On 5 December 2020, Kuwait will hold parliamentary elections where voters are set to elect 50 members of the National Assembly. Its parliament is considered to be one of the most independent among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, having powers to pass legislation and dismiss Ministers. With this in mind, it is, therefore, interesting to understand how parliaments in the GCC countries operate, exploring the similarities and differences that exist among them.
Kingdom of Bahrain
Bahrain has a bicameral parliament, the National Assembly, which consists of two 40-member chambers: the Council of Representatives (COR, Majlis al-Nawab) and the Consultative (Shura) Council (Majlis al-Shura). While the former is directly elected, the latter is appointed by the King. The National Assembly was first formed in 1973, but two years later it was disbanded until its reactivation in 2002 under King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa as part of the new Constitution, which enabled both men and women to vote and run in the parliamentary election. Since then, elections take place every four years. Women first entered the parliament in 2006 as one woman was elected to the COR and nine were appointed to the Shura Council. Like in the rest of the GCC countries, political parties are prohibited, however, in contrast to its Gulf counterparts (except Kuwait), candidates can align with political associations and run under their banner in elections, or run as independents. Once seated, their roles include proposing laws, and, unlike the other GCC parliaments, they may amend the Constitution. Moreover, the COR can call a vote of no-confidence of Ministers and dismiss them, while the Shura Council oversees the state budget and can accept, amend or reject draft laws.
In the most recent 2018 election, independents won 35 seats, al-Asalah, a Sunni Salafi society, won three, Progressive Democratic Tribune (al-Minbar), a left-wing society, won two and the National Unity Assembly, a Sunni party, won its first seat. About half of the elected independents then formed parliamentary groups: Bahrain, Taqadom, a left-leaning group, and Al Methaq (National Action Charter), a politically liberal alliance, leaving the number of unaffiliated at seventeen.. Within this composition, women secured six seats in the COR and nine seats in the Shura Council, including Fawzia Zainal, who became Bahrain’s first female Speaker and second among the GCC countries, after the UAE.
State of Kuwait
Kuwait’s unicameral parliament, the National Assembly (Majlis al-Umma), consists of 50 members directly elected every four years, along with 15 appointed Ministers, so-called ex-officio members, of which one has to be also an MP. Thus, in contrast to its GCC counterparts, Kuwait’s parliament seats more elected than appointed members. Those elected are considered independents since political parties are outlawed, but, as in Bahrain, members can form informal societies. Following Bahrain again, these members can interpellate, dismiss and call a vote of no-confidence in Ministers, as well as initiate and pass laws and approve the budget. The first National Assembly was elected in 1962, making it the longest-serving majority-elected parliament in the GCC. While elections take place every four years, Kuwait’s parliament stands out in the region as it is often dissolved by the Emir, most recently in 2016 due to disagreements over oil prices. New elections, however, must always be called within two months following the dissolution. In the last election of 2016, the opposition, which included the local Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, Salafis, Shia Muslims, tribal factions and liberals, won 24 seats, and the remaining 26 went to pro-government coalitions. This includes only one female parliamentarian, a decrease from when four women first took office in 2009. In fact, despite being the second GCC country to grant women the right to vote in parliamentary elections and hold office in 2005, Kuwait has the lowest proportion of female parliamentarians in the region. This mirrors the trend in the GCC countries with parliamentary elections that fewer women get elected than appointed.
Sultanate of Oman
After Bahrain, Oman is the second GCC country with a bicameral parliament. The Council of Oman consists of the State Council (Majlis al-Dawla), appointed by the Sultan, and the directly elected Shura Council (Majlis al-Shura), with both houses enjoying 86 seats designated to independents. This makes it the largest GCC parliament, who, like the aforementioned parliaments, propose and review laws and examine the annual budget. Yet, in contrast, Oman’s Shura Council can merely interpellate, but not dismiss, Ministers. In terms of passing laws, Oman’s parliament is one of the least active in the GCC, having passed only 30 laws in the previous legislature.
Oman established its first parliament, the State Consultative Council, which was fully appointed, in 1981. A decade later, it was transformed into Majlis al-Shura and a selected group of voters was allowed to choose its members. It was only in 1996 that the upper house, Majlis al-Dawla, was founded, forming the current bicameral parliament. Since 2003, universal suffrage was adopted, significantly expanding the pool of eligible voters. This included women who were the first in the GCC to gain the right to run in the Shura Council election in 1997 with two females elected to parliament accordingly. In the latest 2019 election, 2 women were elected to the Shura Council, while fifteen were appointed to the State Council.
