Kuwait election gives hope to businesses

13 June 2023

 

Kuwait’s recent snap election has offered a glimmer of hope to businesses with its promise to form a government freshly mandated to make key policy decisions to help revitalise the country’s economy.

The vote took place on 6 June after Kuwait’s constitutional court in March annulled the results of last year’s election and reinstated the previous parliament elected in 2020.

Opposition lawmakers won 29 of the legislature’s 50 seats, according to results published by the official Kuwait News Agency.

While the make-up of the new parliament is similar to the one elected last year and later annulled, with all but 12 of its 50 members retaining their seats, business leaders say there is potential for ending the country’s political deadlock.

“It’s still a difficult situation,” said one source. “After a couple of days have passed, we will have a much clearer picture of the situation and whether or not a government is going to be formed.”

Picking a prime minister

A key indicator as to whether the country will break the political deadlock will be whether a prime minister is named over the coming days and who that prime minister is.

One source said: “It is possible that, if the right person is named as prime minister, the political deadlock will be broken, a government will be formed, and the key strategic economic decisions that need to be made will be pushed through.”

Turnout reached 50 per cent one hour before polls closed, according to the Kuwait Transparency Society, a non-governmental organisation. Last year’s election saw a turnout of 63 per cent.

While lawmakers are elected, Kuwait’s cabinet ministers are installed by the ruling Al-Sabah family, which maintains a tight hold over political life.

Continual standoffs between the branches of government have prevented lawmakers from passing economic reforms, while repeated budget deficits and low foreign investment have added to an air of gloom.

Speaking after the new parliament was elected, Janan Bushehri, the new parliament’s only female member, said she expected it “to seek stability and move ahead on outstanding issues, whether political or economic”.

Far-reaching ramifications

The country has seen a dramatic contraction in the value of its oil and gas projects market over recent years as the political deadlock has blocked approvals for major infrastructure projects in the sector.

Between the start of 2020 and the start of May this year, the total value of all active oil, gas and chemical projects in Kuwait declined by 65 per cent from $67.1bn to just $23.5bn.

Many industry stakeholders believe that breaking the political deadlock is essential for reversing the contraction seen in the country’s oil and gas sector.

The interim government has only approved essential projects such as maintenance. It has avoided making decisions on major strategic projects, such as the planned $10bn Al-Zour petrochemicals complex being developed by state-owned Kuwait Integrated Petroleum Industries Company (Kipic).

Kuwait is also struggling with an increasingly unsustainable public sector wage bill that has stifled productivity in both its private and public sectors.

This is unlikely to be resolved without strong leadership and an end to the political impasse.

Reform requirements

In the absence of strong leadership, the country will likely struggle to catch up with other nations in the region that have enacted economic reforms, particularly taxation.

In 2017, Kuwait agreed, along with its co-members of the Gulf Co-operation Council, to introduce value-added tax, but has yet to implement it or announce a set date for doing so.

The IMF has also encouraged Kuwait to introduce taxation such as excise duties, expand corporate tax to domestic firms and implement property tax.

On 5 June, the IMF issued a statement saying: “The dominance of oil in the economy, coupled with global decarbonisation trends, necessitates fiscal reforms to reinforce sustainability, and structural reforms to boost non-oil private sector-led growth.

It noted that Kuwait has benefitted economically from higher oil prices over recent years – helping its economy recover from the pandemic – with fiscal and external balances strengthening and financial stability being maintained.

However, it added: “Political gridlock between the government and parliament has hindered reform progress, which could be made now from a position of strength.”

The IMF highlighted the failure to enact reforms as a key risk for the country’s economy.

It said: “Delays in needed fiscal and structural reforms could give rise to pro-cyclical fiscal policy and undermine investor confidence while hindering progress towards diversifying the economy and enhancing its competitiveness.”

Though the chance of a new strong political leadership emerging from the latest election remains slim, if it does occur, it could be transformational for the country by accelerating needed fiscal and structural reforms, boosting investor confidence and stimulating private investment.

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Wil Crisp
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