Kuwait

Partly Free
37
100
PR Political Rights 14 40
CL Civil Liberties 23 60
Last Year's Score & Status
37 100 Partly Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

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.

header2 Key Developments in 2021

  • The cabinet resigned in January and again in November as the government engaged in a standoff with opposition lawmakers who sought to question Prime Minister Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah over COVID-19 policy and corruption concerns and also sought to secure amnesty for imprisoned and exiled dissidents. Al-Khalid al-Sabah remained prime minister at year’s end.
  • In November, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, the emir, pardoned 24 dissidents and shortened the sentences of another 11 who had been accused of storming the parliament in 2011. The list of beneficiaries included prominent opposition leader Musallam al-Barrak, who had been living in exile in Turkey.
  • In April, a court ordered the detention of former prime minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah and former cabinet minister Sheikh Khalid al-Jarrah al-Sabah over accusations of financial mismanagement while in office. Al-Mubarak al-Sabah was the first former premier to be detained by the authorities.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

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 91-year-old half-brother and predecessor, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah. He appointed another half-brother, Sheikh Meshaal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, as crown prince. The parliament, which must approve the choice of heir by majority vote, did so unanimously. Sheikh Meshaal briefly served in the emir’s stead in November 2021, when the emir temporarily transferred his duties to the crown prince.

The emir chooses the prime minister and appoints cabinet ministers on the prime minister’s recommendation. At least one minister must be an elected member of parliament. All prime ministers and most senior ministers have been members of the ruling family. Prime Minister Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah was appointed in 2019 and was most recently reappointed by the crown prince in November 2021. The cabinet appointed in December included four elected parliamentarians.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 2.002 4.004

The 50-member National Assembly is popularly elected on a formally nonpartisan basis. The 15 royally appointed cabinet ministers sit as additional ex officio members but cannot take part in confidence votes.

The parliament serves terms of up to four years. The emir and the Constitutional Court, which lacks full independence, have the power to dissolve the legislature, and the executive can thereby determine the timing of elections to suit its political priorities. This has occurred several times since 2011, usually when lawmakers clashed with senior ministers from the ruling family. However, the parliament elected in 2016 served its full four-year term.

Elections were held 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. There was also significant turnover; only 19 of the 43 incumbents who ran won 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.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1.001 4.004

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. Elections are nevertheless competitive by regional standards. 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.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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? 2.002 4.004

Formal political parties are banned, which significantly constrains political organization, although loose parliamentary blocs exist in practice.

Politicians have some space to criticize the government, but those who have seriously challenged the emir’s authority have faced criminal charges. Several opposition figures were imprisoned for their role in the storming of the parliament in 2011 protests against the prime minister. One of them, prominent opposition leader Musallam al-Barrak, was previously imprisoned “insulting the emir” in a speech opposing the 2012 electoral law. Al-Barrak, who was living in exile in Turkey, was pardoned in November; other dissidents received either pardons or commutations of their sentences.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 2.002 4.004

The constitutional system does not allow democratic transfers of power at the executive level. Candidates aligned with the opposition won 24 parliamentary seats in 2020, including 3 members of the local affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that is banned in most other Persian Gulf monarchies.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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? 2.002 4.004

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. Senior members of the ruling family allegedly provide economic resources to favored politicians and journalists 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.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1.001 4.004

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. Individuals have had their Kuwaiti citizenship revoked for political reasons.

More than 100,000 residents, known as bidoon, are stateless; many bidoon claim Kuwaiti nationality and descent, but official processes to verify their eligibility for citizenship are slow, opaque, and largely ineffective. In May 2021, five parliamentarians submitted a proposal to expand socioeconomic rights for bidoon.

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 only six seats in both the 2016 and 2020 parliamentary elections.

Women have had the right to vote and run for office since 2005, and some have been elected to the parliament in previous elections. There is only one female member of the parliament elected in 2020. Entrenched societal attitudes hamper more active participation by women in the political process, and their interests 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.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 1.001 4.004

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.

Opposition parliamentarians sought to question Prime Minister al-Khalid al-Sabah over corruption, COVID-19 policy, and other concerns during 2021, which the government resisted. The cabinet resigned in January, citing the relationship between the government and the legislature, and resigned again in November; legislative work has been hindered by the ongoing impasse.

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 in ministerial roles by cultivating parliamentary allies who can question them and scrutinize their performance.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1.001 4.004

Corruption is pervasive. While an Anti-Corruption Authority has operated since 2015, its activities appear insufficient. Allegations of malfeasance lodged by lawmakers against ministers have been at the heart of the country’s recurring political crises.

