The year 2021 began on a note of high hope in Kuwait with expectations rife that the new government formed under H.H. the Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Khalid Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, would provide the strong leadership that the country direly needed to overcome the many challenges it faced. The speculation was that the new 15-member cabinet, comprising two ministers from the previous government and 13 new faces with years of experience in public life, would be able to work cohesively with the elected parliament to find effective solutions to critical issues confronting Kuwait.

However, these hopes, expectations and assumptions at the start of 2021 were shattered when barely 13 days into the new year, the prime minister submitted the resignation of his cabinet to H.H. the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, citing inability to work with a confrontational parliament. The cabinet’s resignation followed a motion in parliament to question the prime minister, which received overwhelming support from lawmakers in the 50-seat assembly.

Among the questions arraigned against the premier were issues that included the cabinet not reflecting aspirations of the people expressed through the results of the December elections, and the government’s blatant ‘interference’ in electing the National Assembly Speaker and members of other parliamentary committees.

Following its resignation the government was directed to function in a caretaker role by H.H. the Amir while he deliberated on how to best resolve the political imbroglio. The resignation in January, which led to one of the shortest-lived cabinets in the history of Kuwait’s parliamentary life, was a harbinger of how the political scenario would unfold during the remaining 11 months of the year. It was also indicative of how in the interim the country would continue to struggle to overcome the many challenges it faced, without a proper helmsman to steer a vessel that for all intents and purposes was floating adrift without a rudder or oars.

Among the situations demanding immediate attention of parliament were tackling the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis and its social and economic fall-outs, passing a debt bill in parliament that would allow the government to borrow on the international market, overcoming the liquidity crunch arising from a depleting General Reserve Fund, and addressing the fall in state revenues caused by then prevailing low international oil prices. In addition, parliament had to find pragmatic measures to balance the country’s skewed demographic profile, where foreigners outnumbered citizens by three to one. The government also had to work with parliament to regain trust of the public destroyed by recent revelations of corruption at the highest levels.

The crucial challenges that the country faced, and the government’s inability to make any headway in tackling these issues, were made even more problematic by haphazard, untimely and ineffectual policies implemented by the ‘unauthorized’ authorities in public sector entities. The situation was best described by a recent scathing editorial in Al-Rai Arabic newspaper, in which veteran media personality and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Al-Rai Media Group, Jassim Marzouq Boodai, lambasted the government for its ineptitude, and in particular the ‘hands-off’ style of leadership provided by Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid. The editorial, under the heading, ‘Kuwait… An unknown future!’ was highly critical of the governments led by Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid for its failure to act proactively, decisively and effectively when needed, as well as for its reactive actions, ill-conceived policies and its dithering implementations.

The editorial was in general agreement with government policies aimed at addressing the country’s demographic imbalance, by decreasing the number of expatriates, and increasing the pace of Kuwaitization in government and private sector jobs. What the editorial was highly critical of, was in making life for foreigners in the country exasperating in the process, including by implementing measures such as banning the renewal of work permits to expatriates aged 60 years and over who did not possess a university degree or diploma, and more recently the decision to suspend the renewal of driving licenses for expat drivers. The editorial noted that government policies were in most part confusing, short-sighted, and the solutions proposed were sans proper planning, and without a holistic vision or thinking about its long-term consequences.

The government, apparently more concerned with keeping itself afloat amidst parliamentary turbulence, a resurgent COVID-19 pandemic, and falling revenues due to low oil prices that then prevailed, was obviously less concerned with the policies and procedures being implemented on its behalf by various state entities. Accordingly, the Public Authority of Manpower (PAM) came out with its own directive against those aged 60 and over, while officials at the General Traffic Department (GTD) decided to act on its own initiative to suspend licenses of expats.

Of course in both cases, higher officials, including the Minister of Commerce and Industry Dr. Abdullah Essa Al Salman in the case of PAM, and the Minister of Interior, Sheikh Thamer Ali Sabah Al-Salem in the case of the GTD, reacted strongly to the measures enacted by officials in authorities and departments under their command. The director-general of PAM was placed under suspension, and while so far no official at GTD appears to have been reprimanded, it is likely some heads could roll and departmental transfers are to be expected. However, a question being raised in some quarters is why the government waited for nearly eight months to respond to the PAM order by its then director general, and how officials at the GTD could issue directives without consultation and signing off by those in higher places?

Though the issued directives in both cases were rescinded by the concerned ministers, it is a reflection of the convoluted procedures involved in the implementation process that nothing seems to have changed on the ground. Undergraduate expatriates aged 60 and over continue to be denied work permits, and expat drivers still face a ‘ban’ on their license renewals. Apparently, leadership at the helm is concerned with more pressing matters than what happens to a few thousand aged expats or foreign drivers.

The prognosis for a year of political turmoil in Kuwait at the start of 2021 was vindicated in early March, when H.H. the Amir reappointed Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled as prime minister, and administered the oath of office to the premier and his new cabinet. In a bid to appease opposition lawmakers, the new cabinet replaced four ministers from the previous government, who had drawn the ire of parliamentarians, and substituted them with ministers who were less contentious.

The conciliatory gesture on the part of the government was not reciprocated by the opposition, and parliamentary proceedings from March to July continued to be repeatedly disrupted or obstructed by the MPs.

