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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

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

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Kuwait was pivotal to 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 U.S. troops have been withdrawing from Iraq 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.

Kuwait has been troubled domestically for at least five years, but it has not faced the mass popular unrest that other governments throughout the Middle East have faced in 2011. The domestic disputes have taken the form of infighting between the elected National Assembly and the ruling Al Sabah family primarily over the political and economic dominance of the Al Sabah. 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 cabinet resigned on March 31, 2011, rather than face questioning from a Shiite parliamentary deputy about its reaction to the unrest in Bahrain. A new cabinet, little different from the previous one, was formed on May 10, 2011.

As noted, Kuwait has been lightly touched by the unrest sweeping the Middle East in 2011. There have been only a few small political demonstrations in Kuwait during the period of region-wide unrest, perhaps because Kuwait is considered a relatively wealthy society where citizens do not want to take risks to achieve greater freedoms. However, the government response to the demonstrations has, in some measure, tarnished Kuwait’s reputation as a protector of rule of law and human rights in the Gulf region. Suppressive measures have included beatings of demonstrators and imprisonments of journalists. Still, 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 formulating new approaches to the Arab-Israeli dispute, in mediating disputes within the Palestinian territories, or trying to determine Iran’s role in Gulf security and political arrangements.

Date of Report: May 19, 2011
Number of Pages: 19
Order Number: RS21513
Price: $29.95

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