Kuwait (country), Islamic constitutional monarchy in southwestern Asia,
located at the northwestern tip of the Persian Gulf. The country is bordered
on the north and west by Iraq, on the south and west by Saudi Arabia, and
on the east by the Persian Gulf. The capital is Kuwait city. For many years
Kuwait was a small emirate whose economy centered on sea trade and especially
pearl exports. The discovery of oil in the 20th century transformed all
aspects of Kuwaiti society, and today the country has one of the highest
per capita incomes in the world.
II. Land and Resources
Kuwait is one of the world's smallest countries, occupying 17,818 sq km (6,880 sq mi). The greatest distance from north to south is 200 km (120 mi) and from east to west 170 km (110 mi). The terrain consists of flat desert with some small rolling hills. Kuwait also includes several offshore islands, the largest of which is Bubiyan, near the Iraqi border. The only island with a significant population is Faylakah, although much of the population has not returned since the end of the Persian Gulf War (1991). Kuwait has no lakes and rivers and few sources of fresh water. Drinking water is available only from underground aquifers and through desalination of (removal of salt from) seawater. The climate is extremely hot in the summer, with temperatures routinely surpassing 45° C (113° F). The average temperature in January, the coldest month, is 13.5° C (56° F). Annual rainfall is typically less than 127 mm (5 in) per year, and almost all of it falls in the cooler winter.
Kuwait's only significant natural resource is petroleum, the country's
main economic product. The dry climate and barren soil have historically
made farming nearly impossible, but in recent years desalination has allowed
limited farming. Without the economic resources available from oil, the
Kuwaiti environment would be too harsh to support a substantial population.
III. The People of Kuwait
In 2000 Kuwait had an estimated population of 2,067,728. The average population density was 116 persons per sq km (301 per sq mi). Most of the population is concentrated in cities near or along the Persian Gulf coast. Approximately 45 percent of the people are native Kuwaitis, while the remainder of the population, for the most part, are foreign workers. The majority of immigrants are from other Arab countries as well as Iran, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. Kuwait also has a significant population classified as bidun (Arabic for “without”), who are not citizens of any country. Many bidun claim to have lived in Kuwait for generations without receiving citizenship, while Kuwait claims they are recent immigrants who should not be granted full citizenship. Among Kuwaiti citizens the population growth rate is very high, probably owing to Kuwait's prosperity and high level of health care and social services. Nearly 50 percent of the population was younger than 25 years old in 1997.
The capital and original settlement, Kuwait city, is small in both area and population. Most of the country's people live in this city's suburbs and a few outlying towns. Even most of Kuwait's Bedouin—Arabs who are traditionally nomadic—have settled into permanent residences in the districts outside the capital. Thus, virtually the entire population is urban. Kuwaitis often refer to “inner” Kuwait with its more liberal and cosmopolitan atmosphere and “outer” Kuwait, farther from the central city, where conservative Bedouin and tribal influences are stronger.
Kuwait's official language is Arabic, which is spoken by all citizens. Both Arabic and English are taught in Kuwaiti schools, and English is widely used among Kuwait's many foreign communities. Because Islam is the official religion, all Kuwaiti citizens are Muslim, and Islamic practices, such as fasting during the month of Ramadan, are widely observed. Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population while Shiites make up about one-third. Foreigners living in the country are free to practice their own religions, but conversion by a Muslim to another religion is not allowed. Although Kuwait follows the Western calendar for business purposes, Islamic feasts and festivals, which follow the lunar Islamic calendar, dominate the year.
Oil revenues have allowed Kuwait to build an extensive educational system, yielding a literacy rate of 82 percent. Public school is free and compulsory from the age of 6 to 14, and several private schools also teach this age group. Kuwait University (founded in 1966) is also free and offers programs in a wide range of professional and scientific fields at several campuses. Both the extensive library system at Kuwait University and the collection at Kuwait National Museum (1957) were heavily damaged and looted during the Iraqi occupation in the Persian Gulf War.
Kuwait offers free medical care to all residents, including citizens of other countries. The government also provides several other benefits, including housing subsidies, without levying taxes. As a result, many Kuwaitis depend on the government for support, but poverty, unemployment, and crime are low by global standards. However, affluence and rapid change have brought their own difficulties. By hiring many foreign workers, Kuwaitis have made themselves a minority in their own country. Relations between Kuwaitis and immigrants are sometimes strained, and foreigners often complain of unfair treatment in the workplace. Obtaining Kuwaiti citizenship is extremely difficult, further widening the gulf between the two groups. Among Kuwaitis, the rapid expansion of educational opportunities, wealth, and foreign travel has led many older people to feel estranged from the younger generation.
Kuwaitis tend to have strong attachments to their families. A house is designed to show little to the outside world, and often has a nearby structure, called a diwaniyya, for receiving guests. Men spend much of their evenings in the diwaniyyas with friends and associates while women are usually inside the house. In large part because cultural life is centered around home and diwaniyya, there are few theaters or other places of public entertainment.
