Kuwait is a constitutional emirate ruled by the Sabah family. While the monarchy holds executive power and dominates most state institutions, the elected parliament plays an influential role, often challenging the government. State authorities impose some constraints on civil liberties, including speech and assembly, and the country’s large population of noncitizen workers faces particular disadvantages.
- Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, aged 83, was installed as the new emir in September after his predecessor and half-brother, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, died at age 91. In October, Sheikh Nawaf appointed his half-brother Sheikh Meshaal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, aged 80, as the new heir apparent.
- As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities imposed a nationwide lockdown in March, subsequently lifting the restrictions in phases through August. However, a ban on public gatherings remained in place. Migrant workers, who suffered from loss of employment and overcrowded living conditions during the year, mounted protests despite the ban. By year’s end the country had reported more than 150,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and about 940 deaths.
- In August, the parliament passed Kuwait’s first law to combat domestic violence, following years of campaigning by women’s rights activists.
- Parliamentary elections were held in December, and 24 of the 50 winning candidates were broadly aligned with the political opposition. Many incumbents lost their seats, including the sole female member.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The hereditary emir holds extensive executive powers. Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah became the new ruler in September 2020, after the death of his half-brother and predecessor, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, who was 91 and had reigned since 2006. Sheikh Nawaf appointed another half-brother, Sheikh Meshaal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, as his heir apparent in October. The parliament, which must approve the choice of heir by majority vote, did so unanimously, though the ruling family has been under growing pressure to plan a transition to a younger generation.
The emir chooses the prime minister and appoints cabinet ministers on the prime minister’s recommendation. At least one cabinet minister must be an elected member of parliament. The parliament can remove cabinet ministers through a vote of no confidence, and the emir can respond to a similar vote against the prime minister either by forming a new cabinet or by dissolving the parliament and holding elections. All prime ministers and most senior cabinet ministers have been members of the ruling family. Current prime minister Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah was appointed in 2019.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
The 50-member National Assembly (parliament) is elected by popular vote on a formally nonpartisan basis. The emir may appoint up to 15 cabinet ministers who were not elected members of the assembly, and these are considered additional ex-officio members, though no ministers can take part in confidence votes.
The parliament serves terms of up to four years. The emir and the Constitutional Court, which lacks independence, have the power to dissolve the assembly, and the executive can thereby determine the timing of elections to suit its political priorities. This has occurred four times since 2011, usually when serious disputes arose between lawmakers and senior ministers from the ruling family. However, the parliament elected in 2016 served its full four-year term.
Elections were held on schedule in December 2020, with a reported voter turnout of about 70 percent. As in the 2016 elections, 24 of the successful candidates were broadly aligned with the opposition, including Islamist and liberal blocs, but there was also significant turnover, with just 19 of the 43 incumbents who ran winning seats. Nine candidates who did not win seats launched an appeal claiming that there were irregularities including vote buying, falsified voter addresses, and failure to check the identities of voters. Alleged vote buying has been a long-standing problem.
A local nongovernmental organization (NGO), the Kuwait Transparency Society, observed the 2020 polls, but only five observers were allowed, rather than the usual 15, ostensibly because of COVID-19 restrictions. Pandemic-related constraints also prevented normal election rallies, but there was extensive online campaigning ahead of the vote.
Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because parliamentary elections were held at the end of the legislature’s full term, breaking a pattern of early dissolutions and snap voting that disadvantaged the opposition, and because the balloting proved relatively competitive despite some chronic flaws and new public health constraints.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
Elections are administered by the Interior Ministry rather than an independent institution, and the electoral system lacks transparency, as evidenced by an opaque voter registration process. Kuwaiti elections are relatively competitive by the standards of the region, but they are not typically observed by independent, well-established monitoring organizations, and corruption in campaigns remain a concern.
The emir has implemented changes to electoral laws in close proximity to elections. In 2012, two months ahead of elections, Sheikh Sabah issued a decree that reduced the number of candidates elected in each district from four to one; opposition forces claimed that the move was designed to reduce their strength, as they had been able to build successful alliances under the previous system.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
Formal political parties are banned, and while parliamentary blocs are permitted and exist in practice, the prohibition on parties tends to inhibit political organization among like-minded candidates.
