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Hesham Al-Awadi

K uwait, known today for the prominent place it

assumed in global politics during its 1990–1991
occupation by Iraq and its tremendous oil wealth, is a
in 2009 four women were elected to serve in the fifty-
member National Assembly. This marked a radical
shift not only in popular political choices, but also in
small amirate located strategically on the northern end social sensibilities and cultural persuasions. Today, the
of the Persian Gulf, wedged between Iraq and Saudi voice and presence of women in political life is becom-
Arabia. With its extensive history of trade and political ing normal and is expected to expand in coming years,
agreements with foreign powers, Kuwait has long been adding to their already-visible role in the nation’s eco-
a nation marked by diverse foreign influences and rela- nomic life, where they constitute 30 percent of the
tive vulnerability to larger neighbors. And although a workforce.
visitor is much likelier to find modern Kuwaitis poring Kuwait continues to face major challenges, how-
over investment portfolios than manning the old dhow ever. Efforts to reduce the country’s economic depen-
fishing vessels that characterized Kuwait’s pre-oil era, dence on oil have been largely ineffective, as have
it is a nation that is still largely defined by its ancient attempts to slow the growth of Kuwait’s massive
tribal and Islamic heritage. bureaucracies and stimulate the private sector. Politi-
The relatively quick transition from a society of cally, relations between the royal Al Sabah family and
fishermen and nomadic Bedouin to an oil-powered the assembly remain tense, and 2006 saw an unprec-
city-state has often been dramatic, and Kuwait is edented succession crisis that left the country with
still sorting through massive social and institutional three rulers in one month. A lack of charismatic young
changes. A generous welfare system provides guar- leaders among the Al Sabah, combined with the rising
anteed schooling, housing, labor, health care, and assertiveness of Kuwait’s parliamentary leaders, leaves
monthly family allowances to its citizens. Meanwhile, the political future of this semi-democratic amirate
the relative size of Kuwait’s citizenry continues to very much in the air.
shrink as foreign workers flood in from the Pacific,
South Asia, and the West: non-Kuwaitis make up 85
History and State-building
percent of the workforce in Kuwait.
Kuwait’s emerging democracy has also lately been Tribalism, Islam, and foreign influence continue to
rocked by change: in 2005 women were given the right be key factors in understanding Kuwait’s history, as
to vote and stand for election to political office, and well as its contemporary society and politics. These

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512  the middle east

key facts on KUWAIT

AREA 6,880 square miles (17,820 square kilometers)
CAPITAL Kuwait City
POPULATION 2,691,158, includes 1,291,354 nonnationals (2009)
RELIGION Muslim, 85 percent; Christian, Hindu, Parsi, and other, 15 percent
ETHNIC GROUPS Kuwaiti, 45 percent; other Arab, 35 percent; South Asian, 9 percent; Iranian,
4 percent; other, 7 percent
OFFICIAL LANGUAGE Arabic; English widely spoken
TYPE OF GOVERNMENT constitutional emirate
GDP $159.7 billion; $57,400 per capita (2008)
Source: Central Intelligence Agency, CIA World Factbook, 2009.

factors have largely shaped Kuwait’s history and are British. The discovery of oil in the 1930s confirmed
just as relevant to its contemporary social and political Kuwait’s global significance, and foreign interests in
dynamics. Tribalism and tribal politics were particu- the country shifted from Europe to the United States.
larly evident in the founding of the original town in
the seventeenth century and the rise of the Al Sabah to The Founding of Kuwait
power in the eighteenth century.
Islam continues to be the main religious faith of Kuwait was founded in the seventeenth century by the
Kuwait’s inhabitants and determines not only their Banu Khalid, an Arab tribe that emerged from Najd
daily lives, but also their social and political behav- in central Arabia. By the middle of the seventeenth
ior. During the seven months of Iraq’s occupation of century, the Banu Khalid dominated northeastern
Kuwait in 1990, hundreds of Kuwaitis fled to Saudi Arabia, from Basra to Qatar. Kuwait was used by the
Arabia, the heart of Wahhabism, and some were Banu Khalid as a summer resort and a storage place for
influenced by it and other conservative interpreta- their weapons and hunting tools. The original name
tions of Islam. The result was clearly manifested in of Kuwait was al-Qurain (Arabic for “high hill”), and
the first National Assembly after the liberation in the future country was no more than a small coastal
1992, which had a significant number of Islamist fishing village. But around the 1670s, the Banu Khalid
members. The rise of Islamism in Kuwait, among built a small fort, or kut, to protect their possessions
other factors, was a response to increased waves of from tribal raiding. Not only did the fort protect the
Westernization, if not Americanization, since the flourishing village, but it also gave it a more defined
liberation of the country. existence. Kuwait, the current name of the country, is
Foreign interest and, recently, external cultural simply the diminutive of kut.
influences, have always characterized Kuwait’s histori- In addition to building the fort, the Banu Khalid
cal development. Even prior to the discovery of oil, was eager to maintain a degree of security in the ter-
Kuwait was of strategic interest to powers like the Por- ritories under its control. Security from raids in the
tuguese in the sixteenth century and, since the eigh- desert and piracy in the seaways was a crucial precon-
teenth century, the Russians, the Germans, and the dition for regular flow of revenue and the supremacy

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kuwait  513

City or town
The Rise of the Ruling Family
MAP 15.1

National capital
National boundary Abdali
The Anaiza tribe migrated from Najd in the
second half of the seventeenth century in search
IRAQ of better living conditions. Because they were on
good terms with the Banu Khalid, the Anaiza
K U WA I T Qasr as Sabiyah were permitted to travel eastward. They first
reached Qatar, and by the early eighteenth cen-
Al Jahrah Hawalli tury, they finally decided to settle in Kuwait.

Ash Shuwaykh Salmiya

Persian The Anaiza’s leading families in Kuwait

Mina al Ahmadi
Gulf soon filled the power vacuum created by the
Ash Shuaybah
Mina Abd Allah
demise of the Banu Khalid. In addition to the Al
Sabah, the Anaiza also included the Al Khalifa
and the Al Jalahima, all of which had their share
Mina Suud
ARABIA Al Wafrah in managing the town’s affairs. The Al Sabah
0 40 Mi
became responsible for political and military
0 40 Km affairs, while the Al Khalifa and Al Jalahima
administered the town’s land and sea trade.
Sabah bin Jaber, or Sabah I, as he is commonly
of the tribe. Their success in maintaining overall secu- known, became the first local ruler of Kuwait.
rity eventually attracted more tribes of the Bani Utub Sabah I (1752–1762) was succeeded by his son,
to settle in the region. The Anaiza, from which the Abdallah I (1756–1814). During Abdallah’s reign,
Al Sabah comes, was one of the settled tribes. a dispute erupted between the Al Khalifa and the
The Banu Khalid’s supremacy over north- Al Sabah, possibly over politics, because the Al Khalifa
eastern Arabia did not last long, however, because had equal ambitions to rule, or over money, because
it was challenged by internal strife and the emer- they also wished to become wealthier from pearling
gence of regional contenders for power. In 1745 and trade. In any case, the disagreement was never
Najd saw the rise of Wahhabism, a religious move- resolved, and in 1766 the Al Khalifa, and later some
ment named after its founder Shaykh Muhammad of the Al Jalahima, decided to leave Kuwait for Qatar
ibn Abdul Wahhab. The Wahhabis aimed to spread and, then, Bahrain. Despite the disruption this may
their notion of Islam through territorial expansion have initially caused the town’s economy, it certainly
and in the process became the bitter enemies of the consolidated the political power of the Al Sabah. Since
Banu Khalid. But prior to the rise of the Wahhabis, that time, the Al Sabah has been the uncontested
the tribe was already going through an internal political family.
struggle for power. Both of the aforementioned Much of Kuwait’s history and politics continues
factors caused the central authority of the tribe to be shaped by tribal identities and tribal politics,
to weaken, thus paving the way for the rise of local- but tribalism is not an exclusive factor in the politics
ized powers in the towns the Banu Khalid had once of the Arabian Peninsula. Rather, it is also expressed
dominated. In Kuwait, power was subsequently occasionally in combination with other elements,
shared locally by the leading subdivisions of the most fundamentally religion. In the history of Kuwait,
Anaiza tribe before the Al Sabah family finally religion often constituted a force behind its relations
dominated it. with the Ottoman Empire.

