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State

Capital

Kuwait

Kuwait

Currency unit

Kuwait dinar

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History

An ancient Sheikhdom or Emirate at the head of the Gulf. It has been ruled by the Sabah family since 1757 when they emerged from what is now northern Saudi Arabia to conquer the area.

Before the discovery of oil it was unimportant in world terms - a fishing village. Was it part of the Ottoman Empire? This is disputed. One of the Emirs in the 19th century had the title of governor from the Ottomans 1866-92, but like many such governors his autonomy was so complete as to make the title an honor to him rather than implying power to the Turks. (The same was true of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.) But many of the Emirs paid a tribute to the Ottomans, implying overlordship. The Ottoman Empire was organized differently from the western empires and had similarities with medieval Europe in which feudal allegiance was frequently disputed.

The country was protected by the British from 1892 until 1961. Originally it may have been protected in order to deny it to Germany, Russia or the Ottomans. Since 1961 it has been independent under the rule of the Emir or Sheikh of Kuwait of the al Sabah family.

Kuwait's strategic importance was that it controlled the mouth of the Shatt al Arab as well as possessing large reserves of oil which began to be exploited from the late 1940s.

It was once much larger. The present borders were delineated in 1921 when a British political agent (representative of the Foreign Office) agreed with Iraq (controlled by Britain) to transfer a disputed part of the kingdom of Nejd (ruled by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia) to Basra Province. In return two thirds of the then Kuwait was transferred to Nejd, without consulting the Sheikh of Kuwait, reducing it to a small buffer state. It has been suggested that this was a British retaliation for Kuwait's support of the Ottomans during the war. However, the borders remained undecided in detail. One area, the neutral zone, was shared with Saudi Arabia for the purposes of extracting oil but is now absorbed into Saudi Arabia.

The Iraqis have argued that Kuwait was at one time administered from Iraq as part of the Ottoman Basra province and was therefore a separated part of Iraq. But in modern conditions and under international law membership of the United Nations of all existing states is regarded as the measure of legitimacy, rather than historical claims. Unions of states or changes of frontiers can only occur through voluntary agreement.

In 1938 Iraq asked the British for a lease of part of Kuwait to build a deep water port with a rail connection to Basra. This was the same intention as the 1990-91 Kuwait crisis. Iraq tried again in 1961. British troops were sent and the Iraqis did not invade.

Kuwait's relations with Iraq following independence were ambiguous. Although the country asserted its independence there are reports that the Kuwait government helped finance the Ba'ath revolutionary party in exchange for its renouncing claims to Kuwait. Kuwait also paid a lot of money to Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war, ostensibly as loans but in practice as grants. Protection money?

On 2 August 1990 Iraq invaded and conquered Kuwait after a short period of demands for frontier revision and for money. The aims of Saddam Hussein were believed to be to gain control of the access to the Gulf by occupying the islands of Bubyan and Warba, as well as the oil field of Rumaila, most of which was in Iraq. Control of the whole of Kuwait's oil production would have given him 4.4 mbd production capacity. He also wanted the cancellation of debts owed by Iraq to Kuwait. Saddam claimed, perhaps justifiably, that Kuwait had been drilling oil by slanted wells under the Iraqi frontier.

Saddam then declared Kuwait to be a province of Iraq.

Kuwait was the only Gulf state with an elected assembly (though by a very small electorate and without responsible control of the government) and a relatively free press, which may have caused some Saudi slowness in supporting Kuwait in the days before the invasion, as there is no free press there. It is said by some commentators that America and perhaps the rulers of Kuwait would have acquiesced in the Iraqi seizure of the islands and the oil field or would have negotiated Iraqi facilities in these areas. (Though Mrs. Thatcher is reported to have advised "no negotiations" ).

Kuwait's policy before the invasion had been based on its financial power and by offering large sums of money to its potential enemies (Iran and Iraq) and also to potential supporters by investments. Occupied Kuwait continued to be an important financial power as the government in exile controlled the investment funds created to sustain the state when the oil will be exhausted.

By offering jobs and residence (but not citizenship) to several hundred thousand Palestinians, Kuwaiti money in the form of remittances was the main source of income to the exiled Palestinians as well as those living in the West Bank and Gaza.

After Kuwait was reconquered from the Iraqi occupation the Emir promised elections and a democratic government, but proclaimed Martial Law. The new Kuwaiti government began pursuing the Palestinian and Sudanese residents and refused re-admittance to people who had been taken to Iraq. The policy appeared to be to reduce the foreign population in Kuwait.

The frontier was revised in Kuwait's favor: gaining part of Iraq's naval base at Umm Qasr and some of the disputed Rumaila oil field. In the latest war against Iraq a large part of the country was reserved for American and British forces.

