Some things seem resistant to change in Kuwait, with the autocratic ways of governance foremost among them. Last month’s reshuffle of the Kuwaiti cabinet to avoid an imminent parliamentary no-confidence vote is the latest dramatic episode highlighting the persistence of the ruling Al-Sabah family in refusing to allow the country to be governed on the basis of something more credible than the caprices of its own members.
The political crisis that led to the latest shake-up of the Kuwaiti political scene was touched off in early March when three Islamic legislators called on then-information minister Shaykh Saud Nasser Al-Sabah - a member of the ruling family - to appear before the parliament to explain his decision allowing the display of ‘un-Islamic’ books which ‘blaspheme Islamic sanctities’ at a book fair held earlier in Kuwait City. The lawmakers also called for a no-confidence vote against Shaykh Saud who has packed his ministry with civil servants culled mainly from his predominantly leftist coterie.
The subsequent political bloodletting between the government and the opposition members of parliament (MPs) reached a climax during a stormy parliamentary session on March 10. During the heated debate and exchanges, prime minister and crown prince, Shaykh Sa’ad al-Abdallah Al-Sabah, fell back on his customary ways of intimidating and browbeating the opposition. With his distinctive imperiousness, he cautioned parliament that ‘the interior ministry is monitoring the activities of some (parliamentary) blocs . . . and we are capable of resorting to force.’
The cantankerous prime minister also alluded to the possibility of dissolving parliament. This was a clear attempt to scare off some opposition lawmakers and, hence, sow discord in the ranks of, and ultimately quash, the parliamentary coalition calling for the no-confidence vote. Such a threat fits easily into the modern history of this Persian Gulf Shaikhdom. For instance, on July 3, 1986, Kuwait’s ruler, Shaykh Jaber al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, issued a decree dissolving the parliament indefinitely and suspending constitutional provisions for new elections. The decree came on the heels of demands for the cabinet’s resignation by an increasingly vocal parliament. Similarly, in August 1976, his predecessor, Shaykh Sabah al-Salim (1965-1977), had also disbanded the parliament in an abrupt and surprising move.
Amid the spiraling escalation of the recent political crisis, the regime came face to face with three alternative scenarios. The first envisioned resolving the crisis through a dialogue with the opposition MPs. The aim was to arrive at a compromise whereby parliament gives up its effort to oust the information minister in return for a cabinet reshuffle that moves him to another portfolio.
Accordingly, Shaykh Sa’ad invited the three legislators spearheading the no- confidence campaign to his palace and attempted to entice them into abandoning their stand by promising a cabinet reshuffle that removes Shaykh Saud from the information portfolio in the near future. But the prospects for such a compromise foundered when the crown prince rejected the MPs’ demand to set a date for the promised reshuffle and pledge not to include Shaykh Saud in any future cabinet.
The second scenario was to dissolve the parliament. However, despite its lure for the autocratic Sabahs, dissolving parliament at the present time is fraught with dangers. Adopting this option, the Sabahs fear, could inject additional elements of uncertainty into the domestic political equation. That is especially the case as they strive to reverse the country’s current economic downturn - precipitated by the fallout of the two Persian Gulf Wars, falling oil prices and turmoil in Asian countries - which renders the usefulness of the traditional Gulf Arab approach of employing the national wealth to buy off discontent highly doubtful.
The Sabahs also find themselves constrained by the current atmosphere of dissatisfaction sweeping the region, especially in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Naturally, disbanding the parliament could spell trouble for the ruling family as it would amplify the reverberations of this wave of anti-government agitation inside Kuwait.
In the end, the third and best possible scenario for the Sabahs has come to pass. On March 22 the entire cabinet resigned. The resignation came only a day before the date of the parliamentary session scheduled to cast the no- confidence vote against Shaykh Saud. It represented the only face-saving option for the Sabahs as it helps them evade the prospect of having the parliamentary opposition hold a member of the royal family accountable for his wrongdoings while in office.
Yet the resignation did not signal any momentous changes in the cabinet’s makeup. It was immediately followed by a series of decrees issued by Amir Jaber al-Ahmad in which he accepted the formation of a new government which included Shaykh Saud al-Nasser as oil minister. In this new capacity, he automatically heads the State-owned giant Kuwait Oil Company and takes a seat on the Supreme Petroleum Council, the highest oil decision-making body in the tiny Gulf Arab State which controls an estimated 10 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves.
In addition to Shaykh Saud, the new 14-member cabinet, headed again by Shaykh Sa’ad, included four other members of the ruling family. Shaykh Sabah al- Ahmad and Shaykh Sabah al-Salem retained their influential positions as deputy prime ministers and ministers of foreign affairs and defence respectively. Shaykh Ali Salem al-Ali was given the finance and communications portfolios; whereas Shaykh Muhammad Khaled retained his post as interior minister.
As the new cabinet was sworn in by Amir Jaber on March 23, the prime minister declared that the main priorities of government policy would remain exactly the same. ‘The nation’s security, both external and internal, precedes our priorities, for which we will make available all our capabilities and mass all our resources to boost it,’ he said in a televised address. For Kuwait, a country with a long history of dependence on the west, the emphasis on ‘national security’ priority translates into continued reliance on American and western military support. Two days after Shaykh Sa’ad’s address, Kuwait entered into a secret agreement with the US to purchase $496 million worth of self-propelled howitzers and support equipment. Negotiations were also at an advanced stage for the purchase of F/A-18 jet fighters, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and 218 M1-A2 battle tanks.
Thus, the cabinet reshuffle was merely a manoeuvre by the Sabahs to circumvent a parliamentary review of a minister’s performance. As such, it constitutes a tactical move that would only delay the day of reckoning but not resolve the impasse. This fact was highlighted during the parliamentary session devoted to the swearing-in of the new cabinet.
The session’s deliberations were punctuated by tempestuous exchanges between the opposition MPs and Shaykh Saud who was explicitly asked by legislators not to interfere in matters related to the information ministry’s functions in the future. For his part, Fahad al-Khannah, Islamic legislator and one of the architects of the no-confidence motion, characterized the inclusion of Shaykh Saud in the new cabinet as ‘inappropriate’ especially after some 28 of the 46 elected lawmakers - a clear majority - had declared their intention to vote against him in the no-confidence motion.
The reshuffle will be of little help for long term stability. If anything, it raises the spectre of a future political crisis.
Muslimedia: April 16-30, 1998