THE TIMES KUWAIT REPORT
On 5 March, more than a month after resignation of the previous government, His Highness the Crown Prince Sheikh Meshal Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah announced an Amiri decree reappointing His Highness Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah as prime minister, and tasking him to form a new cabinet.
With the cabinet lineup to the 43rd government in Kuwait’s parliamentary history likely to be announced in the next few days, we look at some of the festering issues that have preoccupied the country in the past, and some fresh challenges, for which the new ministers will need to find solutions so as to move the country on its path of progress.
For starters, the new government headed by His Highness the Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad Al Nawaf will need to urgently drive and rejuvenate the country’s ‘New Kuwait’ development plan that has of late begun to show signs of sputtering and faltering. The development plan is crucial to realizing Kuwait’s ambitious ‘Vision 2035’ that aims to transform the nation into a regional financial, commercial and cultural hub over the next decade.
Last week’s publication of the quarterly-report on the progress of the annual development plan 2022-23, is indicative of this slowdown in the development plan. The report revealed that the annual plan was confronted by a surprisingly large number of challenges, 665 to be exact, that prevented its timely implementation during the first-quarter of plan period. Most of the challenges (37%) were from administrative constraints, including delays in licensing procedures, approvals, and in delivery of utility services such as water and electricity to projects.
On the brighter side of things, recent policy statements and initiatives by several ministers and heads of public entities have indeed been encouraging. While they may be removed or shifted in a new cabinet lineup, the remarks and initiatives by the care-taker ministers are indicative of an acknowledgement at the highest level of the criticality and urgency of finding answers to persistent challenges that have hampered the country’s development for far too long.
Among the key issues that await the new government is the digital transformation of government services. Adoption of smart digital technologies could innovate public services, drive the economy, and improve quality of life, while increasing operational efficiency and performance of key sectors. Digitalization of government services could also go a long way to ameliorate many of the challenges underlined in last week’s critical report on the annual development plan.
It is in this regard that the recent statement by the Minister of Commerce and Industry, and Minister of State for Communications and Information Technology Mazen Al-Nahedh, gains added importance.
Inaugurating and addressing the ’Towards a Digital Economy’ conference, organized by the Kuwait Direct Investment Promotion Authority (KDIPA), in cooperation with The Business Year (TBY) magazine, on 8 March, Minister Al-Nahedh said that his ministry is working on forming a high-level committee, with the inclusion of other ministers and all relevant government agencies, to build a national roadmap for overseeing the digital transformation of the country, and unifying all related projects under a comprehensive digitalization master plan.
He also confirmed that Kuwait would continue to work with its strategic partners to promote digital transformation in public institutes and achieve Kuwait’s ‘Vision 2035’ plan. Pointing out that the recent inking of partnership agreements with several leading global technology firms had led the country to adopt promising and smart technologies. Al-Nahedh added that these deals have also assisted in furthering the scope and development of indigenous unified digital applications such as the ‘Sahel’ app, ‘Kuwait ID’ and ‘Meta’ app that simplify administrative processes and make public services more accessible and transparent.
The minister went on to note that, in line with Kuwait’s Vision 2035 the ministry is also working on maximizing benefit from IT and communications to support the country’s economy diversification plans. The minister stressed that these initiatives would help create new industries, stimulate competitiveness, and create job opportunities for national youth in different sectors of the economy.
Another top priority that will require immediate attention of many new ministers will be selecting the right people to fill top tier positions in ministries and public entities that have been lying vacant for months. Lack of leadership at the helm has paralyzed the reviewing and approving of plans, and the implementation of several vital projects.
Reports indicate that there are around 15 public sector entities that have been without a head for nearly six months, as a result of which work on important projects and plans of these organizations have stagnated. Additionally, more than 600 posts in government agencies have been lying vacant for months due to various reasons, including the absence of the entity head needed to review, approve and sign appointment letters.
Ironically, even as hundreds of posts in the public sector remain vacant, the authorities will simultaneously need to reduce the employee burden on these entities. Reports have repeatedly indicated that the public entities are currently bloated with surfeit employees. Finding gainful employment for national manpower in the private sector will have to be a priority for the new government, despite previous attempts to lure young citizens to work in private firms have not yielded the desired results.
