A new Kuwait? Gulf state’s leader prepares to pardon dissidents, paving the way for political reform

Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah and his government are grabbling with radical changes that could transform the Kuwaiti society

Ahmed Aboudouh
Wednesday 20 October 2021 14:42
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<p>A Kuwaiti man takes a selfie with a portrait of late emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah</p>

A Kuwaiti man takes a selfie with a portrait of late emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah

Kuwait’s emir has kick-started an amnesty process to pardon political dissidents and critics in a bid to extinguish a months-long political crisis that eroded the government’s plans to carry out major fiscal reform.

The amnesty has been a contentious point in the standoff between the appointed government and the parliament, a relationship already strained by differences over borrowing from abroad to cover a massive budget deficit or dipping into the country’s $700b sovereign wealth fund.

Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah tasked the parliament speaker, the prime minister and the head of the supreme judicial council to recommend the conditions and terms of the amnesty ahead of it being issued by decree, Sheikh Nawaf’s office said.

Highlighting that the amnesty could cover “some Kuwaitis sentenced in past cases”, the emir’s office didn’t reveal the identities of the potential opposition figures who would be included in the pardon and gave no further details.

“The outreach to the opposition is ultimately motivated by the need to reach agreement on economic reforms. Underlying this is a long term, a contested but inevitable shift in the social contract as the energy transition undermines the so-called rentier state, where the government benefits politically from its control over the country’s main resource, oil,” Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East analyst at the European Leadership Network, a pan-European think tank.

Some 40 lawmakers have signed an appeal to Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, urging him “to agree to start the first step of comprehensive national reconciliation”.

The movement in the parliament has been spearheaded by prominent opposition MP Obaid al-Wasmi and backed by the heavyweight House Speaker Marzouk al-Ghanem, who was the favourite government candidate for the high office when the turmoil started after the December election.

The MPs insisted the emir’s pardon was “a new page for a new Kuwait”, including the amnesty decree, would ensure political stability in Kuwait and cooperation between parliament and government.

Kuwait is ruled by a semi-democratic political system that gives the legislative assembly powers to obstruct law drafts suggested by the government, scrutinise its decision and place no-confidence votes against its senior officials. However, the Kuwaiti ruling family enjoys a special political status, while the emir maintains the power to dissolve the parliament.

The emir retains the final say in state matters and criticising his decisions could lead to jail.

Unlike neighbouring gulf states, that system gives citizens some form of power-sharing with the ruling family. But deadlocks between the cabinet and assembly have over decades led to government reshuffles and dissolutions of parliament, sometimes hampering investment and reform. Kuwait has had 17 governments and eight elections since 2006.

“Unfortunately, Kuwait’s political institutions have not been good at managing these tensions because the structure of the system actually tends to entrench a conflict between the elected legislature and the royally appointed executive decision-makers,” Kinninmont told The Independent.

“Instead of supporting and feeding into government, the parliament is the opposition to it. It’s not working. So some kind of further reforms are likely to be needed to create a virtuous circle between parliament and government instead of endless loggerheads,” she added.

The long-awaited pardon is expected to include former lawmakers in self-imposed exile who fled the country to avoid imprisonment after taking part in the 2011 storming of the parliament over alleged corruption and mismanagement by the government.

Six MPs are prominent among those accused of breaking into the parliament, including Musallam al-Barrak, Faisal al-Mislem and Jamaan al-Harbash, who left Kuwait in 2018 to avoid jail and are now based in Turkey, according to Kuwait Times.

The pardon would also list other activists who are in jail for openly chiding the emir’s policies.

The standoff prompted the emir, earlier this year, to suspend the parliament meetings. But the political crunch intensified further and forced the emir last month to take an unprecedented step of calling for dialogue.

Analysts cautioned about whether the call for dialogue will lead to real reforms.

“The amnesty would be a significant confidence-building measure for the opposition, but it remains to be seen if conditions will be attached - like requiring dissidents to keep quiet or if there will be an ongoing process of reconciliation and reform,” Kinninmont stressed.

In September last year, former Emir Sabah al-Ahmad passed away, paving the way for his brother Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad, 84, to become the leader. The new emir then appointed his brother, Sheikh Mishal al-Ahmad, 81, as the new crown prince.

The death of the popular emir was seen as a destabilising factor in Kuwait by many in the neighbouring Gulf states, who have been investing since the 2011 Middle East uprisings to maintain social stability while leading radical economic reform.

The political turmoil in Kuwait reflects, among other things, deeper change mechanisms that have been underway in the Gulf societies for years.

“Kuwaiti politics bring to the surface natural struggles that are suppressed in other Gulf states: over the future of the social contract which the energy transition is rapidly rendering obsolete, the role of Islam in society, the space for youth to have a voice and claim their space,” Kinninmont said.

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