Resignation last week by His Highness the Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid al-Hamad Al-Sabah and his cabinet, once again draws focus on the frailties and shortcomings in Kuwait’s parliamentary form of governance. Continued political upheavals and the ensuing economic instability and market downturns hamper the country’s growth and threatens its potential for progress.

In the absence of any serious attempt to amend the underlying systemic weaknesses in the political setup, or ameliorate the structural and institutional debilities intrinsic to the economy, we can at best only expect the prevailing middling status quo to continue, to the detriment of present and future generations in the country.

The premier’s resignation, handed over to His Highness the Crown Prince Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah on 5 April, marked the third successive stepping down by Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled since he was first assigned the premiership in December 2020. The latest resignation followed an interpellation last week of the prime minister that then led to a ‘non-cooperation’ motion being tabled by ten lawmakers. A vote on the motion slated for Wednesday 6 April was precluded by the premier’s decision to resign.

On Tuesday, National Assembly Speaker Marzouq Ali Al-Ghanim announced that the National Assembly would not hold its slated session on Wednesday, after he was informed that His Highness the Prime Minister and the government submitted their resignations. The speaker affirmed his trust in the political leadership, stressing that it would take the right decision in the interests of the country and its people.

Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled, who has now helmed three cabinets, began his premiership by heading the 37th Cabinet on 14 December 2020. Unfortunately, this was one of the shortest-lived cabinet’s in the country’s parliamentary history, lasting barely a month before the premier tendered its resignation on 12 January, citing disagreements with the opposition bloc in parliament.

The 38th Cabinet, again headed by Sheikh Sabah was sworn in on 2 March and lasted eight months, with the cabinet submitting its resignation on 8 November, 2021, following opposition lawmakers repeatedly hindering parliamentary proceedings and functioning of the government. The 39th Cabinet, which took office on 28 December, 2021, resigned last week barely three months into its term in office, following the non-cooperation motion filed against the premier.

Since the start of the year, parliamentary sessions of the 39th Cabinet have moved from one political crisis to another. In late January, the then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Sheikh Hamad Jaber Al-Ali Al-Sabah was grilled by lawmakers and survived a no-confidence motion against him. In mid February, it was the turn of Foreign Minister and Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs, Sheikh Dr. Ahmad Nasser Al Mohammed to face an interpellation and a consequent no-confidence motion that he too won.

A day after the foreign minister’s interpellation, the Ministers of Defense and Interior submitted their resignation to the premier citing their aversion to the obstructionist antics of lawmakers in parliament that hindered them from fulfilling their ministerial duties. On 9 March the government appointed new defense and interior ministers, and followed this up a few weeks later with a reshuffle of ministerial posts in the cabinet. Amid the political wranglings, the grilling, the no-confidence motions and resignations that impaired functioning of the 39th Cabinet, parliament has had very little time to enact much-needed laws or reforms, or to conduct the parliamentary work for which the lawmakers were elected and paid for by the state.

Call it premonition or intuition, but at the time of the government formation in December 2021, following extensive deliberations and a new conciliatory approach, we had foretold that attempts to appease lawmakers in parliament was not a viable policy that could work over a period of time. What even we did not foresee was how short-lived the tenure of the new government would be.

To recap, we had earlier mentioned that appeasement and concessions to political demands never work, not in Kuwait, not anywhere else. We noted that measures to ensure the longevity of the government through placcation policies were bound to fail once the political honeymoon period was over. Attempts at reconciliation and a ‘new beginning’ based on superficial plastering over of difference, would not help overcome the deep chasm and irreconcilable disagreements that exist between the appointed executive and elected legislative branches of government.

It was obvious to anyone other than the perpetual political optimists  that the surface calmness bought by placating parliamentarians would not last; the belligerence between the two sides was bound to reemerge, and the only result that could be expected from the acquiescence would be a further emboldened opposition that would ratchet up the brazenness of their demands. The latest non-cooperation motion against the premier can only be considered as the predicted outcome of the mollification approach.

Prior to the formation of the 39th Cabinet at the tail end of 2021, the premier had reportedly held extensive back-door negotiations with the opposition through intermediaries. Eventually, a mutually acceptable arrangement was drawn up that would allow parliamentary proceedings to go ahead unhindered, in exchange for the government recommending an Amiri pardon for several dissident politicians languishing abroad in self-imposed exile.

