Order Code RS21513
July 5, 2006
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Kuwait: Security, Reform, and U.S. Policy
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Kuwaiti leaders peacefully resolved a succession crisis that erupted following the
January 15, 2006 death of its long-ruling Amir. However, a new crisis erupted in May
2006 over the structure of the next parliamentary elections, prompting a dissolution of
the existing parliament and new elections on June 29, 2006. Women voted and ran for
the first time, but none won. This report will be updated. See also CRS Report
RL31533, The Persian Gulf States: Issues for U.S. Policy, 2004, by Kenneth Katzman.
Governmental Changes and Political Reform1
Kuwait’s optimism after the fall of its nemesis, Saddam Hussein, in 2003 was
interrupted by a succession crisis upon the January 15, 2006, death of Amir (ruler) Jabir
Ahmad al-Jabir Al Sabah at the age of 78. His relative, Crown Prince Shaykh Sa’d
Abdullah Al Sabah, was declared successor, but he is seriously ill , leading Prime
Minister Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al-Sabah (about 76, the younger brother of the
late Amir) and his branch of the Sabah family to challenge the succession. After
extensive discussions within the ruling family and with the elected National Assembly,
which had never before had a role in succession, Shaykh Sa’d abdicated, and the
Assembly formally affirmed Shaykh Sabah as the new Amir on January 29, 2006. The
peaceful handling of the succession crisis was widely hailed.
Amir Sabah subsequently sidestepped a tacit agreement to alternate succession
between the Jabir and Salem branches of the family by appointing members of his Jabir
branch as his Crown Prince/heir apparent (his half-brother, Shaykh Nawwaf al-Ahmad
Al Sabah, age 67) and Prime Minister (his nephew, Shaykh Nasser Muhammad al-Ahmad
Al Sabah, age 64). The highest ranking “Salem” in the new cabinet is Dr. Mohammad
Al Sabah, who kept his Foreign Minister post and simultaneously was made a second
Much of the information in this section is from the State Department’s country report on human
rights practices for 2005 (released March 8, 2006); the Department’s report on “Supporting
Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2005-2006, by the Bureau of Democracy,
Human Rights, and Labor (April 5, 2006); the International Religious Freedom Report
(November 8, 2005); and the Trafficking in Persons Report for 2006 (June 5, 2006).
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
deputy prime minister. However, in a further diminution of the Salem branch, a relative
from another branch, Shaykh Jabir al-Hamad Al Sabah was made first deputy prime
minister and given the powerful posts of defense and interior ministers. In other major
moves, two prominent reformists were removed from the cabinet, as was a prominent
hardline (Salafi) Sunni Islamist. A second Shiite Muslim was named, giving the cabinet
two Shiite ministers for the first time since 1992. The one woman, Massouma Mubarak,
was retained as Minister of Planning; she was first appointed in June 2005.
It was widely anticipated that, as Amir, Shaykh Sabah would accelerate political
reform, but he appears to want to ensure continued Sabah control of government. Kuwait
has the longest serving all-elected National Assembly of the Gulf monarchies; 50 seats
are elected, comprising two seats each from 25 districts, plus up to 15 ministers serving
in it ex-officio. The body was established by Kuwait’s November 1962 constitution, but
the Amir has sometimes used his power to dissolve the Assembly (1976-1981, 19861992, 1990, and 2003) when the Assembly aggressively challenged the government. The
Assembly can vote no confidence in ministers and can veto government decrees made
when the Assembly is not in session. Amir Sabah suspended the Assembly on May 21
and called new elections for June 29, 2006, after 29 members — an alliance of liberals
and Islamists — demanded to question the Prime Minister over the government’s refusal
to endorse a proposal to reduce the number of electoral districts to 5, from the current 25.
The reformists in the Assembly want to reduce the number of districts, and thereby
increase the size of each , so that it would be more difficult to influence the outcome
through alleged “vote buying” or tribal politics. Reformists, who attracted youth support
under a banner called the “Orange” movement, won a clear majority in the June 29
elections: 36 out of the 50 seats. None of the 28 female candidates (out of 249 total
candidates) won, even though women constituted 57% of the 340,000-person electorate.
The outcome sets up Sabah-parliament battles over a new cabinet and on the electoral
district issue. On other issues, the “Orange” camp could fracture because the Islamists
dominate this alliance. Islamists increased their number to 17 in the new Assembly, up
from 14, while liberals were reduced to six, from the previous eight. Turnout was 65%.
Reformists also want to see formal political parties allowed. They are prohibited
currently, although candidates are allowed to organize as informal currents, such as the
Salafi movement (hardline Islamists); the Islamic Constitutional Movement (Kuwait’s
branch of the Muslim Brotherhood); the “Popular Bloc” (merchants/nationalists); the
Kuwait Democratic Forum (liberal, pro-rapid reform); and tribal candidates. Kuwaitis
also have a parallel tradition of informal political consultations in nightly “diwaniyyas”
(social gatherings) held by many elites, including some women.
