The Aftermath of Kuwait’s Elections
Nearly two months after parliamentary elections, a mood of stability has descended in Kuwait, but the new body’s prospects for success remain uncertain.
The vote held on September 29th produced huge turnover in the parliament as 54 percent of incumbent candidates lost their seats. Conversely, many opposition candidates—a loose term in Kuwaiti politics—made significant gains. Although these candidates gained a majority, no concrete progress can occur without cooperation between the legislative and executive branch because the government makes up one-third of parliament. The relationship between the two seems to be amicable currently, but this sense of calm was not achieved overnight.
Shuffling of the Cabinet
A new government, headed by Ahmed Nawaf Al Sabah, son of the Emir of Kuwait, was formed after the elections. Shortly after the announcement, several MPs, mainly from the opposition, denounced the government formation, stating that some of the appointed ministers have “lost the trust of the people and. . .do not respect the constitution.” In what many interpreted as a move to avoid future conflict with parliament, the ministers subsequently submitted their resignations, and the government was dissolved.
Ahmed Al Nawaf was reappointed as Prime Minister, but before putting together a new cabinet, he met with all the newly elected MPs—an unprecedented move for a PM which signaled his keen interest in ending the two-year deadlock between the government and parliament. In accordance with the Kuwaiti constitution, the opening session of parliament must be held no more than two weeks after the elections, with the presence of the MPs and the newly appointed government. Yet, by the deadline, there was no sign of a new government. At the end of the two-week period, on October 16, 40 of the 50 MPs showed up to the parliament, claiming that they did so “out of concern for the integrity of the constitution.” A few hours later, a new government was announced, which suggests that the parliament’s demands were met, especially as three former ministers considered to be “persona non grata” by the parliament were not included, and two MPs were appointed as ministers.
The Opening Session
Delivering a historic speech during the opening session, the Crown Prince, Mishal Al Ahmed Al Sabah, sparked a sense of hope and cemented his promise of a “new era.” The 26-minute speech addressed a few critical points, namely that the government should put citizens' needs first and work towards its strategic plan; parliament should focus on enacting new laws rather than on accumulating personal gains; and citizens should hold onto national unity.
Sheikh Mishal’s promise that the government will not meddle in parliamentary affairs was evident, as the ministers left the hall, in an unprecedented move, before the voting on the speaker’s office commenced. This represented a huge change in comparison to the 2020 opening session in which the government played a key role in solidifying Marzouq Al Ghanim’s re-election as speaker.
Unsurprisingly, Ahmed Al Sadoun was uncontested for the speaker’s seat, which he already held three times previously. Maneuvering for the role of speaker has been a pivotal battle for years, as it is viewed as perhaps the most central position in the political scene.
Looking to the Future
After the opening session, numerous draft laws have been submitted which have ranged from changing the one-vote electoral system to several populist issues like increasing retirement salaries and tapping into the state’s sovereign fund to solve the housing crisis.
It is still too early to tell whether the parliament will be successful in enacting legislation to solve the overwhelming number of issues plaguing the country. Yet, unless both branches are willing to cooperate, the country will continue to deteriorate as a result of political battles and staunch individualism.
Yasmena Al Mulla is a freelance journalist based in Kuwait who covers social and political issues in the Gulf. You can follow her on Twitter: @Yasmenaalmulla.
Islamist Divisions in Kuwait's Elections
Courtney Freer and Morten Valbjørn
The circulation of a controversial “values document” before the September elections highlights the importance of moving beyond a Sunni-centric analysis of Islamism, along with the salience of non-sectarian cleavages.
Shortly before Kuwait’s parliamentary election in September, a so-called “values document” was circulated around the country. It called for the implementation of gender segregation in education, in addition to the implementation of a “modest” dress code, the criminalization of tattoos, a reinstation of legislation banning the “imitation” of the opposite sex, and a ban on gambling. The document, released by Islamist activist Abdul Rahman an-Nassar, was dubbed “not a political project, rather a moral religious guardianship over society,” yet it was met with outrage among the secular liberal segment of society. Indeed, some called for the signatories to be banned from running in the election, although 17 of them ended up winning seats.
This episode shows the importance of paying attention to intra-Islamist divides other than the classic Salafi-Muslim Brotherhood split, and of including Shia Islamists in the analysis. While most agree that Islamists should not be treated as a monolith, much of the literature has focused on intra-Sunni divisions. Far less attention has been devoted to the wide variety of Shia Islamist groups, although there have recently been calls to remember the “other Islamists.” At the same time, the circulation of the values document serves as a reminder of how a seemingly sectarian divide may conceal other divisions rooted in social, political, or economic cleavages as opposed to doctrinal or religious differences.
Kuwait provides an important case for the study of politically active Shia Islamist movements. Although political parties remain formally illegal, Islamists have long had a strong presence in Kuwaiti politics, and the Brotherhood is tolerated, unlike in neighboring Saudi Arabia and the UAE where the group has been designated a terrorist organization. Furthermore, Kuwait’s Salafis have a long tradition of engaging in electoral politics dating back to the 1980s, even becoming the first Salafis anywhere in the world to contest elections in 1981. Finally, Shia groups have long been involved in Kuwaiti politics, even forming coalitions with Arab nationalists which date back to the 1970s, and Shias won nine of 50 seats in the 2022 parliamentary elections.
Notably, most signatories of the values document were Sunni Islamists or tribal figures. Thus, rather than seeing the Brotherhood-Salafi divide, we instead see a split between Kuwait’s Sunni and Shia Islamists. This context invites reflections on the nature of the Shia-Sunni divide in Kuwait, and whether that divide conceals another societal cleavage. Indeed, most signatories of the values document live in the fourth and fifth constituencies, which are also the largest in terms of tribal candidates. Therefore, rather than sect-based divisions, the values document might indicate an ongoing and increasingly clear split between traditionally urban-based segments of society and tribal Islamists—particularly independent Salafis—in outlying areas. The latter group campaigns on issues of social policy by relating calls for the implementation of gender segregation, for instance, to the need to preserve traditional Kuwaiti values in the face of a majority expatriate population. Conversely, Shias, many of whom are part of the urban merchant elite, could tend to run on agendas unrelated to the conservative social policies adopted by many Sunni Islamist campaigners.
Ultimately, the values document incident demonstrates why it is important to move beyond Sunni-centrism and include Shia Islamists in debates on intra-Islamist divisions in Kuwait and in the broader region. However, this case also highlights the importance of considering the Sunni-Shia divide within specific political and socioeconomic contexts.
Courtney Freer is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University. You can follow her on Twitter: @courtneyfreer.
Morten Valbjørn is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University. You can follow him on Twitter: @mortenvalbjorn.