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Favoring the Familiar

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Kuwait’s new government is readying itself for an uphill battle with the incoming legislature. The two branches of government continue to be headed by the same figures and have a similar turnover rate exceeding 60 percent, as both unfailingly tend to reproduce themselves regardless of seeming change.

Prime Minister Sabah al-Khalid Al Sabah formed his second government—the first under the new emir—amid numerous challenges. A charged context, parliamentary election results, and the executive’s selection process influenced the choice of ministers. The Covid-19 pandemic paved the way for the return of the health minister, avoiding a change of guard during a public health crisis, especially with the imminent arrival of a vaccine.

The recent succession facilitated the return to government of the Salem branch of the ruling family, which had been sidelined due to internal disagreements. For the first time since 1998, two members of the branch were named, taking over the Defense and Interior Ministries, giving them a larger representation than the Jaber branch, a member of whom was named foreign minister. The diversity of representation was further demonstrated by the prime minister coming from the Hamad branch and the health minister from the Malik branch, with the latter, unlike the others, not descending from the ruling Mubarak branch.

Boosting the Al Sabah presence and fairly distributing posts among the family’s branches spoke to a reconciliation in the making. The Interior Ministry has been reinstated to an Al Sabah member after a one-year hiatus, proving that the non-ruling family member who occupied the post was a placeholder until the family could rearrange itself. The shape of that reconciliation will become clearer when more senior posts are filled, especially in the separate courts of the emir, the crown prince, and the prime minister. The future roles of other senior ruling family members who maintain a low profile will add clarity to the overall direction of the next generation of Al Sabah leaders.

Notably missing from the government was the post of first deputy prime minister, last occupied by the late emir’s son Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed. Holding that position vacant, for now, may have been designed to monitor the performance of the younger Al Sabah ministers and leave open the possibility of a more senior family member entering the picture later as part of the reconciliation.

The unofficial quota system long governing the cabinet formation process has proven its resilience through several appointments. The practice of naming one Shi‘a minister was continued, as was naming one non-ruling family member as deputy prime minister. Mubarak Al Harees from the sizeable Awazim tribe was maintained as minister of state for national assembly affairs, and will be useful with tribal parliamentarians, especially the seven members of his own tribe, one of whom was elected deputy parliament speaker. Furthermore, reappointing a former senior Finance Ministry official to the ministry sent a reassuring signal about the state’s intent to address the fiscal crisis. His Islamist leanings will be welcomed by the nine Sunni Islamist parliamentarians.

The number of women ministers went down from two to one, while it went from one to none in parliament. The government may have reacted to the parliament’s lack of female representation by downgrading its own. Tribal representation also dropped to two ministers, consciously diverging from the wide tribal representation in parliament, where 29 parliamentarians are present.

The government has repeatedly talked about youth empowerment, yet the average age of ministers increased when compared to the previous government’s average age of 48. This decision contrasted with the fact that 30 parliamentarians out of 50 elected members of parliament are under the age of 45. The mismatch will make it harder for the government and parliament to readily understand one another, let alone accomplish what is needed to address Kuwait’s many challenges. Such a situation will contribute to more friction down the line if it is not properly dealt with.

The issues that preoccupied the previous government and parliament will continue to haunt the present ones, and so will returning members. Returning and previously serving ministers make up nine of the fifteen ministers, while the combination of reelected and former parliamentarians make up 28 out of the 50 elected parliamentarians. That means that although both branches of government have been speaking the language of change, what the country now has is more continuity. The return of a majority of ministers and parliamentarians who were part of the problem will mean it will be more difficult for them to become part of a solution.

The cabinet formation process continues to be opaque, but its end result signals a government tactic. Before it convened, a feisty parliament raised its ceiling of demands, namely requesting amnesty for opposition members and a change in the electoral law. This invited a similarly confrontational attitude from the government, which will not accede to these requests. A sign of this combativeness was the choice of a justice minister whom parliamentarians deemed to be controversial for opposing a draft law on the bidun, or the stateless inhabitants of Kuwait, that a parliamentary majority favors. Another sign was the government’s deciding vote for Parliament Speaker Marzouq Al Ghanem, for whom more than half of parliament did not vote. These early signs of antagonism indicate that tense government-parliament relations are bound to persist.

Short-lived parliaments and governments have become the norm in Kuwait. New crises will continue to steer the country away from much needed reform. One way of safeguarding against such crises is investing in the real engine of government: the middle management and bureaucrats whose work continues unabated, especially since these officials are accustomed to constant government reshuffles.

Another key group in which to invest is the youth. Many young Kuwaitis have demonstrated maturity in searching for permanent solutions to the country’s problems, while others have pursued political advocacy and engaged in campaigns that have raised awareness about issues relevant to the youth and to women.

Kuwait’s imperiled political system requires a major reset. If the state does not initiate such a process, it will have to contend with a population pushing for change from below. Until then, the system will continue to recycle itself, only perpetuating its challenges.

Carnegie

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