Kuwait | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


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Ten years after Kuwait's liberation from Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, the emirate continues to suffer political stagnation as a result of infighting within the royal family, disputes between the government and parliament, and the opposing forces of traditional Islamists and liberals within the legislature. Badly needed economic reforms saw modest progress in 2001, though rebounding oil prices weakened officials' resolve to implement painful austerity measures.

The al-Sabah family has ruled Kuwait since 1756. Under a special treaty, Kuwait ceded control of its foreign affairs and defense to Britain in 1899. The emirate gained full independence in 1961, and the 1962 constitution assigns broad executive powers to the emir, currently Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, who rules through an appointed prime minister and cabinet. The government shares power with the parliament, or national assembly, which is subject to dissolution or suspension by decree.

Infighting and stagnation are recurrent obstacles to political progress. In January 2001, the cabinet resigned, with Prime Minister and Crown Prince Sheikh Saad Abdallah al-Sabah citing "obstacles hindering the government functioning." While some commentators explained the resignation as an attempt to protect the justice minister from a parliamentary inquiry into alleged inefficiency and corruption in his ministry, others said it was due to a rift between Sheikh Saad and Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who took on the duties of the 72-year-old prime minister when the latter was recently ill. Reportedly, a dispute over succession arose when Sheikh Sabah returned to work, precipitating the government's collapse. Many observers and officials also complain about the advanced age and deteriorating health of major members of the ruling family. In late September, Sheikh Jaber suffered a brain hemorrhage and was flown to London for treatment. His illness underscored the need for strong leadership at a critical time for the Middle East.

The economy has become a casualty of battles between the government, which wants to reform the economic and financial sectors to offset dependence on oil revenues, and largely Islamist members of parliament (MPs), who oppose any "Westernization," including measures that would endanger social spending. Some 95 percent of working Kuwaitis draw monthly tax-free salaries from the state, and an estimated 55 percent of those are underemployed, or placed in nominal jobs with no responsibilities for the sake of employment statistics. Kuwaitis enjoy free health care and education; cheap gasoline, power, and water; subsidies on bread and other items; and generous housing loans for newlyweds. Economists routinely say that this cradle-to-grave welfare state is unsustainable, but MPs have consistently blocked government initiatives to cut the fiscal deficit, privatize state-run industries, and promote foreign investment for fear of allowing "foreign domination" inside Kuwait. In March 2001, however, lawmakers did pass a bill that allows for majority foreign ownership in local companies and a ten-year tax break and customs duties exemptions for investors.

Analysts have recently noted a conservative Islamist backlash in Kuwait characterized by attempts to impose stricter religious codes and limit foreign social influences. Two MPs introduced a draft law in July calling for amending the penal code to conform to Sharia (Islamic law). More women are covering themselves with the hijab, or traditional veil, while hardliners try to ban social events such as public concerts. In October 2000, the information minister resigned under pressure from Islamists, who criticized government media as too liberal. Islamists have also blocked several recent attempts to grant women political rights. A 1999 emiri decree granting women the right to vote was narrowly defeated by parliament, and several lawsuits against the interior ministry by women demanding full political rights were thrown out in 2000. In January 2001, the constitutional court rejected a case brought by a man against the elections department for failing to register the names of several women, including his wife, on electoral lists.

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Islamist MPs denounced U.S.-led air strikes on Afghanistan. However, the Kuwaiti leadership pledged support for the U.S. operation. The government also stripped the spokesman of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network, a Kuwaiti, of his citizenship. In December, officials announced that international auditors would be brought in to oversee the finances of Islamic charities, some of which may be channeling funds to al-Qaeda or to other terrorist groups.

Still, the Islamist movement in Kuwait has not become as virulently anti-Western or gained as much momentum as those in neighboring countries, despite a lingering American troop presence since the Gulf War. The reason evidently involves a continuing threat from across the border; Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein openly maintains that Kuwait is an Iraqi province.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Kuwaitis cannot change their government democratically. Political parties are illegal, although de facto groupings of Bedouins, merchants, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, secularist leftists, and nationalists are tolerated. Under the 1962 constitution, the national assembly has limited power to approve the emir's choice of crown prince. The emir holds executive authority and rules through an appointed prime minister who is also the crown prince, as well as an appointed council of ministers. The cabinet is immune from prosecution, but subject to investigation and questioning by parliament. Legislative authority is shared by the emir and the 50-member national assembly, which is elected every four years. Women, citizens naturalized for fewer than 20 years, members of the armed forces, the police, and other interior ministry personnel may not vote or seek election to the national assembly. In 1999, several national assembly candidates were prosecuted for defamation of government officials during an election campaign marked by widespread verbal attacks against the government for alleged corruption. About 30 tribal leaders were also prosecuted for holding illegal primary elections.