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514  the middle east

Relations with the Ottomans Shaykh Abdullah was succeeded by Muham-

mad (1892–1896), who ruled Kuwait in partnership
The Ottomans claimed Arabia in the mid-sixteenth with his brother Jarrah. In an unprecedented move,
century, when Istanbul conquered Baghdad in 1534 both Muhammad and Jarrah were murdered by their
and expanded southward to eastern Arabia in 1550. brother Mubarak, who ruled from 1896 to 1915.
The Ottoman expansion was driven by a desire to resist Mubarak, known as Mubarak the Great, is considered
the Portuguese incursion in the Gulf, and once the to the founder of modern Kuwait, mainly because
Ottomans achieved supremacy, their control waned. he removed Kuwait from Ottoman dominance and
The empire’s hegemony in the region ended in 1670 placed it under British control, which lasted until the
and was replaced in practical terms by that of the Banu country became independent in 1961. Thus, foreign
Khalid.2 But with the demise of the Banu Khalid and influence became a fundamental factor in shaping
the Ottoman desire to centralize administration and the country’s modern history, in addition to tribalism
maximize state revenues, the Turkish empire’s interest and religion.
in the peninsula was resurrected. In the late nineteenth
century, this interest marked a new phase of closer Relations with the British
Ottoman-Kuwaiti relations.
During that period, the Al Sabah was eager to Kuwait’s first recorded contact with the British dates to
maintain Kuwait’s autonomy from their powerful 1775, when the Persians occupied Basra and the British
neighbors, especially the Wahhabis. Shaykh Abdal- needed an alternative route for their mail and trade
lah II (1866–1892) was also prepared to recognize caravans from the Gulf to Aleppo, Syria. Kuwait, with
the Ottomans’ moral leadership of the Sunni Muslim its excellent harbor, seemed to offer a great advantage
world. In 1871 Abdullah accepted the Ottoman title to British sending goods from Bombay to the eastern
qaimmaqam (provincial governor), which meant, Mediterranean and, eventually, to Western European
technically speaking, that he was responsible to the markets. British caravans brought lucrative benefits
Ottoman governor of Basra for the administration to the elite of Kuwait and local commercial interests,
of Kuwait. The title was no more than a formality, but neither the British nor the Kuwaitis desired to take
and Kuwaitis continued in practice to retain their their friendly relations to a more formal level, primarily
autonomy over their daily affairs. However, Abdallah in order not to provoke the Ottomans. This situation
could not have imagined that his decision to accept changed when Mubarak came to power.
the Ottoman title would later be manipulated by Mubarak’s alliance with the British promised
modern-day Iraqi leaders to justify the annexation of protection from the increasing Ottoman interven-
the tiny country of Kuwait. tion in Kuwait’s affairs. Turning to Britain guaran-
The religious factors binding Kuwait to the Otto- teed Mubarak greater freedom in how the town was
man Empire should not be overstated. Kuwait had managed under his authority. Initially, Britain refused
pragmatic reasons to forge closer relations with Istan- Mubarak’s overtures but later responded favorably as
bul. First, Kuwait, in addition to its own local wells, a reaction to the growing German and Russian interest
depended heavily on drinking water transported in the region. In 1899 Britain signed with Mubarak a
by boat from the Shatt al-Arab River in Ottoman- secret agreement that placed Kuwait under its protec-
controlled Iraq. Second, the Al Sabah held large tion. The agreement, which lasted until 1961, assured
estates in Faw, which also fell under Ottoman control. Mubarak the “good offices of the British Government”
Third, the Al Sabah and the Ottomans regarded the toward him, his heirs, and successors. It stipulated
Wahhabis as their enemy. that Mubarak would not receive the representative of

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kuwait  515

a foreign state or alienate any of his territory without university and after graduation, a job in the public
the consent of Her Majesty’s Government.3 or private sector. It also guaranteed public housing,
British interest in Kuwait was part of Britain’s rent subsidies, subsidies for water and electricity, and
broader interests in the Gulf. Before the invention of a monthly family allowance. The generous allocation
the telegraph and the opening of the Suez Canal, the of social services was crucial in strengthening loyalty
Gulf provided Britain with the shortest and fastest to the ruling elite and reinforcing patriotism in the
route for trade and communications from Bombay recently independent country.
to London. It also provided British manufacturers in Kuwait’s oil production peaked in the early
India with access to lucrative markets in Persia and the 1970s, and that enabled the small state to play a role
Ottoman Empire. Such interests, however, changed in regional and international politics. It supported
with the discovery of oil during the first decades of the Palestinian cause by supplying money to Palestin-
the twentieth century. Since then, foreign interven- ian fighters, especially to the Palestinian Liberation
tion, oil, and local politics have become more than Organization (PLO). The PLO chairman, Yasir Arafat,
just intertwined. lived in Kuwait from 1958 to 1964, when he founded
the Fatah movement. Kuwait was home to more than
Independence 300,000 Palestinians by the 1980s and increased oil
prices to pressure the United States and other coun-
After independence, Kuwait faced not only the task of tries that provided military assistance to Israel during
nation building (as did most Arab states when they the 1973 war.
obtained independence), but also the challenge of
maintaining the integrity of the state in the face of Iraqi Iran-Iraq War and Domestic Tensions
claims to the territory. Less than a week after British
withdrawal on June 19, 1961, Iraq’s prime minister The 1970s ended with the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Abdul Karim Qasim declared Kuwait part of Iraq and The revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, commencing
moved his troops to the border, threatening to annex in 1980, made the 1980s the most turbulent decade
the country. Kuwait’s ruler, Shaykh Abdullah al-Salem in Kuwaiti domestic politics. Ayatollah Khomeini was
(1950–1965), immediately called for British support. critical of the monarchical Gulf regimes and spoke
On July 1, British troops were deployed on the border about exporting the ideals of the Iranian revolution to
until they were replaced by Arab forces from Egypt, the region. He was also disapproving of Kuwait’s sup-
Saudi Arabia, and Syria. The Iraqi threat ended with port of Saddam Hussein in his war against the Islamic
Qasim’s execution in 1963, but resumed in 1973, when Republic of Iran.
the new Baath regime in Iraq penetrated three kilo- The Iranians began to target Kuwaiti oil tank-
meters into Kuwait’s territory. Iraqi forces eventually ers, which Iran argued was in retaliation against
withdrew under pressure from the Soviet Union, Iran, unfriendly regimes. In response, Kuwait requested
and Saudi Arabia. By that time, it became more obvious help from the United States, Britain, and the Soviet
to the Kuwaitis that while in the past the threat came Union. The United States and the Soviet Union began
from the Wahhabis, it now emerged from the radical to reflag the Kuwaiti fleets with their respective flags
secular regimes in Iraq. as a form of protection. In 1987 the U.S. Navy also
The 1960s and 1970s, external threats notwith- began to provide military escorts for Kuwaiti and
standing, saw the expansion of Kuwait’s bureaucracy Saudi tankers sailing in and out of the Arabian Gulf.
and welfare state. The 1962 constitution guaranteed Khomeini’s discourse and policies against the
Kuwaitis free education from primary school through Gulf monarchies radicalized most Kuwaiti Shiites.

