THE TIMES KUWAIT REPORT
With the second session of the 17th legislative term of the National Assembly currently underway, the fervent hope among people is that the parliamentary concord witnessed during the first session will continue to prevail. Detente in relations between the two wings of parliament in the last session had led to consensus on several policies and laws that helped move the wheels of progress forward.
A contentious parliament at odds with the government’s policies is the last thing the country needs right now. Although the current high oil prices preclude the need for any immediate measures to rein-in development plans, the state’s finances are not as rosy as they appear on the surface. The large surplus recorded in fiscal year 2022-23 are reported to have significantly boosted the reserve assets in the General Reserve Fund (GRF), the state treasury, which at the end of fiscal year 2021-22 was estimated at around KD8.2 billion.
However, the GRF buffers could face an equally significant withdrawal with a budget deficit of KD6.4 billion projected for the current fiscal year 2023-24. Any large withdrawal from the GRF is worrisome, given the limited alternative financing options available to the government, especially since parliament remains vehemently opposed to the public debt law, which would have allowed Kuwait to borrow on international debt markets.
In its latest World Economic Outlook report issued at the end of October, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) noted that Kuwait is projected to record a negative growth rate of -0.6 percent in real GDP this year, making it the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state to record negative growth in 2023. The IMF also expected the inflation rate in Kuwait to reach 3.4 percent this year, which is the highest among GCC countries.
In its report, the IMF also predicted a slowdown in world economic growth, with figures showing that global growth is poised to slow from 3.5 percent in 2022 to 3.0 percent in 2023 and 2.9 percent in 2024, well below the historical (2000–19) average of 3.8 percent. Slowdown in global growth and higher inflation could have a serious negative impact on Kuwait’s economy.
Slackening growth worldwide could reduce demand for hydrocarbon products and pull down oil prices, straining Kuwait’s finances and hampering economic activity in the country. Any appreciable fall in oil demand, amid the reduction in production — as a result of compliance with output quotas set by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and their non-OPEC allies — could severely dent Kuwait’s hydrocarbon exports and revenues.
Moreover, with the government committed to speeding up several major projects, including mega developments in the northern region, a fall in revenues could scuttle or delay these projects and negatively affect the four-year work plan that the government outlined in July, and which it hopes to push forward during the current session of parliament.
Additionally, any tightening of purse strings by the authorities could complicate, if not jeopardize other policies and plans that the government has committed to implementing in cooperation with the National Assembly. Among the issues awaiting parliamentary discussion and resolution are finding a solution to salary discrepancies in the public sector, establishing an Election Commission, and moving the nationality file forward.
Discrepancy in salaries between citizens employed in different state agencies has been a contentious issue in the government sector for long. People doing the same work in different public sector undertakings often receive salaries that vary greatly; in some instances the discrepancy is more than double. The discontent this has bred among affected government employees has contributed to the poor productivity and ‘job-hopping’ witnessed among workers in the public sector.
Another issue that would need to be tackled during the current session is that of establishing the Electoral Commission (EC). During the first parliamentary session there was consensus between the government and lawmakers on establishing an independent electoral commission. Agreeing to establish an EC was the easy part, now comes the task of fleshing out the details of this important entity — its constituents, mandate, and limits will need to be determined and agreed upon.
On the same electoral vein, the authorities will also have to finalize legislation related to the electoral process, as well as realign electoral districts taking into account the development of new residential areas that are coming up in different parts of the country, as well as the population growth among citizens, and the increase in the number of voters in the present constituencies.
The nationality issue also constitutes a long festering challenge that has remained unresolved for far too long. In November of 2022, a decree was issued to form the Supreme Committee the Realization of Kuwaiti Nationality, to examine applications from people aspiring to acquire Kuwaiti citizenship. The decree stipulated that the Supreme Committee for this purpose will be headed by the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, with Minister of Defense, Minister of Justice and the Secretary-General of the Council of Ministers as members. Nothing much has evolved since the formation of the committee a year ago.
