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Friday, April 5, 2013

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 a key to the U.S. ability to act militarily, if necessary, 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 has deteriorated significantly since late 2012. Previously, political disputes in Kuwait had consisted of opposition within the elected National Assembly to the political dominance of the Al Sabah family. These disputes aggravated—and been aggravated by—schisms within rival branches of the ruling Al Sabah. The disputes 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 were relatively small demonstrations in Kuwait by opposition groups over official corruption, security force brutality, citizenship eligibility, and other issues. However, protests expanded significantly in late 2012 to challenge Sabah regime efforts to shape the December 1, 2012 elections to its advantage. Most oppositionists boycotted the December 1 elections, lowering the turnout but producing an overwhelmingly pro-government Assembly. Since the election, the opposition has continued its battle to reduce Sabah power through public protests, but the demonstrations sometimes are suspended after compromises with the government.

Even though opposition to Sabah rule has grown, the opposition still largely confines its demands to limiting Sabah power rather than ending the family’s rule. And, Kuwait remains a relatively wealthy society where most citizens do not want to risk their economic well-being to try to bring about the downfall of Al Sabah rule through violence. To try to contain the unrest, the government has used financial largesse—budgets loaded with subsidies and salary increases—as well as some repressive measures, including beatings and imprisonments. But, 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 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: March 29, 2013
Number of Pages: 30
Order Number: RS21513
Price: $29.95

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