The Court of Cassation threw Kuwaiti politics into fresh turmoil on 8 July, by sentencing two current members of the National Assembly and six former MPs to jail terms of three and a half years for storming parliament in 2011.
After a decent performance in 2016, the difficulties for the economy look to be mounting once again
It has long been a very secretive organization, but lately there have been a few hints that the Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA), the country’s huge sovereign wealth fund, is starting to open up a little. Whether it represents the start of a longer-term trend towards full transparency seems doubtful, but it is a welcome development nonetheless.
Kuwait made a splash with its debut in the international bond market in mid-March, raising $8 billion from regional and international investors following a five-day roadshow in London and three cities in the United States. Demand was high, with more than 778 orders totaling $29 billion, according to officials.
Saudi Arabia’s plan to create a $2 trillion sovereign wealth fund has set an ambitious new standard for state-run investment vehicles. These funds are an increasingly common sight around the world, but particularly in the Middle East, where oil-rich governments like to squirrel away money when oil prices are high in preparation for leaner times. The Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute (SWF Institute) lists 79 funds in its rankings, with 20 of them in the Middle East and North Africa.
A complex legal dispute over a property deal in central London could be heading to mediation or a future trial.
Another complex dispute over property involving wellheeled Gulfis has come to the High Court of Justice in London, where Sheikha Hind Bint Salim Hamud Al- Jaber Al-Sabah and two other claimants are pursuing a legal action involving six defendants, including the Kuwaiti royal’s sister Sheikha Salem Hamud Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and Iraqi- Emirati businessman Hussain Sajwani, chairman of UAE-based developer Damac Properties.
The sheikhas’ father was Sheikh Salim Hamud Al-Sabah, described in court documents as a high-ranking professional soldier who was head of the Emiri Guard for 25 years. A grandson of Emir Sheikh Jaber I (who ruled from 1915 to 1917), Sheikh Salim died on 10 June 2003 without leaving a will; he left 15 heirs, including the two sisters. His estate included two adjoining flats, numbers 61 and 62, at 3-8 Porchester Gate, on the north side of Hyde Park in central London. The two flats had been converted into a single property and were registered in the names of two Gibraltar companies, Rosork Holdings and Fairlann Trading.
In June 2009, the combined property was bought for a documented price of £1.9m ($2.9m today) by British Virgin Islands-incorporated Gulf Heritage Properties Company Ltd, controlled by Sajwani. The transaction was arranged by agent Tareq Al Baho, a Kuwaiti national. At the centre of the disputeare Sheikha Hind’s claims that the property was undervalued at £1.9m and that a ‘bribe’ was paid to secure the property at a below-market rate. She contends that the property’s true value is £2.5m-3m.
In the particulars of a claim submitted to the High Court in July, Sheikha Hind said that, on top of the £1.9m, further payment of “not less than £600,000” was paid by or on behalf of Sajwani to Al Baho or Andrew Pinnell, a solicitor appointed under a power of attorney in 2008 to represent 12 of the 15 heirs and Sheikh Salim’s estate. The £600,000 figure is based in part on a claim that Al Baho told Foxtons estate agency that the property had been sold for £2.5m – in other words £0.6m above the £1.9m figure. The property had been marketed through Foxtons for a time, although the sale was agreed separately.
Two other claimants in the proceedings, property agents Asad Meerza and Mohsen Mehra, claim they are owed a £300,000 commission from Al Baho and Sheikha Salem for their role in introducing Sajwani to Al Baho.
In their defence, Sajwani and Gulf Heritage say they paid £2.2m, comprising £1.9m for the property and an agent’s fee of £300,000; these sums were paid to the benefit of Rosork Holdings and Fairlann Trading. The £300,000 was paid via two bankers drafts made out in UAE dirhams. Gulf Heritage and Sajwani say no payment was made to anyone other than the two vendor companies and deny that the £300,000 constituted a ‘bribe’. They also deny that a sum of “not less than £600,000” was paid in connection with the property purchase.