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516  the middle east

From 1983 to 1988, groups of Shiite Muslims carried intelligence sources confirming its imminence. The
out a series of terrorist operations, which included regime avoided arming and deploying its forces,
bombing U.S. and European interests in the country, speculating that doing so would only aggravate the
sabotaging oil installations, hijacking Kuwaiti aircraft, situation. The result was that at least three-fourths
and, most seriously, attempting to assassinate the of the armed forces were on leave or away from their
ruler of Kuwait in 1985. Although the majority of the posts, and those who remained lacked training, plans
Shiites condemned the terrorist acts, an air of distrust for defense, and ammunition.
and suspicion dominated the state’s view toward all On the other hand, Kuwait’s diplomatic efforts
Shiites. Security became a serious concern, and dur- since independence did yield some advantages. A mil-
ing the period, massive deportations of expatriates itary coalition of thirty countries, led by the United
ensued, many of whom were Iranians. States, eventually came to liberate Kuwait in 1991. On
January 17, a total of 600,000 multinational troops,
The Iraqi Occupation and Liberation including the United States, Britain, France, Kuwait,
and Saudi Arabia, launched a massive air strike on
Kuwait survived the Iran-Iraq War, only to encounter Iraqi targets in what became known as Operation
the Iraqi threat once again in the 1990s. On August 2, Desert Storm. The ground offensive to recapture
1990, approximately 120,000 Iraqi troops, supported Kuwait was launched on February 24, and two days
by 2,000 tanks and armored vehicles, invaded Kuwait. later, it ended the Iraqi occupation. February 27, when
But unlike 1973, when the Iraqi forces occupied only Kuwait was fully liberated, marks a national day for
three kilometers of Kuwait, in 1990 the Iraqis annexed Kuwaitis. The ruler, who resided in Saudi Arabia dur-
the entire country, reaching the capital in less than three ing the occupation, returned on March 14, 1991, to
hours. The occupation lasted for seven months but had resume his power.
a dramatic, lasting impact on the Kuwaiti psyche.
Saddam Hussein proclaimed several reasons for Demographic and Social Transformation
his decision to occupy Kuwait: (1) Kuwait was his-
torically part of Iraq; (2) Kuwait was stealing $2,400 Located at the northern tip of the Arabian Gulf, Kuwait
million worth of oil from Iraq by “slant drilling”— borders Iraq on the north and west, Saudi Arabia on
that is, by deliberately building oil wells that angled the south, and Iran across the Gulf on the east. The
down across the Kuwait border with Iraq to pump oil area of the state is approximately 6,000 square miles,
from Iraqi territory; (3) Kuwait was overproducing oil making it less in size than New Jersey or Wales. To the
in violation of OPEC’s mandate to lower oil prices, south, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia jointly own the Neutral
and was, therefore, hurting the Iraqi economy; and Zone, which also borders the Gulf. Apart from a small
(4) Kuwait refused to waive the repayment of funds Bedouin population and oil-field workers, the Neutral
given to Iraq to pay for its war with Iran (about $13 Zone is uninhabited.
billion), which Iraq argued was fought to protect Roughly rectangular in shape, Kuwait’s terri-
Kuwait from Iran. Saddam Hussein accused Kuwait tories include nine islands, the largest of which are
of refusing repayment as part of a wide international Failaka, Warbah, and Bubiyan Islands. Failaka, the
conspiracy against Baghdad. only island that is permanently inhabited, is the site
The occupation, and the atrocities that ensued, of an ancient Greek temple built by Alexander the
signaled the failure of Kuwait’s domestic as well Great. Bubiyan is the largest of the islands and will
as foreign policies. The government failed to take soon become home to a large container port linked
the Iraqi threat seriously, despite local and foreign to Kuwait’s highways.

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kuwait  517

Kuwait’s population is about 3.4 million, of which the process, many Palestinians, who allegedly collabo-
only one-third are Kuwaiti nationals. Most Kuwaitis rated with the Iraqi occupiers, were deported. Thus,
are descendants of tribes that migrated from the Ara- by 2008 about 70 percent of the population consisted
bian Peninsula in the early eighteenth century. Those of expatriates from other Arab countries, and from
who settled within the city constitute the urban sector South Asia, Iran, and the West.
of society, or the hadar, while those whose ancestors Kuwait also has around 130,000 bidun (with-
wandered the desert constitute the nomadic Bedouin, out nationality), or stateless people. They are mostly
or the bedu. Although almost all Bedouin are now immigrants from neighboring countries whose ances-
urbanized, the hadar-bedu division remains one of tors resided in Kuwait for decades but, for different
the important cultural distinctions in Kuwaiti society. reasons, failed to receive Kuwaiti citizenship. Initially,
Given its small size and shortage of inhabitable land, they were accepted as recruits in the police and the
most of the population is largely concentrated in and army but were later viewed with suspicion follow-
around the capital city. ing accusations that some had collaborated with the
Prior to oil, Kuwaiti society was simply divided Iraqis during the occupation. Despite their increase in
into a ruling family, merchants, and pearl divers. After number, and the government’s granting of citizenship
oil, and following the state’s distributive policies, to 4,000 since 2000, the ultimate fate of the bidun in
Kuwaiti society expanded and became divided along Kuwait has not yet been determined and continues to
new lines of class, sect, culture, and gender. Today, over be a matter of public debate. The ruling family expa-
one hundred nationalities live in Kuwait, and Kuwaitis triates, Bedouin, and women constitute important
have been a minority in their own country since 1960. elements in Kuwait’s transitional society.
In 2007 Kuwait’s population reached 3.7 million, of
which only 30 percent were Kuwaiti citizens. Of the The Ruling Family
1.1 million increase in population between 2000 and
2007, 82 percent were non-Kuwaitis, who account for Prior to oil, the ruling family did not exist as an institu-
85 percent of the labor force. The expatriate-national tion. Instead, the ruler from Al Sabah relied more on
division is a fundamental dividing line in society the merchants and intermarriage with leading Sunni
Kuwaiti citizenship is restricted to descendants families to augment his personal authority. But the
of men who were in the country in 1920. Children discovery of oil liberated the ruler from his past allies
born in the state are not given citizenship unless their and pushed him to rely more on his own relatives. This
fathers are citizens; children of Kuwaiti mothers and crystallized the ruling family as a socioeconomic and
non-Kuwaiti fathers are denied citizenship. political institution, specifically in the 1950s, and more
The vast majority of Kuwaitis are Muslims, so after Kuwait’s independence in 1961. Since then,
though there are about half a dozen or so Christian members of the ruling family have been publicly rec-
Kuwaiti families, who came from Lebanon, Palestine, ognized by the title Skaykh (Skaykha for a woman). All
and Iraq. Sunnis constitute the majority of Muslims received monthly stipends and were given prestigious
in Kuwait; Shiites are about 25 percent of the popula- posts in the expanding state bureaucracy.
tion. The Sunni-Shiite divide is subtly manifested in Public discussions of the family’s internal affairs
residential areas and is more pronounced during elec- were socially and politically taboo until the succession
tion campaigns. crisis in 2006. Internal rivalries broke boundaries and
After the liberation in 1991, internal security encouraged society to speak about competing wings
became a national issue, and the government took within the family. Deputies and the press began to
serious steps to reduce the number of foreigners. In publicly criticize family members by name. One reason

