Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Kuwait took modest steps to introduce political reforms in 2004, including proposing a measure that would grant Kuwaiti women the right to vote and run for office. The government also legally recognized the first independent Kuwaiti human rights organization. However, the government did not succeed in implementing any significant political reforms in 2004, achieving no progress on passing a new proposed election law and a draft law that would grant women full political rights.
For more than 200 years, the Al-Sabah family has played a role in ruling Kuwait. A year after Kuwait gained its independence in 1961 from Britain, a new constitution gave broad powers to the emir and created the National Assembly. In August 1990, Iraq attacked and invaded Kuwait. A coalition force mandated by the United Nations and led by the United States liberated Kuwait using military force in February 1991.
The emir has suspended the National Assembly two times from 1976 to 1981 and from 1986 to 1992. After its restoration in 1992, parliament played an active role in monitoring the emir and the government, forcing government ministers out of office and blocking legislation proposed by the royal family. Parliament, however, has also served as an impediment to progressive political change, rejecting measures that would have granted women the right to vote and accelerated economic reforms.
The 2003 legislative elections did not meet minimal international standards, tainted by the exclusion of women from voting and allegations of widespread government-subsidized vote buying. Following the elections, Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, half-brother of Emir Jaber al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, became prime minister, taking over for ailing Saad al-Abdallah Al-Sabah, who remains the crown prince. Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah's appointment as prime minister marked the first time since Kuwait's independence that the prime minister has not been the crown prince. The Al-Sabah ruling dynasty is currently led by aging family members; the emir and crown prince, both in their seventies, spent several weeks overseas for medical treatment in the fall of 2004.
By the end of the year, Kuwait's National Assembly was poised to debate a bill that would give women full political rights, six years after a previous attempt to grant women the right to vote and run for office was rejected by the legislature.
Enjoying its best economic growth in 30 years and its sixth consecutive year of budget surpluses, the results of record-high oil prices, Kuwait saw a relatively calm year, after 2003, when a U.S.-led coalition staged most of its ground troops for the Iraq War in Kuwait. In January 2004, the United States designated Kuwait a major non-NATO ally, signaling a closer relationship between the two countries.
Freely elected representatives do not determine the government's policies. The royal family of Kuwait, which is a hereditary emirate, largely sets the policy agenda, dominates political life, and controls meaningful power. The emir has overriding power in the political system and appoints the prime minister and cabinet. Members of the ruling family hold key cabinet posts, such as those for defense, the interior, foreign affairs, and oil.
Under the constitution, the emir shares legislative power with the 50-member National Assembly (parliament), which is elected by a limited popular vote involving only about 15 of the country's 900,000 citizens. The emir has the power to dissolve parliament at will but must call elections within 60 days. Parliament is granted powers to overturn decrees from the emir issued during a period when it is not in session, and it has exercised this power in a number of cases. Parliament can veto the appointment of the country's prime minister, but then it must choose from three alternates put forward by the emir. It also has the power to remove government ministers with a majority vote of elected members.
Formal political parties are banned, but political groupings, such as parliamentary blocs, have been allowed to emerge. The National Assembly showed signs of becoming increasingly assertive throughout the year, questioning numerous government ministers in investigations into financial mismanagement and corruption.
Members of Kuwait's National Assembly questioned the deputy prime minister and minister of state for cabinet and National Assembly affairs Mohammad Dhaifallah Sharar on allegations of corruption, including mismanagement and negligence resulting in the loss of $260 million to the Kuwait Municipality. Sharar was not found guilty of wrongdoing and remained in office by the end of the year. Kuwait was ranked 44 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government allows some open criticism and debate on politics in the press. In 2004, Kuwait approved the establishment of private television channels to transmit from Kuwait, a first for the country. All major newspapers are privately owned, and foreign broadcasts are available. Limitations on freedom of press and expression remain, with the Ministry of Information imposing restrictions from time to time. In August, the government banned Fahrenheit 9/11, a documentary film by American filmmaker Michael Moore, for being critical of Saudi Arabia's royal family. Ministry of Information officials justified the decision by saying that Kuwaiti law prohibits insulting friendly nations. Kuwaitis have access to the Internet, though Internet service providers have blocked access to certain sites.
Islam is the state religion; nevertheless, religious minorities are generally permitted to practice their religion freely in private. The Roman Catholic, Anglican, National Evangelical, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Greek Catholic churches operate freely. Kuwaiti law bans missionaries from proselytizing Muslims. Academic freedom is generally respected, though some academics exercise self-censorship. Kuwait has a tradition of allowing relatively open and free private discussions, often conducted in traditional gatherings and usually only including men, called diwayniyas.
The government restricts freedom of assembly, and public gatherings require government approval. The Kuwaiti government licensed the first independent human rights organization in August. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor officially recognized the existence of the Kuwait Human Rights Society, which was founded ten years ago but previously operated without legal standing. Workers have the right to join labor unions, but the government restricts freedom of association by mandating that there be only one union per occupational trade.
Kuwait lacks a truly independent judiciary. The emir appoints all judges, and the executive branch of government approves judicial promotions and renewals of judicial appointments. According to Kuwaiti law, authorities may detain suspects for four days without charge. The Ministry of the Interior supervises the main internal security forces, including the national police, the Criminal Investigation Division, and Kuwait State Security. Four Kuwaiti Islamists accused government authorities of torturing them to extract confessions in a case in which they were accused of conspiring to attack foreign forces in Kuwait and Iraq. The government permitted visits to prisons by human rights activists, who report adherence to international standards, though with some concern about overcrowding.
An estimated 80,000 stateless residents, known as bidoon, are considered illegal residents and do not have full citizenship rights.
Both male and female citizens have the right to own property and establish businesses. Oil dominates the economy, accounting for nearly 90 percent of public revenues. The National Assembly debated Project Kuwait, a proposed $8 billion investment by foreign oil companies to develop the country's oil fields close to the Iraqi border. The National Assembly stalled legislative action on the proposed project, with some members of the National Assembly seeking assurances that control of natural resources would not be given to foreigners.
The 1962 constitution provides men and women with equal rights. Nevertheless, women face discrimination in several areas of society and remain underrepresented in the workforce, although they have made recent gains. Women have been fighting for full political participation for decades, but have been blocked by conservative male political leaders and Islamist groups. However, in 2004, the government took steps to grant women political rights, when the emir opened the new session of the National Assembly in October with a call for giving women the right to vote and run for office. Women constitute more than 60 percent of the student body at several leading universities in Kuwait.