In a further twist, Sheikha Hind claims that Al Baho obtained the £300,000 by lodging the two bankers drafts in accounts held by two ‘clone companies’ that he had set up in the UK and which had identical names to the two Gibraltar companies, Rosork Holdings Ltd and Fairlann Trading Ltd.
In a two-day hearing in the High Court’s chancery division, Justice Peter Smith noted that Al Baho had not served a defence nor filed any evidence. On 3 November, he made judgements that Sheikha Hind could claim a number of interim payments from Al Baho and BC Penthouse Ltd, a company wholly- or partly-owned by Al Baho, for the benefit of the estate.
According to the defence, substantial sums have been spent on the Porchester Gate property since the transaction went through, including £1.89m to renovate and extend it. The property is used by Sajwani as his personal residence when in London.
A lawyer for the three claimants, Matthew Jenkins at Hughmans Solicitors, told GSN that mediation efforts have been proposed and are due to take place before Christmas. If they do not go ahead, or prove unsuccessful, the matter is expected to proceed to trial in early 2017. A spokesman at FTI for Sajwani declined to comment on the proceedings. Lawyer Richard Barca at Wilson Barca, for Al Baho, Pinnell and Sheikha Salem, did not respond to a request for comment.
Low oil prices tend to make people in the Gulf rather nervous, given how central the black gold is to the health of its economies. With the price of crude falling by over 50 percent between June and January—below the threshold at which each of the region’s governments can balance their budgets—the spending plans of the Gulf states have been thrown into doubt. Luckily, Kuwait has less to fret about than its neighbours.
“Kuwait is the most oil-dependent economy in the GCC, but is likely to be one of the least affected [by the slump in oil prices]. This is because it has the lowest fiscal breakeven oil price in the region,” says Paul Gamble, director of the sovereign ratings group at Fitch Ratings.
Kuwait depends on oil for around 90 per cent of its income, the highest among GCC countries, but it can also balance its budget when oil is around $49 a barrel, far lower than most of its neighbours. It may seem counterintuitive that an economy so dominated by oil should be in a relatively strong position in the current environment; but that strength comes, at least in part, from a fundamental weakness. Governments have historically found it hard to spend oil revenues because uncooperative parliaments have so regularly blocked large projects.
According to National Bank of Kuwait (NBK), the government has on average spent less than 75 per cent of planned capital expenditure since 2006/07. In the most recent financial year, which ended in March 2014, capital spending was KD1.7 billion ($5.8 billion), 3.9 per cent less than the year before. This means Kuwait has had a budget surplus every year for the 15 years through 2013/14, and another is projected for the fiscal year ending 31 March.
While current spending is far higher— last year it was $58.2 billion, although that was also lower than budgeted because of reduced fuel costs—the persistent underspending means that Kuwait has accumulated an enviable investment portfolio. The country also has very low debt levels, with gross public debt at around 4.4 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), according to the IMF.
“Since 2003, elevated oil prices have allowed GCC oil exporters in general and Kuwait in particular to generate significant trade surplus and accumulate robust reserves,” says Raghu Mandagolathur, head of research at local investment firm Kuwait Financial Centre (Markaz). “With current reserves totalling more than $580 billion, this should provide sufficient comfort and cushion to future government expenditure programmes.”
Despite its fiscal strength, the low oil price environment is a concern for an economy in which the state relies so heavily on oil income and in which private sector activity is so limited. The oil sector accounts for 64 per cent of overall GDP, around 92.4 per cent of government revenues and 95 per cent of exports, according to Saudi investment bank Al-Khabeer Capital.
The need to diversify government income and the economy as a whole has long been recognised and low oil prices may just stiffen the resolve of the authorities to do so. They will be helped by a more constructive domestic political environment. Many opposition politicians boycotted the most recent parliamentary elections, held in July 2013, which meant a more conciliatory chamber was returned. While tensions remain, there is now a less confrontational relationship between the executive and legislature. “Kuwait’s government has taken several attempts to diversify and develop the economy, but implementation of economic plans was often hampered by parliamentary interference,” says Steffen Dyck, a senior analyst at ratings agency Moody’s Investor Services. “With a more supportive parliament in place, the implementation of projects is likely to improve.”
