Kuwait's Parliamentary Democracy Explained

Ruling al-Sabah Emirs Tango With a 50-Seat Assembly Known for Its Tempers

Kuwait City
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The Ruling al-Sabah Family

The al-Sabah family has been ruling over the region since 1756, when it emerged as the most powerful clan among the al-Utub tribal grouping. The tribe had migrated from the Saudi heartland to escape famine. Unlike other ruling families on the Arab Peninsula, the al-Sabah family didn’t seize power by force so much as accede to it by consensus, in consultation with other clans and tribes. That non-violent, deliberative characteristic has defined Kuwaiti politics for much of the country’s history.

Kuwait gained its independence from Britain in June 1961. The 50-seat Assembly was established by Kuwait’s November 1962 constitution. Next to Lebanon’s parliament, it is the longest-serving all-elected legislative body in the Arab world. Up to 15 legislators may serve as both lawmakers and ministers. The emir appoints cabinet members. Parliament does not confirm them, but it can vote no confidence in ministers and veto government decrees.

No Parties

There are no officially recognized parties in parliament, which has it benefits and drawbacks. On the beneficial side, alliances can be more fluid than in a rigid party system (as anyone familiar with the strictures of party discipline even in the U.S. Congress can attest). So an Islamist might join forces with a liberal on any given issue quite easily. But lack of parties also means lack of strong coalition-building. The dynamics of a parliament of 50 voices are such that legislation is likelier to stall than move forward.

Who Gets to Vote and Who Doesn’t

Suffrage isn’t anywhere near universal, however. Women were given the right to vote and run for office only in 2005. (In the 2009 parliamentary election, 19 women were among the 280 candidates.) The 40,000 members of Kuwait’s armed forces may not vote. And since a 1966 constitutional amendment, naturalized citizens, who account for a considerable portion of Kuwait’s population, may not vote until they’ve been citizens for 30 years, or ever be appointed or elected to any parliamentary, cabinet or municipal post in the country.

The country’s Citizenship Law also gives government wide latitude to strip citizenship from naturalized Kuwaitis (as was the case with thousands of Palestinian Kuwaitis following Kuwait’s liberation in 1991 from Iraq’s invasion. The Palestine Liberation Organization had backed Iraq in the war.)

Part-Time Democracy: Dissolving Parliament

Al-Sanah rulers have dissolved parliament whenever they thought it challenged them too aggressively or legislated too poorly. Parliament was dissolved in 1976-1981, 1986-1992, 2003, 2006, 2008 and 2009. In the 1970s and 1980s, dissolution was followed by long periods of autocratic rule and strictures on the press.

In August 1976, for example, the ruling Sheikh Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah dissolved parliament over a dispute between the prime minister (his son, the crown prince) and the legislature, and ended press freedom, ostensibly because of newspaper attacks on Arab regimes. Crown Prince Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, in a bit of a hissy fit, complained in his exit letter that “cooperation between the executive and the legislative branches is almost absent,” and that deputies were too quick with “unjust attacks and denunciations against ministers.” Namely, himself. In reality, parliament was dissolved over tension related to the Lebanese civil war, which involved the PLO and other Palestinian factions, and its effects on the large, restive Palestinian population in Kuwait. Parliament wasn’t reconvened until 1981.

In 1986, when Sheik Jaber was himself the emir, he dissolved parliament because of instability trigfgered by the Iran-Iraq war and falling oil prices. Kuwait's security, he said on television, “has been exposed to a fierce foreign conspiracy which threatened lives and almost destroyed the wealth of the homeland.” There was no evidence of any such “fierce conspiracy.” There was plenty of evidence of repeated and angry clashes between the emir and parliament. (A plan to bomb Kuwait’s oil pipelines was uncovered two weeks before the dissolution.)