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Thursday, February 16, 2012

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 is central to U.S. efforts to remain engaged in the northern Persian Gulf region following the completion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. However, the fragility of Kuwait’s government could complicate U.S. efforts to use it as a centerpiece of post-withdrawal strategy for the Gulf. A further complication is that Kuwait’s relations with the current government of Iraq are hampered, in part, by long-standing territorial, economic, and political issues unresolved from the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Kuwait is increasingly suspicious of Iranian intentions in the Gulf, which aligns Kuwait with U.S. efforts to contain Iranian power in the Gulf and prevent Iran from exerting undue influence in postwithdrawal Iraq. Still, Kuwait 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 nearly six years, but Kuwait has not faced the mass popular unrest that other governments throughout the Middle East have faced in 2011. The disputes in Kuwait have taken the form of infighting between oppositionists in 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 progovernment 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 cabinet formed on May 10, 2011, lasted less than one year before opposition allegations of official corruption fueled by popular protests forced the resignation of the government in late November 2011 and the constitutional suspension of the Assembly on December 6, 2011. Mandatory new Assembly elections were held on February 2, 2012, producing a body that is generally adversarial to the government and has strong Islamist influence.

Despite the 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 risk their economic well-being to bring about the complete downfall of Al Sabah rule. At the popular level, demonstrations by opposition groups over official corruption, security force brutality, citizenship eligibility, and other issues have been relatively small and their demands limited to the formation of a constitutional monarchy in which the Assembly names a prime minister. The Assembly passage of a national budget in late June 2011—a budget loaded with subsidies and salary increases—appeared intended to quiet the unrest. The government also has used a measure of repression, including beatings and imprisonments.

On other regional issues, in part because of its leadership turmoil, 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 as well as on the uprisings in Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain. On Bahrain, in March 2011, Kuwait joined a Gulf Cooperation Council intervention on the side of the government, but unlike Saudi Arabia and UAE, Kuwait sent naval and not ground forces.

Date of Report: February
8, 2012
Number of Pages:
Order Number: RS2
Price: $29.95

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