That means the prospects for the new five-year development plan, which runs from April 2015 to March 2020 and which was approved by a parliamentary committee in February, are relatively promising. The plan includes $115 billion worth of spending on 521 projects across a wide range of sectors including water, power, transport, education and the oil industry. “The prospects for capital spending are the best they have been for some time given the improved relations between the government and parliament,” says Gamble.
Higher levels of government spending, particularly on capital projects, should help boost economic growth. The IMF is predicting overall GDP growth of 1.7 per cent this year, followed by 1.8 per cent next year. Most of that will come from the non-oil sector, which is expected to grow by 3.5 per cent in 2015 and 5 per cent next year.
However, things could yet get blown off course. “Although a number of projects have been announced in the 2015-2020 plan, it would be interesting to see if how many go ahead,” says Mandagolathur. “A sustained drop in the oil prices might result in delays or even cancellations.”
Alongside changes to government spending patterns, the economy would also benefit from some other reforms. Global league tables tend to show Kuwait in a rather poor light in terms of its business environment. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, for example, Kuwait ranks worst in the GCC in terms of its infrastructure. Meanwhile, the World Bank’s Doing Business report places Kuwait at 150 out of 189 countries when it comes to the ease of starting a business.
Clearly reforms are badly needed. As well as cutting back on red tape to make it easier to set up a business, observers suggest that the country would benefit from improvements to the education system and labour market reforms to incentivise locals to take private sector jobs.
Economic reforms have proved as hard to push through parliament in the past as project spending, but some significant moves have been made recently, including a cut in subsidies for diesel and kerosene on 1 January, which pushed up the cost from 55 fils a litre to 170 fils a litre (there are 1,000 fils in a dinar).
Such measures are not easy to introduce in a country where the government and the head of state are unelected and so lack a clear popular mandate. Further change is likely to take time. “Subsidy reforms are generally done in a very gradual way, especially in somewhere like Kuwait,” says Giyas Gokkent, senior economist at the Institute of International Finance in Washington DC. “The hike in diesel prices is, I think, the correct approach to rationalising spending. If they can tilt the balance of spending away from current spending and towards capital spending that would be positive for the economy.”
What is certain is that the need to do something will not go away. Wages and salaries alone made up half of all spending in the 2014/15 budget, says the IMF, and the cost of providing subsidies will inevitably keep on rising as the population grows. Despite the sensitive nature of subsidy reforms, the government is expected to review water and electricity tariffs, and the public sector wage bill.
Low oil prices highlight the need to put the country’s economy on a sustainable long-term footing. Whether the government has the will or the ability to take advantage of the current climate to address the issue, remains to be seen.
The overwhelming influence of the government sector is stunting Kuwait’s private industry. The only way for the economy to diversify is to attract investors with new ideas. Published in MEED, 16 October 2013
In five months’ time, Kuwait will have reached the end of its four-year Development Plan, part of the wider Vision 2035 strategy to propel the economy forward and transform the country into a regional trade and finance hub. But even now, it is clear the government will miss its targets.
The plan, approved by the National Assembly (parliament) in February 2010, envisaged KD30.8bn ($108bn) being spent on infrastructure projects, of which half was to come from the private sector.
The aim was to decrease the state’s dependence on oil revenues and increase the role of the private sector in the economy. In the process, it was hoped that more locals would be enticed into working for private companies. At the time, the private sector accounted for 37 per cent of total economic activity, according to local investment firm Markaz, and the plan was to increase this to 44 per cent by 2014.
Up-to-date figures on the size of the private sector are not available, but developments over the past few years have not been encouraging. As the Washington-based IMF noted on 23 September, after concluding its annual review of the Kuwaiti economy, the investment programme has lagged behind schedule and large hikes in public sector wages in April 2012 have undermined efforts to boost private sector jobs.
