Capital: Kuwait City
Population: 2,985,000

Political Rights Score: 4 *
Civil Liberties Score: 5 *
Status: Partly Free

Explanatory Note

Ratings Change

Kuwait's civil liberties rating declined from 4 to 5 due to restrictions on freedom of expression including the legal harassment of critical journalists, as well as a ban on public rallies in September 2010.


In April, journalist Muhammad Abd al-Qader al-Jassem was convicted of slander after he criticized the country's prime minister. The conviction was overturned in July on appeal, though he faced additional charges at year's end, including the prospect of an 18-year prison sentence. The Interior Ministry banned public rallies in September after an escalation of sectarian tensions. That same month, authorities came under criticism for banning more than 30 books at one of the country's largest book fairs. In December, the government shut down the local bureau of the satellite television channel Al-Jazeera for its coverage of a brutal police crackdown on a public demonstration.

For more than 200 years, the al-Sabah dynasty has played a role in ruling Kuwait. A year after the country gained its independence from Britain in 1961, a new constitution gave broad powers to the emir and created the National Assembly. Iraqi forces invaded in August 1990, but a military coalition led by the United States liberated the country in February 1991.

Emirs have suspended the National Assembly two times, from 1976 to 1981 and from 1986 to 1992. After its restoration in 1992, the parliament played an active role in monitoring the emir and the government, often forcing cabinet ministers out of office and blocking legislation proposed by the ruling family. However, the legislature has also served as an impediment to progressive political change by rejecting measures on women's rights and economic reform.

After 28 years of rule, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah died in 2006. Despite fears of a contentious succession process, the cabinet and parliament removed his heir for health reasons and elevated Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the half-brother of the previous emir, as the new emir. In parliamentary elections that year, a coalition of liberals, Islamists, and nationalists campaigning against corruption captured a majority of seats.

The emir dissolved parliament in March 2008, leading to early elections in May. In November, members of the Salafi bloc in parliament demanded the right to question Prime Minister Nasser Mohammed al-Ahmed al-Sabah, a nephew of the emir, on corruption allegations. As a result of growing parliamentary anger, the prime minister and cabinet resigned that same month. In December, the emir accepted the cabinet's resignation. However, to demonstrate his displeasure with the parliament, he immediately reappointed his nephew as prime minister.

The prime minister finalized his new cabinet in January 2009, though no significant changes were made to the government. Opposition members of parliament quickly renewed calls to question cabinet members over the misuse of public funds, driving tensions to erupt yet again. The government resigned on March 16, leading the emir to dissolve the parliament two days later. For the third time in three years, parliamentary elections were held in May. Turnout was low, and the results were mixed, with Sunni Islamists, Shiites, liberals, and tribal representatives all winning seats. Following demands to investigate the prime minister on corruption allegations, the prime minister appeared before the parliament in December. His appearance marked the first time a Kuwaiti prime minister had ever been questioned by the legislature, though he won the subsequent vote of confidence.

Relations between the parliament and cabinet remained tense throughout 2010. In March, lawmakers questioned Information Minister Ahmad al Abdullah al Sabah on charges that he failed to restrict satellite television programming deemed insensitive to some Kuwaitis. The minister, who is also a member of the royal family, survived a no-confidence vote by a 23 to 22 margin. In December, several members of the opposition organized a public protest to voice their disapproval of proposed changes to the constitution. The protest proceeded despite a government ban on public demonstrations. Riot police cracked down violently on the protestors, seriously injuring several people.

Kuwait, which holds about 10 percent of the world's proven oil reserves, suffered an economic slowdown in 2009 following the collapse of oil prices in late 2008. Kuwait's economy rebounded in 2010 thanks to the rise of oil prices in 2009 and their stabilization in 2010. Oil dominates the economy, accounting for nearly 90 percent of public revenues.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Kuwait is not an electoral democracy. The ruling family largely sets the policy agenda and dominates political life. The emir has overriding power in the government system and appoints the prime minister and cabinet. Under the constitution, the emir shares legislative power with the 50-member National Assembly, which is elected to four-year terms by popular vote. The electorate consists of men and women over 21 years of age who have been citizens for at least 20 years; members of most security forces are barred from voting. A 2006 law reduced the number of multimember electoral districts from 25 to 5 in an effort to curb corruption and manipulation. The emir has the authority to dissolve the National Assembly at will but must call elections within 60 days. The parliament can overturn decrees issued by the emir while it was not in session. It can also veto the appointment of the country's prime minister, but then it must choose from three alternates put forward by the emir. The parliament also has the power to remove government ministers with a majority vote.