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518  the middle east

for this new trend was related to a generational change Bedouin

within the ruling family. A number of experienced and
charismatic figures of Al Sabah have passed away in Historically, Bedouin were desert nomads found out-
recent years, leaving the scene to younger leaders who side the walled city. They began to migrate to and settle
are ambitious yet impatient and lacking their pre- in Kuwait city in the 1950s, as result of oil and in search
decessors’ personal appeal. Some of them are openly of employment. The city expanded, and the wall was
maneuvering against one other and are forming alli- finally destroyed in 1957. The majority of Bedouin who
ances with journalists and the opposition. In the long settled in Kuwait came from the deserts of Saudi Ara-
run, this will certainly weaken the solidarity of the bia; the remainder came from Iraq and Syria. Impor-
family as a ruling institution. tant Bedouin tribes in Kuwait include the Ajman, the
Awazim, and the Mutair, most of whom are represented
in the cabinet and the assembly.
Most Bedouin were at first recruited into the
Since 1965 Kuwaitis have become a minority in their military and oil fields as unskilled laborers, but with
own country, outnumbered by the expatriates, who the spread of education, they were absorbed in other
constitute the majority. The percentage of foreigners parts of the public sector. Despite urbanization, Bed-
grew from 53 percent in 1965 to 60 percent in 1985 and ouin continue to retain many of their tribal values
70 percent in 2007. Oil spurred job growth and essen- and customs, particularly strong tribal loyalty, which
tial demand for manual and skilled labor that could is manifest during assembly elections, when tribal
not be filled locally. Also, Kuwait’s political neutrality members hold primaries prior to the day of the polls
during the cold war made it a favored destination for to elect the candidate who will represent them in par-
Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians, and other Arabs, as well as liament. Primaries, or tribal elections, are outlawed in
Indians who had been left behind when British protec- Kuwait yet are regularly organized.5
tion ceased. Bedouin have been traditionally perceived as
The government’s immigration policy, although allies of the government. From 1960 through the
inconsistent, tended to restrict immigration and pro- 1980s, the state encouraged large numbers of tribal
mote “Kuwaitization” in the public and private sectors families to settle by granting them citizenship and
to balance nationals with foreigners. During the occu- welfare benefits (e.g., housing, schooling, and social
pation, an estimated 1.3 million, or almost 60 percent services) in return for their support against the oppo-
of the total population, left the country, including sition in the assembly. Since their parents settled in
some 250,000 Palestinians and Jordanians. Thou- the 1950s, however, Kuwaiti Bedouin have become
sands of Palestinians were also expelled soon after increasingly politicized, and a number of outspo-
the liberation in response to perceived collaboration ken critics of government policies come from tribal
with the Iraqis. Their departure radically reduced the backgrounds. Reasons for the increased politicization
size of the immigrant population. But in response to include the rise of a politically ambitious young and
a growing demand for labor to assist in the postwar educated generation that opposes a divided ruling
reconstruction and economic expansion, there was an elite and eroding state services.
influx of new labor, particularly from Asia, from 1992
onward.4 Thus, between 2000 and 2007, for example, Shiites
Kuwait’s population increased from 2.2 million to 3.3
million; of the 1.1 million increase, 82 percent were Shiites are a Muslim sect and a significant minority in
non-Kuwaitis. Kuwait; they constitute about 25 to 30 percent of the

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kuwait  519

population. Despite their collective name, the Shiites in came after a long campaign fought since the 1970s.
Kuwait are a heterogonous community. Demographi- Their ascension to parliament was deservedly noted as
cally, they are divided into Arabs with roots in Saudi a victory for women’s rights in the third world.
Arabia and Bahrain and non-Arabs who originally Granting women full political rights in 2005 was
migrated from Iran. Economically, they are subtly not the first attempt toward their enfranchisement.
divided into the affluent old settlers who lived within The first proposal went to the assembly in 1971 but
the walled city and the less affluent latecomers, who subsequently failed for religious and social reasons. It
were attracted by job opportunities in the oil sec- was not until the end of the 1990s that the ruler issued
tor. Politically, Shiites, like any other community, are a decree conferring full political rights on women “in
divided into secularists, with either leftist or liberal recognition of their vital roles in building Kuwaiti
leanings, and Islamists. But adherence to Islam does society and in return for the sacrifices they made dur-
not necessarily translate into political activism and ing the various challenges the country faced.”7
may just be a matter of personal piety. The decree was issued in 1999 but required the
Like the Bedouin, Shiites were historically viewed assembly’s approval. After heated debates and amend-
as allies of the ruling elite. They were never part of ments to the decree—namely, that women should
the early movement for political reform in the 1930s adhere to the dictates of Islamic law—the bill was
and, in the 1960s, stood by the government against the finally passed on May 16, 2005. In the same year, the
threat of Arab nationalism. But relations between the government appointed its first woman minister, but
Shiites and the government deteriorated in the 1980s, society had to wait until 2009 to elect women repre-
with the outbreak of the Iranian revolution and the sentatives to the legislature.
Iraq-Iran War. The events mobilized the Shiites in It is important to note that not all Kuwaiti women
Kuwait, particularly those who strongly opposed are eligible to vote. Voting rights are only conferred
government support for Saddam Hussein against on women whose ancestors resided in Kuwait prior to
Iran. Some even resorted to violence to express their 1920 and maintained in residence until 1959. Women
rejection. whose ancestors settled after 1920 are naturalized
The turbulent period ended in the 1990s with Kuwaitis and are not eligible to vote until they have
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the Shiites’ impressive been citizens for ten years.
resistance against the occupation. The shared ordeal Naturalized or not, women continue to be dis-
of Kuwaitis, irrespective of sectarian divisions, cre- criminated against in law and in society. For example,
ated a feeling of national solidarity. The restoration women are not entitled to some of the welfare ben-
of the constitution returned three Shiite deputies to efits that go to men (e.g., housing and child ben-
the assembly in 1992, five in 1996, and nine in 2009, efits). Unlike Kuwaiti men who marry non-Kuwaitis,
including two women. (Shiites compose around 17 Kuwaiti women who marry foreigners are legally and
percent of the electorate). Despite the large measure socially ostracized. Not only are their children non-
of rights and recognition, Shiites continue to have res- Kuwaitis, but like their fathers, they are denied the
ervations about their minority status.6 political, economic, and social privileges that Kuwaitis
are entitled to.8
Other Social Sectors
Kuwait made political history when four women won
seats in the May 2009 elections. Although they were The ruling elite, foreigners, Bedouin, Shiites, and
not the first to join a Gulf parliament, their suffrage women are not always exclusively separate social

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electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.
520  the middle east

strata but interact and, on occasion, overlap. Many citizenship or were living outside the city walls, they
prominent Bedouin or tribal families are related to the never retained formal documents to prove their
Al Sabah through marriage, and a woman can be a belonging in the country and, hence, were classi-
Shiite or an expatriate. Moreover, such groups do fied as stateless. Until the 1980s, they were recruited
not comprise the whole Kuwaiti society, which also into the army and police but, after the occupation,
includes merchants, Islamists, and the stateless bidun. were perceived as a security threat. The government
The merchants formed the backbone of pre-oil argued that some bidun collaborated with the Iraqis,
Kuwaiti society because trade revenue formed the while others were not genuinely bidun and held other
basis of the city’s income. They made up the core of nationalities. The bidun account for about 130,000
opposition to the ruling family. Oil undermined the people, and their future remains a contested issue in
merchant’s political role but certainly not their eco- society and parliament.
nomic status. During the 1960s and 1970s, a new
group of small business entrepreneurs began to Politics and Government
emerge in the economic sector and have since com-
peted with the traditional merchant families. But old Westerners generally tend to identify Kuwait more with
merchant families continue to dominate major finan- money, oil, and Saddam Hussein, but recent events,
cial firms, including banks, investment houses, and such as the succession crisis in 2006 and first-time
the powerful Kuwaiti Chamber of Commerce, which victory of women in parliamentary elections in 2005,
was established in 1958. In addition, old merchants reflect the great complexity of Kuwaiti politics. The
are gradually resuming their political influence, albeit ruler’s succession and women’s ascension to parlia-
in new ways, as the country privatizes. ment are essentially manifestations of Kuwait’s domi-
Islamists gained wide-scale popularity in the nant political institutions, namely, the ruling family
1990s for their impressive role during the occupa- and the National Assembly, which do not operate alone
tion. But their real rise to prominence began in the but are governed by a constitution and a cabinet.
1980s, when the government turned to them as politi-
cal allies instead of the Bedouin.9 In the elections of The Ruling Family
1999, Islamists, Shiites, and Sunnis became the big-
gest forces in parliament, controlling 36 percent of Prior to oil, the ruling Al Sabah governed in consulta-
the seats. Islamists might be united on certain issues tion with the merchants, the most powerful and domi-
but are practically divided on priorities and tactics. nant social force at that time. Merchants provided the
Shiite Islamists seek to end legal and social discrimi- Al Sabah with income in the form of customs duties
nation based on sectarian divisions, while the more (estimated at about $40,000 in 1938) and voluntary
conservative Sunnis (Salafis) tend to focus on ethical contributions in return for administration and secu-
issues and matters of belief. The politicized Muslim rity. Political power rested more on the ruler than on
Brotherhood focuses more on wider issues of social his family, and he was selected for his personal quali-
and political reform. ties.10 Furthermore, religion and tribal customs were
The bidun are residents of Kuwait who are stateless the basis of much of Al Sabah’s enforcement of law
or without citizenship. Many are descendants of Bed- and order.
ouin tribes that moved across the deserts of Kuwait, The discovery of oil in the 1930s consolidated
Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq before modern bor- the power of the ruling family over the merchant
ders were drawn. Either because their often-illiterate class, whose financial contributions were no longer
ancestors did not understand the significance of needed; much of the customs tariffs were eventually

