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In 2005, for the first time in its history, Kuwait granted women the right to vote and to run as candidates for municipal office and for seats in the National Assembly. In June, the prime minister appointed Masouma al-Mubarak as minister of planning and administrative development, making her the first woman to serve as a cabinet minister in the history of Kuwait. These reforms open the door to a more inclusive election for the National Assembly in 2007.
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 twice, from 1976 to 1981 and from 1986 to 1992. After its restoration in 1992, the 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. The parliament, however, has also served as an impediment to progressive political change, rejecting measures that would have granted women the right to vote or 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, gov-ernment-subsidized vote buying. Following the elections, Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, half-brother of the emir, Sheikh 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 in decades that the prime minister has not been the crown prince. The Al-Sabah ruling dynasty is currently led by aging family members.
In June 2005, Kuwait held elections for 10 separate municipal councils in Kuwait, with voters choosing 10 members for each council and the emir appointing 6 other members to each council. Women did not vote or run for office in these municipal elections, but the Kuwaiti government appointed two women to serve on municipal councils.
Kuwait, which has about 10 percent of the world's proven oil reserves, continued to enjoy strong economic growth as a result of high global oil prices. Oil dominates the economy, accounting for nearly 90 percent of public revenues. The National Assembly continued to delay action on Project Kuwait, a proposed $8 billion investment by foreign oil companies to develop the country's oil fields close to the Iraqi border.
In January 2005, a number of gun battles between Kuwaiti security forces and suspected Islamist extremists led the Kuwaiti parliament to pass a new law giving authorities wide-ranging powers to seize unlicensed weapons.
Kuwaitis cannot change their government democratically. 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 Al-Sabah 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 percent of the country's 900,000 citizens. The emir has the power to dissolve the National Assembly at will, but must call elections within 60 days. The parliament is granted powers to overturn decrees from the emir issued when it is not in session, and it has exercised this power in a number of cases. It 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.
The National Assembly continued to challenge the government, asserting its power to question ministers. In early January, Minister of Information Muhammad Abu Al-Hassan resigned under pressure from the National Assembly, which had called him for questioning over issuing licenses to hold musical evenings in Kuwait. Some conservative members of the National Assembly considered evening concerts contrary to Kuwait's social traditions.
Formal political parties are banned, but political groupings, such as parliamentary blocs, have been allowed to emerge. In January, a group of Kuwaiti Islamists announced the formation of the Umma Party, but like other political groupings, it was not granted a permit by the government. After the Umma Party announced its formation, the government imposed a travel ban on 15 leading members of the party and interrogated several of the party's leaders. In October, Kuwait's prime minister said that there were no plans to legalize political parties.
In March, several National Assembly members demanded the resignation of Muhammad Deif Allah Shara, deputy prime minister and minister of state for cabinet affairs, for corruption and mismanagement. In April, Minister of Health Muhammad al-Jarallah resigned after being questioned by the National Assembly for alleged corruption. Kuwait was ranked 45 out of 158 countries in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government allows some open criticism and debate on politics in the press. In May, the Kuwaiti government decided to permit the regional Arab satellite television channel Al-Jazeera to transmit again from Kuwait, after a ban of more than two and a half years. However, in June, Kuwait's Supreme Court upheld a two-year sentence against Islamic scholar Hamid al-Ali for delivering, in a mosque, sermons deemed insulting to the emir. 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 among 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 including only men, called diwayniyas.
The government has restricted freedom of assembly, with public gatherings requiring government approval. However, the year saw an increase in public demonstrations, many related to women's political rights. In the spring of 2005, hundreds of women's rights activists demonstrated in front of the National Assembly demanding the right to vote and run for office.
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. In August 2004, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor officially recognized the existence of the Kuwait Human Rights Society, which was founded 10 years ago but previously operated without legal standing.
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.
Stateless residents, known as bidoon, are estimated to number more than 80,000. They are considered illegal residents and do not have full citizenship rights. Kuwait is a destination country for human trafficking, with many people coming from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.
Both male and female citizens have the right to own property and establish businesses.
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. In 2005, women won the right to vote in elections and run for office; the next elections for the National Assembly are slated for 2007, and municipal elections are scheduled for 2009. A new election law, approved by Kuwait's all-male parliament in May, also stipulated that women participating in politics must abide by Islamic law. In June, the prime minister appointed Masouma al-Mubarak as minister of planning and administrative development; she became the first woman to serve as a cabinet minister in the history of Kuwait. Women constitute more than 60 percent of the student body at several leading universities in Kuwait.