Politicians have some space to criticize the government, but those who have seriously challenged the emir’s authority have faced criminal charges. In 2018 the Cassation Court ordered the imprisonment of a group of opposition figures, including two sitting and several former lawmakers, on long-contested charges related to the storming of the parliament building during 2011 protests calling for the resignation of the prime minister. One of the former lawmakers who was imprisoned, prominent opposition leader Musallam al-Barrak, had completed a two-year prison term in 2017 on separate charges of insulting the emir; those charges stemmed from his strong public opposition to the new 2012 electoral law.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
The constitutional system does not allow democratic transfers of power at the executive level. Opposition blocs are able to gain representation in the parliament, but after their victory in early 2012 was controversially annulled, they boycotted elections in late 2012 and 2013; since the changes to the electoral laws in 2012 they have not held a majority.
Candidates aligned with the opposition won 24 out of 50 seats in the parliament elected in December 2020, including three members of the local affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that is banned in most other Persian Gulf monarchies.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
The hereditary emir and the ruling family frequently interfere in political processes, including through the harassment of political and media figures, and the government impedes the activities of opposition parliamentary blocs. It has been alleged that senior members of the ruling family provide economic resources to favored politicians and journalists in order to exert political influence.
In the absence of political parties, major tribes hold their own informal and technically illegal primary elections to unite their members behind certain parliamentary candidates, who then typically use their public office to generate economic benefits for members of their tribe.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
The electorate consists of men and women over 21 years of age who have been citizens for at least 20 years and who have a Kuwaiti father. Most members of state security agencies are barred from voting.
Access to citizenship is tightly restricted. About 70 percent of the country’s residents are noncitizens, primarily from South Asian and other Arab countries, who have no right to vote even if they are lifelong residents. Naturalization is extremely rare for people born abroad or without a Kuwaiti father, and it is not permitted for non-Muslims. More than 100,000 residents, known as bidoon, are stateless; many of them claim Kuwaiti nationality and descent, but official processes to verify their eligibility for citizenship are slow, opaque, and largely ineffective. Individuals have at times had their Kuwaiti citizenship revoked for political reasons.
The Shiite Muslim community makes up about a third of the citizen population but is not well represented in the political system. Shiite candidates won six out of 50 seats in both the 2016 and 2020 parliamentary elections.
Women have had the right to vote and run for office since 2005, and a few have been elected to the parliament, but the legislature was left without any women after the sole female incumbent lost her seat in the December 2020 elections. Entrenched societal attitudes hamper more active participation by women in the political process, and the interests of women are poorly represented in practice. Neither the political groupings nor the tribes generally promote women’s participation as candidates. Societal and legal discrimination against LGBT+ people prevents them from playing any open role in political affairs.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
While some laws initiated by elected members of parliament are adopted and implemented, policymaking authority is concentrated in the hands of the hereditary emir and his appointed government. The emir has repeatedly used his power to dissolve the National Assembly when it imposes checks on the executive. He can also veto legislation and issue executive decrees when the assembly is not in session.
Interactions between the executive and legislature are affected by succession-related rivalries within the ruling family. Powerful members of the family are able to put pressure on rivals who are government ministers by cultivating allies in the parliament who can question them and scrutinize their performance.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Corruption is pervasive. An Anti-Corruption Authority began operating in 2015, and it has referred some cases for prosecution, but in general its activities appear insufficient given the perceived scale of the problem. In 2019 the Constitutional Court struck down a 2018 law meant to regulate conflicts of interest among officials, finding that it failed to precisely define what amounted to a conflict of interest.
Allegations of malfeasance lodged by lawmakers against government ministers have been at the heart of the country’s recurring political crises. Members of the ruling elite regularly disregard parliamentary calls for accountability and often obstruct elected officials’ efforts to investigate graft and abuse of power. In November 2019, the cabinet resigned after members of the parliament criticized some ministers for misusing public funds and threatened a no-confidence vote against the interior minister. Shortly afterward, the outgoing defense minister, Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who was also the son of the then emir and seen as a possible successor, accused the interior minister of embezzling public funds. The Justice Ministry banned media discussion of the matter.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
Transparency on government spending is inadequate, and there are few mechanisms that encourage officials to disclose information about government operations. Kuwait does not have any legislation guaranteeing the right to access public information. The State Audit Bureau provides some oversight on revenue and expenditures, reporting to both the government and the National Assembly, though not necessarily to the public. Defense spending is particularly opaque, with no detailed breakdown available to the parliament.
|Are there free and independent media?