The opposition bloc in parliament insisted that no work in parliament would be permitted without the prime minister taking the podium to face their grilling motion, and the premier maintained that he was just as adamant not to do so. In early July, National Assembly Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanim adjourned Parliament ahead of its scheduled summer break that was slated to last until October.

Contentious relations between the appointed cabinet and elected assembly have led to frequent cabinet resignations, reappointments and reshuffles that eventually culminate in parliament dissolution and fresh elections. Kuwait’s pursuit of a democratic parliamentary form of governance since Independence in 1961 has led to political freewheeling that has unfortunately come at a high cost to the country and its development. Urgently needed economic and fiscal reforms have been repeatedly thwarted or delayed by parliament, hampered investments, discouraged investors and affected the growth and progress of the country.

Kuwait’s semi democratic form of governance, with an appointed cabinet and an elected parliament has also led to unrelenting political squabbles that have repeatedly stymied the functioning of parliament and impeded the country’s economic growth and social progress. Last year, the global ratings agency Moody’s downgraded Kuwait for the first time in its history citing among others the continued lack of consensus between the executive and legislative arms of government.

The lower rating was also fueled by economic repercussions from the COVID-19 crisis, which amid a sharp fall in state revenues from lower international oil prices nearly depleted the country’s general reserve fund. The government has no legal framework to deficit-spend beyond its current limit of KD10 billion without parliamentary approval. But lawmakers opposed, not to the proposed debt bill but to the government, have repeatedly prevented the adoption of the bill that was needed to borrow on international markets. They maintained that raising the debt ceiling will lead to the money being pillaged thanks to previous instances of rampant corruption at the highest levels in government.

When parliament reconvened in October after the summer recess, the opposition was no less determined to question the premier, as he was to avoid doing so. The prime minister’s refusal to take the podium was based on the principle that the parliament had granted him immunity to questioning by lawmakers until the end of 2022. Evidently tired of this constant bickering between the cabinet and parliament, and with no sign of any rapprochement anytime in the near future, H.H. the Amir asked the heads of the three arms of the government — the executive represented by the premier, the legislature represented by the Speaker, and the judiciary by the head of the Judicial Council — to meet and find a suitable solution to the stalemate.

The outcome of these meetings was a recommendation by the three authorities for an Amiri pardon to be granted to around a dozen former parliamentarians and their supporters, who were charged for violating provisions of the country’s law, found guilty and duly sentenced to prison terms. However, rather than face the prospect of jail time, the accused ‘escaped’ and sought self-imposed exile in other countries including Syria, Lebanon and predominantly Turkey.

The decision to now recommend an amnesty to the convicted ex-lawmakers and their supporters stems from the government’s eventual realization that in order to get work done in parliament and bring political life back on track it would have to appease the opposition lawmakers and cave-in to their demand. Following the announcement of the Amiri amnesty to former parliamentarians, the government duly tendered its resignation to H.H. the Amir in early November. The resignation was ostensibly intended to placate dissidents, appease the opposition and end the year-long standoff in parliament.

But, as we have long maintained, appeasement never works; it has never worked anywhere before, and any assumption that it could somehow be made to work in Kuwait, is at best whimsical and just wishful thinking. Granting an Amiri pardon to those sentenced was the unarticulated demand of opposition lawmakers since they arrived in parliament in January. Though they cloaked their real intentions behind such tactics as obstructing parliamentary proceedings, insisting on grilling the premier and objecting to his choice of cabinet ministers, or opposing the election of the National Assembly Speaker and various members of house committees in parliament, the veil of their actions have now been removed.

The subterfuge covering their real intentions notwithstanding, attempts by lawmakers to compel the government to acquiesce to their demand and grant a general pardon to political dissidents took up the bulk of their time and effort throughout parliamentary sessions in 2021. They were clearly least concerned about the fate of the country or its future prospects, all they seemed to want was to achieve their personal limited interests. In case they are unaware, parliamentary democracy not only provides rights and privileges to lawmakers, it also demands responsibilities from them, not just to the electorate that voted them to office, but to all citizens of the country. They need to answer for their actions to the nation.

Disrupting parliamentary proceedings and holding the country’s economic growth and social progress hostage in order to pursue the narrow parochial interests for nearly a year by a select few lawmakers, was certainly not the mandate given to them by their electorate in the December 2020 elections.

Forsaking the growth and progress of the country and its future, for the sake of a handful of convicted former lawmakers and their supporters, is certainly not what ordinary citizens expected of their lawmakers in parliament. If the parliamentarians believe that this was indeed the mandate provided to them by citizens, it is an affront to the people of Kuwait as it implies that they have no sense of priorities, or that they have no concern for the future of their country and its sustainable growth in order to sustain future generations.

On 23 November, H.H. the Amir once again appointed Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid as prime minister and charged him with forming a new cabinet, making it the third government to be sworn in this year. To recap, the first government tendered its resignation in January, the next took office in March but resigned in November, the third is yet to be born. With the premier continuing to postpone announcement of a new cabinet and further stretching the ongoing political impasse, the year, which began on a note of higH.H.ope, is clearly ending on a note of despair. Meanwhile, the opposition can probably gloat about “mission accomplished” in parliament.

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