In yet another sign of a new sense of purpose among ministers and policy makers, the Minister of Public Works, and Minister of Electricity, Water and Renewable Energy, Amani Bougammaz, last week submitted a proposal to the Council of Ministers calling for the scrapping of the Public Authority for Roads and Transport (PART). This followed an extensive evaluation of the Authority and its functioning, by the Ministry of Public Works (MPW), which found that PART had failed to realize the goals or achieve the objectives behind its formation.
Since its establishment in 2014, PART has proved to be a public-sector ‘white elephant’ that provides very little productivity while eating into the limited resources of the ministry. For much of its existence, the Authority has been in large measure mirroring the activities and duties that were more effectively and relatively quickly performed by existing departments of the MPW.
The ministerial report noted that the two greenfield projects that the Authority was tasked to accomplish have made little or no headway. The development of a Metro rail system for the country, as well the National Railway Project that aims to link Kuwait with the rail network in other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, have not advanced beyond the paper-work stage so far. This comes, despite the Authority having overarching control in undertaking planning, designing and implementing of the two vital projects.
Detractors point out that since its inception, PART has served mainly as a venue for providing sinecure ‘jobs’ to nationals, often to reward loyal supporters, or to placate opposition groups in parliament by employing cadres recommended by them. The report noted that over the course of eight years since its formation, the authority has spent a total of over KD2.7 billion on various road work projects, in addition to the huge expenses from employee salaries, perks, and administrative costs.
However, these expenses have not been reflected in the quality of work carried out by PART, neither in the quality of road networks nor in implementing new public transport mechanisms such as the Metro andRail Network. The Authority has also made little or no progress in furthering its original mandate of taking over functions from MPW and performing them in a more professional, productive and effective manner.
On another front, and in yet another indication that things were beginning to head in the right direction, the General Secretariat of the Supreme Council for Planning and Development, represented by the National Center for Knowledge Economy, recently launched the third Knowledge Economy Forum under the theme of ‘Knowledge Markets’ on 6 March.
The forum was noteworthy in that it came in the wake of an address by His Highness the Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf Al Sabah to the World Government Summit held in Dubai in mid-February. Speaking at the Summit, which was organized under the banner of ‘Shaping Future Governments’, Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf underlined the importance of implementing epistemic governance based on knowledge and information to tackle present and future natural and man-made challenges facing nations and the global community.
In a statement issued on the sidelines of the Knowledge Economy Forum, the Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Planning and Development, Dr. Khaled Mahdi, said that the two-day forum aims to build a supportive environment for the vision of ‘New Kuwait 2035’ by transitioning the country to a knowledge economy, educating public institutions and leaders about the importance of knowledge economy and of its role in enhancing competitiveness and diversifying economic bases.
One of the objectives of the forum was to build bridges of cooperation with the international community in the field of knowledge economy and benefit from international experiences in the practice of knowledge activities. Several discussion sessions held during the forum were addressed by international and regional specialists and experts in the field of knowledge economy.
These sessions helped explain the concept of knowledge markets and their role in supporting the economies of countries, the future of job opportunities and skills within the knowledge markets, the requirements of education and scientific research in the knowledge economy, as well as the legislative environment for promoting cognitive markets. Experts also underlined the need.
The statement by Dr. Mahdi also noted that Kuwait is steadily moving towards progress in the knowledge economy, by benefiting from the successful experiences carried out by the best countries in the world in this field. The statement also underlined that the knowledge economy is mainly based on knowledge as the main driver of this economy, and on accurate information that relies on communication and information technologies. The statement also stressed on the importance of investing in quality education and training so as to achieve the structural transformation required for a knowledge economy.
It is certainly reassuring that the head of Supreme Council for Planning and Development recognizes that the knowledge economy cannot be achieved by theoretical applications alone, but that it requires effort and time on the part of all concerned to successfully realize this aspirational goal. The remarks in the statement are pertinent not just to ministers and lawmakers but also to ordinary citizens in Kuwait.