Most Kuwaiti men wear a modified form of traditional gown called the dishdasha along with Arab headdress. Kuwaiti women wear a wide variety of clothing, from jeans to loosely fitting gowns and head coverings. Foreigners tend to dress the way they would in their home countries, although more revealing clothing, such as shorts, is frowned upon. Thanks to the large immigrant population, many types of food are available in Kuwait, especially Lebanese and Indian food. In accordance with Islamic teaching, alcohol and pork products are banned. Team sports, especially soccer, are popular in Kuwait. Many Kuwaitis also enjoy maritime sports such as sailing, yachting, and fishing.
Men and women are often treated differently under Kuwaiti law, sometimes,
but not always, leaving women at a disadvantage. Women face no formal impediments
to any field of employment, and it is not unusual to find women in senior
positions. However, women do not serve in the army or police, nor as judges,
ministers, or members of parliament. Kuwait is also one of the few countries
in the world where women are not allowed to vote. Kuwaiti women have access
to the same free education as Kuwaiti men. Women are limited neither in
how they dress nor where they may appear in public, but many conservative
families forbid women from leaving home at night and require women to wear
traditional clothing. Men face some restrictions in public places like
restaurants and shopping malls that are sometimes restricted to families—that
is, unaccompanied men may not enter.
Kuwait is one of the world's richest countries per capita. Its initial prosperity was founded almost completely on oil reserves, which, at an estimated 98 billion barrels, is roughly one-tenth of the world's total. Over time, however, Kuwait used oil earnings to make large investments abroad. By 1990 the country earned more from foreign investment than from oil exports. The expenses of the Iraqi invasion and postwar reconstruction placed a heavy economic burden on the country, but by the mid-1990s Kuwait had resumed its preinvasion prosperity. Gross domestic product (GDP) for 1998 was $25.2 billion, giving Kuwait a per capita GDP of $13,490. The labor force totals 727,779 people, only about one-quarter of whom are Kuwaiti citizens.
Because the government owns the oil industry, it controls most of the economy—in all, about 75 percent of GDP. Kuwait's oil exports vary depending on internal needs (almost all of Kuwait's energy is derived from oil), international demand and prices, and production quotas fixed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), of which Kuwait is a member. OPEC's quotas, however, are difficult to enforce, and Kuwait and other countries have been accused of violating them. In 1998 oil production was 762 million barrels. While efforts have been made to encourage local agriculture and industry, Kuwait imports most products, including a wide range of food and manufactured goods. Imports totaled $7.3 billion in 1998, while exports amounted to $9.4 billion. Leading purchasers of Kuwait's exports are Japan, the United States, the Netherlands, and Singapore; chief sources for imports are the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, France, and India. The Central Bank of Kuwait in the capital issues Kuwait's currency, the Kuwaiti dinar, which is valued at 0.30 dinars per U.S. $1 (1998 average).
Kuwait's transportation system is modern and efficient, with a road system that is well developed by regional standards. Roads total 4,450 km (2,765 mi), of which 81 percent are paved, and most people travel by automobile. A small public bus system serves mainly foreign workers. An international airport is located on the southern outskirts of the Kuwait city metropolitan area and Kuwait Airways is the national airline. The country has three modern seaports, one of which specializes in oil exports.
Kuwait has a lively press with several independently owned daily newspapers
that publish in Arabic and English. Formal press censorship ended in 1992,
and today newspapers argue vigorously about most public issues. However,
certain subjects (such as the emir) are considered beyond public criticism.
Television, radio, and the Kuwaiti News Agency (KUNA) remain under government
control and are less spirited.
Kuwait is governed by its 1962 constitution, which established a National Assembly that shares power with an emir (prince) from the Sabah family. The emir suspended the constitution and parliament from 1976 to 1980 and again from 1986 to 1992, both times for loosely specified reasons. Although the emir and his family dominate the political system, there are significant elements of a parliamentary democracy. When the emir attempted to create a purely consultative national council in 1990 to replace the parliament, the opposition boycotted elections. Before the issue could be resolved, Iraq invaded. In return for unity during the invasion, the emir agreed to restore the constitution and parliament.
Fifty members are elected to the unicameral (one-house) National Assembly every four years. Only men who are at least 21 years old and have lived in Kuwait for at least 20 years may vote, and police and military personnel are excluded from voting. The emir selects a prime minister who in turn selects a cabinet of ministers. Neither the prime minister nor the cabinet ministers have to be members of the assembly. The assembly has the authority to withdraw confidence from the cabinet or from individual ministers, but it has rarely done so. The crown prince, heir apparent to the emir, has traditionally served as prime minister. The most important cabinet posts, such as the ministries of defense, foreign affairs, and interior, have generally remained within the Sabah family as well. Other cabinet members are typically selected from the assembly and experts in the general population. The assembly's role in day-to-day governing is limited, but it has the exclusive right to pass laws—a field where it has often displayed independence from the government. Parliamentary debates are often vigorous and members feel free to criticize the government, its policies, and each other vociferously, although the emir is never personally criticized.