Kuwaiti law assigns penalties for the publication of material that insults Islam, criticizes the emir, discloses information considered secret or private, or calls for the regime’s overthrow. Journalists also risk imprisonment under a restrictive 2016 cybercrimes law that criminalizes the dissemination of similar content online.
Thousands of books have been banned in the country for political or moral reasons, and the government has instructed internet service providers to block certain websites on similar grounds. The media regulator, the Commission for Mass Communications and Information Technology, has sweeping powers to monitor, block, and censor online material. Foreign media outlets operate relatively freely in Kuwait.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Islam is the state religion, and blasphemy is a punishable offense. The government appoints Sunni imams and oversees their sermons. Shiite Muslims have their own religious institutions, including Sharia (Islamic law) courts, though the government does not permit training of Shiite clerics in the country. Several Christian churches are officially registered, and members of other non-Muslim minority groups are generally permitted to practice their faiths in private; they are forbidden from proselytizing.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
Academic freedom is impeded by self-censorship on politically sensitive topics, as well as by broader legal restrictions on freedom of expression, including the prohibitions on insulting the emir and defaming Islam.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
Freedom of expression is curtailed by state surveillance and the criminalization of some forms of critical speech, especially if it touches on the emir or the rulers of other Arab countries. The cybercrimes law that took effect in 2016 imposes prison sentences of up to 10 years as well as fines for online speech that criticizes the emir, judicial officials, religious figures, or foreign leaders.
Activists and other individuals are often summoned for questioning over their online comments, and some have been prosecuted. Beginning in March 2020, the Ministry of Information issued repeated warnings about spreading false news or rumors in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Amnesty International reported that those referred for prosecution included a user accused of spreading false information about the spread of the virus in Egypt.
Individuals who criticize the government on social media also tend to be harassed by online trolls and automated “bot” accounts, and local activists and academics have expressed concerns that some of this activity may be state sponsored.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Freedom of assembly is constrained in practice. Organizers must notify officials of a public meeting or protest, and those who participate in unauthorized protests are subject to prison terms or, for noncitizens, deportation. Nevertheless, some peaceful protests have been allowed without a permit.
In July 2019 the authorities arrested 15 advocates for the rights of bidoon after they took part in a protest triggered by the suicide of a young stateless man who was denied civil documents that are required to study or work. They were tried on charges that included calling for and attending unauthorized protests. In January 2020, two of them were sentenced to 10 years in prison, though an appeals court later overturned the penalties; the remainder of those in detention were reportedly acquitted or otherwise released after signing good-conduct pledges.
In March 2020, the government banned public gatherings as part of the COVID-19 lockdown, but the ban was kept in place later in the year after other lockdown restrictions were lifted.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
The government restricts the registration and licensing of NGOs, forcing many groups to operate without legal standing. Representatives of licensed NGOs must obtain government permission to attend foreign conferences, and critical groups may be subject to harassment. Kuwaiti NGOs were largely absent from the country’s Universal Periodic Review process at the UN Human Rights Council in January 2020.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
Private-sector workers who are Kuwaiti citizens have the right to join labor unions and bargain collectively, and a limited right to strike, but labor laws allow for only one national union federation. Noncitizen migrant workers do not enjoy these rights and can face dismissal and deportation for engaging in union or strike activity. In 2019 the Kuwait Trade Union Federation opened an office to provide migrant workers with advice on legal disputes. Civil servants and household workers are also denied union rights; most citizen workers are public employees and do not have the right to strike.