The second parliamentary session clearly has a lot riding on it, and continued concord between government and legislators is vital to achieving them. In his inaugural address at the start of the second parliamentary session of the 17th legislative term on 31 October, the representative of His Highness the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, His Highness the Crown Prince Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, reiterated the government’s priorities and strategies.
His Highness the Crown Prince also called on citizens to activate their role as parliamentary monitors and question the performances of parliamentarians. Addressing the Kuwaiti people, he said, “You, my fellow countrymen, are required to have a clear, honest and courageous opinion on all issues that MPs may raise, in order to prevent them from claiming wrongful demands as if it was your own, but in fact it is for their personal benefits”.
In addition, His Highness pointed out that some parliamentary practices had led to extreme resentment because it did not achieve people’s desired aspirations. He stressed on the need for MPs to desist from such practices and instead focus on important matters that reflect citizens’ ambitions. He also called on all MPs not to use their parliamentary tools as a means of pressure to swing the people’s opinion and occupy them with unnecessary subjects that may not achieve any kind of justice to them.
Speaking on the same occasion, His Highness the Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, took a more conciliatory tone. He stressed that the upcoming period must focus on economic growth aimed at meeting the expectations of Kuwait and its people. The premier called for building trust in the government’s abilities to meet the country’s aspirations, and emphasized that cooperation between the government and National Assembly must also be built on trust and respect of state institutions and the constitution.
In a further placatory gesture aimed at promoting the ongoing detente in the National Assembly and improving relations with the legislative wing in parliament, Deputy Prime Minister, State Minister for Cabinet Affairs and State Minister for National Assembly Affairs Essa Al-Kandari stated that the government remained committed to its policy of not intervening in parliamentary elections, and its intent on enhancing cooperation and coordination with the assembly.
For his part, Speaker of the National Assembly, Ahmad Al-Saadoun also affirmed that the first regular session of the 17th Legislative term had produced several laws in line with the people’s desires for development namely in the housing sector, National Assembly election laws, health insurance and providing more benefits for housewives.
Additionally, a day ahead of the inaugural session, the cabinet expressed gratitude to the Kuwaiti leadership and the National Assembly for supporting the government’s efforts to drive the country’s development plans. The cabinet also commended the government-parliament coordination committee for its efforts in harmonizing relations between the two branches of the state.
On the same vein, during a meeting of legislators on 15 October, lawmakers noted that joint priorities with the government would form the nucleus of upcoming cooperation in parliament. They highlighted a number of issues and laws to be considered in the second session of parliament, including, among others, prioritizing bills to reform the strategic alternative, or the public sector wage structure, pensions, and real estate financing law, and amending electoral laws.
The government has also outlined its priorities that, it said, were in line with its four-year economic framework outlined in July, including development of the northern region; the corporate tax law; the residency law; amendments to tender laws and to the traffic laws; and the real estate financing and mortgage laws. Finding common ground in parliament on their respective priorities will determine the degree of progress on key economic and development objectives.
Despite consensus on issues between the two sides, and the cooperative and conciliatory initiatives from the government, as well as guidance from His Highness the Crown Prince, last week lawmaker Hamdan Al-Azmi presented a request to grill the Minister of Commerce and Industry and Minister of State for Youth Affairs Mohammad Al-Aiban, for the minister’s deemed multiple failures.
In his grilling request, the lawmaker highlighted six issues that form the axis of his interpellation — using the ministerial office to avoid facing fraud charges; neglecting duties and undermining Kuwait’s security; wasting public funds through financial and administrative violations; misleading the State Audit Bureau; mismanaging the National Fund for Small and Medium Enterprises Development; and, failing to adequately monitor and supervise rising prices.
The grilling motion could very well be the first ‘shot across the bow’, and an indication that the parliamentary concord witnessed during the first session of the National Assembly should not be taken for granted. It could also be an early sign of potential frictions that could once again hamper relations in parliament. At a time when an effectively functioning parliament is what Kuwait urgently needs, the reemergence of dissension could be most unfortunate.
Discord in the National Assembly would not only upend the government’s immediate projects and its four-year work plan outlined during the first parliamentary session, it could also impair trust among people on the government’s ability to deliver, on the parliament’s ability to function, and in the country’s future going ahead.