The missed targets will not be a surprise to anyone in Kuwait. Despite the failure to move ahead with major state-backed projects, it is clear the economy still relies heavily on government spending.
“Kuwait spends very little on projects, which is something the private sector benefits from a lot in the other GCC countries,” says Steffen Hertog, an associate professor in the department of government at the London School of Economics.
“But the Kuwaiti private sector is still indirectly dependent on the government. Very little consumer demand emerges from within the private sector because the volume of salaries paid is not very large and most of it is remitted abroad. Most of the households that can engage in serious consumer spending get their salaries from the government.”
The fact that the targets are all but certain to be missed is due to a mixture of factors. When it comes to employment, private companies struggle to match the wages being paid by government departments and agencies – a problem that is getting worse rather than better, as the IMF points out. According to recent official figures, four out of five Kuwaiti nationals who have a job work for the state.
In 2011, the last year for which there are comprehensive figures, some 230,000 nationals had public sector jobs, while 61,000 worked for private firms, according to Kuwait’s Central Statistical Bureau. In contrast, there were 1.1 million expatriates working in private sector jobs that year and most of them were low-paid and unskilled. About 72 per cent of foreign workers had not completed secondary school education and 49 per cent were earning KD60 ($212) a month or less.
In addition, soaring oil prices distort the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) figures, as it is hard for the private sector to gain ground against the public sector when government revenues are so high. That will become even harder if Kuwait increases its crude output from 3 million barrels a day in 2012 to 3.5 million by 2015, as US ratings agency Standard & Poor’s suggests it might.
In any case, the government has struggled to get parliament to agree to major spending plans and economic reforms, which could help diversify the economy and ensure major schemes move ahead.
“The high oil price highlights the challenges of trying to specify what percentage of GDP the private sector should ideally account for,” says Daniel Kaye, head of macroeconomic research at National Bank of Kuwait. “The metric is sensitive to what is happening to crude prices, particularly in a country such as Kuwait, where oil production is so large when compared to the economy.
“The Development Plan laid out all sorts of targets and metrics, but I interpreted them more as guidelines than strict targets. What we can say for sure is that until recently none of the plan’s big, signature schemes was under way. Now, at last, we look like we are inching closer to the start of a couple of them, as well as many smaller ones.”
Among the projects that are slowly moving forwards is the Al-Zour North independent water and power project (IWPP). This was awarded to a consortium led by France’s GDF Suez and Japan’s Sumitomo in January, although reaching financial close on the $2.5bn scheme since then has proved to be a lengthy process.
“There will be challenges in the implementation of projects, but there are enough in the pipeline to engender optimism,” says Kaye. “A lack of investment – both public and private – has been one of the economy’s key weak spots for years. Even a moderate improvement in project execution could go a long way to boost confidence and improve the supply side of the economy.”
For now, the limited progress means Kuwait remains more heavily dependent on crude revenues than most of its GCC peers. In 2012, hydrocarbons production accounted for an estimated 64 per cent of the country’s GDP, compared to an average of 48 per cent across the GCC as a whole, according to Qatar National Bank (QNB).
The chances of there being more private sector activity received a boost in December 2012, when opposition groups boycotted the general election and a more pro-government parliament was voted in. The hiatus between parliaments while the poll took place had also opened the way for some long-awaited reforms to be introduced by emiri decree, including a new Companies Law in November. Once parliament was in place, other reforms were passed, including approval for the privatisation of flag carrier Kuwait Airways.
However, it did not take long for the country’s political problems to reassert themselves. As the months passed, the new parliament became more combative in its dealings with the government and in June, the Constitutional Court ruled that the December election was invalid.
Another poll was duly held in July. After briefly convening in early August, the new parliament took a long summer break, which is due to end in mid-October. Whether the latest members of parliament are more open to cooperating with the government remains to be seen, but history suggests the relationship is likely to be characterised by opposition and intransigence. As a result, meaningful economic reforms that might benefit project spending or the private sector seem unlikely to move ahead quickly.
