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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Kuwait: Security, Reform, and U.S. Policy

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

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 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’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. Although the threat from Iraq has abated, 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. Regional issues were the focus of meeting between the Amir of Kuwait and President Obama on September 13, 2013, during the Amir’s visit to Washington, DC.

Even as external threats to Kuwait have abated, Kuwait’s political system has been in turmoil since 2006, and particularly since 2011. Political disputes in Kuwait have centered on opposition to the political dominance of the Al Sabah family, as well as over official corruption, use of force by security agencies, 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 elections. The latest suspension occurred on June 16, 2013, triggering new elections that were held on July 27, 2013 and produced a pro-government Assembly. The July elections followed a six-month period of significant public protests that challenged the Sabah regime’s unilateral alteration of election rules to shape the prior elections (December 1, 2012) to its advantage. The demonstrations largely subsided by mid-2013.

The ruling establishment in Kuwait was able to calm the unrest—although not necessarily eliminate its underlying sources—because the government retains substantial assets. Kuwait remains a relatively wealthy society where most citizens do not want to risk their economic wellbeing to try to bring about the downfall of Al Sabah rule. Reflecting that sentiment, the opposition largely confines its demands to limiting Sabah power rather than ending the family’s rule. The government has been able to use financial largesse—budgets replete with subsidies and salary increases—as well as some repressive measures as well as legal prosecutions to limit opposition. But, many years of political paralysis have led to economic stagnation, particularly relative to Kuwait’s more economically vibrant Gulf neighbors such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The lack of economic vibrancy led to strikes in several economic sectors in 2012.

On regional issues, Kuwait generally acts in partnership with some or all of its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). On the uprising in Bahrain, in March 2011 Kuwait joined a GCC military intervention on the side of the Bahraini government by sending naval forces to the Bahrain coast. Kuwait joined Saudi Arabia and UAE in supporting the decision of the Egyptian military in July 2013 to remove elected president and senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammad Morsi from power. Like the GCC as a whole, Kuwait supports the Sunni-led rebellion in Syria, although Kuwait has largely confined its support for rebellion to humanitarian and financial aid, not provision of weapons. Kuwait has tended to defer to de facto GCC leader Saudi Arabia in offering proposals to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Date of Report: November 8, 2013
Number of Pages: 30
Order Number: RS21513
Price: $29.95

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