Sitting comfortably over 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves and an estimated GDP in 2016 of over US$300 billion, Kuwait has a per capita GDP that ranks it among the top-five in the world. Nevertheless, this relative prosperity has not translated into economic developments and sustainable growth for the country or contentment among many citizens.
Kuwaitis often resent their country being compared to more dynamic, efficient and economically attractive neighbors in the Gulf. They consider it especially belittling, when reminded that at one time their country was in the vanguard of education, healthcare, development and reforms in the region.
In its trailblazing past, Kuwait had an exemplary healthcare and education system that was the envy of other countries in the region. Kuwait was the first to set aside a fixed portion of its annual oil revenues in a separate Fund for Future Generation.
It also set up the world’s first sovereign wealth fund (SWF), the Kuwait Investment Board, the forbearer of today’s Kuwait Investment Authority, in 1953, fully eight years before the country even gained its independence. It launched the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development in 1961 with the aim initially of help fellow Arab states, and then widened its funding activities to envelop developing countries around the world.
But a lot of that pioneering spirit has been lost over the years. The country’s free-trade-zone, the development of which was first mooted in the early 1960s, was slow to get off the ground and when it eventually began operations in 1999, it was overwhelmed by regional behemoths such as the Jebel Ali Free Zone and the Dubai Airport Free Zone in the UAE, as well as smaller zones in Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.
The country’s national airline, Kuwait Airways, which began operations in 1954, has over the years notched up losses and a reputation as a tardy performer. Today it has been relegated to the background by younger, nimbler operators in the region, such as Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.
Several attempts at privatizing the airline have ended by being thwarted by the country’s parliament and politicians. If there is one field in which Kuwait is way ahead of its other GCC neighbors, it is in giving equal franchise for men and women and in having a fully and a democratically elected parliament. This major plus point of having a legislative body supervise the executive has also arguably been the country’s bane.
The 50-member parliament has in the past been an influential legislative body that is vociferous in its demands and often truculent in its relations with the executive. This has led to numerous standoffs between the two parliamentary constituents that have often resulted in dissolutions and reelections. The latest dissolution and consequent election for a new parliament took place on 26 November.
Opposition blocs that had boycotted the previous two elections made a good standing in the 2016 elections and are expected to form nearly half of the new parliamentarians. This does not bode well for the government, which could find many of its previous austerity measures, including raising fuel prices and slashing subsidies to citizens, challenged when the new 15th legislature assembles next week.
It is clear that citizens voted for change, as nearly half of the previous parliamentarians failed to make it back to parliament. The electorate also voted strongly against any cuts to their subsidies and their income. However, beyond opposing subsidy cuts and utility price increases, few of the new parliamentarians seem to have a vision on what is good for the country in the long-term.
The government and its supporters claim that the parliament holds Kuwait back from developing as fast as its other GCC neighbors, where the rulers are not obliged to seek popular approval for their national development plans.
But it would not be wholly true to blame just the parliament for Kuwait’s economic woes. In the 14th National Assembly, which was dissolved in mid-October of this year, the government had a relatively pliable legislature to deal with, and yet, its performance record during the 40 months of legislative work had been less than remarkable.
Given that catering to electorate sentiment and pushing though populist policies will trump what is in the best interests of the nation, the next parliament is likely headed for yet another impasse. Autocracy, they say, has very few merits, but democracy has its own downsides and quasi-democracy has even more of it.