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electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.
kuwait  521

abolished, but that did not entirely dismantle the FIGURE 15.1
power of the merchants, who continued to dominate
much of Kuwait’s business. Nor did the ruling family
enjoy absolute political power thereafter. The mobi-
lization of a rising middle class since the 1950s and a 1896–1915
liberal constitution enacted in 1962 have limited the
power of the Al Sabah. Kuwait, a hereditary amirate, Jabir II Salim
1915–1917 1917–1921
lies, therefore, between a constitutional monarchy
and an absolute monarchy.
Ahmad Emir Abdallah Sabah III
In reality the ruler, or amir, is the most domi- 1921–1950 1950–1965 1965–1977
nant force in Kuwaiti politics. According to the con-
stitution, his person is “immune and inviolable.” He Sabah Jaber III Saad
2006–Present 1977–2006 2006
shares control of legislative power with the National
Assembly, control of judicial power with the courts,
and control of executive power with the cabinet. In
addition, he is the supreme commander of the armed of amir, the ruling family encountered its first serious
forces, with the authority to declare a defensive war succession crisis.
without the prior approval of the assembly. He can Skaykh Saad, who ruled for a mere nine days,
also independently conclude treaties that do not affect abdicated and was replaced by Skaykh Sabah al-Ahmad,
Kuwait’s security or economy and can declare martial the current ruler of Kuwait. Skaykh Sabah imme-
law in a state of emergency. diately named his brother, Nawwaf al-Ahmad, as
Since the early twentieth century, the ruling fam- crown prince and his nephew, Nasir al-Muhammad
ily has developed an informal yet disciplined succes- al-Ahmad, as prime minister. Skaykh Sabah had con-
sion pattern by which leadership alternates between solidated the separation of the crown prince and the
the decedents of Jaber and Salim, the sons of Mubarak premiership and, in the process, denied the Salim clan
the Great (see Figure 15.1). This alternation was vio- both jobs. The crown prince and prime minister are
lated once in 1965, when Abdullah al-Salim (1950– members of the Jaber clan of the Al Sabah dynasty.
1965) was succeeded by his brother Sabah al-Salim
(1965–1977) but resumed when Jaber al-Ahmad suc- The National Assembly
ceeded Sabah al-Salim in 1977 and named a member
of the Salim line, Saad al-Abdullah al-Salim Al Sabah, Unlike some of the absolute monarchies in the Gulf,
as his crown prince. The crown prince also has tra- Kuwait’s political system enjoys a degree of popular
ditionally served as the prime minister—again, an participation. The idea of a national assembly that
informal pattern since the 1960s. shares legislative power with the ruler is stipulated in
With the ailing health of Skaykh Jaber and Crown the constitution of 1962, yet it has actually existed in
Prince Skaykh Saad, both patterns were seriously dis- practice since the 1930s. Fearing a loss of status in the
turbed. In 2003 the post of prime minister was sepa- post-oil era, a group of merchants organized into a
rated from that of the crown prince and given to the political movement and demanded a legislative coun-
longtime foreign minister, Skaykh Sabah al-Ahmad. cil. Although the council was dissolved only months
Skaykh Saad continued to retain the title of crown after it was founded in 1938, its fourteen elected mem-
prince. With the death of Skaykh Jabir in 2006 and the bers managed to significantly reform the economy,
inability of Skaykh Saad to assume the expected duties administration, and education. Henceforth, Kuwait

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electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.
522  the middle east

survived without a national assembly until indepen- ruler dissolved the assembly and relegated its powers
dence in 1961. to the ruler and the cabinet.
In 1962 Skaykh Abdullah al-Salim called for a The assembly remained illegally suspended from
general election to elect a constituent assembly to draft 1976 to 1981. According to the constitution, the ruler
a constitution. At that time, Kuwait was confronting may dissolve the National Assembly for a period
several crises, mainly Iraq’s threat to annex the coun- not to exceed two months from the date of dissolu-
try. Skaykh Abdullah was under growing pressure to tion. Beyond this period, any suspension is regarded
shift from a traditional to a modern system of gover- as unconstitutional. In 1986 the assembly was again
nance, without totally dismantling the power of the suspended illegally in response to its vehement criti-
monarch. The constitution has never been amended cism of state corruption and press restrictions. The
since its ratification in 1962 and continues to under- suspension triggered a political coalition composed
pin Kuwaiti politics. of liberals, merchants, Islamists, and former assembly
It was written during the peak of Arab nation- members who demanded restoration of the parlia-
alism and, thus, contained obligatory mention that ment. The coalition continued to be politically active
Kuwait is “part of the Arab nation” and a sovereign in diwaniyahs (informal social gatherings of men)
country in its own right. It also defined Kuwait as a until the Iraqi occupation in 1990.
hereditary amirate and confined succession to the A year after the country was liberated from occu-
throne to the descendants of Mubarak the Great. pation, the ruling family decided to restore the consti-
While the constitution recognized the civil rights of tution and called for parliamentary elections in 1992.
individuals and groups, it discouraged the formation Government failure to deal with the entire crisis, the
of political parties. Political parties are technically courageous and liberating actions of Kuwaitis inside
banned in Kuwait but do exist in the form of news­ and outside Kuwait during the period of the occu-
papers, clubs, and organizations. pation, and Western pressure to expand democratic
The elections for the first National Assembly rights have contributed to the Kuwaiti push toward
were held in 1963, and subsequent elections were further democratization.
held at the end of an assembly’s four-year term in One telling outcome of this trend was granting
1967, 1971, and 1975. Initially, the rulers envisioned women full political rights in 2005. Shortly thereafter,
that the assembly would be used to build alliances the government appointed Masouma al-Mubarak as
against the merchants and Arab nationalists. Allies minister for planning and administrative development,
were usually drawn from the politically quiescent making her the first woman to hold a cabinet position.
Shiites, conservative Sunnis, and Bedouin, all of In 2006 women, who now comprised 55 percent of the
whom soon became politicized and critical of their electorate, voted in the elections and in 2009 won four
patron’s policies. seats in the assembly.
While the merchants were very influential in the
early assemblies in 1963 and 1967, their power began The Government
to recede in 1971. In 1981 and 1985, the assembly was
dominated by the rising middle class, which included The government is positioned between the ruler and
Islamists, nationalists, and tribalists. The assembly the National Assembly. The ruler appoints the prime
increasingly became a political nuisance and, since the minister and other ministers; until 2006 he also named
1970s, has been at odds with the government regard- the crown prince. Once the cabinet has been formed,
ing its oil and foreign policies. Amid mounting ten- normally at the commencement of the legislative term,
sion between the assembly and the government, the ministers are expected to submit their program to the

