Kuwait political system gets a reboot following cabinet resignation

The decision by the cabinet to hand in its notice on 14 November and the subsequent promotion of foreign minister Sheikh Sabah to prime minster has given the establishment a chance to put a large corruption scandal behind it. One winner is likely to be the emir’s son Sheikh Nasser.

The resignation of the Kuwaiti cabinet on 14 November (GSN 1,092/4) looks ever less likely to signal the start of yet another crisis in local politics. Instead it has given Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah the chance to reshape a cabinet that had become dysfunctional amid allegations of corruption involving a senior member of the ruling family. Local sources tell GSN the removal of interior minister Sheikh Khaled Jarrah Al-Sabah in particular offers an opportunity for a long-term restructuring of power within government.

Sheikh Khaled has been embroiled in accusations by outgoing defence minister (and the emir’s son) Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah about KD240m ($790m) which went missing from the Army Fund during Khaled’s earlier tenure in the defence job. In a highly unusual move Sheikh Nasser went public with the accusations. Using the Kuwait Armed Forces’ Twitter account, he spoke about “financial abuses discovered in the Army Fund” in a series of messages on 16 November, writing “several letters have been addressed to [outgoing interior minister and prime minister] to clarify the truth in full and justify the massive transfers that took place… We have not received any answers that remove suspicion.”

The matter has been placed before the Ministerial Court – which has until now been seen as politically inert – and Sheikhs Nasser, Khaled and Jaber are all expected to appear as witnesses.

In this context, the recent disputes between the National Assembly (parliament) and the cabinet, which saw public works minister Jenan Mohsin Ramadan Boushehri resign on 12 November ahead of a likely no-confidence motion by MPs, pale into insignificance. However, it is notable that the recent grillings of ministers – including that of Sheikh Khaled on 12 November – were carried out in public with the assent of National Assembly speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanem and the emir, signifying high level support for the investigation launched by Sheikh Nasser.

The Army Fund scandal should also be seen as part of a larger clampdown on corruption at the highest levels in Kuwait. In recent times this campaign has drawn in a number of senior figures, including former Public Institution for Social Security (PIFSS) head Fahad Al-Rajaan, Kuwait Port Authority director general Sheikh Yousef Abdullah Al-Sabah, former oil minister Bakheet Al-Rashidi, former electricity and water minister Ahmad Al-Jassar, and dozens of state managers and bureaucrats (GSN 1087/3).

Kuwait’s political system has traditionally provided ample space for both graft and reform as a way of maintaining a sort of political stability. However, there is increasingly vocal discontent among the wider public with the abuses; this has been echoed in the elite merchant and political circles as the government’s budget deficits have increased.

Faces old and new

Until the incoming prime minister (until now foreign minister) Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah finalises his new team, the majority of the outgoing cabinet will continue in a caretaker capacity. Many of the same faces are likely to appear once the new executive has been assembled, including information minister Mohammed Al-Jabri and minister of state for cabinet affairs Anas Al-Saleh. Others are less likely to return however. One seen as vulnerable is commerce and industry minister Khaled Al-Roudhan, who has been the subject of criticism for mismanagement in the state’s investment funds.

A number of MPs have been tipped to move from the parliament into the cabinet, including Rakan Al-Nisf and Bader Al-Mulla, both of whom are seen as possible replacements for Al-Roudhan.

Speculation that one of the sons of ailing Crown Prince Nawaf Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah – either Sheikh Abdullah or Sheikh Ahmed – could take the defence portfolio are likely to have been overstated, according to GSN’s soundings. Neither are seen as “political animals”, according to high-level sources.

Sheikh Tamer Ali Al-Sabah, a member of the ruling family’s dominant Al-Salem branch, is seen as a likely candidate for the Ministry of Interior portfolio, which his father Sheikh Ali Al-Salem once held.

One post that will have to change hands is that of foreign minister, given Sheikh Sabah’s promotion. GSN understands that assistant deputy foreign minister Sheikh Ahmed Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah – a son of former prime minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al-Jaber Al Sabah – is seen as a favourite for this post in the new cabinet. This is despite the fact that this Al-Sabah sub-branch is still viewed unfavourably, both inside parliament and beyond, due to the deposits scandal which ultimately led to Sheikh Nasser’s resignation in late 2011.

Parliament becalmed

The latest episode of political upheaval is likely to lead to heightened criticism from some actors in parliament, especially members of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islamic Constitutional Movement, as well as Salafists and the liberal Democratic Circle. However, opposition forces have been largely neutered in Kuwait, with two major opposition leaders Waleed Al-Tabtabei and Fahad Al-Khannah now pledging to step away from politics, having recently returned to the country to serve sentences for their role in the storming of parliament in November 2011.

More broadly, public support for civic disobedience appears to be at an all-time low. A demonstration against corruption outside the National Assembly in early November drew no more than 2,000 people (and possibly far fewer), failing to capture the public imagination of the “Dignity Marches “of 2013, let alone the events of 2011. Political opinion appears to have shifted towards a desire for more stable government and away from the populist rhetoric symptomatic of the 2013 opposition-dominated parliament, now widely seen as a failure by the majority of Kuwaitis, who have voted in more pro-government chambers in both subsequent elections.

Despite this, there is no sign of the authorities being tempted to call early elections to cement the position of their allies in parliament. One well-placed Kuwaiti source tells GSN the emir is not expected to dissolve parliament until close to the scheduled November 2020 election date. However, the assembly’s work will be held up while negotiations over cabinet postings continue. As a result, there will be delays to bills such as those for expatriate taxes and the ‘Kuwaitization’ of the private sector – something which will be welcomed in some circles given these reforms are viewed by many as unrealistic and unlikely to be implemented in any meaningful way by the government (GSN 1,092/5).

Just as importantly, the change of government is unlikely have any impact on succession politics and the continued rise of Sheikh Nasser. In fact, some in the Kuwaiti political establishment see his position as have been enhanced by the political turmoil. One source argues the situation demonstrates the power and leadership of Sheikh Nasser, as he was able to publicly condemn Sheikh Khaled, with the full support of National Assembly speaker Al-Ghanim and the emir. However, Sheikh Nasser may have to wait a little while before he returns to the front-line of politics. Well-placed sources say he is not expected to rejoin the cabinet until after the next parliamentary elections, presumably in November 2020.

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