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Like most of the Gulf states Kuwait is ruled by a family which derives its legitimacy from pre-modern times (when Kuwait City was a fishing and trading town and the surrounding land was inhabited by nomadic camel and sheep herders). The system of government is an outgrowth of traditional Arab practice in which the door of every official is supposed to be open to complainants. Is this a substitute for western democracy? Its advocates would claim that access to bureaucrats is easier than in the western system. The check against unlimited personal power is supposed to be the right to complain against lower officials. In addition the wise ruler appointed anonymous inspectors who would report on the honesty and efficiency of lower officials. The top man is supposed to make decisions only after discussion and consensus. In the traditional system the Sheikh could be deposed if unsatisfactory. How far can this system, which is still found in the other Gulf states, deal with the modern world of high finance? Moreover, there have been few independent reports on the actual working of the system but it is known there is a large degree of police supervision.

The 1962 independence constitution provided for a parliament. However, the government was responsible to the Emir rather than the parliament. The Emir suspended the parliament and ruled without it, using as a pretext the troubles of the Iran-Iraq war which threatened to spill over into Kuwait. In any case the parliament was elected only by the male heads of family registered as Kuwait citizens in 1920 - a very small part of the population of Kuwait. The Parliament was "suspended" by the Emir in 1986, probably on the advice of the king of Saudi Arabia.

Citizenship is divided into two categories: first class - those registered before 1920; second class those registered later. The vote, and hence entitlement to share in the oil wealth, is confined to those of the first class. Women had no political rights. Before the Iraqi invasion a majority of the population consisted of non-Kuwaiti resident foreigners who had no political rights. Many of these were Palestinians, including many who had been born in Kuwait but who still had no rights.

The Kuwaiti government in exile during the period of Iraqi occupation made promises about democracy, perhaps to encourage western public opinion but the restored government has not implemented these promises.

Its first act after liberation was to proclaim Martial Law, which the supporters of democracy in the country found discouraging. Its next act was to start persecuting the resident foreigners, especially the Palestinians and Sudanese. In the first month after liberation the royal family showed every sign of intending to restore its own power and to ignore the resistance forces who had actually stayed in the country during the occupation. No signs of democracy had appeared by August 1992. In particular there have been no moves to extend citizenship to those who in other states would be considered automatically entitled to it. 200,000 Badoun (outsiders) remain as at best second class citizens and in some cases excluded from the territory where they have lived all their lives or even had fought for in the Kuwait army.

Some of those Kuwaitis who remained under the occupation and organized a resistance resent the rule by those who ran away on the night of the invasion. Elections took place in October 1992 - but only on the former voters' roll of "first class" citizens. Opposition candidates won a majority of seats, even from the restricted electorate. Few expect the Emir to to be influenced. Opposition members tend to be Islamists rather than modernising liberals.

A parliament was elected with a majority of opposition members. It was dissolved in June 2012.

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Economics

An important oil state but before the invasion about half the state's income came from investments from the Fund for Future Generations. This was created to ensure an income when the oil eventually is exhausted. Following the Iraqi occupation the oil industry was crippled by the destruction of all the oil wells by fire and the destruction of the oil terminals and refineries. Production later resumed.

The Kuwaiti Investment Office is an important influence on the world's financial markets and holds shares in many of the world's important companies. The funds seem to be controlled by the Emir's family.

There is a question about how well the Fund has performed after the global financial crash of mainly western banks and financial organisations.

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Green/Ecology

The retreating Iraqis set fire to the oil fields before leaving. The toxic smoke covered the whole country and affected the Gulf area with lower temperatures, and poisonous fumes. Unburned oil soaked into the ground and affected the surface and the ground water and threatens to seep into the sea.

During the war the Iraqis let oil into the sea causing oil slicks which damaged the wild life and threatened the desalination plants of other countries, the main source of drinking water in the whole Gulf area. Other slicks were created by allied bombing.

The fires were extinguished but the land remains poisoned.

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Human Rights

Human rights in Kuwait are believed to have been better than in most other middle eastern states, but not based on a western pattern.

Since the expulsion of the Iraqi occupation forces there have been reports of torture by Kuwaitis of Palestinians and political dissidents. The Royal family remains the only source of power. Press censorship continues, though it was milder before the war than in other Arab states.

According to Amnesty International, the courts trying alleged traitors do not follow the international standards of the rule of law: hearing defense evidence, impartial judiciary, lack of torture.

People without first class Kuwaiti citizenship have few rights - the Bedoun - even if otherwise stateless.

Last revised 28/06/12

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