|Anti-government protesters stormed parliament last month over allegations of high-level corruption [Reuters]
Kuwait's ruler has dissolved parliament and set the Gulf nation toward elections, citing "deteriorating conditions" amid an increasingly bitter political showdown over alleged high-level corruption.
The decision by the emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, came on Tuesday, less than a week after he named a new prime minister and parliamentary sessions were put on hold.
Elections must be held within 60 days, which could complicate plans by the US defence department to station thousands more of its soldiers in Kuwait as part of troop shifts around the region, following the US withdrawal from Iraq at the end of the month.
Kuwait's tensions have roots going back years before the Arab Spring protests, but opposition factions could be further emboldened by the current push for reforms around the region.
Critics of Kuwait's ruling family claim it turns a blind eye to allegations of widespread corruption and uses security forces to crush dissenting voices.
The parliament has the most powers of any elected body in the Gulf, and opposition politicians openly criticize the ruling family.
Protesters stormed parliament on November 16 over allegations that government officials funnelled payoffs to bank accounts outside the country.
The protesters were dispersed and authorities quickly imposed stricter security measures.
"Due to the deteriorating conditions that led to obstruction of process of achievements and threatened the country's higher interests, it became necessary to resort to the people to select their representatives, overcome existing obstacles and realize national interests," said a statement by the emir carried on the official Kuwait News Agency.
Late last month, the emir selected Sheikh Jaber Al Hamad Al Sabah, the defence minister, as the new prime minister, replacing the long-serving Sheikh Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah, who had survived several no-confidence votes in
parliament and was the target of opposition groups calling for his dismissal.
Kuwait has also been hit by a wave of strikes that grounded the state airline and threatened to disrupt oil shipments.
Grants and coupons
Despite the political controversies, the tiny Gulf nation has not been hit by major pro-reform demonstrations inspired by Arab uprisings.
In January, the emir ordered 1,000 dinar ($3,559) grants and free food coupons for every Kuwaiti.
Those handouts have been since dwarfed by other Gulf rulers trying to use their riches to dampen calls for political reform.
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has pledged about $93bn for more government sector jobs and services.
In September, Qatar announced pay and benefit hikes of 60 per cent for public employees and up to 120 per cent for some military officers.
Kuwaitis are used to a cradle-to-grave social security system that has increasingly become a burden on the government.