Overcoming royal hostility, political activists have always succeeded in broadening their civic and political freedoms, reversing the past two parliamentary suspensions, enacting the long-overdue enfranchisement of women in 2005, and ending then-Emir Sabah’s Iron Fist campaign outlawing dissent during the Arab Spring. They achieved each milestone by mobilizing support throughout civil society and the press, and then pressuring the royal executive to honor the pluralism that has long characterized Kuwaiti norms and institutions.

The latest crisis will test this commitment and provide a window into a titanic battle for Middle East democracy. The struggle pits a resistant parliament and its public base against a domineering royal leadership. How the next few months play out could make for an interesting footnote in Kuwait’s democratic journey — or it could spell its end.

Sean L. Yom is Associate Professor of Political Science at Temple University and Senior Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Yasser Al-Zayyat / AFP via Getty Images




Kuwait’s Democratic Promise

Sean L. Yom

This Arab state is different. It is far more liberal than any other Gulf kingdom, and it may even have a path, with much trial and effort, to becoming the region’s first democratic constitutional monarchy.


Why Egypt Is Growing More Unstable Fast

Shady ElGhazaly Harb

The economy is spiraling, public frustration is mounting, and the regime is becoming more repressive. The next time Egyptians come to the streets, they will be looking for more than promises and free elections.


Gulf States and Sharp Power: Allies to Adversaries

Christopher Davidson

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are spreading their influence across borders. A new dangerous chapter between the Gulf monarchies and the West has begun.