The process of selecting a new cabinet is expected to take a few weeks. However, there is no official length of time in which the prime minister — who is appointed by the emir — must form a new cabinet. The reasons behind these resignations indicate the difficult balance Kuwait’s government hopes to strike between austerity, public support and effective governance.
Undercutting the opposition’s momentum
Kuwait’s opposition — nearly half of parliament — is a loose coalition of tribal and Islamist MPs. While political parties are technically illegal in Kuwait, the opposition has been able to slow the government’s austerity agenda — a response to the persistently low price of oil.
Tribal members of Kuwait’s opposition met over a month before the parliament’s opening to coordinate an agenda that included opposition to price increases on health care for expatriates and fuel prices. Among the issues they discussed was a proposal to force the government to reshuffle through scheduling a series of intense interrogations in the parliament. These “grillings” forestall votes on other measures, embarrass the government and force it to spend political capital defending its policies.
The first of these interrogations, against Kuwait’s minister of information, occurred on the parliament’s opening day. No-confidence votes had been planned the following day for a cabinet minister who is also a member of Kuwait’s al-Sabah royal family — but news of the resignations preempted it.
A cabinet reshuffle is an indication that the opposition’s tactics were effective in the short term. However, because there is no deadline by which a new cabinet must be appointed, the government may also be able to break the opposition’s momentum on opposition to austerity. The government can also use the moratorium on parliament sessions as a bargaining chip to wrest concessions from the opposition before it announces a new cabinet.
Showing support for the emir
Kuwait’s 22-person cabinet was itself formed following a reshuffle last December. The prime minister, historically a member of the royal family, leads the cabinet members — who generally carry out the agenda of the emir. (Though, unlike the emir, cabinet ministers are not legally shielded from public criticism.) Several of these ministers have played a major role in Kuwait’s austerity efforts, and while some of these ministers may be reappointed to the cabinet, their resignations signal their personal support for the emir and the government’s agenda.
With the mass resignations, the government’s primary intention was to reshuffle the cabinet. In fact, the prime minister has already been reappointed to form the new cabinet. They also indicate the emir’s willingness to reshuffle the cabinet should it fall short of achieving the goals of austerity — a standard that many in parliament have advocated.
Unpopular austerity plans
Kuwait has not been immune to the wave of global nativism. Discussions of expatriate and noncitizen access to social welfare dominated the political debate recently. These discussions have extended to talk of extreme taxes on expats — from a driving tax to one that even taxes expats for walking on pavement.
While MPs spin ever more imaginative ways to target expatriates, there is no evidence any of these policies would cover Kuwait’s $26 billion deficit — for 2017 alone. Kuwait’s government, shaken by the experience of protests in 2011, understands the long-term threats of economic difficulty and low youth employment. Solving these problems, however, involves painful austerity measures that require buy-in from the parliament to be effective and not bear too high a political cost.
The cabinet reshuffle allows Kuwait’s government to realign the parliament’s agenda toward austerity and create buy-in from MPs for this agenda. While it cannot prevent the prospect of future interrogations that grind parliament to a halt, the government can use the time between the resignation of the old cabinet and appointment of a new one to come to an agreement with opposition figures over its policies.
Kuwait’s cabinet reshuffle is part of a renegotiation of the relationship between governments and citizens taking place across the Gulf Arab states in the wake of the sustained low price of oil worldwide. While austerity measures are necessary in these states, they are also unpopular. Implementing them will require changes to both the government and the opposition’s approaches.
Kuwait’s opposition may oppose the government’s austerity measures, but it has not offered a viable alternative. The resignation of Kuwait’s cabinet offers a potential opportunity to renegotiate a working relationship between the government and opposition that benefits Kuwaitis. However, such a relationship would require both sides to engage in a constrictive manner.
Rather than resorting to populist proposals that have little positive economic impact, Kuwait’s opposition, while serving as a check on government power, will need to offer viable alternatives to taxes and price hikes. Kuwait’s government will need to ease the short-term anxieties of the Kuwaiti people and work with the opposition to identify the most successful strategies for creating an economically and politically sustainable future for Kuwait.
Scott Weiner is an adjunct professor of political science at George Washington University. His current book manuscript examines kinship politics in Kuwait and Oman.
This post has been updated to clarify between cabinet and parliament.