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Thursday, December 27, 2012

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 end a strategic threat posed by Iraq, because of its location, its role as the object of past Iraqi aggression, and its close cooperation with the United States. Kuwait is key to the U.S. ability to intervene in the northern Persian Gulf region now that all U.S. forces have left Iraq. 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 significantly since 2011. Kuwait is increasingly suspicious of Iranian intentions in the Gulf, aligning 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 militarily or prompt it to try to empower pro-Iranian elements in Kuwait.

Although Kuwait’s foreign policy fluctuates little, its political system has been in turmoil since 2006, and is deteriorating in late 2012. Previously, the political disputes in Kuwait have taken the form of opposition among some in the elected National Assembly to the political dominance of the Al Sabah family. These disputes have aggravated—and been aggravated by—schisms within rival branches of the ruling Al Sabah. The disputes have produced five dissolutions of the National Assembly and new elections since 2006, the latest of which occurred on October 8, 2012, requiring new elections that were held on December 1, 2012.

During 2011-2012, there have been demonstrations in Kuwait by opposition groups over official corruption, security force brutality, citizenship eligibility, and other issues. Until late 2012, and in contrast with other states in the region, the demonstrations in Kuwait have been relatively small. Protests grew in size and frequency as the opposition challenged Sabah regime efforts to shape the December 1, 2012, elections to its advantage—efforts that sparked a large demonstration on October 21, 2012. Oppositionists generally boycotted the December 1 elections, lowering the turnout but giving the government an overwhelming majority in the Assembly. The opposition says it will continue its battle to reduce Sabah power through continued public protests.

Still, 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. And, the government has used financial largesse—budgets loaded with subsidies and salary increases—as well as some repressive measures, including beatings and imprisonments, to keep unrest contained. Although anti-Sabah sentiment appears to be increasing, demands by opposition activists remain generally confined to limiting Sabah power rather than ending the family’s rule. Still, 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. The lack of economic vibrancy has led to strikes in several economic sectors in 2012.

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: December 6, 2012
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: RS21513
Price: $29.95

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