Kuwait is a country of about 2.4 million (900,000 are citizens). Over the past
decade, the government expanded the all-male electorate gradually2 by extending the
franchise to sons of naturalized Kuwaitis and Kuwaitis naturalized for at least twenty (as
opposed to thirty) years, but these modifications raised the electorate to only about
130,000, or about 15% of the citizenry. The long deadlock on female suffrage began to
break in May 2004, after the government submitted to the Assembly a bill to give women
the right to vote and run. (A government attempt in May 1999 to institute female suffrage
This election was held one year earlier than expected because new elections were required after
a brief Assembly suspension by the Amir, precipitated by Assembly challenges on several issues.
by decree was vetoed by the Assembly.) In May 2005, then Prime Minister Shaykh Sabah
pressed the Assembly to adopt the government bill, which it did on May 16, 2005 ( 3523), effective as of the next National Assembly elections. Islamist deputies succeeded in
adding a clause that will require gender-segregated polling places (or entrances).
According to the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait uses various
programming tools, including dialogue and public diplomacy and funds from the Middle
East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), to encourage democracy. The Embassy has sponsored
several Kuwaitis, particularly women, to attend regional and U.S. conferences and
training programs. MEPI funds have been used to fund political education brochures for
Kuwaiti women, among other uses. U.S. embassy officers attend nightly diwaniyyas and
conferences to promote rule of law, civil society, women’s empowerment, labor rights,
and democratization. Several Kuwaiti non-government organizations, such as the Kuwait
Women’s Cultural and Social Society, actively promote democratization.
The State Department human rights report for 2005 noted progress particularly on
female suffrage but says “serious problems remained.” Shiite Muslims report official
discrimination, including limited access to religious education, although the State
Department’s religious freedom report for 2005 noted some improvement over the past
year. Reports of abuses continue, mostly of Asian domestic workers. Kuwait was
designated by the State Department “Trafficking in Persons” report for 2006 (released
June 3, 2005) as a “Tier Two-Watch List.” The rating is an upgrade from the 2005 report
(Tier Three, worst level) because Kuwait has pledged significant efforts to comply with
minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. Official press censorship ended in
1992, and a vibrant press often criticizes the government. Kuwait permits some public
worship by non-Muslim faiths and has seven officially recognized Christian churches of
various denominations. The government allows one trade union per occupation, but the
only legal trade federation is the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF). Foreign
workers, with the exception of domestic workers, are allowed to join unions.
U.S.-Kuwait Relations and Cooperation on Iraq
A U.S. consulate was opened in Kuwait in October 1951; it was elevated to an
embassy upon Kuwait’s independence from Britain in 1961. Kuwait, the first Gulf state
to establish relations with the Soviet Union in the 1960s, was not particularly close to the
United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Relations warmed considerably at the height of the
Iran-Iraq war (1987-88), when the United States established a U.S. naval escort and tanker
reflagging program to protect Kuwaiti and international shipping from Iranian naval
attacks (Operation Earnest Will).
Kuwait’s leaders were shaken by the 1990 Iraqi invasion, and they were heavily
criticized domestically for failing to mount a viable defense. The country drew even
closer to the United States after U.S. forces led the January-March 1991 Persian Gulf war
that liberated Kuwait, and it signed a ten-year defense pact with the United States on
September 19, 1991 (the text is classified) . In September 2001, the pact was renewed for
another ten years. The pact reportedly does not explicitly require that the United States
defend Kuwait in a future crisis, but provides for mutual discussions of crisis options . It
also is said to provide for joint military exercises, U.S. training of Kuwaiti forces, U.S.
arms sales, pre-positioning of U.S. military equipment (enough armor to outfit a U.S.
brigade), and U.S. access to Kuwaiti facilities. A related Status of Forces Agreement
(SOFA) provides that U.S. forces in Kuwait be subject to U.S. rather than Kuwaiti law.
Kuwait contributed materially to the 1991 war and subsequent containment efforts ,
paying $16.059 billion to offset the costs of Desert Shield/Desert Storm (all received by
the end of 1991). It funded two thirds of the $51 million per year U.N. budget for the
Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission (UNIKOM) that monitored the Iraq-Kuwait border until
the 2003 war , and it contributed about $350 million per year to pay for costs incurred by
the U.S. military in its Kuwait-based Iraq containment operations. During the 1990s,
Kuwait hosted about 1,000 U.S. Air Force personnel performing the U.S. and British-led
enforcement of a “no fly zone” over southern Iraq (Operation Southern Watch) which
ended after Saddam Hussein was toppled. Kuwait hosted additional U.S. forces (about
5,000) during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan that ousted the Taliban.
