THE TIMES KUWAIT REPORT
In ancient Roman mythology the deity associated with the month of January, and in whose honor the month is named, is Janus. As the deity of beginnings, transitions and endings, Janus is often depicted in profile with two faces representing his ability to see into the past with one face, and into the future with the other. With Janus lending his blessings to both the ending of an old year and the beginning of a new one, any event implemented during this period was considered propitious and likely to be successful.
Though the incumbent Prime Minister His Highness Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah does not possess the Janus-like ability to see into the future, he can certainly use past experiences to extrapolate what the future could potentially hold, especially when it comes to relations between the executive and opposition legislators in parliament.
Nevertheless, the fact that the latest cabinet to be formed in Kuwait was announced in December and is set to assume office in January, is perhaps symbolic of an auspicious start and of successful relations between the two arms of government in the upcoming parliamentary session. We sincerely hope that 2022 will herald a new political era in the country’s march along its democratic path, and will be a turning point in relations between the executive and legislative arms of the government.
As legislators prepare to gather once again within the hallowed halls of the Abdullah A-Salem Hall in Parliament, the yearning of everyone in Kuwait is that parliamentarians will find the fortitude, wisdom and maturity to work together in harmony, and in a constructive spirit of cooperation and coordination. The hope is that they will work with a sense of purpose, dedication and commitment to the growth and development of the country, and to the prosperity and betterment of the lives of citizens.
The expectation of a fresh start in relations between executive and parliament is not unfounded; it stems from the air of rapprochement that appears to prevail in the political sphere, following the amnesty granted to dissidents by His Highness the Amir. The prime minister also appears to have extended an olive branch to his opponents in parliament by including several uncontroversial new faces in his cabinet who could prove acceptable to lawmakers in the National Assembly.
Moreover, ever since the previous cabinet’s resignation, there have been repeated exhortations by His Highness the Amir and His Highness the Crown Prince for the executive and legislative arms of government to collaborate and work together in an environment that is conducive to ensure economic growth and social progress of Kuwait and its people. The hope among many citizens is that these words of wisdom from the leadership will resonate with parliamentarians as they gather for the new session of the National Assembly.
Reiterating the need for everyone to join forces in tackling the challenges facing the country, His Highness the Crown Prince Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, while addressing the new ministers following their oath-taking ceremony at the Bayan Palace last week, directed them to work diligently and to cooperate with parliament for the good of the country and its people. He added, “We look forward with the utmost optimism to a fruitful and constructive cooperation between the legislative and executive branches to approve and implement legislations and laws that are in the interest of the country and citizens.”
Recurring political tensions and bickering in parliament have in the past hampered efforts by the government to diversify the economy away from its crippling reliance on oil revenues, or to introduce meaningful economic, financial and administrative reforms. The persistent parliamentary conflicts have not only left the country and its economy vulnerable to oil price fluctuations on the international market, but also discouraged foreign investments, and private sector support for partnerships in various projects in infrastructure and development of the country.
The prime minister and his new cabinet will probably need all the support, best wishes and blessings it can get to work in consonance with the opposition in parliament, and to win their approval so as to implement the many policies and laws that have been held up due to their objections in the past. Given the opposition’s propensity to question the inclusion of individual ministers in past cabinet lineups, the silence of these lawmakers on this issue, and their muted response to the Amiri pardon granted earlier to their patrons in self-imposed exile, could be indicative of an easing in tensions between the executive and legislative, and could portend to more placid sessions of parliament ahead. Whether this will be a permanent reset in relations, or if this is just a temporary tranquil phase with a reemergence of beligeracy likely soon, is anybody’s guess.
Irrespective of whether the prevailing calm is permanent or temporary, the government would be best served if it were to push through as many financial, economic and social reforms as it can through parliament, during this genial period. In this regard, one hopes that on the economic side the long-pending public debt bill, which would allow Kuwait to borrow on the international market, would be a priority for the government. Equally important would be the need to introduce a 5 percent value-added-tax (VAT) to bring the country in line with most of its peers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
On the administrative front, there is also the need to reform and recalibrate public sector wages and state subsidies to citizens, as well as find an equitable solution to the country’s skewed demographic structure, where foreigners outnumber citizens three to one. While the ongoing Kuwaitization drive appears to be working in the public sector, this approach has not found much support with private sector businesses that are wary of hiring national workforce in place of expatriates. Also, ill-conceived initiatives such as the one that led to non-graduates aged 60 and over being denied renewal of work permits by the Public Authority of Manpower (PAM), or making it difficult to hire foreign workers from abroad for private sector businesses, are not conducive, sustainable or realistic solutions that meet market demands, or the needs of labor market for an efficient workforce.
Recent media reports note that the country’s labor market lost 253,233 migrant workers during the one year period between June 2020 to June 2021. The majority, around 81 percent, were from the private sector, followed by 16 percent from the domestic sector, and less than 3 percent from the public sector. It appears that the government’s Kuwaitization drive of replacing foreigners with national workforce in the public sector has peaked. The only option before the authorities to continue hiring nationals in the already bloated public sector is apparently the unsustainable one of replacing each expatriate with five times that number of nationals. Figures for the five months, from March to August 2021, reveal that public sector entities terminated 2,089 migrant workers, while 10,780 Kuwaiti employees were appointed during the same period.
