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Tuesday, November 8, 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. Because of its close cooperation with the United States, Kuwait could become even more central to U.S. efforts to keep Iraq stable, and to contain Iranian power, following the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, as announced by President Obama on October 21, 2011. 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. While cooperating with U.S.-led efforts to contain Iranian power in the Gulf while, Kuwait also maintains relatively normal economic and political relations with Iran so as not to provoke Iran to try to empower pro-Iranian elements in Kuwait.

Kuwait’s ruling elites have been in a continuous power struggle for over five years, but Kuwait has not faced the mass popular unrest that other governments throughout the Middle East have faced in 2011. The 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 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, and has again come under challenge from the opposition in the Assembly for alleged corruption and other issues.

Despite the elite infighting, and in contrast with Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and other Middle East countries in 2011, Kuwait is a relatively wealthy society where most citizens apparently do not want to take risks to achieve greater freedoms. At the popular level, demonstrations by opposition groups over official corruption, security force brutality, citizenship eligibility, and other issues have been held, but they have been small and their demands limited. 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. Still, the government also has used a measure of repression, including beatings and imprisonments.

On other regional issues, Kuwait tends to defer to consensus positions within the Gulf Cooperation Council; this deference is evident in Kuwait’s stances on the Israel-Palestinian dispute, the uprisings in Libya and in Yemen, and the Bahrain unrest. On the latter issues, 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 sent naval and not ground forces there.

Date of Report:
November 3, 2011
Number of Pages:
Order Number: R
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