Political Rights: 4
Civil Liberties: 5
Status: Partly Free
Population: 2,400,000
GNI/Capita: $18,270
Life Expectancy: 78
Religious Groups: Muslim (85 percent) [Sunni 70 percent, Shi'a 30 percent], other (15 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Kuwaiti (45 percent), other Arab (35 percent), South Asian (9 percent), Iranian (4 percent), other (7 percent)
Capital: Kuwait City


The war in Iraq dominated headlines in Kuwait during the first four months of 2003, as the U.S. military used Kuwaiti territory as the main staging area for its ground war against Iraq in March and April. Despite tensions created by the American military presence, terrorist threats, a handful of missile attacks from Iraqi forces, and a spate of attacks against the American presence, Kuwait was able to maintain law and order during a tense period. On July 5, Kuwait held the tenth elections since independence for its 50-member National Assembly.

The al-Sabah family has played a role in ruling Kuwait for more than 200 years. A year after Kuwait gained its independence in 1961 from Britain, a new constitution gave broad powers to the emir and created the National Assembly. The emir has suspended the National Assembly two times in the last 40 years, from 1976 to 1981 and from 1986 to 1992.

After its restoration in 1992, parliament played an active role in monitoring the emir and the government, forcing government ministers out of office and blocking legislation proposed by the royal family. Parliament, however, has also served as an impediment to progressive political change, rejecting measures that would have granted women the right to vote and accelerated economic reforms.

The 2003 legislative elections did not meet minimal international standards, tainted by the exclusion of women from voting and allegations of widespread government-subsidized vote buying. Pro-government candidates with strong tribal backing did well in the elections, and candidates aligned with Islamists realized some slight gains. Out of 16 liberal candidates, only 3 managed to win seats, a decline of 4 seats from the previous National Assembly. Several analysts contend that the coalition of Islamists and pro-government members with conservative tribal ties may oppose measures to promote women's rights and full political participation, privatize the economy, and update investment laws.

Following the elections, Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, half-brother of Emir Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, became prime minister, taking over for ailing Saad al-Abdallah al-Sabah, who remains the crown prince. Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah's appointment as prime minister marks the first time since Kuwait's independence that the prime minister has not been the crown prince. The al-Sabah ruling dynasty is currently led by aging family members; the emir and crown prince are all in their seventies, and unanswered succession questions linger.

The 2002-2003 buildup of American military forces in Kuwait, which served as a staging ground for the land war against Iraq, led to internal tensions and a spate of attacks against American forces. Kuwait designated over half of its territory to serve as staging territory for U.S. forces, and it also donated in-kind assistance such as fuel to the war effort.

In October, the cabinet approved a measure that would allow women to stand for office and vote in municipal council elections. The measure still needs approval from the all-male National Assembly, which has in the past blocked government proposals to open the door to women's full participation in political life.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Freely elected representatives do not determine the policies of Kuwait's government. The royal family of Kuwait, which is a hereditary emirate, largely sets the government's policy agenda. The country's emir has overriding power in the political system, appointing the prime minister and cabinet. Under the constitution, the emir holds executive power and shares legislative power with the 50-member National Assembly, which is elected by a limited popular vote involving only about 15 percent of the country's 860,000 citizens. The emir has the power to dissolve the National Assembly at will but must call elections within 60 days. The National Assembly is granted powers to overturn decrees from the emir issued during a period when the assembly is not in session, and the assembly has exercised this power in a number of cases. The National Assembly can veto the appointment of the country's prime minister, but then it must choose from three alternates put forward by the emir. Kuwaiti male citizens have only a limited ability to change their government. Women are completely excluded from the political process.

The government bans formal political parties, but it has allowed political groupings such as parliamentary blocs to emerge. The al-Sabah family dominates political life and controls meaningful power. Although the 1962 constitution provides men and women with equal rights, only men aged 21 or over can vote and run for office, according to the current election law.

The government, which owns all broadcast media, places restrictions on freedom of expression. However, it sometimes allows open criticism and debate on politics in the press. Overall, journalists in Kuwait enjoy greater freedom than do some of their regional counterparts, but the government continues to enforce laws that prohibit direct criticism of the emir and senior members of the royal family. In June, the government charged Mohammed Jassem, the editor of Al-Watan newspaper and an advocate for political reform, with challenging the authority of and "uttering abusive statements" about the emir. Irritated by satellite television station Al-Jazeera, the government closed the station's offices in Kuwait City.

Kuwaitis have access to the Internet, though Internet service providers have blocked access to certain sites. In May, the Ministry of Communications conducted raids on numerous Internet cafes on the basis that they were not blocking sites deemed immoral by Islamic members of the National Assembly. The Ministry of Communication issued new regulations that require Internet cafe owners to collect the names and civil identification numbers of customers.

Islam is the state religion, and religious minorities are generally permitted to practice their religion freely in private. Academic freedom is generally respected, though some exercise self-censorship. Kuwait has a tradition of allowing relatively open and free private discussions, often conducted in traditional gatherings called diwayniyas, and usually only including men.

The government restricts freedom of assembly and protest, and public gatherings require government approval. Kuwait does not have a single legally recognized independent human rights organization, and the civil society sector is small. Workers have the right to join labor unions, but the government restricts freedom of association by mandating that there only be one union per occupational trade.

Kuwait lacks a truly independent judiciary. The emir appoints all judges, and the executive branch of government approves judicial promotions and renewals of judicial appointments. According to Kuwaiti law, authorities may detain suspects for four days without charge. The Ministry of the Interior supervises the main internal security forces, including the national police, the Criminal Investigation Division, and the Kuwait State Security.

An estimated 80,000 stateless residents, known as bidoon, are considered illegal residents and do not have full citizenship rights.

Citizens have the right to own property and establish businesses. Oil dominates the economy, accounting for at least 85 percent of public revenues. In the coming year, one thorny issue of contention between the National Assembly and the government is Project Kuwait, a proposal to invite foreign oil majors to develop the emirate's northern oilfields. Lawmakers are seeking provisions that would prevent foreigners from gaining any substantial control over Kuwait's main national resource.

Women face discrimination in several areas of society and remain under-represented in the workforce, although they have made recent gains. According to recent statistics, women account for 34 percent of the workforce and receive two-thirds of the bachelor's degrees in Kuwait. Women have been fighting for full political participation for decades, but have been blocked by conservative male political leaders and Islamist groups.

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