Following the successful general elections on 5 December, the country is about to swear in a new prime minister and a new cabinet, as well as the 50 newly elected members to the 16th legislative term of parliament.
What Kuwait is now looking forward to is having a dynamic and proactive executive branch willing to take bold decisions and implement long overdue financial, economic and administrative reforms needed to move the country ahead. What the country now hopes for is to have a vigilant and judicious legislative branch that will hold the government accountable for its actions and ensure good governance. What the nation needs, is for the executive and legislative to work together constructively so as to enact and implement progressive policies and laws that benefit the country and its people.
Is this possible? Definitely. Is it plausible? Well, we will have to wait and see. Often what one wishes for is not what one gets; and what one gets is not what one needs. Nevertheless, let us give the incoming team the benefit of doubt and wish them the very best during the 16th legislative term of the National Assembly.
Last week saw a flurry of activities following the general elections. On Sunday, a day after the general elections, His Highness the Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid tendered the resignation of his government to His Highness the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah. On Monday, His Highness the Amir assigned His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah to form and head a new government. The 37th government in Kuwait’s history, will be the first under His Highness the Amir and the second cabinet to be led by His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid.
A veteran diplomat who has spent much of his career in foreign affairs, Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid has served at Kuwait’s permanent mission to the United Nations, and as Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 2006 he was appointed as Minister of Social Affairs and Labor and as the country’s acting foreign minister; in 2011 he was named as foreign minister and continued in this role until his appointment as prime minister in 2019.
The incumbent prime minister is a dignified and honest statesman, more suited for the gilded corridors of diplomatic power than for wheeling-dealing ways of political life. The chicanery and guile needed to succeed in the political world is something that the incumbent and his immediate predecessor lacked, and this sadly has often undermined their ability to push through policies and get plans passed in parliament.
Critics of Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid argue that his outgoing 36th government was by and large ineffective in solving the problems of citizens, introducing much-needed reforms, or implementing plans in a timely manner. But, in all fairness, it needs to be said that the government headed by Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid was in office for only a brief period, and much of that time was spent combating the COVID-19 crisis.
Assigned to head the 36th government at the tail-end of the 15th legislative term, Sheikh Sabah was sworn in as prime minister on 17 December, 2019, following the resignation of his predecessor Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah. In the ensuing 11 months, the government has devoted much of its time and effort in attempts to curb the spread, and mitigate the impact, of the coronavirus pandemic in Kuwait.
In addition to fighting the virus since late February, when reports of the infection first emerged in Kuwait, the government has also struggled to keep the economy afloat. Buffeted by low international oil prices, a growing budget deficit and a liquidity crunch arising from a rapidly depleting General Reserve Fund, the economy has been wobbling its way forward. The government’s attempt to get parliamentary approval for a debt law that would have allowed the country to borrow on the international debt market, were also thwarted by opposition from lawmakers.
Given these extenuating circumstances, the government can be granted some leeway for not having performed to its full potential. On Sunday, while tendering the resignation of the 36th government to His Highness the Amir, the prime minister noted that in the short period before them, he and the ministers in his cabinet had done their utmost to shoulder the responsibilities accorded to them for serving Kuwait and attaining its prosperity. The prime minister also expressed sincere appreciation and pride for the trust and generous support, of His Highness the Amir and His Highness the Crown Prince, to the Cabinet and its efforts during this “crucial period of our beloved homeland’s history.”
In the short period that it was in office, the government did manage to notch several achievements, including passing a Domestic Violence Law in September that women’s rights activists had been campaigning for years. The government also passed a controversial bill on amending the country’s lopsided population structure in the final session of the 15th legislative term. The population bill includes new mechanisms for dealing with the large expatriate population, and for replacing expats with Kuwaitis in the workforce.
Earlier in a publicly broadcast ministerial forum held on 2 December, at the Jaber Al-Ahmad Cultural Centre to brief the public on achievements of his Cabinet, Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid said that the government had worked to boost integrity, enhance digital transformation of services and tackle corruption through increased governance and accountability. The forum was attended by a number of ministers, who also spoke about the achievements of their respective ministries.
