Rising tensions in Kuwait?

By: Jon Nordenson

Seemingly, political tensions are rising in Kuwait, with four MPs being stripped of their immunity, four interpellations on the agenda for the December 8th session, and the interior minister Sheikh Jaber asking MP Khaled al-Tahous to “shut up” during a parliamentary session. But the reasons behind this apparent crisis are not as clear as Sheikh Jaber’s words.

To begin with the interpellations (Arabic استجواب , often referred to in English in Kuwait as “grilling”), these are the constitutional right of every MP to question a cabinet minister, and may – if 10 MPs demand so – be followed by a vote of no confidence. As I have written before, interpellations have often led to political crisis in Kuwait, especially when directed at ministers from the royal family. In such cases, the cabinet often prefers to resign rather than to face questioning in the parliament. However, this summer, interior minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Khaled Al-Sabah not only faced questioning in parliament, but a vote of no confidence as well (which did not gain a majority).  So, even though such interpellations obviously are problematic for both the government and the royal family, they do not automatically lead to crisis.

However, no less than four such interpellations are on the agenda for the parliament’s session on the 8th of December. And not only are three of them directed against members of the royal family, one is even directed at Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah. Even though four is something new, Kuwait has witnessed three interpellations submitted at the same time twice before; earlier this year, and in 1986. Earlier this year it led to the Emir dissolving parliament and calling for new elections. In 1986, it was followed by a six year suspension of parliament. This is not to say that the three interpellations were the reason behind the long suspension of parliament in 86, but it does indicate that three interpellations may be a bit too much for the government and the royal family.

Yet, according to Kuwait Times, the PM himself said on 30th of November that “I’m ready to confront the interpellation – we are a state of institutions that is governed by the constitution”. But at the same time, pro-government MPs demand that the session with the interpellation of the PM is held behind closed doors. Faisal al-Muslim, the MP who submitted the interpellation against the PM, has answered that he will “re-submit” his “grilling-request” if the session will be closed.

At the same time, other events bear witness of rising tensions as well. During a heated parliamentary session in mid-November, parliamentary immunity was lifted for MPs Mohammad Hayef, Saadoun Hammad, Marzouk Al-Ghanem and Khaled Al-Sultan. In addition, some claim that freedom of expression is under attack in Kuwait. Journalist Mohammad Abdulqader Al-Jassem is currently in jail for  ”slandering the prime minister”, and accusations of government surveillance of blogs have surfaced in the media. However, this has caused Kuwait’s vibrant blogging community to react, and one should not underestimate their determination in having their say. To quote one blogger: “Kuwait has not yet become a police state”.

So while Kuwait is facing some difficult days ahead, it might not be as dramatic as newspaper headlines should indicate. Still, it is difficult to see just how the government will maneuver through all of this; they do not seem very keen on facing the interpellations, at least not in public. But to dissolve parliament and call for new elections doesn’t seem tempting either, as this would be the fourth election in three years. And for the government to resign and then be re-appointed, as they have done in similar situations before, seems unlikely. If it did, it would be the eight time in three years.  Then there’s the option of dissolving parliament and not calling for new elections, but rather to suspend parliament. This has been mentioned in some newspaper articles, and was also mention last winter during a quite similar crisis.

During the crisis last winter, some newspapers reported that parts of the royal family wanted to suspend the parliament, whereas others were opposed to this. This time, divisions within the royal family has once again surfaced in the media, but now as the cause for the crisis. MP Marzouq al-Ghanim (who just lost his parliamentary immunity) pointed to “ruling family intrigues” as one of the reasons behind Kuwait’s political chaos, whereas liberal MP Abdullah Al-Rumi  is quoted in Kuwait Times saying that “disputes within the ruling family could be destructive to Kuwait”, and that “You must put an end to these disputes that are impacting parliament and the whole country”. Former minister of information Dr. Anas al-Rashid (who resigned in 2006, protesting among other things the government’s position on the issue of the electoral districts) also points to the media: “It is unfortunate that a section of the media has been used as a means to settle political scores”.

Whatever the reasons, Kuwait is in a difficult political situation at the moment. As with most political crises, it is probably fair to assume that there are many reasons behind the current situation, of which conflict within the royal family might be one. And if there are sections of the royal family who want to suspend parliament, the current chaotic situation seems to fit their needs. As for how this situation will be resolved, I think political analyst Shafiq Ghabra put it nicely in Kuwait Times: “It has now got to a point in Kuwait when you can’t expect anything and when you can’t expect anything, then expect the unexpected”.

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  1. 1 Kuwait: quick update on parliamentary session « The Gulf Research Unit's Blog Trackback on December 8, 2009 at 22:45

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