Since winning nearly half of the Kuwaiti parliament’s fifty seats in elections held November 26, 2016, opposition MPs have coordinated their agenda against the government’s austerity plans. Emboldened by popular anger, the opposition has seriously impeded the government’s ability to implement its agenda. It has also failed to offer viable alternatives to austerity besides a populist push to squeeze out the country’s expat community. Recent government efforts to compromise with the opposition may allow it to pass short-term measures but cannot bridge the impasse over austerity politics on their own.
As a result of austerity measures implemented in September 2016, Kuwaitis are facing steep price hikes that are prompting changes in their spending. While many Kuwaitis are well-off, others struggle to keep up with the pace of austerity, and Kuwait’s opposition is acting on its mandate to represent the frustration of these citizens. Whereas in the past it used obstructionist measures to slow the pace at which the government can implement policy, the opposition has been more active in recent months. Its goal is to overturn, stall, or replace austerity measures while simultaneously grilling cabinet members over the actions or policies of their ministries.
Kuwait’s government, like others in the Gulf, implemented austerity measures that included lifting subsidies on electricity, water, and fuel. These measures came in response to a budget shortfall caused by a drop in global oil prices. Oil revenues comprised 38.5 percent of Kuwait’s GDP in 2015, meaning that price drops had a major impact on the Kuwaiti economy. After the first round of austerity measures prompted strikes and a parliamentary backlash, Kuwait’s Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah dissolved parliament on October 16, 2016 with the likely intention of consolidating government control in parliament. However, almost half the parliament’s seats went to a diverse but powerful opposition. Kuwait’s government now faces the challenge of implementing austerity policies while contending with an opposition elected with a mandate to oppose these policies.
On February 18, parliament’s Financial and Economic Affairs Committee approved draft legislation cancelling existing price hikes on fuel and planned price hikes on electricity and water. The government initially claimed such legislation was unconstitutional, though on March 1 the Ministry of Electricity and Water acceded and announced plans to reduce the extent of the planned electricity price hikes. The opposition has also been able to put pressure on cabinet ministers by threatening to grill them in parliament, which can cost these ministers the confidence of the emir and Kuwaiti voters. On February 6, Minister of Information and Youth Sheikh Salman Humoud al-Sabah resigned rather than face a vote of no confidence scheduled for two days later. Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Ahmad al-Sabah himself avoided grilling only after the undersecretary of Kuwait’s Ministry of Health resigned following corruption accusations. By threatening to grill ministers, whether over their stance on austerity or on other issues, the opposition forces the government to engage in a parliamentary exercise that reduces public confidence in the government and its agenda. This lack of confidence makes implementing austerity considerably more challenging, as the government must convince citizens that the short-term hardship of austerity will be in the long-term interests of the country.
For all their resistance to austerity measures, however, opposition MPs have offered few alternatives for solving Kuwait’s budget woes. Many alternate proposals focus on taxing or otherwise imposing costs on the expatriate community, which comprises roughly 70 percent of the country’s total population. Since expats cannot vote and have no representation in parliament, they are an easy target for opposition members. In addition, since expats are not part of the governing bargain of the Kuwaiti state, the government has little reason to stand in the way of these efforts. Increasingly, opposition MPs from across the political spectrum have targeted expats as a means of easing austerity. On January 26, Kuwait’s Ministry of Education reported it was considering a proposal by Islamist MP Waleed al-Tabatabai to deport expat teachers who give private lessons without legal authorization. Liberal MP Safaa al-Hashem, the parliament’s only woman, recently told Kuwaiti media that expats are “competing with us for the air we breathe in hospital waiting rooms.” These statements come on top of existing measures limiting expats’ access to basic services that are free to citizens, including the Emiri hospital’s “Kuwaiti only” hours for medical treatment, announced in March 2016.
From an economic standpoint, these measures will have little effect because remittance taxes will make up only a fraction of Kuwait’s budget shortfall. While Kuwait projects a $25.9 billion budget deficit for fiscal year 2017–18, a 5 percent remittance tax would bring in only about $65.4 million dollars (20 million Kuwaiti dinars) per year, or 0.25 percent of the total shortfall. In addition, Kuwait’s government points to its deportation of 29,000 people in 2016 as evidence it is going after the expatriate population in Kuwait—yet a Ministry of Education committee plans to visit Ramallah in April 2017 to hire new Palestinian teachers rather than seeking to hire Kuwaitis.
In a bid to allow the government’s agenda to move forward, the Emir agreed on March 6, 2017 to reinstate the citizenship of opposition figures whose citizenship was revoked during a crackdown in 2014. In return, opposition MPs have agreed not to grill the prime minister and to work with the government in good faith. The government’s gesture of goodwill is intended to reduce the loss of public confidence in the cabinet when its ministers face grilling. However, given the widespread public opposition to austerity, it is unlikely this measure on its own will be enough to convince opposition MPs to ease off these political tactics altogether. On March 7, for example, the government attempted to delay by two months a parliament debate on changing Kuwait’s citizenship law to make citizenship revocation illegal in the future. Due to opposition pressure, however, it was forced to accept a delay of only two weeks instead.
Historically, the Kuwaiti government’s payoffs or co-option have allowed it to circumvent opposition. This time, the diversity of the opposition and the extent of its mandate may require the government to make broader concessions in order to successfully contain opposition to austerity. It may also attempt to play different opposition factions off each other in order to inhibit further attempts to pursue a unified anti-austerity agenda. Kuwait’s opposition, for its part, may use this round of concessions as evidence of a victory, allowing it to activate its voter base and strengthen its hand for the next round of bargaining with the government. The deal the sides brokered to reinstate opposition members’ citizenship is important, but it is unlikely to be the last one brokered in the current parliament.
Scott Weiner is the chair of the Middle East Discussion Group of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He recently completed his PhD in political science at George Washington University.
* Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Sheikh Salman Humoud al-Sabah resigned before he was scheduled to be grilled. He resigned before a scheduled vote of no confidence.