Kuwait has three courts: primary, appellate, and supreme. There are also specialized courts for administrative, military, and constitutional cases. Most Kuwaiti law is modeled after European law. Personal matters, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance, are governed by Islamic law but handled by the regular court system. The majority of judges are Kuwaiti, although the shortage of labor prompted the government to hire judges from other Arab countries.
Formal political parties in Kuwait have no legal standing. However, the government tolerates umbrella organizations with strong ideological tendencies that air many different views. Most of these organizations are either traditional and Islamic or liberal and secular (nonreligious), and within these factions are further divisions. Many leading merchant families use the country's chamber of commerce to play a strong political role. Even without parties, affiliations are widely known.
Kuwaiti men are required to serve two years in the armed forces beginning at the age of 18. However, exemptions are easily granted, such as for schooling, and most Kuwaitis who wish to avoid service are able to do so. Before 1990 the army had 16,000 troops, the air force 2,200, and the navy 1,800. Following the Persian Gulf War, these numbers dropped to less than half their prewar strength. The government implemented a plan to increase overall armed strength to 30,000. To reach this goal, the requirement of service must be enforced more stringently. In 1998 army troop forces numbered 11,000, the navy totaled 1,800 members, and the Kuwaiti air force had 2,500 personnel.
Kuwait relies heavily on international alliances. Following independence
in 1961, Kuwait joined the United Nations and the Arab League. At the beginning
of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Kuwait joined other small, oil-rich states
in the region to form the Gulf Cooperation Council. In 1991, after Iraq
was evicted from Kuwait, Kuwait signed a ten-year defense agreement with
the United States. Agreements were also made with some European and Arab
states, although Kuwait considers the United States its chief international
protector. A small contingent of American troops is stationed west of the
capital; they have been joined by larger forces during times of crisis
or military exercises.
The area around Kuwait has been settled for thousands of years, although the harsh physical conditions have led to shifting populations. In the 18th century several groups migrated from the interior of the Arabian Peninsula and settled at the site of present-day Kuwait city. One family, the Sabahs, established themselves as rulers. Economic activity centered around pearling and long-distance trade. In the late 19th century, the British established a presence in the area to secure the lines of communication and transportation to India. In particular, the British formed close relationships with local rulers who were anxious to assert their autonomy from the Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of the area. In 1899 Mubarak al-Sabah, then ruler of Kuwait, signed an agreement with Britain, making Kuwait a protectorate of the British Empire. Britain gained control over Kuwait's foreign and defense affairs and in return protected Kuwait and allowed the Sabahs to rule over internal affairs.
Oil was discovered in Kuwait in the late 1930s, but not until after World War II (1939-1945) did Kuwait begin to export large quantities of oil. Oil wealth transformed the society. Large-scale construction and economic development became possible, and since the government controlled oil revenues, the power of the Sabah family grew as well. Oil wealth also brought more contact with the outside world, and many younger Kuwaitis favored the pan-Arab movement, which sought greater ties among Arab countries.
In 1961 Britain granted independence to Kuwait. Iraq, which had long claimed Kuwait was part of southern Iraq, argued that Kuwait had been separated from it illegitimately. After being pressured by Arab countries and Britain, Iraq eventually backed down from its claim. The emir of Kuwait nonetheless felt it necessary to promote national unity. He allowed elections for a constituent assembly, which took place in late 1961, and the assembly wrote a constitution the following year that guaranteed the Sabah's dominance but allowed the people a role in government. On two occasions, in 1976 and 1986, the emir's successors suspended parts of the constitution, but on both occasions they later consented to renew constitutional life.
In the 1960s and 1970s Kuwait became a leading, although not radical, voice in support of Arab nationalism and Palestinian claims to a homeland. Pan-Arabism was popular, especially among students, and many Kuwaiti teachers and journalists were Palestinians. In 1980, when war broke out between Iran and Iraq, Kuwait helped the Arab Iraqis even though it exposed them to Iranian attacks. In 1990, however, relations with Iraq worsened. Iraq accused Kuwait of exceeding OPEC production quotas for oil and “stealing” more than $2 billion in oil from a contested reserve that lay beneath both countries. Iraq also demanded Kuwait cancel the debt Iraq owed from the Iran-Iraq War. When Saddam Hussein mobilized Iraqi troops on the border in late July, Kuwait had neither the military might nor the external protection to prevent an invasion. On August 2 Iraq invaded Kuwait and quickly overwhelmed Kuwaiti forces. An international force assembled in neighboring Saudi Arabia and evicted Iraq from Kuwait after six weeks of fighting in early 1991 (see Persian Gulf War).
As the Iraqis retreated, much of Kuwait's industry, infrastructure, and buildings were destroyed. Among the most heavily damaged were palaces of the royal family, government and other public buildings, oil wells, and roads. Looting was widespread, on both an individual and organized basis: entire collections from libraries, museums, and laboratories were transported to Iraq. Since the war, Kuwait has been largely rebuilt. However, due to later crises, such as a 1994 incident in which Iraq amassed troops near the Kuwaiti border, Kuwaitis are keenly aware of their country's vulnerability. Since the war, Kuwait has relied heavily on the United States for continued protection.