By Geoffrey Martin
Rai Insights Contributor
Kuwait: The National Assembly is on break until October. What should we expect for the coming year? There have been significant changes in the last few months that are worth commenting on.
First off, regional and international events have derailed the “normal” cycle of parliament freezing many pathways to disruption and faster elections.
The focus on Doha, and the current GCC crisis, has changed the way the Assembly runs. What is surprising about the current crisis is that there is broad based support for Qatar, both from Islamists and Shia bloc supporters. Both groups, subtly and publicly, view Qatar’s actions – as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood or at the forefront of the much-needed rapprochement with Iran depending on the group– as something that is commendable or at least acceptable in terms of behaviour. This has led to that particular flashpoint being defused.
The “Abdali affair”, that confusing yet important crisis over the capture in and subsequent escape and capture of fourteen suspected Iranian ‘terror’ members continues. While the expulsion of Iranian diplomats and a letter of protest to the Lebanese government increase regional tensions, the implications have not reverberated much on the Shia parliamentarians, which has distanced themselves from the situation.
The Trump presidency has also caused a lot of tension, although the issues are more rhetorical than reality. Kuwait remains an important source of domestic and infrastructural support for the United States, regardless of the rather ridiculous rhetoric from that most interesting of Presidents that Kuwait “owes” the United States anything. U.S.-Kuwaiti relations have only expanded in recent times with increased operations in Syria and Iraq as well as the new NATO operations center opened earlier this year. Yet the Trump presidency has given Kuwait’s parliament pause, as it has for most country’s legislative institutions where American influence and investment have a major part to play. This has defused internal tensions as they size up their largest ally’s dysfunctional political scene.
The biggest change in parliament has been the poor performance of the opposition since the last opposition parliament of 2012.
While political tensions remain high, especially among the Islamist and tribal factions, the opposition failed to go beyond rhetoric before the summer session ended. The opposition remains relatively similar to previous opponents of the government. As the National reported it’s “a mixed bag ranging from Muslim Brotherhood Islamists to ultraconservative Salafis to nationalists, leftists and liberals, with a smattering of young first-time members.” This very diverse group has always had difficult in retaining any sort of broad front, although 2011 and 2012 saw this change for a brief time.
The boycott of the 2013 elections, and the failure of opposition candidates to contest the November 26 election results (due to voting irregularities in the 5th Constituency) have significantly weakened their standing. Attempts to rollback petrol price increases were a total failure in this session, even though the rhetoric of opposition leaders like Waleed Al-Tabtabai were quite prominent. One small victory was to reduce the size of the planned increases in electricity prices for citizens (instead only targeting businesses and expatriates), although this will likely happen in the near future as fiscal pressures hit the government.
Instead, in this session there were alot of the usual questions, the usual grillings, and the usual committees, mostly talking about the transparency and accountability of project tenders, reports, and procurement. At the end of May the budgets of the Public Institution for Social Security (that scandal ridden state investment firm) and the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (the state science fund) were denied by the opposition as the continued pressure of the corruption scandals haunt those institutions. This is in comparison to the acceptance of budgets for the Kuwait Fund, the Kuwait Municipality, the Public Authority for Manpower and the Public Authority for Agricultural Affairs and Fish Resources. In the end, the deficit budget was approved regardless of the problems of all these portfolios. Why were they passed in the end? The opposition could not even get a quorum in the Assembly to fight these budgets. Parliamentary speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanim commented that the lack of quorum “occurs sporadically” but it is much more than that.
The opposition is now weak and mostly rhetorical in its opposition. There was more publicity over whether the invasion and occupation of Kuwait should be referred to as the “Iraqi” invasion and not “Saddam’s” invasion. The argument erupted despite the time old and accepted policy of differentiating between the subjugated peoples of Iraq and the tyranny of Saddam. This, among other examples (read: Safa Al-Hashem’s verbal assault of expats) derailed from the real issues surrounding economic and legislative reform, the key platform of previous opposition parliaments. The main attack during this parliament has been against expatriates, which are an easy target for both government and opposition forces. Yet the reform of expat policy does not do much to change the main problems facing the Kuwaiti economy which are government subsidies.
Why has this weakening happened? When the opposition was voted into office in 2012, this was in large part due to the voting preferences of the middle class. Fast forward to 2016, and the preferences of the middle class have changed and they don’t parallel the interests of opposition parliamentarians. Middle class groups are reliant on public sector jobs, loans, subsidies, free education, and housing. They voted in the 2012 opposition parliament because they were unhappy with the Deposits Scandal, the K-Dow debacle, a series of other scandals, and the perceived deterioration of public services that eventually upended the status quo.
While popular resentment over perceived public-sector corruption remains significant the avenues for reform are no longer on the streets. That time has passed, as has the star of Al-Barrak and his ilk. While legislative arms to combat corruption, like the Kuwait Anti-Corruption Authority, are in their infancy the beginning of a process to combat corruption is beginning in legislative terms. A raft of corruption cases against elites, both within the ruling family and among the most privileged of bureaucratic and business families are evidence of a change in political climate in the government that everyone can see and appreciate.
Furthermore, the problem for the opposition is the actual realities of reform policy. Subsidy reform is the most pressing issue both for the government and the opposition. Yet the government has a platform and the opposition wants to maintain a status quo that isn’t possible.
On the government side, we see a serious attempt to cut “red tape”, and remove bureaucratic obstacles to reform and making Kuwait more business friendly. This is a necessity. Between 400,000 to 600,000 young Kuwaitis will enter the workforce by 2030 and no matter the high cost of oil the government will not be able to afford employing them in the public sector. While the sovereign wealth fund protects Kuwait from problems in the short-term, the long-term fiscal impacts are less clear.
The opposition has no clear plan. The change to middle class opinion is that the government succeeded in demonstrating that they actually have a path forward to reform. The opposition does not have any such realistic platform. The path forward for the opposition is to develop a clear strategy, one that not only has clear and realistic policies, but also can be developed alongside government policy. External events freeze the dissolution of parliament for now, which gives them the opportunity to development these policies, if they so choose.
* Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student at the University of Toronto and currently is a visiting researcher at the American University in Kuwait. He currently resides in Kuwait.