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Kuwait's unique democratic experiment could be at an end

May 14, 2024

Kuwait has been known as one of the most democratic countries in the Middle East for years. But the royal emir's recent decision to suspend parliament has left some observers wary that it may slip into autocracy.

Sultan of Oman Haitham bin Tariq (Left) is welcomed by Emir of Kuwait, Mishal Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah with the countries' flags hanging in the background
Kuwait's emir Sheikh Meshal Al Ahmad Al Sabah (right) recently suspended his country's parliamentImage: Amiri Diwan of Kuwait//Anadolu/picture alliance

For decades, the small Arab Gulf state of Kuwait has been one of the most democratic countries in the Middle East.

Although the oil-rich country is ruled by a royal family, which gets to appoint Kuwait's prime minister, it also has an elected parliament representing diverse interests, consistently high voter turnout, and a political opposition that may criticize the monarchy (within limits).

This is why Kuwait has been described by long-time observers as "an oasis of democracy" and a "liberal outlier" among autocratic Arabian Gulf states. In Freedom House rankings, Kuwait and Lebanon are the only countries in the Middle East classified "partly free" in the organization's annual assessment of political rights.

But all that may now be at risk. Last week, the country's ruling emir, Sheikh Meshal Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, suspended Kuwait's parliament, arguably the centerpiece of the country's democratic practice.

A protest for women's rights in Kuwait.
Unlike in neighboring monarchies, Kuwaiti activists can hold authorized protests, like this one advocating women's rightsImage: Maya Alleruzzo/AP/picture alliance

Why was Kuwait's parliament suspended?

In an announcement on Kuwait state television, the emir said parliament, along with parts of the constitution, were being suspended and would be reviewed during "a period of no more than four years."

The emir's move came after weeks of political gridlock. Sheikh Meshal had already called for a snap election in March. A new parliament was duly elected in April, but its members couldn't be convinced to cooperate with ministers chosen by the royal family. That's when Sheikh Meshal took the much more drastic step of suspending parliament altogether.

"I will not allow democracy to be exploited to destroy the country," he said, adding that he was making "difficult decisions to save the country."

The royal family and 13 ministers, newly appointed on Sunday, will now take on the job of running Kuwait.

Members of parliament in Kuwait's National Assembly
Kuwaiti MPs come from diverse backgrounds and include liberals from the cities as well as tribal representatives and a handful of IslamistsImage: Jaber Abdulkhaleg/AP/picture alliance

Kuwait's members of parliament have more power than they do in other Gulf countries. They approve of royal appointments, can question ministers and even suspend parliamentary cooperation with them.

In Kuwait "national identity and culture has revolved around the sacrosanct norm that the [royal] Sabah family cannot rule without popular consent," Sean Yom, an associate professor of political science at Temple University in the US, explained how this came to be in a March analysis.

But over the past decade or so, MPs have become more politically aggressive, which has resulted in more political deadlocks and unpassed laws. In some cases, rival members of the royal family have used the system to score points against one another. 

Lagging behind Saudis and Emiratis

As a result, there's been a feeling that, due to political gridlock, Kuwait has fallen behind wealthier neighbors.

"People will rightly note Kuwait's lagging pace of reform and development, especially compared to the dramatic pace of change in Saudi Arabia," Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told DW. "The parliament will be blamed. But," she added, "this is also about character of Emir Meshal and his need to appoint a Crown Prince and successor."

Kuwait city skyline
While autocrats in Saudi Arabia have pursued modernization without having to consult anybody, Kuwait has had problems passing budget lawsImage: Asad/Xinhua/picture alliance

The emir took power last December and still has to name his successor. Unlike in other nearby kingdoms, Kuwaiti MPs usually have to approve the choice. Because of the recent suspension, this is no longer the case. 

On social media, rumors suggested the emir's decision might also have had to do with the threat of Islamist political forces. However, experts reject this pointing out that Islamists actually lost power in Kuwait's recent elections.

Where next for Kuwait? 

So will Kuwait recover its status as an "oasis of democracy"? Or will it head in the direction of autocracy, like its neighbors?

Most observers say it's too early to tell. 

"There is a lot of uncertainty now that the emir has torn up the agreed-upon rules of the political game," Diwan at the Arab Gulf States Institute said. "There is no clear indication he has a firm path planned, which is perhaps the most concerning thing of all."

"The Emir's background and ruling style holds immense importance for interpreting this illiberal moment," Temple University's Yom told DW. 

Whereas Kuwait's last rulers served in political roles and were accustomed to MPs' demands, Sheikh Meshal has "virtually no civilian political experience," Yom explains.

"His career traversed a very different pathway through the security and gendarmerie forces, which center not upon compromise with political opponents, but strict hierarchy. We see that sense of top-down leadership now, with little tolerance for parliamentary resistance or political bickering.​"  

On the other hand, Yom and other experts agree that many Kuwaitis understood that something needed to change

"Most Kuwaitis … are balancing a keen desire to restore some functionality to their paralyzed political system in the short term with a long term desire to safeguard constitutional freedoms," Yom argues. "The government understands that too, at least for now."

A woman casts her vote for the National Assembly elections at Bayan school in Bayan district, Kuwait.
Observers say there have been no immediate crackdowns on dissent in KuwaitImage: Jaber Abdulkhaleg/AP/picture alliance

Kuwait's rich culture of consensus

"It's too early to tell whether this is a classic case of [democratic] backsliding, a trope that some of our friends in the West have been putting out," Bader al-Saif, a professor of history at Kuwait University, says.

After all, al-Saif pointed out, there's precedent. Kuwait's royal rulers also suspended parliament in 1976 and 1986. But the parliament eventually returned as did Kuwait's constitution. 

"This is the 'Kuwait model,'" al-Saif argues, referring to the fact that Kuwait mixes an active monarchy with an active parliament. "And we are not giving up on our system of openness, a system that actually predates the constitution because it come out of a rich culture of consensus-building that we've had for close to 300 years." 

Suspending parliament temporarily won't kill that, al-Saif told DW. "Let's wait and see. This is an experiment," he concluded. 

Edited by: Rob Mudge

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