In April 2021, a court ordered that former prime minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah and former minister Sheikh Khalid al-Jarrah al-Sabah be detained over alleged financial mismanagement while in office. Al-Mubarak al-Sabah’s detention marked the first time that a former premier was detained by authorities.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2.002 4.004

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.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 1.001 4.004

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 the restrictive 2016 Cyber Crimes Law, which criminalizes the dissemination of similar content online.

Thousands of books have been banned in the country for political or moral reasons. In 2020, however, the National Assembly amended the Press and Publication Law of 2006 to abolish an Information Ministry censorship committee; as a result, a judicial order is required to enforce such a ban.

The media regulator, the Commission for Mass Communications and Information Technology, has sweeping powers to monitor, block, and censor online material. The government can seek the revocation of a media outlet’s license via the judiciary. Foreign media outlets operate relatively freely in Kuwait.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2.002 4.004

Islam is the state religion, and blasphemy is a punishable offense. Defamation of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism is prohibited. 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, though no synagogues are. Members of other non-Muslim minority groups are generally permitted to practice their faiths in private but are forbidden from proselytizing.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 2.002 4.004

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 religion. The National Union of Kuwaiti Students is not officially registered as a nongovernmental organization (NGO) but is nevertheless considered influential.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1.001 4.004

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 Cyber Crimes Law 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. Individuals who criticize the government on social media tend to be harassed by online trolls and bot accounts, some of which may be state sponsored.

Activists and other individuals are sometimes summoned for questioning over their online comments, and some have been prosecuted. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that at least five activists were arrested or interrogated by the Interior Ministry in 2020 for their activity on social media. Kuwait has sought the extradition of activist Mesaed al-Mesaileem, who lives in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), over his online activity. BiH’s State Court denied al-Mesaileem’s request for asylum in September 2021, though he remained there at year’s end.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 4 / 12

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 1.001 4.004

Freedom of assembly is constrained by law and in practice. Organizers must notify officials of a public meeting or protest, and those who participate in unauthorized protests can be subject to imprisonment or, for noncitizens, deportation. Peaceful protests are sometimes allowed without a permit. In May 2021, the Interior Ministry warned that protests prompted by fighting between militants in the Gaza Strip and Israeli forces required permits. In September, several dozen teachers protested in front of the Education Ministry over COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements.

Large gatherings were banned in March 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In October 2021, the government ended gathering restrictions for vaccinated individuals.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 2.002 4.004

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 2020 Universal Periodic Review process at the UN Human Rights Council.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1.001 4.004

Private-sector workers who are Kuwaiti citizens have the right to join labor unions and bargain collectively and have a limited right to strike. However, 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 sometimes participate in risky illegal labor actions such as sit-ins and walkouts to protest nonpayment of wages and other abuses.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 1.001 4.004

Kuwait lacks an independent judiciary. The emir has the final say on judicial appointments, which are proposed by a Supreme Judicial Council that includes senior judges, the attorney general, and the deputy justice minister. 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.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2.002 4.004

Arbitrary arrests and detentions sometimes occur despite legal safeguards. Authorities may detain suspects for four days without charge. However, a group of individuals accused of providing financial support for the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah were held for weeks without charge after security forces detained them in November 2021. Noncitizens arrested for minor offenses are subject to detention and deportation without due process or access to the courts. The emir retains the right to issue pardons, as he did in November for 24 dissidents.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2.002 4.004

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. Constitutional protections against torture and other forms of cruel and unusual punishment 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.

HRW has reported violations of due process in capital cases. No executions were reported in 2021, though death sentences were issued during the year. In July, a man was sentenced to death for murdering a woman who had refused his marriage proposal.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2.002 4.004

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 face public harassment; this is especially true for foreign women in Kuwait. 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.” In October 2021, Maha al-Mutairi, a transgender woman, received a two-year prison sentence and a 1,000-Kuwaiti-dinar ($3,300) fine for “imitating the opposite sex” online and violating the telecommunications law.

Officials consider 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 excluded from legal protections granted to citizens. During the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, many migrant workers were left without wages, while most Kuwaiti citizens, who tend to work in the public sector, continued to receive income. Noncitizens were also vaccinated against COVID-19 at a lower rate than citizens. A National Bank of Kuwait report released in September 2021 found that more than 56,000 expatriates left Kuwait in the first half of the year.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2.002 4.004

Kuwait generally does not constrain citizens’ movement, although it did impose COVID-19 travel restrictions and quarantine policies. Migrant workers often face de facto restrictions on travel from their employers. The labor sponsorship system limits migrant workers’ freedom to change jobs without permission from their existing employer. Migrant workers have additionally faced stricter COVID-19-related movement restrictions.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1.001 4.004

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. Access to opportunity is also affected by nepotism.

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.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2.002 4.004

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 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.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1.001 4.004

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. Recruiting agents are known to hold 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 Score

    37 100 partly free