“Parliament shoots down pretty much all the schemes the private sector is interested in,” says Hertog. “It is rational populism. Voters don’t really benefit from policies that further business development and if there is a choice between increasing public sector salaries or making cash grants to families on the one hand, and spending on infrastructure that would benefit the private sector on the other, then I think the private sector will always lose out.”
“There could only be a change in the long run if private firms completely shifted position and started employing more nationals and perhaps started paying taxes,” he continues. “Then they would become a serious negotiating partner. But right now, they don’t do anything that’s essential for society or for the survival of the regime.”
Despite the tough climate, there are some bright spots. According to MEED’s annual ranking of the 100 largest listed corporates in the region, 12 are from Kuwait, which is a strong showing given the size of the country. The banking sector is the clear leader within the group, accounting for eight of the 12 companies, along with two telecoms firms, a real estate business and a food company.
Developing domestic champions is one thing, but for the economy to really diversify, it needs to attract international skills and investors with new ideas. However, the relatively unwelcome environment for private capital means Kuwait has received less than 1 per cent of total foreign direct investment into the GCC over the past decade, according to QNB.
With the current Development Plan nearing its end, the challenge facing the Kuwaiti authorities is to draw up a successor plan to start in the new financial year, which begins in April. A more realistic set of targets would probably be wise, but the structural issues in the economy and the political system mean any change will be very difficult to push through.
Kuwaitis turned out in searing heat to elect yet another parliament on 27 July. Turnout was higher than December, and a half-hearted opposition boycott saw some liberals return to the assembly. Three days later, the emir announced a Ramadan pardon of all those convicted of offending him. Published in Gulf States News, 1 August 2013
In the heat of a Ramadan summer, Kuwaitis went to the polls on 27 July for the third time in less than two years. The turnout of around 52% – higher than the record low 40% of the last poll in December – only just topped the temperature, which climbed close to 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the day.
The election results – most notable for significant Shia losses – are difficult to read; the elected assembly seems to be slightly more balanced than in recent years, but the chances of it leading to any profound improvement in Kuwait’s prospects nonetheless seem slim. The new parliament is a loose collection of competing interest groups: one of the few things on which they can probably agree is a desire for parliament to have greater power.
The ruling Al-Sabah family, meanwhile, shows no sign of willingness to cede influence, even on relatively minor matters such as appointing more than one elected MP to the government. As a result, the debilitating power struggle between elected MPs and the appointed government which has characterised Kuwaiti politics is likely to continue, hobbling the economy in the process.
The main losers in this latest election were Kuwait’s Shia minority, who are thought to account for around a third of the population. They won just eight of the 50 seats in parliament, mostly in the first constituency, compared to 17 seats in the annulled parliament elected in December. Although they had been expected to lose ground, it was a heavier loss than some had predicted.
The turnaround in Shia fortunes was a result of the opposition boycott, so widely observed last year, crumbling. In December, a wide variety of Islamists, liberals and some of the country’s largest tribes shunned the poll, providing room for minorities to win seats. This time, the liberal National Democratic Alliance and some tribes that had ignored the last election, including the Awazem, did participate. Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al- Sabah’s careful courting of tribal leaders in the months before the poll appears to have paid off.
Others continued with the boycott, however, their main grievance the continued use of the ‘one person, one vote’ system that the Constitutional Court approved on 16 June,when it also declared the December election invalid. “The failure of the opposition to agree a common platform has caused it to splinter while the ruling family has cleverly split the tribal bloc by reaching out to key tribal leaders and getting them back into the political process,” said one political analyst in the build-up to the poll.
Women also lost ground, with just two of eight candidates – Maasouma Al-Mubarak in the first constituency and Safa Al- Hashem in the third – returning to parliament, down from three women elected in December. Liberal candidates won at least three seats, and Sunni Islamists won seven, two more than last time.
