October 16, 2016 - 10:31 AM
KUWAIT CITY - Kuwait's ruler dissolved parliament by royal decree Sunday over unspecified security concerns as low oil prices squeeze government coffers, setting the stage for early elections in the tiny country.
Parliaments typically don't serve out their full terms in the stalwart U.S. ally, but lawmakers elected in Kuwait's last vote in 2013 largely sided with the government as they served in the wake of Arab Spring protests.
But the rise of the Islamic State group and the drop in global oil prices has caused growing concerns in this major OPEC member.
Kuwait's state-run television station and its news agency announced the parliament dissolving on Sunday afternoon, just a few hours after government officials held an emergency meeting. The Cabinet was expected to resign, as those sitting on the 12-member board also likely will be contesting their parliamentary seats. A caretaker government was expected to be announced in the coming hours.
In his decree, Kuwait's ruling emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah said "regional circumstances" and "security challenges" required dissolving parliament.
This "necessitates resorting to the people, the source of authority, to choose their representatives who express their aspirations ... in facing these challenges," Sheikh Sabah's decree read.
Former parliament speaker Marzouq al-Ghanim applauded the decision.
"Heading to the ballot box is (a) genuine democratic process," he said, in comments carried by the state-run Kuwait News Agency. "The Kuwaiti people will dictate who would represent them at this critical juncture."
Kuwait, home to 3.9 million people, has faced the threat of militant attacks since the rise of the Islamic State group. An Islamic State-claimed suicide bombing in 2015 targeting a Shiite mosque in Kuwait City killed 27 people and wounded scores. On Oct. 8, an Egyptian driving a garbage truck loaded with explosives and Islamic State papers rammed into a truck carrying five U.S. soldiers in Kuwait, wounding only himself in the attack.
In an interview Saturday, al-Ghanim also mentioned police breaking up what it described as a Hezbollah cell with a massive underground ammunition cache in recent months. While Sunnis and Shiites largely live in peace, the Islamic State attack and the Hezbollah arrests have threatened that harmony.
Though the government statement focused on security, Kuwait also faces economic challenges. The price of oil has been halved from heights of over $100 a barrel in the summer of 2014. Kuwait, a country slightly smaller than the U.S. state of New Jersey, has the world's sixth largest proven oil reserves.
Government-subsidized gasoline prices have been raised and other benefits have been cut, leading to growing dissent. Kuwait's parliament, one of the most powerful in the Arab world, had planned to question a host of government officials in the coming weeks about subsidy cuts, so stopping their testimony also could have played a part in the emir's timing.
Calling elections early could blunt Kuwait's opposition, already weakened after Islamists and others boycotted the 2013 election. A variety of groups during the Arab Spring stepped up pressure on the ruling Al Sabah family, led by the 87-year-old emir, over alleged fiscal mismanagement, corruption and efforts to police social media.
Kuwait later used prison sentences and the threat of stripping citizenship from dissidents to tamp down on the challenge.
"The failure of the current parliament and the lack of co-operation is due to the boycott in previous elections — we are currently paying the price of that, and the people realize that today," said Ghadeer Aseeri, a woman's rights activist and columnist.
"The upcoming elections will certainly witness more participation as many boycotters expressed their willingness to participate in the upcoming round, and more representation of different factions in parliament."
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
News from © The Associated Press, 2016