The emir appoints all judges, and renewal of many judicial appointments is subject to government approval. One court system tries both civil and criminal cases. Sharia courts for Sunnis and Shiites handle family law cases. Defendants have the right to appeal verdicts and to be represented by legal counsel, which the courts provide in criminal cases. Suspects may be detained for four days before being brought before an investigating official. People convicted of collaboration with Iraq during the 1990-1991 occupation remain incarcerated. Most of those tried in the Martial Law Court in 1991, and the Special State Security Court, which was abolished in 1995, did not receive fair trials. In March 2001, the court of cassation commuted to life imprisonment a death sentence against Alaa Hussein, a Kuwaiti convicted of treason in May 2000 for heading the pro-Iraqi puppet government during the Iraqi occupation. In July 2000, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed concern over the large number of offenses for which Kuwaiti courts can impose the death penalty, including vaguely defined offenses related to national security and drug related crimes. In April 2001, Kuwait agreed to allow Iraqis to visit relatives held in its prisons for the first time since the 1990 invasion.

The Printing and Publications Law and the penal code may both be used to restrict freedom of expression, and although prepublication censorship was abolished in 1992, journalists practice self-censorship. Direct criticism of the emir or of relations with other states; material deemed offensive to religion; incitement to violence, hatred, or dissent; or news that "affects the value of the national currency" are punishable by imprisonment and/or fines. Enforcement of restrictions is arbitrary. Newspapers are privately owned and frequently criticize government policies and officials. They were openly critical of the lengthy deliberations over forming a new government in February 2001, which took more than two weeks. Veteran journalist and women's rights campaigner Hedayet Sultan al-Salem, editor of al-Majales magazine, was shot to death in her car in March. In April, a Kuwaiti court ordered Qatar's al-Jazeera television network to pay $16,000 in damages after a talk show host accused Kuwaitis of using acid to kill and maim Iraqis, Palestinians, and fellow Kuwaitis at the end of the Gulf War. In May, al-Tadamon al-Arabi wal-Douali, a fortnightly based in Cyprus, was banned in Kuwait and its correspondent barred from the country after the paper ran a front-page picture of Saddam Hussein and his son Qusay.

Public gatherings require government approval. Informal, family-based, almost exclusively male social gatherings called diwaniyas provide a forum for political discussion. The law gives the government the full authority to regulate, ban, or license any society and prohibits clubs and associations from engaging in political activities. The government denies formal recognition to human rights groups and restricts their ability to organize publicly. However, some informal gatherings by human rights activists are tolerated. The parliamentary human rights committee has complained of government interference with their visits to prisons.

Women face discrimination in legal and social matters. Sharia courts give a woman's testimony lesser weight than that of a man, women must have permission of a male relative in order to obtain a passport, and only men are able to confer citizenship on children. Women are also legally disadvantaged in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. The penal code provides relative impunity for men who commit violent crimes against women. Women are prohibited from certain professions, but the field of possibility is widening. The government decided in late 2000 to allow women to join the police force, but has since said that women will only be given jobs "suitable to their nature." The nature of these jobs is not yet clear, but most doubt that women will be allowed to carry weapons or patrol streets. Islamists in parliament have blocked measures aimed at granting women full political rights. On March 18, a parliamentary committee rejected a draft law giving women the right to vote and run for office. Ironically, in student union elections, in which women may vote, they have overwhelmingly voted for Islamists.

Islam is the state religion, and both Sunnis and Shiites worship freely. The government recognizes the Christian community of more than 150,000, including Roman and Greek Catholics, National Evangelicals (Protestants), Greek and Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Maronites. Leaders of these churches describe the government as tolerant. Hindus, Sikhs, Bahais, and Buddhists may not build places of worship, but may worship privately without interference. They number more than 60,000. A ban on organized, non-Muslim religious education is not widely enforced.

Some 120,000 bidoon, or stateless people, are considered illegal residents and denied citizenship and civil rights, including the right to travel, to register births, deaths, and marriages, and to confer Kuwaiti citizenship on their children. An estimated 240,000 live outside Kuwait because the state does not allow them to return. In October 1999, the interior ministry initiated a nine-month program during which bidoon who renounced Kuwaiti nationality could apply for five-year residency permits and other benefits. Deportation procedures began in June 2000 against people deemed in violation of nationality and alien residence laws.

The government maintains financial control over unions through subsidies that account for 90 percent of some union budgets. Only one union is permitted per industry or profession, and only one labor federation, the pro-government Kuwaiti Trade Union Federation, exists. Workers may strike, but no law protects them from resulting legal or administrative action. Roughly 100,000 foreigners who work as domestic servants are not protected under labor law and are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse by employers.