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electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.
kuwait  523

assembly. According to the constitution, the members law in the hope that it would generate a more docile
of the cabinet should not exceed one-third of the assem- parliament. Since1962 the law had divided Kuwait
bly’s fifty members. Although cabinet ministers are not into ten constituencies, with five deputies represent-
allowed to sit on assembly committees, they are allowed ing each. The new amendment divided Kuwait into
to participate in the assembly’s general debates and are twenty-five constituencies, with two deputies repre-
entitled to vote on bills. senting each. Although redistricting was supposed to
The first cabinet was formed in 1962, and eleven please government loyalists (usually tribal factions
out of its fifteen ministers were from the ruling fam- living on the outskirts of the city), the 1985 assem-
ily. They headed the key ministries of foreign affairs, bly proved to be one of the most vocal and critical
interior, defense, information, finance, and oil. Over of government policies. The assembly accused the
time, the Al Sabah’s dominance waned as more cabi- justice minister, a member of the ruling family, of
net ministers were drawn from the National Assem- improper use of government funds during Kuwait’s
bly, business sector, and professions. Recruitment controversial stock market crash in 1982.
to the cabinet has long been based on patrimony, The 1980s were troubling for Kuwait’s security
family background, origins, and sectarian affilia- and politics. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the
tions, among other factors, more than on merit. The Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988 added to the ten-
regime has maintained the practice of appointing sion between the government and the assembly. His-
Shiites and women ministers since 1975 and 2005, tory repeated itself when the ruler announced the
respectively, but cabinet ministers have continued to assembly’s second dissolution in 1986 and implied
be exclusively Muslim, predominantly middle-aged, that some deputies had conspired to destabilize the
urban Sunni males.11 country. Strict press censorship was introduced at
During the illegal suspension of the assembly that time. In 1989 deputies of the dissolved assembly
from 1976 to 1981, the government was free to issue a began to press for its reinstitution. The government
series of decrees that restricted political activities, cur- announced that it would not restore the assembly
tailed freedom of expression, and, in general, empow- but would establish a national advisory council. The
ered bureaucratic institutions to control opposing opposition boycotted the elections, and the council
political ideas and practices. The justifications for the was interrupted by the Iraqi invasion.
cabinet’s repressive measures had much to do with The Iraqi occupation lasted for seven months and
Arab politics of the 1970s. marked a turning point in Kuwaiti politics. Despite
The Lebanese civil war (1975–1990), and the Saddam Hussein’s unjustified aggression, there was
subsequent Syrian military intervention in Lebanon, equally a sense among Kuwaitis that government poli-
was blamed on press freedom. Kuwaitis feared that cies were responsible for the invasion. Critics argued
a misguided freedom of expression would lead to a that Kuwait’s overproduction of oil since 1989 was
repeat of the Lebanese experience, causing societal a deliberate attempt to damage Iraq’s economy. The
fragmentation and political anarchy. Arab tensions government was also accused of censoring infor­
were coupled with outside pressures on Kuwait from mation about the seriousness of the Iraqi threat
conservative neighbors—namely, Saudi Arabia—to against which it had failed to prepare. Had the gov-
adopt a more authoritarian style of governing.12 ernment taken Iraq’s threat seriously, or even negoti-
Much of Kuwaiti politics had been a struggle ated with its representatives in good faith, perhaps the
for control between the government and the assem- invasion could have been avoided.
bly. Prior to the elections of 1981, the government Regime failure, and the impressive role of
pushed in 1980 for an amendment to the electoral Kuwaitis within the country and in exile during the

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electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.
524  the middle east

occupation, bolstered the push for democracy. in Kuwait’s economy and had an undeniable impact
The George H.W. Bush administration also pressed on politics and society. To better understand the extent
the amir to reestablish the parliament as soon as the of this impact, Kuwait’s economy prior to oil and the
country was liberated.13 In 1992 seventeen junior way in which it has led to a restructuring of Kuwaiti
members of the ruling family sent a petition to the society requires brief discussion.
amir in which they demanded democratization. In
October of the same year, the amir called for parlia- Pre-oil Economy
mentary elections, free of irregularities or interven-
tions. The National Assembly has never been illegally Kuwait had always enjoyed a fine natural harbor and,
suspended since. therefore, many of its pre-oil economic activities cen-
Yet the move to real democracy did not end tered on the sea. In the nineteenth century, Kuwaiti
the tensions between the assembly and the cabinet; sailors benefited from thriving trade routes and net-
instead, it deepened them. The separation of the posts works in the Indian Ocean, stretching from India
of crown prince and prime minister has added to the to East Africa. The trading season commenced in
opposition’s confidence in criticizing the government. September and continued for ten months. Sailors
In 2006 two deputies put forth a motion to prosecute began their journey with dates brought from Basra
Skaykh Nasser al-Mohammad, the prime minister and traded down the Gulf coast to East Africa or to
and a prominent member of the ruling family, over India across the Indian Ocean. Dates were traded for
the government’s handling of electoral reform. It is cash or goods, such as rice and spices from India, coffee
a deputy’s constitutional right to indict government from Yemen, tobacco and dried fruit from Persia, and
officials, and they have done so in the past, but never wood for shipbuilding from East Africa. Kuwaiti mer-
had they tried a prime minister, who traditionally chants traveled widely and resided abroad for months
was also crown prince. Such motions to impeach the at a time. As a result, they developed extensive regional
prime minister have been systematically obstructed networks, based on commerce, kinship, and marriage.
through either the resignation of the cabinet or the This network helped develop an organized and power-
dissolution of the assembly. ful merchant class that came to shape much of Kuwait’s
politics until the discovery of oil in the 1930s.
In addition to trade, other pre-oil activities
The Political Economy
included fishing and pearling. Unlike fishing, which
Kuwait’s wealth is largely based on oil production. In was largely for local consumption, pearling was a
the 2003/2004 fiscal year, oil and petroleum accounted lucrative export trade in Kuwait. Just before World
for about 50 percent of the gross domestic product War I, when the industry was at its peak, Kuwait had a
(GDP) and 89 percent of Kuwait’s annual revenue. large fleet of pearling boats from which about 15,000
With total oil production capacity of almost three mil- men—a significant part of the population at that
lion barrels per day and 10 percent of the world’s crude time—dove. The prosperous industry survived for
oil reserves, Kuwait plans to make available four mil- centuries but was finally destroyed in the mid-twenti-
lion barrels per day by 2020. The United States, Europe, eth century by the Great Depression, the emergence of
and Japan are the main consumers of the country’s oil. Japanese cultured pearls, the outbreak of the Second
Oil was first discovered in Kuwait in the 1930s, World War, and, of course, the discovery of oil.14
but commercial shipment to international markets did Pre-oil activities were not only economic ven-
not begin until after the Second World War in 1946. tures, but also affected how society was divided and
The discovery of oil marked an obvious turning point organized. Divisions did not disappear totally with