The election campaign itself was uninspiring. Turnout may have been higher than December, but it remained significantly below the Kuwaiti average of around 60%. A combination of voter fatigue, scepticism about the ability of parliament to hold the powerful executive to account, and the decision to hold the election during Ramadan meant there was none of the drama that was seen in the run-up to the December poll, which saw large protests and fiery speeches by the likes of Musallam Al-Barrak – who ended up in court for his criticism of the emir.
The campaign was enlivened slightly by arrests over allegations of vote buying. There were also claims by some opposition leaders that the authorities were rather selective in which vote-buyers they went after. In comments carried by the local Arab Times, Ali Al-Rashid, a candidate in the second constituency and speaker of the outgoing parliament, attacked interior minister Sheikh Ahmad Al-Humoud for disregarding violations committed by some candidates. The emir’s decision to give a $4bn package of aid to Egypt, announced on 10 July, also provoked some criticism, notably from Nawaf Al-Fuzai, a member of the dissolved parliament.
One question now – presuming no technical irregularities are found in this latest election – will be the extent of opposition appetite for continued protest against the leadership. On 30 July, Emir Sheikh Sabah issued a pardon to all those convicted of insulting him, something which may, in the short term, assuage dissent. How the authorities react to future criticism will be more significant however; should a crackdown on free speech resume, the amnesty will have meant little.
While parliament’s away…
The month-long absence of a parliament gave the government the chance to release the year’s budget via an Emiri decree on 17 July. The deficit for the fiscal year 2013-14 is projected at KD7.43bn ($26.1 bn), although, as it is based on a relatively conservative oil price of $70/bbl, the government is all but certain to post another substantial budget surplus.
Total expenditure is estimated at KD21bn, including KD5.2bn on salaries, KD4.9bn on subsidised commodities and services, and KD2.2bn on construction projects, maintenance and related items. Oil revenues, at KD16.9bn, are projected to account for 93% of total state revenues.
Those figures highlight both the strength and weakness of the Kuwaiti economy. High oil revenues mean there is little urgency to reform and develop the economy, but such initiatives are desperately needed for its longer-term health. However, the standoff between parliament and the executive means that few reforms ever make it on to the statute book. The last parliament – largely seen as more pro-government, because of the opposition boycott – did manage to bring in some reform measures before it was dissolved, including the privatisation of Kuwait Airways, but the new parliament may well return to a less co-operative mood.
The assembly is due to convene on 6August, led in its first session by the oldest MP, Hamad Seif Al-Hershani. Prime minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah submitted his resignation to the emir on 28 July, as per the constitution, which states that a new government must be appointed when a new parliament is elected. On 29 July, he was reappointed, as he often has been amid the comings and goings of Kuwait’s volatile assembly. At the time of writing, he had yet to form a new cabinet.
For the long-term health of the economy, the prime minister and parliament will need to find a modus vivendi, however difficult that might be to achieve. For the credibility of the country’s political system, it is equally vital that this election result is allowed to stand, and is not dismissed by the Constitutional Court like the two previous parliaments have been.
Yet another bout of political uncertainty lies ahead in Kuwait, after two constitutional court rulings that will force another election. The emir has been courting tribal leaders, apparently in the hope of staving off another significant boycott. Published in Gulf States News, 20 June 2013
On 16 June, Kuwait’s constitutional court made two key rulings that have once again set the election process in motion. The first was that the emiri decree which set up the National Election Commission in October was unconstitutional, and that parliament must be dissolved. The next parliamentary election will be the third in less than two years, following votes in February and December 2012.
The second ruling was more contentious. The court decided the emiri decree that introduced a new voting system before the last election was legitimate. It was that ‘one person, one vote’ system which led to the election boycott by Islamists, liberals and some of the country’s largest tribes, including the Awazem, Mutairi and Ajman. Their chief complaint was that the system discriminates against them, as they can no longer form the sort of voting blocs common under the old system, in which voters each had four votes and could spread their support between their own and allied groups.
