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Tuesday, July 30, 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 remains a key to the U.S. ability to act militarily 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 warmed significantly in recent years through resolution of many of the territorial, economic, and political issues from the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. 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 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. The political disputes in Kuwait have centered on opposition to the political dominance of the Al Sabah family, as well as over official corruption, security force brutality, citizenship eligibility, and other issues. These disputes, manifested primarily in the form of opposition to the Al Sabah family within the National Assembly, have produced repeated dissolutions of the National Assembly and new elections. The latest suspension occurred on June 16, 2013, and triggered new elections to be held on July 27, 2013. Perhaps accelerated by the uprisings in several Arab countries since early 2011, the disputes in Kuwait have also expanded beyond the Assembly to the general population. Public protests expanded significantly in late 2012 to challenge the Sabah regime’s unilateral alteration of election rules to shape the December 1, 2012, elections to its advantage. Most oppositionists boycotted the December 1 elections, lowering the turnout but producing an overwhelmingly progovernment Assembly. The demonstrations sometimes have been suspended after compromises with the government.

Yet, the ruling establishment in Kuwait retains substantial assets that will likely prevent major political change. 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. Reflecting that sentiment, the opposition largely confines its demands to limiting Sabah power rather than ending the family’s rule. To contain unrest, the government is able to use 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 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. Kuwait has largely confined its support for the armed rebellion in Syria to financial aid. 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: July 10, 2013
Number of Pages: 30
Order Number: RS21513
Price: $29.95

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