Kuwait’s cyclical crisis are a sign of how the political system replicates itself, with little change.
The latest round of events included protests, escalating intrigue in the ruling Al Sabah family, a corruption scandal, a media tug of war, ministers grilled by parliament, two addresses by the emir and his removal of senior ministers (including his own son). It also included the government’s resignation, a prime minister declining his reappointment, and the naming of a new prime minister.
In the November 6 protest, hundreds of people (some claim thousands) responded to former parliamentarian Saleh Al Mulla’s call to protest against corruption. Emboldened by ongoing protests in Lebanon and Iraq and their catchy mottos, the protestors raised the slogan “That’s Enough,” which soon became a popular hashtag. They asked for the dismissal of the government headed by Jaber al-Mubarak Al Sabah and parliament headed by Marzouq al-Ghanem. The success of the protest, evidenced by its high attendance on short notice, pointed to the dissatisfaction of a large segment of Kuwaitis with the state of the country. Held in Irada Square, the protest served as a stark reminder of the 2011 protests held in the same space to protest the same issue—corruption. The two protests indirectly led to the dismissal of a sitting prime minister.
The fact that the organizers managed to quickly secure a protest permit reflected the more open political environment in Kuwait compared to its neighbors. The fact that Kuwaitis were publicly objecting allowed critical members of parliament to build their case. Parliament summoned three ministers for questioning. The first, former finance minister Nayif Al Hajraf, resigned in early November before his scheduled appearance. In a face-saving measure, the government nominated Hajraf, who is related to the prime minister, to be the next secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The second, the reformist former public works minister and minister of state for housing affairs, Jenan Bushehri, went through hours of questions on November 12. Despite a spirited defense of her record, she faced a no-confidence vote and resigned on the spot.
The third, the former deputy prime minister and interior minister Khalid al-Jarrah Al Sabah, who is also an ally of the prime minister, did not convince parliamentarians either. His questioning ended with another no-confidence motion that would have then led to a vote to either dismiss or retain him. This vote would have symbolically undermined the ruling family, to which Jarrah belongs, even if he is a member of a junior branch. Faced with the standoff with parliament and its own weakened status, Mubarak’s government resigned on November 14 before the no-confidence vote could take place. The reason cited was the need to “reorganize [its]work.”
However, the prime minister did not expect that he would be challenged from within on the causes of the government’s resignation. Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed, the emir’s eldest son and first deputy prime minister and defense minister, described other reasons for the resignation. He said it was due to the government’s inability to fight corruption and answer his questions over where Defense Ministry funds equivalent to $790 million had gone. The disappearance had taken place under Jarrah, his predecessor as defense minister.
Using the media to score points against one another has become the new normal for ministers from the ruling family, especially since the separation of the positions of crown prince and prime minister in 2003. In 2011, for instance, a feud escalated between two senior members of the government—then-prime minister Nasser Mohammed Al Sabah and then-deputy prime minister Ahmed al-Fahd Al Sabah—leading to mutual accusations of corruption. The same dynamics are unfolding again, yet with different protagonists.
Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed’s statement, leaked documents, and eventual reporting on the case provoked a response from Jarrah, who absolved himself of any wrongdoing and pointed the finger at Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed’s political ambitions as the reason behind his remarks. This open media warfare not only affected Jarrah, it also indirectly implicated other former defense ministers, such as Jaber al-Mubarak Al Sabah, who occupied the position from 2001 to 2011.
Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed Al Sabah, took a number of measures to restore order. The 90-year-old monarch swiftly accepted the government’s resignation one day later and asked the caretaker government to continue its work until the formation of a new government. He made an exception on November 18 when he notably sacked the two ruling family ministers who went public with their grievances—his son Nasser and Jarrah.
The emir then went on national television the same day and declared that “no one, regardless of status or position, will escape punishment” for misappropriating public funds. He affirmed that he would personally follow up on corruption claims. Before the speech, the emir reappointed Jaber al-Mubarak Al Sabah as prime minister. The latter immediately issued a public letter declining the nomination, citing the need to “prove my innocence … from the lies … that unfortunately come from a colleague and a brother who[se]bond [stretches back]to more than 40 years,” an indirect reference to Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed’s remarks.
Adhering to age seniority among the publicly active Al Sabah members, the emir then chose the eldest remaining ruling family member minister, foreign minister Sabah al-Khalid Al Sabah, to be the third prime minister under his watch and Kuwait’s eighth prime minister since 1962. Just as the 2011 corruption allegations led the emir to accept the resignation of then-prime minister Nasser al-Mohammed and the appointment of Jaber al-Mubarak, the latest corruption allegations followed the same scenario.
As prime minister Sabah al-Khalid forms his government, he is best served by taking into account the recurring nature of Kuwait’s moving from one similar crisis to another. Given the prevalence of the unofficial age seniority rule, all incoming ministers from the ruling family will be of the prime minister’s age or younger—the rule does not apply to non-Al Sabah ministers. Accepting a ministerial position poses a risk for any newcomer who is not combative in nature, for Kuwaiti politics require the resolve of the bold.
The formation of a new government under a new prime minister may temporarily soothe the political landscape. However, it will not, on its own, undo Kuwait’s cyclical crises. Addressing the root causes of these crises, as well as the corruption and inefficiency prevailing in the country, along with taking stock of an unchanged, half-century-old political system that is in need of a facelift, will be the first steps toward breaking the chain that reproduces similar crises.