Freedom in the World
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A measure of the progress of Kuwait's political reforms over the past decade is the fact that the most contentious political clashes in 2002 took place within the halls of the National Assembly. In April, the education minister narrowly escaped a vote of no confidence by members of parliament who accused him of not fully implementing a law requiring gender segregation in universities. In June, members of parliament endlessly grilled the finance minister over allegations that he squandered public funds.
Kuwait has existed as a political entity since the early eighteenth century, when several families migrated to the area from central Arabia and established a self-governing emirate. Since 1756, all Kuwaiti emirs have come from the al-Sabah family, though there is a long tradition of consultation with leading merchant families and tribes. The emirate gained full independence from Britain in 1961. The country's 1962 constitution assigned broad executive powers to the emir, but also established an elected national assembly. While the assembly functioned as a limited check on the emir's power during the first three decades after independence, its influence was weakened by restrictions on political and civil liberties and the body was suspended from 1976-81 and 1986-92.
Two months after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the exiled emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, met with members of the opposition in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, and agreed to restore the suspended parliament and allow greater freedom once the Iraqis had been driven out. Twelve years later, Kuwait has become the only Arab country in which an elected legislature serves as a powerful check on executive power. What distinguishes the Kuwaiti parliament from its counterparts elsewhere in the Arab world, however, is that it has forced the resignation of cabinet ministers and imposed legislation over the objections of the royal family legislation--such as the law requiring the segregation of universities by gender.
The assembly's assertiveness vis-a-vis the emir is often oversimplified in the Western media as an Islamic backlash. A 1999 decree by the emir granting women the right to vote, for example, was overturned in part because it had been issued when parliament was dissolved--rejection of the bill was seen as an assertion of the assembly's constitutional power. The Islamist position on women's political rights is not uniform. Some support granting women the right to vote, but not to hold office, while some are adamant in their opposition to women's suffrage, others appear willing to accept it if the government yields on other key issues.
Persistent deadlock between the government and the legislature has also slowed the pace of economic reforms. Measures to cut the fiscal deficit, privatize state-run industries, and promote foreign investment have lagged far behind changes in other Persian Gulf countries. The most striking result is that 95 percent of working Kuwaitis continue to draw monthly tax-free salaries from the state, mostly from nominal jobs with few or no responsibilities. In most economic respects, Kuwait has been eclipsed by the United Arab Emirates, where there are no legislative obstacles to economic restructuring. In March 2001, however, lawmakers managed to pass a bill that allows for majority foreign ownership in local companies and a 10-year tax break and customs duties exemptions for investors.
There is a growing consensus, particularly among liberals, that the main reason the government has not been able to further political and economic progress is the emirate's aging leadership. The 76-year-old emir, who returned in January 2002 from a 4-month stay in London for medical treatment, is totally incapacitated. Age and illness have also sapped the strength of the 73-year-old crown prince and prime minister, Saad Abdullah al-Sabah, who reportedly cannot recognize his own ministers at times. De facto authority is presently exercised by the 72-year-old deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, but infighting within the family is said to have led to the resignation of the cabinet in January 2001. Since there is no set mechanism of succession in Kuwait and Sabah has banned newspapers from discussing the issue, a veil of uncertainty clouds the country's political future. In early 2002, businessmen reportedly formed a committee to press members of the royal family to openly address the issue.
The killing of an American soldier in October 2002 and the wounding of two servicemen the following month, along with anti-American statements from some Islamists interviewed by the Western media, have raised concerns that Islamic radicals opposed to the U.S. military presence in the emirate could threaten stability. However, it is likely that Kuwait's stability and solid ties with the United States are precisely why al-Qaeda launched attacks on Kuwait's soil. Western journalists in the emirate invariably interpret the shocking statements of support for Osama bin Laden they encounter as indications of support for anti-Western terrorism. Above all else, however, these are merely indications of the Kuwaiti people's untrammeled right to make shocking statements--even when foreign reporters are present.
Kuwaitis have only a limited ability to change their government. The emir appoints the prime minister (who, by tradition, is also the crown prince) and cabinet. The elected, 50-member National Assembly can veto the emir's appointment as crown prince, but must then select one of three alternates selected by the emir. It can also impeach, by majority vote, members of the cabinet. While the emir can dissolve parliament, he must call elections within 60 days and cannot dissolve it twice for the same reason. Political parties are illegal, but the government allows de facto parliamentary blocs and civic groups to be politically active. Legislative elections are relatively free and fair, but suffrage is restricted to males who are 21 years of age or older, do not serve in the armed forces, and were not naturalized within the last twenty years--14.8 percent of the population.
The emir appoints all judges, and the renewal of many judicial appointments is subject to government approval. Sunni and Shi'a Muslims have their own Sharia (Islamic law) courts for family law cases. Trials are open and relatively fair, and 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; arbitrary arrests and detentions are rare. Prison conditions, according to the U.S. State Department, "meet or exceed" international standards.
Freedom of expression is restricted. The broadcast media are government owned, but access to foreign satellite stations is legal and widespread. A variety of independent newspapers exist. Although several laws empower the government to jail or fine journalists for a variety of offenses, indictments have become increasingly rare and convictions virtually nonexistent. Although media outlets openly criticize the government, even on matters of security and foreign policy, direct criticism of the emir is uncommon because of self-censorship. Some Web sites regarded as "immoral" are blocked by Internet service providers.
Freedom of assembly and association is limited. Public gatherings require government approval, and the law requires nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to obtain licenses from the government. In practice, however, unlicensed associations are free to organize informally. Informal social gatherings, called diwaniyas, provide a forum for political discussion. Unions are legal, though only one is permitted per industry or profession, and private sector workers have the right to strike. Roughly 100,000 foreigners who work as domestic servants are not protected under labor laws. Licensed NGOs and labor unions are influenced by government subsidies, which provide up to 90 percent of expenses for the latter.
Women face discrimination in legal and social matters. They are denied the right to vote or run for office; are legally disadvantaged in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance; must have the permission of a male relative to obtain a passport; and cannot confer citizenship on their children. Women remain underrepresented in most private and public sector jobs, but the proportion is growing.
Islam is the state religion. Both Sunnis and Shi'as worship freely, though the latter complain of insufficient government funding for mosques and religious training. The Christian community of around 150,000 is allowed to practice without interference. Hindus, Sikhs, Baha'is, and Buddhists can worship privately, but may not construct buildings for public worship. Some 80,000 bidoon, or stateless people, are considered illegal residents and denied full citizenship rights. A program initiated in 1999 allows them to apply for citizenship if they can prove that they or their forebears have resided in the country since 1965.