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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

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

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Kuwait has been pivotal to two decades of U.S. efforts to end a strategic threat posed by Iraq and then to stabilize that country in its transition to democracy. 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 Kuwait hosted nearly all 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 longstanding territorial, economic, and political issues—issues not resolved by an outwardly positive exchange of high level visits in early 2011. 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 other Gulf 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, oppositionists in the Assembly continued to challenge 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 and forcing him to dismiss and rename a cabinet seven times since 2006. The latest cabinet, little different from the previous one, was formed on May 10, 2011. 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.

Kuwait has been only slightly affected by the unrest sweeping the Middle East in 2011. Demonstrations by opposition groups have been held, but they have been small. Kuwait is a relatively wealthy society where citizens do not want to take risks to achieve greater freedoms. The Assembly passage of a record national budget in late June 2011—a budget loaded with subsidies and salary increases—appeared intended to ensure that demonstrations to do not broaden. The government also has used a measure of repression, including beatings of demonstrators and imprisonments of journalists and activists. 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. In March 2011, it joined a Gulf Cooperation Council to intervene on the side of the government of Bahrain but, unlike Saudi Arabia and UAE, Kuwait did not send ground forces there.

Date of Report: July 28, 2011
Number of Pages: 21
Order Number: RS21513
Price: $29.95

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