Migrant workers have sometimes participated in risky illegal labor actions to protest nonpayment of wages and other abuses. For instance, in May 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Egyptian migrant workers protested after being confined to shelters while awaiting repatriation. The demonstrations, which authorities described as riots, were broken up by police using tear gas.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
Kuwait lacks an independent judiciary. The emir has the final say on judicial appointments, which are proposed by a Supreme Judicial Council made up of senior judges as well as the attorney general and deputy justice minister, and the executive branch approves judicial promotions. Judges who are Kuwaiti citizens are appointed for life, while noncitizens receive contracts for up to three years, reflecting a wider tendency to keep noncitizens employed on precarious short-term contracts. The courts frequently rule in favor of the government in cases related to politics.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
Arbitrary arrests and detentions sometimes occur despite legal safeguards. Authorities may detain suspects for four days without charge. Noncitizens arrested for minor offenses are subject to detention and deportation without due process or access to the courts. In 2019, nine Egyptians were deported to Egypt because they were deemed to be members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Egypt.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
Kuwait is generally free from armed conflict, no major terrorist attacks have been reported since 2015, and there are relatively low levels of criminal violence. However, while the constitution prohibits torture and other forms of cruel and unusual punishment, these protections are not always upheld. Detainees, especially bidoon, continue to experience torture and beatings in custody. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions are significant problems at prisons and deportation centers.
In 2017, the government carried out its first execution in four years, and a total of seven people were executed by hanging that year. Human Rights Watch has reported violations of due process in capital cases. No executions were reported in 2020.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Despite some legal protections from bias and abuse, women remain underrepresented in the workforce and face unequal treatment in several areas of law and society. Women account for a majority of university students, but the government enforces gender segregation in educational institutions. LGBT+ people face societal discrimination, and the penal code prescribes prison sentences for sex between men and “imitating the opposite sex.”
Officials consider the country’s more than 100,000 bidoon to be illegal residents, and they lack the protections and benefits associated with citizenship. They often live in poor conditions and have difficulty accessing public services and obtaining formal employment.
Noncitizen migrant workers are also excluded from the legal protections granted to citizens on a variety of topics. During the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, many migrant workers were left without wages, while most Kuwaiti citizens, who tend to work in the public sector, continued to receive income.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Kuwait generally does not place constraints on citizens’ movement, but migrant workers often face de facto restrictions on travel and choice of residence. The labor sponsorship system limits migrant workers’ freedom to change jobs without permission from their existing employer.
In 2020 the country was under lockdown for several months as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Three areas that are home to large numbers of migrant workers—Mahboula, Jleeb al-Shuyoukh, and Al-Farwaniya—were under lockdown for months longer than the rest of the country. Many migrant workers were confined to overcrowded living quarters that increased their risk of infection, and infection rates overall were significantly higher among noncitizens than among citizens.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
Kuwaiti law allows citizens and foreign nationals, but not bidoon, to own private property. Although the law permits the establishment of businesses, bureaucratic obstacles sometimes slow the process. Companies are legally prohibited from conducting business with citizens of Israel.
Sharia-based inheritance rules, particularly those pertaining to Sunni families, put women at a disadvantage.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
Personal status laws favor men over women in matters of marriage, divorce, and child custody. For example, Sunni women must have the approval of a male guardian in order to marry, and they are only permitted to seek a divorce when deserted or subjected to domestic violence. Domestic abuse and spousal rape are not specifically prohibited by law, and rapists can avoid punishment if they marry their victims.
Article 153 of the penal code classifies crimes in which a man kills a close female relative whom he has caught in “an unsavory sexual act” as misdemeanors, punishable by at most three years in prison. Such incidents are rare but not entirely unknown; a local civil society campaign seeks to eliminate the penal code provision.
In August 2020, the parliament passed Kuwait’s first law to combat domestic violence, following years of campaigning by women’s rights activists. It provides for shelters, restraining orders, and legal assistance for victims, among other components. However, it does not criminalize domestic violence or cover gender-based violence outside the immediate household. The importance of such deficiencies was underlined by a case in September in which a pregnant woman was shot in a hospital by a family member who reportedly opposed her choice of husband.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
Foreign household workers and other migrant workers are highly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, often forced to live and work in poor or dangerous conditions for low pay. Despite some legal protections designed to prevent mistreatment, many employers reportedly confiscate their household workers’ passports, subject them to excessive working hours, and restrict their movements outside the home. International media reports during 2019 highlighted cases in which recruiting agents held female migrant workers for ransom, demanding money from their families before they could return home. Other migrant workers have been repatriated by the state labor bureau after being refused payment or otherwise harassed or abused by their employers.
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Global Freedom Score37 100 partly free