In his address, Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid expressed sincere gratitude and appreciation for the tireless efforts of front-line workers during the pandemic. He said that around 154,000 male and female healthcare professionals were involved in providing health services during the period, 9,000 of whom suffered COVID-19 infection and 42 of whom died as a result. In addition, around 10,000 volunteers put their lives at risk, along with security, defense and firefighting personnel, the Kuwait National Guard, civil defense, inspection and emergency teams, the oil sector, civil society institutions, and the Union of Cooperative Societies.
He pointed out that on the food security front, the government had overcome a major food distribution challenge caused by the closure of ports and airports. He said the government was able to maintain the supply of products and to stabilize food prices by covering the extra freight costs in bringing in supplies, so as to ensure prices remained affordable to consumers. He also noted that notwithstanding the trying times, Kuwait was keen not to abandon its humanitarian role and had continued its international efforts, by assisting the needs of neighboring and faraway countries of the world.
Regarding the government’s response to the pandemic, the prime minister stated that Kuwait’s “affairs are stable and our health system is coherent and capable of providing all the required health requirements for everyone”. Pointing to Kuwait’s vaccination plan that was drawn up a couple of months earlier, the prime minister said that Kuwait was among the first countries to have tabled bids for these vaccines. While underlining the need for the public to adhere fully with all health guidelines, he reiterated that the vaccination campaign, which will be offered to both nationals and residents free of charge, would begin at the end of December or early next year and will continue to the end of 2021.
For his part, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Interior, and Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs, Anas Khaled Al-Saleh, said that the focus of his ministry during his tenure at the helm were on digital transformation of services, combating residency dealers and amending the residency laws and legislation. He noted that the ministry was able to switch more than 70 percent of its services to electronic means thereby enabling more than six million transactions to be completed within a short period. The interior minister noted that efforts were also carried out to limit residency violations and investigate the reasons behind the presence of marginal workers and to penalize violators.
Speaking at the same forum, the Minister of Education and Minister of Higher Education Dr. Saud Al-Harbi said that maintaining the health and safety of pupils and teaching staff during the COVID-19 pandemic was the main challenge for the Ministry of Education. Noting that the academic year 2019-20 was completed through online education, the minister said that more than 10,929 teachers were trained for this purpose. With regard to higher education, he said that the number of students sent to pursue their academic learning abroad in 2020-21 increased by 44 percent compared to a year prior, while student applications for medical studies rose by 12 percent.
Expressing pride in successfully providing adequate healthcare to the public despite the many challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, Health Minister Sheikh Dr. Basel Al-Sabah said his ministry had also increased the capacity of health facilities and hospitals. These included changes made at the new Amiri Hospital, Jaber Al-Ahmad Hospital and the New Jahra Hospital that increased capacity for hospitalisation by 50 percent. Digitization also improved services, including the COVID-19 platform, which provides the public and medical staff with figures and test results, efficiently and transparently, while the Shlonak mobile app serves those under state-imposed self isolation.
Reeling off numbers during his address at the ministerial forum, the prime minister said that the introduction of a national framework for governance had resulted in the referral of 57 cases of public fund violations and 1,042 state property encroachments to the public prosecution. He added that the government had formed 24 committees and working groups that delivered 300 recommendations and 400 decisions and took 800 procedures on public utilities during this period.
Highlighting the government’s health crisis management, Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid said this included organising the largest repatriation of nationals, involving 13 entities and 12,000 employees and volunteers. He said around 185 flights from 58 destinations were completed, flying over one million kilometers in total for around 1,750 hours. No doubt these are impressive figures in their own context, but issues that many people are currently more concerned about are the security of their jobs and income, the government’s plans to revive the economy, and the support it lends to faltering businesses.
While the prime minister could explain away many of the shortcomings of his previous government, citing the short duration of its tenure and having to respond to the unexpected onslaught of the pandemic, he will have no such excuse going into his next term. Having been bestowed with the confidence of His Highness the Amir to form and head the next government, the incumbent prime minister now has the responsibility to decisively implement plans and policies during the next four years ahead.
We wish him the very best.