By Mona Kareem
Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah was appointed prime minister of Kuwait in May 2011 for the seventh consecutive time in five years, a result of six Cabinets resigning under his watch. Kuwait’s version of the Arab Spring has witnessed many sit-ins, rallies and protests directed against the prime minister, with politicians from various sides (including Islamists, liberals and conservatives) taking part.
The largest sit-in was organized on March 8, with a crowd of 700 demanding the resignation of Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad and opposition figures giving speeches accusing the prime minister of corruption. This continued on and off throughout the following weeks until the Cabinet presented its resignation on April 6, after Parliament was brought to a standstill with requests to question three ministers, all of whom happened to be members of the ruling Al-Sabah family. And while many hoped that the new Cabinet would not include Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad as prime minister, the Kuwaiti emir decided to reappoint him.
Kuwaiti political life progressed a step in 2003 when the late emir decided to separate the roles of crown prince from that of prime minister. Prior to 2003, Parliament was unable to question the prime minister because according to the Constitution the emir is “untouchable,” and questioning the crown prince meant questioning the country’s future emir. Even after this change, the reticence to question those clearly slated to be the future Kuwaiti emir has persisted. During his term as prime minister (2003-2006), few questioned Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad. Based on his long diplomatic and political history, extensive alliances, and strong character, many guessed (correctly) that he would be the next emir or, at the very least, the country’s crown prince.
This is in stark contrast to the incumbent Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad, who is not the heir apparent, and whom Parliament has wanted to question from the beginning. Three months after Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad’s February 2006 appointment, the legislature called him for questioning regarding changes made to laws governing electoral districts, only for Parliament to be dissolved at the request of the emir before any action could be taken. Twice thereafter the emir dissolved Parliament in reaction to rising tensions between the legislative body and various ministers. Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad finally had to face Parliament alone because the emir’s options were exhausted after several Cabinets resigned and three parliaments were dissolved, leaving no way to calm the tensions between the executive and legislative branches.
Following all this tension, one may fairly ask what has been accomplished and who is to blame for the continual clashes between the legislature and the executive branch of government. Many Kuwaitis believe the current situation to be a reflection of a struggle inside the ruling family, with parliamentarians linked to family members seeking to further their own economic or political interests. Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad is not the first prime minister to be linked to corruption, but depriving him of credit for his achievements might serve the interests of those who want to ensure that he will not be a viable candidate for emir.
This clash inside the ruling family has not been limited to using members of Parliament and constitutional authority, but has also extended to manipulation of the media and other parts of society. Kuwait developed its first private television channel only in 2004, when the owners of Al-Rai al-Aam newspaper launched a station, followed by the owners of Al-Watan in December 2007. After these, numerous other TV channels started up simply to further their own particular agendas through (by Western standards) relatively unprofessional talk shows. Al-Watan TV, for example, aimed for commercial success but also worked extensively to support Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad against the prime minister. Most Kuwaiti broadcast media either support or condemn Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad, with the supporting stations accused of being state-sponsored.
Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad, the former deputy prime minister and minister of development and housing, is the other strong player in the ruling family fighting against the current prime minister. He recently resigned on June 9 after refusing to face a parliamentary inquiry regarding his finances, in which his role in the Kuwait Olympic Committee and performance as development minister came into question.
While heading up the Oil and Energy Ministry from 2003 to 2006, Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad was accused of corruption and excluded from government for several years. His allies in Parliament include a number of Salafist partisans who have been attacking the prime minister. Some observers postulate that the emir indirectly referred to the Salafists in a June 19 speech, saying: “Some have crossed the lines that are set by the Constitution to protect democracy and freedom; they have turned from the core values of Kuwaiti society: respect for the law, the Constitution, and commitment to decency.”
While replacing the current prime minister might appear to be the easy solution to Kuwait’s political paralysis, his replacement would in fact face the same issues, as each member of the royal family has his enemies. One way out of this dilemma would be to elect a prime minister, which would constitute another step toward the constitutional monarchy that only Kuwaiti liberals have demanded in any serious way.
Theoretically, an elected prime minister should end the continuous clash between the government and Parliament, as the legislative body would be no longer be engaged in fueling the divisions in the family and, by extension, competition over succession would remain entirely inside the Al-Sabah. Parliament would be able to proceed with its regular tasks as demanded by citizens, while the emir would have the last word about the successor to the throne after the current Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad.
Mona Kareem is a journalist and poet. She blogs at monakareem.blogspot.com. This commentary is reprinted with permission from the Arab Reform Bulletin. It can be accessed online at: www.carnegieendowment.org/arb, © 2011, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.