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electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.
kuwait  525

charge income tax and provides citizens

with housing, generous retirement pen-
sions, free health and education services,
and comprehensive support for orphans,
the elderly, and the handicapped. The wel-
fare system is a reflection of the interre-
lated social responsibilities of the pre-oil
era and is in keeping with local Bedouin
traditions of paternalism. In addition, the
state’s ownership of oil provides the rul-
ing coalition with a modern base of legiti-
macy to support its traditional one.15
Social and economic stratification in
the post-oil era continued under a differ-
Annual pearl-diving trips, held under the amir’s patronage, keep alive ent guise. Pre-oil nomads, fishermen, and
traditions. divers now turned into bureaucrats and
technocrats in the developing state sec-
tors, while shipowners and ship captains
the discovery of oil; they simply took a different shape. turned into businessmen. The government prom-
Pre-oil Kuwaiti society was broadly divided into ship ised merchants new state contracts for development
owners, ship captains, and crews, which included the work, so when contracts were given to foreign firms,
divers who collected the oysters. Owners and captains, the government stipulated they take Kuwaiti partners.
who were sometimes one and the same, amassed These and other policies maintained the merchants’
wealth from trade and pearling for their powerful pre-oil status in the new oil economy.
families. They were usually the urban, Sunni families Oil has had a significant impact on the provi-
who claimed decedent from the early Najdi settlers. sion of state services and the population. At the end
The divers, at the bottom of the economic pyramid, of 2002, for instance, the literacy rate among Kuwaitis
were nomads from the desert, Shiites from Persia, and was more than 93 percent, which is on a par with West-
slaves from Africa. ern Europe. This is largely due to the government’s
increase in oil revenues and subsequent provision of
Oil Economy free education to its nationals. (Those attending the
local university receive a monthly stipend of about
Kuwait’s oil was discovered in 1938 by Kuwait Oil Com- $870, and those who attend college overseas are also
pany (KOC), originally a joint holding of the Anglo- generously funded). As a result, the educational sta-
Persian Oil Company, later British Petroleum (BP), tus of nationals has shown steady improvement. In
and American Gulf Oil. By 1953 Kuwait had become the 1970s, for example, only 22 percent of technical
the largest producer of oil in the Arabian Gulf and in staff in the government sector was Kuwaiti; by the
1956 the largest in the Middle East. The government early 2000s, this figure exceeded 60 percent. With the
bought KOC in 1976, thereby becoming the first Arab rising level of education, traditional attitudes toward
oil-producing state to achieve full control of its output. women’s education and employment have changed.
The state’s full ownership of oil enabled it to Kuwaiti women outnumber men in Kuwait University
develop an all-embracing welfare system that does not and constitute a significant labor force in the public

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electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.
526  the middle east

sector (ministries, other public authorities, and state- early 1960s and again in the 1980s, when it had to
owned oil companies). buy up shares to support prices on the local stock
exchange. Kuwait’s private sector, however, suffers
Non-Oil Economy from a narrow base and a lack of advanced technol-
ogy. To improve and widen the role of the private
Higher oil revenues enabled Kuwait to embark on an sector, the government began in 1994 a privatiza-
ambitious program of further diversifying its economy tion program, which has been remarkably success-
away from oil. The government became increasingly ful. Moreover, the government is relying more on
aware that oil was a nonrenewable resource and started the private sector in carrying out public projects and
to take serious steps to make its future economy less is privatizing the production of some public goods
reliant on it. Many of Kuwait’s efforts to diversify its and services. Also, in 2000 Kuwait, for the first time,
income began in the 1960s with plans to industrial- permitted foreigners to own shares in Kuwaiti com-
ize. In 1964 the Shuaibah Industrial Zone was built panies, a change that recently turned Kuwait’s local
to include distilling plants and electrical production stock exchange into one of the most active in the
facilities to support manufacturing. Factories to pro- Arab world.
duce cement, asphalt, and other industrial chemicals, In an attempt to turn the country into a regional
such as chlorine, were also constructed. Despite these trading center, a free trade zone allowing full foreign
efforts, industrial development has never reached the ownership was established in 1998, and a second one
levels found in other Gulf countries, such as Saudi Ara- was approved for the northern area of the country.
bia. Like industry, agriculture was never a success story After a hiatus of thirteen years, trade with Iraq is wide
in Kuwait, partially because of the country’s difficult open again; the effort to rebuild Iraq is creating mas-
weather conditions. Agricultural products account for sive opportunities for the transport and construc-
as little as 0.3 percent of the GDP. tion industries. Kuwait, with its developed ports and
A significant source of income comes from transport facilities, expects to be the import route of
investment projects abroad. In 1976 Kuwait founded choice for the reconstruction of Iraq and to become a
the Reserve Fund for Future Generations in which regional trading hub in the long run.16
10 percent of oil revenues is deposited and invested.
Initially, most of the investments—about $7 billion Foreign Policy
in the late 1970s—were concentrated in the United
States and Europe. In the 1980s, investments were also Following independence in 1961, Kuwait attempted
made in Japan. With its carefully chosen and success- to assert its political autonomy and achieve interna-
ful ventures, Kuwait, by the mid-1980s, was earning tional recognition. It became a member of the Arab
more from its overseas investments than it was from League in 1961 and in 1963 a member of the United
direct sales of oil: foreign assets in 1987 reached $6.3 Nations and some UN-related agencies, such as the
billion, and its oil revenues totaled $5.4 billion. Fol- World Bank and General Agreement on Tariffs and
lowing the Iraqi invasion in 1990, these assets became Trade (GATT). Regionally, Kuwait began to expand its
the only source of funding for the Gulf War expenses relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria to thwart
and reconstruction. Currently, assets in the Reserve growing threats from Iraq. Indeed, during most of the
Fund are worth more than $80 billion. 1960s and 1970s, the major regional threat to Kuwait’s
In addition to its overseas investment, Kuwait is security and sovereignty came from Iraq, which con-
relentlessly developing its private sector. To encour- tinued to instigate minor border conflicts. In 1961, days
age private non-oil industry, the government began after Kuwait’s independence, Iraq threatened to annex
establishing joint ventures with private capital in the the amirate, and in 1973 it mobilized troops along the

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electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.
kuwait  527

border before finally standing down under pressure Revolutionary fervor in Iran has abated since
from other Arab countries. the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 and the
To garner Arab support, Kuwait established the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani from 1989 to
Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development in 1997. Rafsanjani, pragmatic compared to revolu-
1961, with the prime task of offering grants and low- tionary Khomeini, sought to improve relations with
interest loans to Arab states to develop their econo- other Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and
mies. In 1984 Kuwait allocated 3.81 percent of its Kuwait. Rafsanjani condemned the Iraqi invasion in
gross national product (GNP) to development assis- 1990 and gave thousands of Kuwaiti refugees shel-
tance and has consistently been ranked among the ter in Iran. Relations between Kuwait and Iran have
top ten donor countries to Arab states such as Yemen, improved significantly since. This is partially reflected
Tunisia, Sudan, Jordan, and the PLO. In 1975 the in increased trade relations and Kuwait’s recognition
Fund extended its operations to non-Arab developing of a more active Iranian role in Gulf security.
states. Its capital dramatically increased from its $150 Despite improved relations, Kuwait continues to
million in 1961 to approximately $6.75 billion in the harbor concerns over Iran’s regional ambitions and
1980s.17 influence, particularly on the Shiites in Kuwait and
Because of their generosity through the Fund, Iraq. If Iran fosters sectarian violence inside Iraq,
the support that the PLO and the governments of Jor- Kuwait fears it will spill over the borders. Further,
dan, Yemen, and Sudan gave Saddam Hussein during Kuwait is increasingly worried about Iran’s efforts
the 1990 invasion shocked Kuwaitis, and they were to attain nuclear capability. U.S. or Israeli retaliatory
hard-pressed to formulate a more pragmatic diplo- strikes on Tehran could destabilize the region and
macy. Prior to the Gulf War in 1991, Palestinians con- inflame the entire Muslim world, not just against the
stituted the largest expatriate community in Kuwait United States, but also against Kuwait and other Gulf
(about 30 percent of the population). After the libera- countries that host U.S. military bases.
tion, thousands of Palestinians were forcibly expelled,
reducing their number in 2006 from 350,000 to 4,000. Relations with the EU
Palestinians today make up fewer than 3 percent of
the population. Kuwait’s relationship with the member states of the
European Union (EU) has been largely based on eco-
Relations with Iran nomic development, rather than on military coop-
eration. Kuwait’s imports from Europe in 1994, for
In 1979 the Iranian Revolution radically changed example, constituted 36.3 percent of its total world
the political scene in the region. The most serious imports, and in 1995 Kuwait ranked number one in
threat to Kuwait during much of the 1980s came consumption of European goods among the Gulf
from Iran. During the Iraq-Iran War, Kuwait sup- Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of Saudi Ara-
ported Saddam Hussein against Ayatollah Khomeini bia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates,
and sought international protection of its oil tankers and Oman.18 Increased trade has also marked Kuwait’s
from the Soviet Union and the United States. Until relations with individual European countries. Between
the end of the cold war, however, Kuwait made serious 2007 and 2008, German exports to Kuwait grew by 23.7
diplomatic efforts to appear neutral in its relations percent to EUR 1.293 billion. Also in 2008, Kuwaiti
with both superpowers. Although the British with- imports from Britain rose by nearly 20 percent, and
drew from the Gulf in 1971, the United States did not Kuwaiti exports to Britain increased by 40 percent.
became Kuwait’s key international ally until the Iraqi Economic cooperation has been the pattern
invasion of Kuwait in 1990. governing GCC-EU relations, especially since they