Formal political parties are banned. While political groupings, such as parliamentary blocs, have been allowed to emerge, the government has impeded their activities through harassment and arrests.

Corruption remains a dominant political issue, and lawmakers continue to pressure the government to address this problem. In July 2010, a Kuwaiti appeals court overturned the conviction of – and three month prison sentence for – Khalid al-Fadhala, a leader of the National Democratic Alliance, who accused the prime minister of corruption. Kuwait was ranked 54 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Kuwaiti authorities continue to limit criticism and debate on politics in the press. Press offenses are no longer criminal in nature, but offenders still face steep fines. Kuwaiti law also prohibits and continues to demand jail time for the publication of material that insults God, the prophets, or Islam, and forbids criticism of the emir, disclosing secret or private information, and calling for the regime's overthrow. In April 2010, a Kuwaiti court convicted journalist Muhammad Abd al-Qader al-Jassem to six months in prison for slander. He had criticized the country's prime minister in 2009 by suggesting that Nasser Mohammed al-Ahmed al-Sabah was unfit to lead and should resign from his post. Al-Jassem, who was sentenced in November to three months in prison for his criticism of the prime minister, continued to face more serious charges and a possible 18-year prison sentence for "instigating to overthrow the regime." He remained in prison at year's end.

Kuwait has more than 10 daily and weekly Arabic newspapers and two English-language dailies. The state owns four television stations and nine radio stations, but there are also a number of private outlets, including the satellite television station Al-Rai. Foreign media outlets have generally operated relatively freely in Kuwait. However, in December, the government shut down the bureau of satellite television channel Al-Jazeera for its coverage of a police crackdown on a political demonstration in the same month. Kuwaitis enjoy access to the internet, though the government has instructed internet service providers to block certain sites for political or moral reasons.

Islam is the state religion, but religious minorities are generally permitted to practice their faiths in private. Shiite Muslims, who make up around a third of the population, enjoy full political rights but are subject to some discrimination and harassment.

Academic freedom is generally respected. Kuwait has a tradition of allowing relatively open and free private discussion, often conducted in traditional gatherings (diwaniyat) that typically include only men. In September 2010, the government banned more than 30 books at one of the country's largest annual book fairs.

Freedoms of assembly and association are provided for by law, though the government constrains these rights in practice. Kuwaitis must notify authorities of a public meeting or protest, but do not need a permit. In August 2010, Shiite activist Yasser Abdullah Habib made provocative comments in London denouncing one of the prophet's wives, prompting some Kuwaiti Sunnis to call for public demonstrations. As sectarian tensions escalated, the Interior Ministry banned public rallies in September. Kuwaiti authorities responded by stripping Habib of his Kuwaiti citizenship. In December, riot police responded violently to protests against proposed changes to the constitution, seriously injuring several people.

The government routinely restricts the registration and licensing of associations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), forcing dozens of groups to operate without legal standing or state assistance. Representatives of licensed NGOs must obtain government permission to attend foreign conferences on behalf of their organizations. Workers have the right to join labor unions, but the country's labor law mandates that there be only one union per occupational trade. According to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, migrant workers enjoy limited legal protections against mistreatment or abuse by employers.

Kuwait lacks an independent judiciary. The emir appoints all judges, and the executive branch approves judicial promotions. Authorities may detain suspects for four days without charge. The Interior Ministry supervises the main internal security forces, including the national police, the Criminal Investigation Division, and Kuwait State Security. The government permits visits by human rights activists to prisons, where overcrowding remains a problem. In 2010, Kuwait enacted a disability rights act ensuring healthcare, education, and employment rights for the disabled.

Stateless residents, known as bidoon, are estimated to number 100,000. They are considered illegal residents, do not have full citizenship rights, and often live in wretched conditions. Kuwait is a destination country for human trafficking, generally from South Asia.

The 1962 constitution provides men and women with equal rights. Kuwaiti women have the right to vote and run as candidates in parliamentary and local elections. For the first time in Kuwait's history, four women won seats in the 2009 parliamentary elections. Women also comprise more than 60 percent of the student body at several leading Kuwaiti universities. Nevertheless, women face discrimination in several areas of law and society and remain underrepresented in the workforce. The country's public schools have remained segregated since 2001. Women are offered some legal protections from abuse and discrimination, but they are only permitted to seek a divorce in cases where they have been deserted or subject to domestic violence. Women must have a male guardian in order to marry and are eligible for only one half of their brother's inheritance. In 2009, Kuwait's Constitutional Court granted married women the right to obtain passports and to travel without their husband's permission. Domestic abuse and sexual harassment are not specifically prohibited by law, and foreign domestic servants remain particularly vulnerable to abuse and sexual assault.

* Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.