Kuwaiti Emir Suspends Parliament for Up to Four Years

Kuwaiti Emir Suspends Parliament for Up to Four Years

By Oghale May11,2024

The emir of Kuwait announced on Friday that he would suspend the elected Parliament for up to four years, stoking fears that he could move to dismantle one of the Middle East’s last semi-democratic political systems.

“I will not permit for democracy to be exploited to destroy the state,” the emir, Sheikh Mishal Al Ahmed Al Sabah, said in a televised speech, declaring that a recent period of political turmoil required “hard decisions to save the country.”

The emir also suspended several articles of the Constitution and said that the transitional period would be used to review “all aspects of the democratic process” in Kuwait, an oil-rich state along the Persian Gulf. During the suspension, the emir and the cabinet will take over the 50-member Parliament’s legislative powers.

The decisions came a month after elections in which Kuwaitis chose a new Parliament, and its members had not yet begun their new session. While Kuwait’s Parliament has frequently been dissolved in favor of new elections — most recently by Sheikh Mishal in February — a parliamentary suspension has happened only twice in Kuwaiti history, in 1976 and 1986.

“This is a serious setback for democracy in the Middle East,” said Michael Herb, a political science professor at Georgia State University. “This suspension of the Parliament threatens to make Kuwait as authoritarian as the other Gulf monarchies.”

There is still hope that the country could take a different path, he added; after both past suspensions, Parliament was eventually restored.

In Kuwait, frequent deadlocks between Parliament and the executive branch have led to political turmoil, which has intensified over the past five years. The country has experienced much parliamentary turnover and frequent cabinet resignations, and officials have had little time to execute their agendas. Kuwait has also lagged behind the rest of the hydrocarbon-rich Gulf in infrastructure development and economic diversification.

Kuwait is far from a full democracy: Its ruler is a hereditary monarch, and political parties are illegal. But across a Middle Eastern region where many states are becoming more repressive, Kuwait represents a rare alternative, scholars say, nurturing elements of democracy even after Arab Spring uprisings were crushed more than a decade ago and countries including Tunisia and Egypt began to march back toward authoritarianism.

Kuwait’s Parliament is significantly more powerful than the largely symbolic assemblies in neighboring monarchies like Saudi Arabia. Its members have the right to publicly interrogate cabinet ministers; wield influence over the state budget; and approve the emir’s appointment of a new crown prince, the heir to the throne.

In his speech on Friday, Sheikh Mishal, who came to power in December after the death of the former emir, lamented that the national wealth had been “wasted.”

“The interests of Kuwait’s people come above all else and are entrusted to us, and we need to maintain and protect them,” he said.

He referred to unspecified political actors “exceeding their bounds” and complained that “some, unfortunately, have interfered with the heart of the emir’s purviews and meddled in his choice of a crown prince.”

The position of crown prince — the next ruler in waiting — is currently vacant, and Sheikh Mishal must appoint one. He did not clarify who was meddling. And it was not clear why Parliament would be suspended for up to four years. But four years is the typical parliamentary term.

Some Kuwaitis expressed optimism about the potential for the suspension to break the country’s political stalemate, giving the government space to execute its agenda unobstructed.

“Important policies such as the national budget have been delayed and hampered owing to dysfunctional politics,” said Clemens Chay, a research fellow in the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

But the emir’s speech also stoked fears that he would curb Kuwaitis’ relative political freedoms.

“To our brothers in Kuwait: If you need any help to find ways to live, survive and persist underneath an authoritarian regime without public freedoms, your neighbors in the rest of the Gulf countries have lengthy experience with this,” Sultan Alamer, a Saudi political science scholar who lives in the United States, wrote on X, the social media platform. “We’re in this together.”

Sean Yom, an associate professor of political science at Temple University, said that he worried how domestic dissent would now be treated.

“What happens to political critics and opposition blocs if they no longer have Parliament, which has always embodied the pluralism of Kuwaiti society?” he asked.

Mr. Yom pointed out that the next few years would most likely bring constitutional amendments, the dilution of Parliament’s powers and the crucial appointment of a crown prince; Sheikh Mishal is 83.

Bader Al-Saif, an assistant professor of history at Kuwait University, said that the main challenge would be salvaging the system through constitutional amendments while maintaining Kuwait’s “relative openness.”

“The government will be under much more scrutiny as there’s no Parliament to blame,” he said.

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By Oghale

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