Of course, with oil prices now heading north, the government is, as usual, less inclined to pursue its cost-cutting and other austerity measures, nor is there any enthusiasm for ushering in much-needed structural and financial reforms. Public sector salary and state subsidies are likely to be too hot a brick for the new cabinet to take on, as it finds its footing in the new political environment. Moreover, the government is unlikely to unruffle the apparent parliamentary bonhomie, by ramping up the pace of many of its contentious reforms.
There is also the likelihood that realigning the country’s skewed demographic profile will be less of a priority, especially given pressures from the private sector and the need to ensure stability in the labor market. The government is also keen not to rattle the existing detente given that new faces are at the helm of key ministries that need to tackle urgent issues. For instance, the new ministers in finance, health, and commerce and industry will need time to find their footing and prove their capability in handling issues that have rolled over to them from their predecessors.
Among others, the new Finance Minister Abdulwahab Al Rushaid, who is replacing the parliamentary-battle-hardened Khalifa Hamada, will have the onerous task of ensuring that the long overdue public debt bill gets passed through parliament. He will also have to deftly navigate the introduction of a VAT bill through the National Assembly, where legislators have consistently blocked its passage in previous parliamentary sessions. Considering its importance to the country’s long-term financial stability, and seeing how these two bills have been held-up in parliament due to opposition from lawmakers, any success in gaining approval for the bills could prove a feather in the cap of the new finance minister.
However, the new finance minister has a couple of factors going in his favor. For starters, the prevailing higher international oil prices will mean he will have to spend less time on attempting to balance the government’s financial needs with a depleting state treasury. The new minister is also reported to enjoy the patronage of private sector businesses, as prior to being appointed minister he headed the Kuwait Economics Society, which is said to represent private enterprises and the powerful merchant families in the country. Over the longer term the Minister Al Rushaid will also have to tackle the issue of weaning the economy off its overdependence on hydrocarbon revenues, and increasing greater private sector participation in the country’s development.
Meanwhile, the new Minister of Justice and Nazaha Justice Jamal Hadhel Al-Jalawi will have his plate full with challenging issues that need to be resolved on an urgent basis. For one, he will need to find an objective and equitable solution to the festering issue of non-graduate expatriates aged 60 and over, who continue to be denied renewal of their work permits. Despite the Board of Directors of the Public Authority for Manpower (PAM) rescinding the work-permit renewal ban in early November, nothing seems to have changed on the ground, as expatriates who fall in the category continue to work on temporarily extended work permits.
To recap on this labor market impacting issue, a ban against non-graduates aged 60 and over from renewing their work-permits was imposed by former PAM Director-General Ahmed Al-Mousa. This was later amended so that work permits could be renewed by this sector provided they paid unrealistic renewal fees. Following uproar from the market, the previous commerce minister, Dr. Salman, as head of PAM, personally intervened and suspended Al-Mousa from his post. A director-board meeting of PAM then decided to rescind the ban. However, the issue continues to rankle, as parliamentary approval is sought and needed for legalizing the decision to remove the ban on work permits for this group of expatriates.
On the health front, Sheikh Dr. Basel Al-Sabah who had spearheaded the country’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic as Health Minister, has been replaced by Dr. Khaled Mhawes Al Saeed. The former health minister had won praise locally, regionally, and from international health agencies for his competent handling of the crisis in the country. He was credited for leading the fight against the pandemic from the front, right from its frightening inception, through its rampant infectious stage, and finally in bringing the epidemiological curve down to a manageable situation, while also ensuring that over 80 percent of the country has now been fully vaccinated.
While the epidemiological situation in Kuwait has largely stabilized, the new health minister will have to tackle any future outburst of infections from the various mutant strains of the SARS-Cov-2 virus, or any other new medical emergency that Kuwait could confront in future. His efficiency and ability to handle any such potential health emergency scenario during his tenure, will determine if he was the right choice to replace the former health minister.
In the meantime, political analysts believe that the new cabinet lineup is an astute move on the part of the prime minister, as it seems to have been crafted to cause disarray among the opposition ranks in parliament. In place of one or two lawmakers being appointed as ministers, as was the norm in previous governments, the premier has included a record four elected representatives in his new cabinet. Three of these new ministers, who are now in charge of the ministries of Information, Social Affairs and National Assembly Affairs respectively, are former opposition MPs. A fourth elected representative, a pro-government lawmaker, has been appointed as Minister of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs.
This calculated move on the part of the premier could prove significant in any future parliamentary votes on critical issues, or during political crises, including during any no-confidence vote against ministers. The inclusion of four lawmakers in the cabinet reduces the total number of lawmakers eligible to vote on grilling motions to 46 members. The calculus is that the government would then need the support of only 24 lawmakers to win over any opposition motion against a minister.
Moreover, the increased presence of tribal representatives in the new Cabinet could further erode support for the opposition bloc in parliament, while also winning greater support from the tribal cohort of citizens for the government’s reforms and policies.
Irrespective of whether the cabinet lineup is a bid to thwart the opposition in parliament, or a genuine attempt to restart relations with the legislative branch , the incumbent government and legislators in parliament will need to find the maturity to work together so as to ensure the growth and development of the country and the prosperity of its people.