Kuwait lurched deeper into political crisis on June 24, when the country’s parliament began to question Dr Youssef al-Ibrahim, finance minister and minister of planning and managerial development, about allegations that he mismanaged the state’s finances. The move was initiated on May 26 when MPs Musallam al-Barrak from the Popular Bloc and Mubarak al-Duwaylah from the Islamic Bloc submitted a request to parliament speaker Jassem al-Kharafi. Barrak told reporters that the questioning is intended to “halt the spread of corruption in state institutions.”
In his capacity as finance minister, Ibrahim is responsible for the management of a large proportion of the colossal financial largesse and huge overseas investments of this tiny Gulf state that sits on top of some one tenth of the world’s oil reserves. For instance, he heads the Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA), which manages investments worth more than $60 billion around the world, and the state social security body, which also handles sizeable overseas investments.
The 47-page request to question Ibrahim lists a battery of charges, including the use of public funds during elections to benefit certain groups, the squandering of state-owned properties, favouritism in appointments that violate constitutional guarantees of the equality of Kuwaiti citizens, a shortfall in the investment funds of the social security body, while cutting benefits in a generous cradle-to-grave welfare system, and failure to implement a law to move thousands of state employees to the private sector. The legislators also want to ask the minister about changes in the terms of housing loans offered by the state to Kuwaitis, and about reports of violations at state bodies such as the KIA.
The formal request came after an avalanche of strong criticisms levelled by parliamentarians at Dr Ibrahim, a US-educated economist and formerly a professor of economics at Kuwait University, questioning some of his recent appointments and demanding that he move to end malpractice in the handling of public funds; also that he improve the performance of some state institutions, including the KIA. Initially, Kharafi placed the request on the parliament’s agenda for a session on June 10. But Ibrahim postponed his reckoning by availing himself of a constitutional provision that allows ministers who are summoned for grilling before parliament to request a two-week extension to prepare their responses.
The cabinet has given key support to the finance minister. Shortly after Duwaylah and Barrak made their intentions public, the cabinet issued a statement expressing its “support, backing for and full trust and pride in Ibrahim.” Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, deputy prime minister and foreign minister, has warned that the cabinet will step down if the formal questioning turns into a no-confidence motion in the finance minister. “I am telling you from now: the government will resign,” Shaykh Sabah told reporters in parliament.
The Islamic and the Popular blocs, the two blocs seeking to challenge Ibrahim about his financial dealings, control 23 of the 50 elected seats in the unicameral parliament. But four MPs from these two blocs are cabinet ministers and therefore cannot take part in no-confidence votes. Article 80 of the constitution of Kuwait states that, “Ministers who are not elected members of the National Assembly shall be ex-officio members thereof.”
The crisis is by no means an anomaly. It is, in fact, part of the normal political life of Kuwait, where parliament has been making concerted efforts to push the government to implement meaningful political reforms. In the past few years the parliament’s attempts to pressure the ruling al-Sabahs to separate the posts of crown prince and prime minister have come to nothing. Tension between the legislative branch and the government tends to rise, often engendering political crisis, whenever parliament moves to question cabinet ministers, especially those who belong to the ruling al-Sabah family.
The parliament’s attempts to investigate allegations of fraud, influence-peddling and misuse and diversion of public funds on the part of senior al-Sabah members of government, have more than once led to the dissolution of parliament. On three different occasions in the past three decades the Emir has used a constitutional provision that allows him to disband parliament to frustrate the efforts of legislators who want to question the financial probity of members of the ruling family.
In August 1976 parliament was dissolved after it had become extremely critical of the government; it remained dissolved for five years. In July 1986 the Emir moved to dissolve parliament to forestall continual criticism of the government and members of the royal family about the implications of Kuwait’s pro-Iraq stance in the Iraq-Iran war (1980 to 1988). Parliamentary life remained in abeyance until 1992. The scenario was repeated in May 1999, when the Emir dismissed parliament to prevent MPs from questioning the minister of awqaf and Islamic affairs about the printing of 120,000 copies of the Qur’an that were riddled with typographical errors. But this time the constitution was upheld: new elections were held within 60 days.
Kuwait’s political difficulties are compounded by the failing health of the country’s ageing political elite. The country’s ruler, 73-year-old Emir Shaykh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, suffered a brain haemorrhage last year and spent a few months recuperating in England, while the crown prince, 72-year-old Shaykh Sa’ad al-Abdallah al-Salem al-Sabah, who has been Kuwait’s prime minister for 24 years, has been in very poor health since undergoing surgery for colonic cancer in 1997. Sa’ad has lately been reported to be so ill that he is disoriented and loses track of what is happening around him most of the time; apparently he no longer recognises his ministers and needs help to walk. The day-to-day affairs of the country have fallen to Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, 73 years old, deputy prime minister and foreign minister, who suffers from heart problems and has a pacemaker.
Add also the lack of a set pattern for succession, and the consequences of the failing health of Kuwait’s top rulers loom larger than those of similar situations in other Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, where there is a formula for deciding the succession among the sons of king Abd al-’Aziz al-Saud, the founding father of modern Saudi Arabia. In Kuwait the succession is considered an internal family affair, and decided (at least in principle) by consensus within the “royal family”.
The succession is further complicated by the fact that it is the exclusive preserve of two branches of the royal family. Since Emir Mubarak, known as Mubarak al-Kabir (Mubarak the Great), passed away in 1915, the succession has alternated between the families of his two eldest sons, Jaber, who ruled from 1915 to 1917, and Salem, who ruled from 1917 to 1921. The only exception to this rule occurred in the 1960s, when Shaykh Abdallah of the Salem line was succeeded by his brother Shaykh Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah. This state of affairs imbues political life in Kuwait with another source of rivalry between the two ruling branches of the al-Sabah. Over the past two decades, for instance, the affairs of government have often been caught up in endless jockeying between crown prince Sa’ad and foreign minister Sabah.
The current generation of al-Sabah rulers discourages any attempt, whether publicly or privately within the royal family, to discuss the passage of political power to the next generation. The Kuwaiti press, which enjoys more freedom than the press in neighbouring countries, is forbidden to write directly about the issue. Often, the press refers to the issue euphemistically as “the Big Decision.” Worried about the possibility of having to face the eventual change without adequate preparation, senior members of the country’s business community have formed a lobbying group to press the ruling family to discuss the question.
Kuwait’s business elites also face an additional source of apprehension stemming from the current crisis. Concerns triggered by the crisis have already taken a toll on the Kuwaiti economy. Several major projects and development plans in various sectors, especially the oil sector, are expected to be delayed if the crisis deepens. Trading in the Kuwait Stock Exchange has also been dampened. In a report, the country’s National Investment Company has said that the “worrisome” effects of the on-going row between parliament and government will continue for several more weeks, “until the result of the grilling is known.”