Opposition politicians – many of whom have said they will again boycott an election held under the new law – immediately denounced the court’s decision. The Kuwait Times quoted a number of former MPs, including Waleed Al-Tabtabaei, who described the confirmation of the voting system as “the worst decision”, and Mubarak Al-Walan, who said the only way to avoid political stalemate was for the decree to be withdrawn. Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah called for national unity. “The ruling proves that Kuwait is a state of institutions ruled by the constitution and law. I call upon all Kuwaitis to respect and abide by the verdict,” he said in a televised speech.“ We have to put this issue behind us… it was a bitter experience.”
Courting tribal leaders
The court’s ruling was not altogether a surprise. As GSN wrote last issue, parliament had extended its working hours to try to get as much done as possible before a potential dissolution. MPs will have been relieved that the court ruled all legislation passed by the now-dissolved assembly would stand.
There were also signs that the emir has been anticipating a repeat election. In the weeks preceding the ruling, he publicly courted tribal leaders, in what seemed like a concerted effort to encourage them to drop their boycotts. On 27 May, the emir and Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-AhmedAl-Sabah attended a banquet held in their honour by the Awazem tribe, at which leaders expressed their loyalty to the ruling family. One senior figure, Falah Bin Eid Bin Jame, said his tribe “has always stood behind [the] Al-Sabah family since the rule of Sabah the First and continued until [the] present day”, in remarks reported by the state-run Kuna news agency. The emir said “this meeting shows clearly the close and candid relations between Kuwaiti people and ruler”.
Six days later, on 2 June, the emir was at a lunch hosted in his honour by Sultan Bin Salman Bin Hethlain on behalf of the Ajman and Yam tribes. At that event, Bin Hethlain spoke of a commitment to national unity but also set out a number of issues he said needed to be addressed, ranging from education to healthcare, housing and the status of the stateless Bidoon. The implicit criticism was leavened by praise for the emir’s openness and transparency.
“It seems the emir is on some sort of reconciliation track,” one Kuwait-based political analyst told GSN. “The tribal leaders are sucking up to the emir and the emir is flirting right back.” The process has continued since the court ruling. On 17 June, the emir and crown prince attended a banquet hosted by Adwan Bin Tawaleh of the Shammar tribe, where the host and guest spoke of the importance of national unity and safeguarding the constitution.
Such expressions of loyalty do not guarantee participation in any election, however. Before the last poll, Falah Faisal Al-Deweish of the Mutairi tribe said it was up to individuals to decide whether to vote or not. “Let those who wish to take part participate and those who want to boycott do so,” he said at a meeting between the emir and tribal elders in October, before adding: “We should remain around his highness the emir, the father of all.” It is worth noting that it is a member of the Mutairi who has become one of the establishment’s most prominent critics: former MP Musallam Al-Barrak,who faces a retrial in the case against him for insulting the emir.
Jury still out
The evidence so far is that the Al-Sabah charm offensive has been only partly successful. One liberal group, the National Democratic Alliance, has said it will compete in the next election, but the Progressive Movement, a larger group which contains Islamists, liberals and nationalists, says it will not.
Which way the tribal groups will go is less clear. Not all tribes are opposed to the electoral law: smaller ones have benefited from it, as they are now less likely to be squeezed out by larger groups. But without another change to the voting system, the larger tribes face the prospect of having their presence in parliament scaled back on a more permanent basis. If a deal cannot be struck behind closed doors, they may see a boycott as being in their best interests.
It seems inevitable that holding another election under the ‘one vote’ system will provoke a renewal of opposition rallies and protests, and the authorities have been trying to set out clear boundaries for any such action. The interior ministry has said it will not allow protests outside Erada Square, opposite the National Assembly building, and in his 16 June television address, the emir warned against sectarianism “which might trigger extremism and spark destructive discord”.
The date of the election also needs to be resolved. According to Article 107 of the constitution, it must be held within two months but, with Ramadan falling from early July until early August, some have suggested a postponement until after the summer. The constitution also says the old parliament must be reinstated if an election is not held in time. It is not clear which parliament would be recalled, however, given that the last two have been declared unconstitutional.