State of Qatar
Qatar’s unicameral parliament is known as the Shura Council (Majlis al-Shura, Consultative Assembly). It is the smallest parliament in the Gulf region, currently holding 35 seats, which are all appointed by the Emir. This comes despite the 2004 Constitution, which stipulates that the Council should comprise of 45 members, 30 of whom are directly elected, and 15 of whom are royally appointed. Elections have been postponed several times; although, in the Council’s 49th session, the Emir proclaimed that the first parliament elections will be held in October 2021. Despite this anomaly to the aforementioned parliaments, their duties remain similar to them as members propose and consider laws, as well as approve the national budget. Moreover, they can interpellate and call a vote of confidence of Ministers like in Bahrain and Kuwait.
The Shura Council was first formed in 1972 with 20 appointees, expanding its membership in the subsequent years. Females, however, only entered this equation in 2017 when four women, who are currently still in office, were first appointed to the parliament, making Qatar the last GCC country to do so.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s parliament, the Shura Council (Majlis al-Shura), is unicameral, consisting of 150 members plus the speaker. It is the oldest parliament in the GCC, formed in 1927. However, unlike its GCC counterparts (except Qatar), members are not elected but appointed by the King for a four-year renewable term.
In terms of their duties, it can discuss government reports as well as social and economic plans and it is the only GCC country where parliament has no oversight of the budget. Further, the Council cannot pass laws, but it may propose new laws or amendments to the existing ones. It can also seek accountability of Ministers through a request to the Prime Minister. In 2013, Saudi Arabia was the first GCC country to institute a quota reserving at least 20 percent of seats in the Shura Council for women.
Accordingly, 30 women were appointed to the Council that year for the first time in the Kingdom’s history, and continue to hold the same number of seats.
The United Arab Emirates
The UAE’s unicameral parliament, the Federal National Council (FNC), is a manifestation of the country’s federal system — it is comprised of 40 independent members, half of which are indirectly elected, while the remaining 20 are appointed by the rulers of each of the seven emirates, serving four-year terms. Each emirate can elect a fixed number of members based on the size of its population, with the largest amount assigned to Dubai and Abu Dhabi (8 each).
Unlike its GCC counterparts, the Council does not propose laws; however, it can pass, amend or reject laws and review the general budget. Further, it also debates international treaties and agreements along with other issues relevant to the Federation, and questions the Ministers’ performance, although, similar to Oman and Saudi Arabia, it cannot dismiss them. The FNC was formed under the Provisional Constitution in 1971, and, in 2006, the electoral college members voted in the first parliamentary election. In the same year, females were also given the right to vote and run for office and, consequently, one woman was elected, while eight women were appointed. Nine years later, the FNC appointed the first female Speaker, Amal Al-Qubaisi.
A further progression occurred in 2019 as the UAE President ordered to raise female representation in the parliament to 50 percent, becoming the second Gulf country to implement a quota and taking the lead in the proportion of females in the GCC parliaments. Consequently, the latest 2019 FNC election saw for the first time equal gender representation, with seven women elected and thirteen appointed.
The GCC countries’ parliaments, while sharing several similarities, vary both in terms of their structure, legislative competencies and extent of power they are granted over the executive. With the upcoming elections in Kuwait, it remains to be seen whether the parliament’s composition will significantly change and what implications on society this could have.
20 November 2020
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 Kingdom of Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “National Assembly;” Law No. 26 of 2005 with Respect to Political Societies. Rifa’a, Bahrain: Kingdom of Bahrain, July 23, 2005. https://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/natlex4.detail?p_lang=en&p_isn=73008&p_country=BHR&p_count=323.
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 Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Parline. “Bahrain: Council of Representatives Election Results.” IPU Parline, n.d. https://data.ipu.org/node/13/elections?chamber_id=13566.
 Ibid.; IPU Parline. “Bahrain: Shura Council Election Results.” IPU Parline, n.d. https://data.ipu.org/node/13/data-on-women?chamber_id=13565; Bahrain News Agency. “Speaker honoured by Arab Women Media Network.” Bahrain News Agency, December 29, 2018. https://www.bna.bh/en/HMKingissuesdecree46/SpeakerhonouredbyArabWomenMediaNetwork.aspx?cms=q8FmFJgiscL2fwIzON1%2BDtbKa8b1%2Fmzr2oyfav4n1ic%3D.