As part of reconciling differences and opening a new chapter in relations between the executive and legislative branches of government, His Highness the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah had in early November 2021 declared an Amiri pardon to the political dissidents.

The pardon enabled dissenters who were living in exile in nearby Arab states, to avoid jail sentences pronounced on them by Kuwait’s courts. It also allowed them to return and continue engaging in fostering their views on how political and democratic life in Kuwait should ensue.

The detractors strategy was underlined during an opposition meeting held recently in the office of former MP Bader Al-Dahoum who is now coordinating the 31-member opposition bloc in parliament. Members at the meeting reiterated their call for the dismissal of Speaker Al-Ghanim and His Highness the Prime Minister. MP Mubarak Al-Hajraf, one of the speakers at the event, said the dissolution of the Assembly is the only way to remove Al-Ghanim from office.

For his part, MP Muhammad Al-Mutair asserted the 2020 parliamentary election candidates won, because they called for the dismissal of the speaker and this later expanded to include the premier. He urged the next prime minister to avoid repeating the mistake of Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid who opted to ally with Al-Ghanim against the people’s will. It is obvious from these statements and the repeated grillings that marred the term in office of the 39th Cabinet that the government’s attempts at appeasement can at best be termed an exercise in futility.

As the country grapples with overcoming its self-inflicted political wounds, the economy continues to wobble from one extreme to another.  Over a year of sustained low oil prices, along with the repercussions on the economy from the COVID-19 global pandemic, had pushed the country’s account deficit to less than 17 percent of its GDP last year, and reached a point where the state treasury, the General Reserve Fund, was all but bare.

Now, with oil prices once again reaching record high levels, as the war in eastern Europe continues, the surge in revenue flowing into state coffers has meant that much of the budget deficit that was expected in the last fiscal year could be wiped off. After years of consecutive budget deficits, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) now expects Kuwait to run a budget surplus in this fiscal and to see its gross domestic product increase by 2.7 percent. As expected, the upswing in revenues is prompting the government to once again spend without restraint, forgetting the austerity and belt-tightening that it had to implement when oil prices shrank.

As the state of political paralysis that has gripped Kuwait continues into the foreseeable future, the country, its economy and the prospects of current and future generations are passing into a limbo. Last week, global sovereign rating agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P) affirmed its long- and short-term foreign and local currency sovereign credit ratings on Kuwait at ‘A+/A-1’ with a negative outlook.

Elaborating on its latest assessment of Kuwait’s ratings, S&P said in a statement that the negative outlook primarily reflects risks over the next 12-24 months arising from the government’s inability to overcome the institutional roadblocks that prevent it from implementing a future financing strategy. However, it added that Kuwait’s rating outlook could be revised to stable “if the government successfully addresses the country’s existing fiscal funding constraints through a combination of debt law adoption, authorization to withdraw specified amounts from the Future Generations Fund (FGF), and the introduction of a fiscal consolidation program”.

The agency also warned that it could lower the country’s ratings if no sustainable comprehensive financing arrangements are agreed, for instance, because of ongoing confrontations between the government and parliament that would render the government unable to implement fiscal reforms, pass the debt law, or authorize other budget-financing mechanisms, such as gaining full and ready access to the FGF for budgetary and debt repayment needs.

Though the prevailing high international oil prices have helped buoy up the country’s revenues and finances, this temporary respite does not ameliorate the existing deep structural and institutional shortcomings prevailing in Kuwait.

With rising tensions between the government and the National Assembly reducing the likelihood that these laws and reforms would be implemented in the near future, the sovereign outlook by global rating agencies could suffer further downward revisions.

Deep divisions between the executive and legislative arms of government make any political placations only a temporary solution, with genuine reconciliation remaining difficult if not impossible under present circumstances. While it is quite fashionable, especially in political circles and among the media, to blame failure of leadership for the current economic and social plight witnessed in the country, it is more than the fault of individual leaders that is to blame. Without implementing effective solutions to the underlying structural and institutional weakness in the country, any peripheral attempts at economic reforms or political realignments will be in vain.

Moreover, the resignation of yet another cabinet means that important economic, financial and administrative reforms will once again be shelved, and attempts to implement future-oriented policies will be accorded a low priority, as political parlays take prominence in the days and months ahead.

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