Domestic politics to test Kuwait's crown prince in push for fiscal reform

Kuwait's newly appointed crown prince Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad Al-Jaber al-Sabah gestures before he is sworn in, at the parliament, in Kuwait City, Kuwait October 8, 2020. REUTERS/Stephanie McGehee
  • Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad al-Sabah named crown prince in 2020
  • Emir temporarily handed him most of his duties on Nov.15
  • Kuwait is focusing on recovering from COVID-19 downturn

KUWAIT, Nov 29 (Reuters) - 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 producer.

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 Nov. 15, 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 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. I think the focus really will be getting the house in order financially," said Courtney Freer, fellow at Atlanta's Emory University.

This may prove difficult given Sheikh Meshal never held a ministerial post, she said, including that of premier who deals with the Gulf's liveliest and most powerful legislature.

The government has sought palliative measures to temporarily boost finances while more structural and fiscal reforms remain deadlocked, including a debt law to tap international markets.

Successive parliaments have also resisted efforts to introduce new taxes, including value-added tax, and to reform a lavish cradle-to-grave welfare system for Kuwaitis, who account for less than a third of the state's 4.6 million population.

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. Sheikh Meshal also met opposition lawmakers.

"The emir and crown prince see him (Sheikh Sabah) as the most suited and strongest to deal with parliament at the current stage," said Kuwaiti political analyst Dahem Al Qahtani.

Analysts say resolution efforts are expected to end the legislative paralysis and further benefit from a divided opposition, some of whom wanted to question Sheikh Sabah on various issues, including perceived corruption.

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

The new cabinet could also see more than one lawmaker -- as had been the norm -- become a minister, Al Qahtani said, adding 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 the crown prince is close to Saudi Arabia and may move to further align Kuwait with Riyadh. His first calls after taking on his brother's duties were with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

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 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 from 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 were engaging with Tehran.

Reporting by Ahmed Hagagy in Kuwait and Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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