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Tuesday, June 26, 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. Because of its location and 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. Kuwait’s relations with the post-Saddam government in Iraq have been hampered by long-standing territorial, economic, and political issues unresolved from the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, but those issues have been narrowed since 2011. 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 post-withdrawal 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.

Although Kuwait’s foreign policy has remained steady, its political system has been in turmoil since 2006. 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. This has been aggravated by disputes within rival branches of the ruling family. The disputes have produced four dissolutions of the National Assembly and new elections since 2006, the latest of which were held on February 2, 2012. Those elections produced a body that is generally adversarial to the government and has strong Islamist influence, leading Amir Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah to suspend the Assembly for one month, beginning June 18, 2012. That suspension may have been mooted by a constitutional court ruling, two days later, declaring the December 2011 Assembly suspension unconstitutional and ordering the previous Assembly re-seated. The many years of political paralysis have led to some economic stagnation as well, because parliamentary approval for several major investment projects, such as development of major oil fields in northern Kuwait, has been held up due to the infighting.

As in other Arab countries that have seen political unrest and change in 2011-2012, there have been demonstrations in Kuwait by opposition groups over official corruption, security force brutality, citizenship eligibility, and other issues. However, in contrast with other states in the region, and despite the elite infighting, the demonstrations in Kuwait have been relatively small since early 2011. Kuwait is a relatively wealthy society where most citizens apparently do not want to risk their economic well-being to bring about the downfall of Al Sabah rule. Opposition demands—supported by oppositionists within the National Assembly—are generally limited to the formation of a constitutional monarchy in which the Assembly names a prime minister. The government’s use of financial largesse—budgets loaded with subsidies and salary increases— as well as some repressive measures, including beatings and imprisonments, have kept the public displays of dissent relatively limited.

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 and Syria. On the uprising in 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: June 20, 2012
Number of Pages: 28
Order Number: RS21513
Price: $29.95

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