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Thursday, February 17, 2011

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 U.S. troops have been withdrawing from during 2009-2011. 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, although a January 12, 2011, visit by the Kuwaiti Prime Minister appeared to represent a major, at least symbolic, breakthrough. With the strategic threat from Iraq sharply reduced, Kuwait is cooperating with U.S.-led efforts to contain Iranian power in the Gulf. At the same time, like the other Gulf monarchy states, Kuwait seeks to maintain normal economic and political relations with Iran so as not to provoke Iran or cause it to increase its support to pro-Iranian movements in Kuwait.

Although Kuwait remains a staunch U.S. ally, it is troubled domestically. For the past five 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 infighting led to the second constitutional dissolution of the National Assembly in one year, setting up new parliamentary elections on May 16, 2009. That produced an Assembly that was considered more pro-government, and included four women, the first to be elected to the Assembly in Kuwait since women were given the vote in 2005. However, over the subsequent two years, the Assembly has turned against the ruling family, producing two unsuccessful attempts (the most recent on January 5, 2011) to vote no confidence in Prime Minister Shaykh Nasser al-Muhammad al-Ahmad Al Sabah.

The political deadlock has prevented breaking long-standing legislative and regulatory logjams holding up key energy projects, including some projects involving major foreign energy firms. The political infighting has also tarnished Kuwait’s reputation in the Persian Gulf as a model of protections of rule of law and human rights as the Al Sabah have turned to increasingly harsh measures to suppress dissent. These measures have included beatings of demonstrators and imprisonments of journalists. However, Kuwait’s tradition of vibrant civil society and expression of opinion led to the resignation of the Interior Minister, held responsible for repressive measures, on February 7, 2011, in advance of a planned public demonstration.

On other regional issues, the political stalemate in Kuwait has contributed to a tendency among Kuwaiti leaders to defer to Saudi Arabia and other more active Gulf states. Kuwait has not attempted to take a leading role in mediating disputes within the Palestinian territories or to try to determine Iran’s role in Gulf security and political arrangements.

Date of Report: February 8, 2011
Number of Pages: 18
Order Number: RS21513
Price: $29.95

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