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Kuwait: domestic politics to test crown prince in push for fiscal reform

Kuwaiti crown prince Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (R) on 8 October 2020 in Kuwait City [AFP/Getty Images]
Kuwaiti crown prince Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (R) on 8 October 2020 in Kuwait City [AFP/Getty Images]

The biggest task facing Kuwait's octogenarian crown prince after unexpectedly stepping in for the emir this month will be to tackle the perennial political feuding which has long blocked badly needed fiscal reform in the wealthy oil producing country.

Previously a low-profile figure who avoided public politics, little was known about Sheikh Meshal Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, 81, who was security chief and then deputy of the National Guard before being named crown prince by his half-brother the emir in 2020. On 15 November, he was moved further into the spotlight when a frail-looking emir temporarily handed him most of his duties as Kuwait focuses on recovering from a coronavirus downturn, though higher oil prices have eased pressure on finances.

Before the handover, the emir undertook conciliatory moves to defuse a standoff between the government and the elected parliament that paralysed legislative work with only one regular session proceeding this year to approve the state budget.

"Kuwait needs to address its fiscal situation," commented Courtney Freer, a Fellow at Atlanta's Emory University. "I think the focus really will be getting the house in order financially." This may prove difficult given that Sheikh Meshal has never held a ministerial post, she added, including that of a premier who deals with the Gulf's liveliest and most powerful legislature.

The government has sought palliative measures to boost finances temporarily while more structural and fiscal reforms remain deadlocked, including a debt law to tap into international markets. Successive parliaments have resisted efforts to introduce new taxes, including value-added tax, and to reform a lavish cradle-to-grave welfare system for Kuwaiti citizens, who account for less than a third of the state's 4.6 million population.

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The crown prince last week reappointed Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid and tasked him with forming a new cabinet, the third this year under the standoff in which members of parliament wanted to question the premier on various issues, including perceived corruption. Sheikh Meshal also met opposition lawmakers. Analysts say that resolution efforts are expected to end the legislative paralysis and benefit from a divided opposition.

According to Kuwaiti political analyst Ghanim Alnajjar, "The so-called opposition has serious divisions. It will be difficult for them to continue united."

Hence, said local political analyst Dahem Al-Qahtani, "The emir and crown prince see him [Sheikh Sabah] as the most suited and strongest to deal with parliament at the current stage."

The new cabinet could also see more than one lawmaker — as had been the norm — become a minister, Al Qahtani added. They would be among pro-government legislators.

Domestic matters are expected to take precedence over foreign policy at a time of simmering tension between Kuwait's larger and more powerful neighbours Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are locked in several proxy wars around the region. Some Kuwait experts say that the crown prince is close to Saudi Arabia and may move to align Kuwait with Riyadh even further. His first calls after taking on his brother's duties were with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

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Indeed, Sheikh Meshal could seek closer cooperation with Saudi Arabia on security and economic matters, said Abdulaziz Al-Anjeri, founder of Kuwait-based Reconnaissance Research.

A Western diplomat said that Kuwait sent "a strong sign" of support to Saudi Arabia when it followed Riyadh last month in expelling the top Lebanese envoy and recalling its own in a rift with Lebanon over the growing power of Iran-backed Hezbollah.

However, according to diplomats and analysts, Sheikh Meshal is expected to maintain the balanced foreign policy shaped by late Emir Sheikh Sabah that helped steer Kuwait through regional turmoil and out of the ruins of Iraq's 1990 invasion. Neither the current emir nor the crown prince, they said, have the diplomatic shrewdness of Sheikh Sabah, a regional conciliator who ran Kuwait's foreign policy for over 50 years. "The capacity to make major foreign policy change is not there and there is no need for it at this time," said Alnajjar, noting that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are engaging with Tehran.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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