Kuwait is battling on several fronts at once as it prepares for parliamentary elections on December 5—a humanitarian crisis, a fiscal crunch, the persistence of mediocre services, and at the heart of it all an imperiled political system.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the recent passing of emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah have not improved matters. However, the orderly succession process has shielded the country’s top office from the challenges Kuwait has faced for so long. Covid-19, however, has accentuated these challenges, suggesting that a perfect storm may be in the making if Kuwait’s incoming executive and legislature do not put their differences aside to rescue the country from its predicament.
A rescue platform must address root causes. Kuwait’s intractable problems have been fueled by its political system, and have been fed by an unresolved battle over the country’s identity. Tackling Kuwait’s political system and identity is the key to change that will help permanently resolve problems it has faced for decades.
Kuwait’s humanitarian crisis is not befitting a nation named a “humanitarian center” by the United Nations. The crisis is twofold and is traceable to the country’s independence. First, it involves the status of the bidun, or stateless inhabitants, of Kuwait, who are generally regarded in one of three ways in the country. One view regards them as nationals who, simply, may have failed to file naturalization papers. A second sees the bidun as worthy of naturalization due to their long-term residency, service to the country, or the fact that they have a Kuwaiti mother. A final view holds that about a third of the bidun qualify for citizenship, while the rest either merit to be residents or are imposters, people who actually hold other nationalities, whose inclusion in the state would dilute Kuwait’s national identity. Competing law proposals reflect these visions. While the bickering between the camps continues, the bidun are being further alienated and their rights continue to be curtailed.
Low-skilled migrant workers are the second component of this humanitarian crisis. Some are victims of human trafficking and visa trading schemes while most face poor treatment, evident in poor living and working conditions, low wages, and restricted mobility. Neighboring countries have moved to reform the abusive kafala, or sponsorship, system, a major cause of this inequality, yet Kuwait has not done so yet. This speaks to a rising xenophobia among segments of society. Instead of entertaining long-term residency schemes that welcome foreigners based on their skills, the government has proposed outdated policies such as evictions based on age. The bidun serve in the military and security sectors and almost 30 percent of the country’s population is comprised of low-skilled labor. That not only suggests that Kuwait is facing a humanitarian crisis, but a national security one as well.
The country is also facing an economic crisis, the worst in decades. Continuing dependency on hydrocarbons as the main source of income has bound Kuwait to market forces beyond its control. This reality, coupled with the constitution’s Article 41, which grants all Kuwaitis a right of work, has turned the state into the single largest employer, straining public finances. With 71 percent of the budget going to salaries and subsidies, an unparalleled budget deficit of $46 billion, and an exponential increase in expenditures from $22.7 billion in 2005–2006 to $70.3 billion in 2020–2021, the country will not be able to go on employing its growing population and maintaining its welfare system. Between continuing to tap into an almost depleted General Reserve Fund, drawing from the Future Generations Reserve Fund, or borrowing money, the latter is the more plausible option. The government is expected to pass a public debt law before the new parliament convenes. This will help in the short term, but it will neither resolve Kuwait’s economic dilemma nor its lack of direction, which require new thinking.
Along with pockets of corruption in the public sector, the level of incompetence in government circles is startling for a hydrocarbons-rich state. Notwithstanding the transfer of several sectors to the virtual sphere, mediocrity continues to prevail. Attempting to complete simple transactions is not easy, requiring enablers to push through administrative tasks. Radical administrative reform, such as overhauling the Civil Service Commission, as well as restructuring government to ensure better management and implementation of the rule of law are required to empower capable administrators.
Despite high budget allocations for health and education, medical patients are sent abroad for treatment, while students continue to score among the lowest on international assessments. Covid-19 has exposed the system’s fragility, evidenced for instance in Kuwait being the only country in the region, if not the world, to halt public education for six to eight months. Furthermore, long delays in the dispensation of justice and housing allocations, on top of policies that have pushed land prices up so that they are among the highest in the world, are all forms of injustice that underline the urgent need for systemic reform.
State and society have not remained idle toward these challenges. The government has lately raised the bar in tackling corruption and human trafficking. Some hardworking civil servants have proposed solutions to Kuwait’s problems. But the system does not allow for breakthroughs. Promising individuals and ideas are neutralized due to a combination of inconclusive ideas, unfinished reforms, special interests, duplication of efforts, political battles, a worn-out system, or simple inefficiency. On top of that there is a disturbing lack of awareness, even denial, of the scale of the country’s crises.
No proper understanding of Kuwait and its problems is possible without linking them to one another and to the country’s political structure. The late emir traced Kuwait’s recurring impasse to its political setup: The constitution blends together a presidential and parliamentary system, creating an overlap between government and parliament making both susceptible to conflict. These chronic conflicts have hindered development, pushing state institutions into futile political battles that have resulted in eighteen governments and seven parliaments in the last 20 years. Reforming the constitution and the political system is imperative. Evading bold political reform with laws such as the introduction in 2012 of a single, non-transferable vote may tip the balance toward the executive and discipline the system for a while. But these are not permanent solutions, which can only come through an inclusive process of change.
The root issue behind the political system and the problems it has created is a lack of consensus over Kuwait’s identity. What does Kuwait stand for, and what do its people aspire to be? A workable answer requires a frank, sometimes difficult, national dialogue whose outcome will nurture a sustainable path of reform—one that must reconsider the political system and a new social contract.
Will Kuwait be a nation that remains true to its pre-oil legacy—an open, welcoming space for people from different backgrounds, working hard for the betterment of all? Or will it be a closed space, fearful of others and protective of itself and its resources, thereby limiting opportunities to the few? The system in place encourages the latter identity, which dissociates the country from its past and only serves to exacerbate its problems.
Holding tight to a restricted understanding of belonging to Kuwait has led to ostracizing the bidun and foreigners, while constitutionally guaranteed employment and financial perks have led to a sluggish population and abysmal services. The pre-oil identity has weakened, but has not disappeared altogether because part of the population has worked to alleviate the country’s humanitarian and economic crises.
However, Kuwait is not served well by a confused political system that combines contradictory elements and encourages tense coexistence among conflicting identities, delaying real change. Addressing Kuwait’s challenges, the shortcomings of its political system, and its clashing identities is a first step. The outcome will help protect Kuwait from its more self-destructive tendencies.