 Kuwaiti Constitution. Kuwait City: Kuwait, 1962. https://wipolex.wipo.int/en/text/181003.
 International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) Election Guide. “State of Kuwait.” IFES, n.d. https://www.electionguide.org/elections/id/2986/.
 Kuwait National Assembly. “About KNA.” National Assembly, n.d. http://www.kna.kw/clt-html5/about-enk.asp.
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 Izzak, B. “Stage set for snap elections after Assembly dissolved.” Kuwait Times, October 16, 2016. https://news.kuwaittimes.net/website/stage-set-snap-elections-assembly-dissolved-amir-cites-security-challenges-dissolution-decree/.
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 Izzak, B. “Strong showing by opposition, outgoing Assembly punished.” Kuwait Times, November 27, 2016. https://news.kuwaittimes.net/website/strong-showing-opposition-outgoing-assembly-punished/
 Ibid.; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Kuwait.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 29, 2010. https://carnegieendowment.org/2010/07/29/kuwait-pub-41309 - legislation.
 IPU Parline. “Oman: State Council.” IPU Parline, n.d. https://data.ipu.org/content/oman?chamber_id=13571; IPU Parline. “Oman: Shura Council.” IPU Parline, n.d. https://data.ipu.org/node/127/elections?chamber_id=13570.
 Sultanate of Oman. On the Formation of The Council of Oman. Royal Decree No. 86/97, 1997. https://omanuna.oman.om/docs/default-source/sectors/the-council-of-oman.pdf; Oman's Constitution of 1996 with Amendments through 2011. Muscat, Oman: The Sultanate of Oman, 1996 (rev. 2011). https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Oman_2011.pdf?lang=en.
 Sultanate of Oman. On the Formation of The Council of Oman; Oman's Constitution of 1996 with Amendments through 2011.
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 Oman Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs. Basic Statute of the State. Royal Decree No. 101/96. November 6, 1996. https://www.mola.gov.om/eng/basicstatute.aspx.
 BBC. “Q&A: Elections to Oman's Consultative Council.” BBC, October 13, 2011. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15288960.
 BBC. “Oman Profile – Timeline.” BBC, January 13, 2020. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-14654492.
 IPU Parline. “Oman: Shura Council Women in Parliament.” IPU Parline, n.d. https://data.ipu.org/node/127/data-on-women?chamber_id=13570&election_id=30278; Sultanate of Oman State Council. “Members List.” Sultanate of Oman State Council, n.d. https://www.statecouncil.om/Member/Members.
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 The Permanent Constitution of the State of Qatar. Doha: State of Qatar, 2004. https://www.almeezan.qa/LawPage.aspx?id=2284&language=en.
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 The Permanent Constitution of the State of Qatar.
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 The Shura Council. “Shura in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” The Shura Council, n.d. https://www.shura.gov.sa/wps/wcm/connect/ShuraEn/internet/Historical+BG/.
 Saudi Arabia's Constitution of 1992 with Amendments through 2013. Riyadh: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 1992 (rev. 2013). http://extwprlegs1.fao.org/docs/pdf/sau127539e.pdf.
 Saudi Arabia's Constitution of 1992 with Amendments through 2013.
 BBC. “Saudi Arabia's king appoints women to Shura Council.” BBC, January 11, 2013. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20986428; The Shura Council. “Members CV’s.” The Shura Council, n.d. https://www.shura.gov.sa/wps/wcm/connect/shuraen/internet/cv.
 The United Arab Emirates. “The Federal National Council.” The United Arab Emirates, n.d. https://u.ae/en/about-the-uae/the-uae-government/the-federal-national-council-.
 The United Arab Emirates. “The Federal National Council.”
 National Elections Committee. “President issues resolution to raise women’s representation in FNC to 50%.” National Elections Committee, June 22, 2019. https://www.uaenec.ae/en/news/details/40397.
 Al-Majlis. “Members of the Federal National Council.” Al-Majlis, n.d. https://www.almajles.gov.ae/AboutTheFNC/UndertheFNC/Pages/Previous-Members-aspx.aspx.