Skip to main content

Kuwait has suspended its parliament. Is it moving towards autocracy?

Emir's suspension of national assembly and articles of constitution could threaten Gulf region's only semi-democratic political system, analysts say
Kuwaiti legislators at the National Assembly in Kuwait City on 29 January 2024 (AFP/Yasser al-Zayyat)
Kuwaiti legislators at the National Assembly in Kuwait City on 29 January 2024 (AFP/Yasser al-Zayyat)

The ruler of Kuwait has dissolved parliament for up to four years in a move that analysts fear could threaten the country's unique semi-democratic political system. 

On Friday, Kuwaiti Emir Mishal al-Ahmed Al Sabah announced that the Gulf state's National Assembly would be suspended, as well as several articles of the constitution, in order to review the “democratic process” potentially until 2028.

Kuwait has the only elected parliament in the Gulf. The move comes after years of political deadlocks and reshuffles.

“The recent turmoil in the Kuwaiti political scene has reached a stage where we cannot remain silent, so we must take all necessary measures to achieve the best interest of the country and its people,” Emir Mishal al-Ahmed said.

“I will not allow by any means that democracy will be exploited to destroy the state.”

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Among the seven articles of the constitution suspended is one that stipulates that a new parliament must be elected within two months of parliamentary dissolution, and another which states that laws must be approved by both parliament and the emir. 

Arabic press review: Kuwaiti royal sentenced in Malaysia's 1MDB scandal
Read More »

The move effectively gives the emir full control over legislation. 

A new parliament, headed by Ahmad Abdullah Al Sabah, the emir’s nephew, was appointed by royal decree on Sunday. Several ministers retained their positions, including the oil, finance and foreign ministers, as well as the prime minister. 

Normally, the 50 elected members of parliament can pass a vote of no confidence in any minister, or prime minister, by a simple majority. The assembly also plays a role in approving the emir’s choice of a crown prince. 

The legislative body can interpellate ministers, and generally constrain the government from enacting its preferred policies. 

“In the first decades of parliamentary life the national assembly rarely tried to remove ministers or bring down governments,” Michael Herb, a professor at Georgia State University, told Middle East Eye. 

“In the past years the National Assembly has been increasingly assertive, to the point that it is difficult for a government to accomplish much without being very responsive to [it].” 

Wrangling over the crown prince

That power-sharing has led to paralysis, with parliament dissolved on four occasions in the past five years. The now-dissolved parliament was elected in April. 

But while dissolutions are frequent, a parliamentary suspension has only happened twice: in 1976 and 1986. 

In recent months, MPs have accused the government of corruption, while the cabinet has said the parliament has blocked planned economic diversification. 

'The current emir clearly has no patience for any real parliamentary control over the ministers'

- Michael Herb, Georgia State University

“This current ruler has signalled that he personally prioritises issues of national development and stability over all else, and exhibits a willingness to make this drastic move, unlike the previous two rulers,” Sean Yom, an expert on Middle East politics at Temple University, told MEE. 

In his announcement, Emir Mishal took aim at unnamed officials, stating that they were blocking his attempts to appoint a crown prince. 

“Some people went as far as interfering in the powers of the emir, including his right to select his crown prince,” he said, stating that as emir he had exclusive rights to appoint his successor. 

The emir, who came to power in December following the death of his predecessor, Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al Jaber, has yet to select a crown prince. 

“The current emir clearly has no patience for any real parliamentary control over the ministers,” said Herb. “It is quite possible that he wanted to select a crown prince without worrying about the reaction in the National Assembly.”

Analysts have warned that last week's developments could lead to a crackdown on dissent and political opposition. 

“This move could damage Kuwait's unique tradition of pluralism and liberalism, which is exceptional in not only the Gulf but the wider Arab world,” said Yom. 

He added that Kuwaiti activists and critics had been “unusually quiet” since the decision, suggesting that they may be exercising caution in case of “any harsh suppression of public dissent”. 

“While some Kuwaitis welcomed this move given their exhaustion with the breakdown of legislative-government relations, others do not wish to sacrifice their democratic norms and practices on the altar of state efficiency.”

'Moving towards UAE system'

Kristin Diwan, a political scientist at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said the move was in line with the emir’s character and his desire to appoint a successor. 

“Coming from a security background, he has shown little appetite for the give and take of Kuwaiti politics, nor tolerance for parliamentary dissent,” he told MEE. 

“We are already seeing a muting of Kuwait's usual open political debate. Now that the constitution has been abrogated there is no assurance that parliamentary life will return.”

'What spaces that did exist in the Gulf for political activity have been squeezed over the past 15 years'

- Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, analyst

Some commentators have posited that the move is part of a regional pattern of curtailing democratic elements of society. 

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, an expert on the Gulf at the Baker Institute, told MEE: “What spaces that did exist in the Gulf for political activity have been squeezed over the past 15 years."

Ulrichsen listed Bahrain,  Saudi Arabia and the UAE as places where "systemic crackdowns" and other measures had dampened political activity.

“So the suspension of the national assembly in Kuwait is part of a broader trend here.”

Like several of its neighbours, Kuwait is oil-rich and has one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds. 

Herb said it was possible that the emir wished to move Kuwait’s politics in an autocratic direction, like its neighbours, but that it wouldn’t be easy. 

“Kuwait has a very long history of electoral politics and popular participation, so making Kuwait politically similar to the UAE will be a difficult task, one that will not be welcomed by many Kuwaitis.”

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.