Kuwait privately supported the Bush Administration’s decision to militarily
overthrow Saddam Hussein (Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)), even though it joined other
Arab states in publicly opposing the U.S. action. Kuwait closed off 60% of its territory
in order to secure the U.S.-led invasion force of about 250,000 personnel and several
thousand pieces of armor. It allowed U.S. forces to use two air bases that the United
States had helped upgrade (Ali al-Salem and Ali al-Jabir), as well as its international
airport and sea ports. Kuwait provided $266 million in burdensharing support to the
combat, including base support, personnel support, and supplies such as food and fuel.
Since then, according to Defense Department budget documents, Kuwait contributed $213
million in burdensharing support to OIF in FY2005, and is expected to contribute $210
million in both FY2006 and FY2007. Kuwait also built a water line into Iraq, assists the
Polish-led security sector in Hilla, Iraq, and it runs a humanitarian operation center (HOC)
that has funneled over $500 million in assistance to Iraqis since Saddam fell.
Kuwait hosts as many as 90,000 U.S. military personnel, mostly rotating in or out
of the 133,000-person U.S. force in Iraq. However, only about 10,000 (military and
civilian) Defense Department personnel are based in Kuwait more permanently, down
from 18,000 in 2005, according to U.S. military officials in Kuwait. The key U.S. staging
facility in Kuwait for OIF is Camp Arifjan and a desert firing range facility, Camp
Buehring. Camp Doha, the facility that had been the primary command facility for U.S.
forces in Kuwait during the 1990s, was vacated by U.S. forces in December 2005. In part
to express appreciation for Kuwait’s support to OIF, on April 1, 2004, the Bush
Administration designed Kuwait as a “major non-NATO ally (MNNA),” a designation
held by only one other Gulf state (Bahrain). Partly to reciprocate U.S. friendship, Kuwait
pledged $500 million worth of oil to U.S. states affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Another of Kuwait’s concerns has been discovering the fate of about 600 Kuwaitis
missing from the 1991 war; the bodies of about 400 of them have been found in postSaddam searches. Kuwait also wants to receive the U.N.-supervised reparations by Iraq
for damages caused from the 1990 invasion; an estimated half of the awards judgments
announced to date are to Kuwait’s government or firms. However, U.N. Security Council
Resolution 1483 (May 22, 2003) reduced to 5%, from 25%, the percentage of Iraqi oil
revenues deducted for reparations, reducing the rate of reparations payouts. Kuwait
reportedly pledged to U.S. envoy James A. Baker that it would forgive a substantial
portion of the $25 billion Iraq owes Kuwait, mostly incurred during the Iran-Iraq war.3
Kuwait and Iraq have re-established diplomatic relations, although Kuwait has some
concerns about the Shiite Islamist factions that are ascendant in Iraq. It has pledged to
send an ambassador to Baghdad but has not done so to date out of security concerns.
About 25% of Kuwait’s population are Shiite Muslims, the sect that predominates in Iran,
and Kuwaiti leaders have always feared that this community could be manipulated by
Iran, even though Kuwait’s Shiites are well integrated into its economy. Many Kuwaitis
recall a period of Shiite-led terrorism in Kuwait, including the December 1983 bombings
of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait and an attempted assassination of the Amir
in May 1985. Those attacks were attributed to the Iraqi Da’wa (Islamic Call) Party;
seventeen Da’wa activists were arrested for these attacks and a Kuwait Airlines plane
was hijacked in 1987 with the demand that the prisoners be released; they were not.
Iraq’s two elected prime ministers, Ibrahim al-Jafari and Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, are
leaders of the Da’wa Party, but there is no evidence that they participated in these attacks.
U.S. officials say that the U.S.-Kuwait defense relationship has improved the quality
of the Kuwaiti military, particularly the air force. The military, which numbered about
17,000 before the 1990 Iraqi invasion, has now nearly regained that strength (15,500), but
it is fewer than the 25,000 troops recommended in 1991 U.S. and British studies of
Kuwait’s needs. Recent sales of major systems to Kuwait have encountered little
congressional opposition. Kuwait is a “cash customer”: it is not eligible to receive U.S.
excess defense articles and receives no U.S. assistance. Major post-1991 Foreign Military
Sales (FMS)4 include (1) the purchase of 218 M1A2 tanks at a value of $1.9 billion in
1993 (deliveries were completed in 1998); (2) a 1992 purchase of 5 Patriot anti-missile
fire units, including 25 launchers and 210 Patriot missiles, valued at about $800 million
(delivery completed in 1998). Some of them were used to intercept Iraqi short-range
missiles launched at Kuwait in the 2003 war; (3) a 1992 purchase of 40 FA-18 combat
aircraft (delivery completed in 1999); and (4) a September 2002 purchase of 16 AH-64
(Apache) helicopters equipped with the Longbow fire-control system, a deal valued at
about $940 million. Kuwait is said to be considering purchasing about 10 additional FA18s, but it may not view new purchases as urgent now that Saddam is gone.
