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Friday, May 28, 2010

Kuwait: Security, Reform, and U.S. Policy

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Kuwait has been pivotal to nearly two decades of U.S. efforts to reduce a threat posed by Iraq. After U.S. forces liberated Kuwait from Iraqi invading forces in February 1991, Kuwait was the central location from which the United States contained Saddam during 1991-2003, and it hosted the bulk of the U.S.-led force that invaded Iraq in March 2003 to remove Saddam from power. It is the key route through which about 45,000 U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq during the summer of 2010. Kuwait's relations with the current government of Iraq are hampered, in part, by issues not fully resolved from the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. 

For the past four years, wrangling between the elected National Assembly and the ruling Al Sabah family primarily over the political dominance and alleged corruption of the Al Sabah has brought virtual political paralysis to Kuwait. In March 2009, the broad infighting led to the second constitutional dissolution of the National Assembly in the past year, setting up new parliamentary elections on May 16, 2009. The elections produced many new deputies in the 50-seat Assembly, including four women, the first to be elected to the Assembly in Kuwait since women were given the vote in 2005. However, the elections did not resolve the government-Assembly political disputes or produce meaningful progress on major issues. In late 2009, there appeared to be the potential for yet another dissolution of the Assembly and new elections. However, the fall of the government was avoided when National Assembly deputies who are most critical of Prime Minister Shaykh Nassir al-Muhammad al-Ahmad Al Sabah could not muster a majority on a December 2009 vote of no confidence against him. Divisions within the Al Sabah family have expanded as well. 

Nor did the election break long-standing logjams holding up key energy projects, including some projects involving major foreign energy firms, or on measures to help Kuwait deal with the effects of the global financial and economic crisis. The political infighting has also tarnished Kuwait's reputation on rule of law and human rights record as the Al Sabah have purportedly sought to silence critical journalists or buy off political adversaries. 

On other regional issues, the political stalemate in Kuwait has caused Kuwaiti leaders to generally defer to Saudi Arabia and other more active Gulf states. Kuwait has not attempted to take a leadership role in mediating disputes within the Palestinian territories or to try to determine Iran's role in Gulf security and political arrangements. Kuwait had been somewhat sympathetic toward Iran as a counterweight to Saddam Hussein, but has become more critical of Iran since Saddam's removal. Kuwait still sees itself as a potential arena for Iran to assert itself as a protector of Shiite minorities and to try to pose a threat to U.S. forces based in the region. 

Date of Report: May 18, 2010
Number of Pages: 16
Order Number: RS21513
Price: $29.95

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