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electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.
528  the middle east

signed a formal cooperation agreement in 1988.19 The that provided for stockpiling U.S. military equipment
EU, a major, diversified trading bloc, relies heavily in Kuwait, U.S. access to Kuwaiti ports and airports,
on the export of manufactured goods and is, there- and joint training exercises and equipment purchases.
fore, highly interested in continued access to lucra- Before the George W. Bush administration
tive markets in the Gulf states, including Kuwait. In (2001–2009), the main goal of U.S. policy in the Gulf
1992 the EU accounted for nearly 40 percent of the was to preserve a pro-U.S. regional balance of power
GCC’s imports, in contrast to the United States, which and prevent any hostile state from asserting its domi-
accounted for less than 20 percent. nance. But in the wake of the September 11 terrorist
Although the EU plays a junior role compared attacks, the Bush administration decided to change
to the United States in political and security mat- the power configuration of the Middle East and the
ters of the Gulf, Kuwait and the rest of the GCC wel- domestic politics of regional states. It invaded Iraq,
come greater European political involvement in the defeated Saddam Hussein, and established a new
region. Kuwait, for instance, supports the European government in Baghdad. The costs of this new policy
policy of engaging Iran through dialogue, in contrast were enormous for the United States, and the regional
to the punitive measures and coercive diplomacy of repercussions were largely negative.
the United States. Further, Kuwait anticipates a more While the United States may have ended the Iraqi
effective European than U.S. role in the Arab-Israeli threat forever in 2003, its military presence in the
peace process. region is forging new enemies. In 2002 two Kuwaitis
fired on U.S. marines conducting military exercises
Relations with the United States on Failaka Island, killing one and injuring another.
Kuwaiti authorities were later informed that one
Kuwait-U.S. relations date to the 1940s, when a U.S. of the gunmen had sworn allegiance to Osama bin
oil firm owned 50 percent of Kuwait Oil Company. Laden. There was another shooting involving Ameri-
The relationship changed from a commercial to a can troops a week later. In 2003 another gunman shot
political one as Britain’s influence waned in the 1960s. dead an American civilian and wounded a second
In 1971 the United States named its first ambassa- near Camp Doha, one of the main U.S. military bases
dor to Kuwait, and in 1972 the U.S. Department of in Kuwait.
Defense conducted an important survey of Kuwait’s The presence of al-Qaida elements in Kuwait
national defense requirements, paving the way for was confirmed in 2005 when Kuwaiti security forces
future arms sales. rounded up a group of militants, among them Kuwaiti
Ties between the two countries began to streng­ military personnel. Calling themselves the Lions of
then in the 1980s, when Kuwait sought U.S. protection the Peninsula, they had plans to attack U.S. bases
from Iranian aggression during the Iran-Iraq War. In and interests. Thirty-seven militants were charged;
1987 the U.S. Navy escorted Kuwaiti tankers under the of them, thirty-four face the death penalty. In August
U.S. flag to thwart attacks from Iran. At the end of the 2009, Kuwaiti authorities arrested six alleged al-Qaida
Iran-Iraq War in 1988, Kuwait loosened its ties with militants who were planning to attack Camp Arifjan,
the States because it did not want to be seen as openly the second largest U.S. military base, which houses
aligning with the West. 20 15,000 American soldiers.
Kuwaiti reluctance to pursue warmer relations Under President Barack Obama, U.S. policy
with the United States changed in 1991. In that year, appears more moderate than it did under George W.
Kuwait declared the United States as its strategic partner Bush. The Obama administration takes a balance-
and signed a ten-year defense pact (renewed in 2001) of-power approach to the Gulf, tries to maintain the

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electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.
kuwait  529

United States’ preeminent role, and works to prevent development plan and capable ministers to imple-
hostile powers from dominating the region. Obama’s ment it. If tensions persist, the possibility that par-
active engagement with Iraq and Iran is a visible illus- liament will be dissolved—unconstitutionally this
tration of current U.S. policy. time—remains.21


With the end of the Iraqi threat in 2003 and the exe- For general history books on Kuwait, see:
Abu Hakima, Ahmed. History of Kuwait 1750–1965.
cution of Saddam Hussein in 2006, Kuwait feels safer
London: Luzac and Company Press, 1983.
than it did in the 1990s, although the tiny country’s
Casey, Michael. The History of Kuwait. Westport, Conn.:
problems have not disappeared totally. Kuwait is still Greenwood Press, Westport, 2007.
concerned with the bloody tensions in Iraq between Clements, Frank. Kuwait. Oxford: Clio Press, 1985.
the Shiites and Sunnis, which could affect the country. On Kuwait and the Ottoman Empire, see:
On many occasions, the ruler, Skaykh Sabah al-Ahmad, Anscombe, Frederick. The Ottoman Gulf: The Creation
has warned community leaders and the press about of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. New York:
the dangerous consequences of sectarian politics and Columbia University Press, 1997.
has emphasized the need for a united national front. On Kuwait and the British, see:
Kuwait continues to be watchful for al-Qaida insur- Smith, Simon. Kuwait 1950–1965, Britain, the Al Sabah
gents and wary of Iranian intentions, but not to the and Oil. Oxford University Press, 1999.
extent of collaborating with the United States in a war On Kuwait’s economy, see:
Crystal, Jill. Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rulers and Mer-
against the Islamic republic. Kuwait supports U.S. dia-
chants in Kuwait and Qatar. Cambridge University
logue with Iran.
Press, 1990.
Domestically, Kuwait is eager to make a strong Khouja, M., and P. Sadler. The Economy of Kuwait:
comeback as the “pearl of the Gulf ”—its nickname in Development and Role in International Finance.
the 1970s. With a healthy increase in oil revenues and London: Macmillan, 1979.
booming economy, the state is becoming a regional For a discussion of Kuwait’s political, social, and foreign
financial center. It wants to liberate the economy, policy developments, see:
attract foreign investments, and expand the pri- Crystal, Jill. Kuwait: The Transformation of an Oil State.
vate sector. Despite difficult weather conditions and Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992.
bureaucratic and cultural constraints, the country is Ismael, Jacqueline. Kuwait: Social Change in Histori-
working hard to develop tourism. cal Perspective. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University
The dream of transforming Kuwait into a finan- Press, 1982.
Internet sites that provide accurate, up-to-date infor-
cial center will not be realized if tensions continue
mation on modern Kuwait include:
between the cabinet and parliament. Since 2006 the
United States Central Intelligence Agency, World Fact
government has reshuffled five times, and the assem- Book,
bly has been dissolved three times. Certainly, there .html.
was optimism when four women won seats in the United States Library of Congress, Kuwait; A Country
2009 elections. Yet tensions could continue to plague Study,
relations between the two branches, as long as the Amnesty International Homepage,
government does not come up with a comprehensive United Nations Homepage,

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electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.