Other Foreign Policy Issues
After Kuwait’s liberation in 1991, Kuwait’s fear of Iraq colored virtually all of its
foreign policy decisions, particularly its relations with entities that sympathized with
Iraq’s 1990 invasion. On the Arab-Israeli dispute, Kuwait has tried to remain within a
broad Gulf state consensus, although it was far more critical than were the other Gulf
states of the late Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat because he publicly supported Iraq in the
1991 Gulf war. As a result of that alignment, about 450,000 Palestinian workers were
expelled or pressured to leave Kuwait after the 1991 war. Since Arafat’s death, Kuwait
has rebuilt its relations with the mainstream Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership,
including president Mahmoud Abbas. Nonetheless, the Washington Post reported in May
Baker Secures Promises of Iraq Debt Relief From Gulf Oil States. Agence France Presse,
January 21, 2004.
Information in this section provided by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. March 2004.
2005 that Kuwait is still $140 million behind in disbursing pledged aid to the PA, a larger
arrearage than any Arab state other than Libya. On February 13, 2006, Kuwait publicly
said it would work with Hamas as legitimate leader of a new Palestinian government, a
result of Hamas’s victory in January 25, 2006 Palestinian elections. In March 2006, it
pledged $7.5 million per month in aid to the Hamas-led government as part of a broader
Arab League pledge of $55 million per month to help the Palestinians cope with
reductions in Western aid. Kuwait participated in multilateral peace talks with Israel that
took place during 1992-1997, although it did not host any sessions. In 1994, Kuwait was
key in persuading the other Gulf monarchies to cease enforcement of the secondary (trade
with firms that deal with Israel) and tertiary (trade with firms that do business with
blacklisted firms) Arab boycotts of Israel.
Cooperation in Global War on Terrorism. The State Department report on
global terrorism for 2005 (released April 28, 2006) credits Kuwait for bolstering measures
to protect U.S. forces in Kuwait from terrorist attacks but notes that Kuwait has been
“reluctant to confront extremist elements within the local population.” Shortly after the
September 11, 2001, attacks, Kuwait moved to block the accounts of suspected Al Qaeda
activists in Kuwait. A June 2005 State Department fact sheet says it has established an
office at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor to monitor Islamic charities such as the
Islamic Heritage Revival. Nonetheless, some attacks have occurred in Kuwait. During
October 2002 - December 2003, one U.S. marine and one U.S. defense contractor were
killed by alleged Al Qaeda gunmen in four attacks there. Since January 2005, Kuwaiti
security forces have engaged terrorists in at least five confrontations in Kuwait City,
resulting in the deaths of the gunmen as well as some Kuwaiti security personnel. None
of the attacks reached any U.S. targets in Kuwait. In December 2005, Kuwait convicted
six men of belonging to a terrorist group (“Lions of the Peninsula”) allegedly planning
attacks on U.S. troops in Kuwait. In May 2006, Kuwaiti judges dismissed charges against
five Kuwaitis who were repatriated from the U.S. facility at Guatanamo Bay.
Although Kuwait has a relatively open economy, U.S. officials have attempted to
persuade Kuwait to open its economy to foreign investment in order to attract technology
and expand the private sector. Kuwait’s state-owned oil industry still accounts for 75%
of government income and 90% of export earnings. The United States imports about
260,000 barrels per day in crude oil from Kuwait, equal to about 3% of U.S. oil imports.
Kuwait’s proven crude oil reserves are about 95 billion barrels, about 10% of total proven
world oil reserves and enough for about 140 years at current production levels (about 2.5
million barrels per day (mbd)). The Kuwaiti government wants to open its northern oil
fields to needed foreign investment (“Project Kuwait”) to raise oil production to 4.0 mbd
by the year 2020. Project Kuwait itself would generate about 500,000 barrels per day of
production. However, the National Assembly has blocked the $8.5 billion project for
about a decade because of concerns about Kuwait’s sovereignty. Assembly action might
hinge on the outcome of the June 2006 elections. Several U.S. energy firms, including
ExxonMobil, Chevron Corporation, and ConocoPhillips, are part of consortia that want
to bid on the project. In 1994, Kuwait became a founding member of the World Trade
Organization (WTO). In February 2004, the United States and Kuwait signed a Trade and
Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), often viewed as a prelude to a free trade
agreement (FTA), which Kuwait has said it seeks.