Like autocratic rulers everywhere, nothing is more loathsome to Kuwait’s ‘royal’ family than accountability. Another mainstay of autocratic rule is a determination to avoid relinquishing key positions of power. The recent resignation of the cabinet of crown prince and prime minister Sa’ad al-’Abdallah al-Sabah is a case in point.
On February 4, just one week after accepting their resignation, Kuwait’s Emir Shaykh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah asked the crown prince to form a new cabinet. In this way the Emir put an end to speculation that he was going to give the premiership to the crown prince’s arch-rival, Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. The 72-year-old Sa’ad, who is ailing, has already lead ten successive Kuwaiti governments since he was first named crown prince in 1978.
The Emir had a week earlier accepted the cabinet’s resignation. Sa’ad, justified the move as being prompted by “obstacles hindering the government’s functioning.” This was seen as an indirect reference to longstanding internal differences that have reduced the cabinet to an arena for political in-fighting between rival branches of the ‘royal family’. Many members of parliament have long argued that lack of harmony within the cabinet is responsible for governmental inaction, thus hindering the proper functioning of the various branches of government, including the legislative branch. For instance, the rifts plaguing the cabinet are believed to have been responsible for its inability to tackle an economic slow-down that has gripped oil-rich Kuwait despite a sharp increase in state revenues.
The main rift is between the two senior branches of the ruling family, one is headed by the Emir and his brother Shaykh Sabah, the other by their cousin, crown prince Sa’ad. The rift is aggravated by the absence of a definite rule governing the succession. Usually the two or three members of the Emir’s immediate family with the strongest personalities become rivals for the throne. The health problems of Shaykh Sa’ad during the last three years have also intensified the rivalry between the two branches. In 1997 the crown-prince spent seven months outside Kuwait for colon surgery.
The latest political crisis came about when the foreign minister, Shaykh Sabah, resigned during a regular weekly cabinet meeting. A dispute is reported to have arisen between the two arch-rivals, after which the foreign minister declared that he no longer wanted to remain in office. Sabah’s resignation encouraged other ministers present to announce their intention to quit. Sa’ad wanted to avoid a crisis and reportedly tried to dissuade them but they were firm. When they insisted, he said he would convey their wishes to the Emir.
But for justice minister Sa’ad al-Hashel the resignations came at the best time. They saved him from parliamentary interrogation over the closure of several investigations, including some into corruption. Just one day before the cabinet’s resignation, legislator Hussein al-Qallaf had tabled a motion summoning him to face questioning in the legislature. There were also rumours that other cabinet ministers were about to be summoned for parliamentary cross-examination.
The fact that the resignations came shortly after Qallaf’s motion led to speculation that they were a manoeuvre to avoid Hashel’s being questioned in public. In the past, moves to take cabinet members to task have repeatedly occasioned similar political crises. The most recent incident was in March 1998, when the cabinet was reshuffled to avoid a no-confidence vote in then-information minister and outgoing oil-minister Shaykh Sa’ud Nasser al-Sabah.
Meanwhile, a growing chorus of voices, ranging from the country’s liberals to the Islamic Salafi movement, have been calling for fundamental political reforms. Foremost among these reforms is the separation between the posts of crown prince and prime minister. One such call was issued by member of parliament Walid al-Tabataba’i of the Salafi movement, who was quoted by al-Qabas(February 5, 2001) daily as saying, “The prime minister is supposed to be different from the crown prince, and the first must be changed every four years.” Combining the two key posts of crown prince and prime minister has been a political tradition since Kuwait introduced a parliamentary system in 1962.
Tabataba’i also criticised the reservation of “key ministerial posts for members of the ruling family.” Members of the al-Sabah dynasty have taken for themselves several government posts, including the foreign, interior, defence and finance portfolios as well as the governorship of the central bank. Most notably, Tabataba’i condemned the government for failing to pursue the formally declared state policy of bringing all legislation into line with the Shari’ah. This is a policy commitment that is anchored in the country’s history. Upon coming to the throne in 1921, Shaykh Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah pledged to abide by the final decision of the ulama in all disputed legal cases.
But the secretary-general of the Salafi movement, Hakim al-Mutayri, wrote an article in al-Ra’i al-’Am daily (February 5, 2001) in which he called for “implementing a true democratic system in Kuwait, similar to the one practised by civilized nations”; “the problem stems from the inability of the Kuwaiti people to effectively choose their government, and their inability to hold it accountable when it fails,” Mutayri added.
The Emir’s decree has, for the time being, resolved the issue of the powers of the crown prince in accordance with the “traditional practice” of giving the prime minister’s job to the heir apparent. But it is expected that the foreign minister will play a major role not only in appointing ministers to form a more cohesive cabinet but also in making important decisions in the new government. Like misers with a fortune to dispense, the ruling family is reportedly looking into constitutional and legal bases whereby Shaykh Sa’ad would formally and publicly delegate government matters to Shaykh Sabah. This is a different arrangement from the one worked out in 1999, in which Shaykh Sabah was given only a verbal mandate, an arrangement that paved the way for incessant petty internal feuds as the arch-rivals accused each other of violating the terms of the bargain. Outgoing defence minister Shaykh Salem al-Sabah, who belongs to Shaykh Sa’ad’s branch of the family, has asked not to be included in the new cabinet. This suggests that the political bloodletting between the two senior branches of al-Sabah is being won gradually by the Emir’s branch.
The new government will face the challenge of a number of long-promised reforms, including passing laws to privatise the country’s state-dominated economy, allowing direct foreign investment, and introducing taxes, thus gradually extricating the state from the country’s cradle-to-grave welfare system. These are not small changes: they could fundamentally change the character of the Kuwaiti “rentier state,” a state with a one-sided economy based on external rent-income, the government assuming the dual role of the most important collector and the biggest distributor of that revenue. This allows the state to be “independent” of taxation from its own citizens, who are expected to lower their demands for political participation in return for access to the state’s financial largesse.
As in other Gulf Arab countries, the basis of the Kuwaiti system is the buying off of popular discontent. Income from oil-sales accounts for more than 80 percent of government income. Citizens have grown accustomed to government handouts. Extricating the state from the welfare system could well herald the erosion of its dominant role as the almost exclusive source of economic and social power. This is the cause of the reluctance of consecutive governments to implement the numerous bills on privatization, foreign investment and trade liberalization that have been passed by parliament since the end of the Iraqi occupation.
So the continual political bloodletting is not likely to be resolved by the formation of the new cabinet. The consequent atmosphere of political instability and crisis is expected to linger. The question is how long Kuwait can continue to muddle through its labyrinth of growing social and economic difficulties, spiralling political crises and escalating palace intrigues. Kuwait really needs a much more radical shake-up than a reshuffle of the same old royal faces.