Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Politics of Kuwait


Although Kuwait sports democratic institutions and has a Constitution, it is not a full democracy or a constitutional monarchy. In 1999, in his celebrated study on Middle Eastern monarchies All in the Family, political scientist Michael Herb came up with the useful term ‘dynastic monarchy’. With this designation he aimed to typify the specific kind of autocratic rule of contemporary monarchies in the Middle East. According to Herb, the monarchs on the Arab side of the Gulf are not absolute autocrats in a traditional sense. Instead of ruling sovereignly from within the relative isolation of the traditional court, Gulf rulers govern as heads of extensive dynastic families which have come to control and personalize the state. They have achieved this by centralizing and monopolizing executive power within the monarchical dynasty, while distributing control over the modern state’s bureaucratic institutions among senior family members.

governance kuwait - royal family
The Sabah family during the Eighth Conference of the Arab Thought Foundation in Kuwait City, 9 December 2009: Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (1st r), Kuwaiti Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (2nd r) and former Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah (4th r) / Photo HH

The Al Sabah of Kuwait first pioneered this particular type of ‘dynastic’ government. When it proved effective in administrating an autocratic, modern welfare state based on large oil revenues, other Gulf rulers copied the main principles of the Kuwaiti blueprint.

governance kuwait - royal family

The ruling Al Sabah is not a coherent bloc, although members usually unite in the face of external threats. Some of its senior members have nurtured ties with liberal Members of Parliament, others with Islamists. Hidden disputes within the family therefore often seep into parliamentary debate. The main division within the family is between those members who descend from Mubarak the Great (through either of his sons, Jaber or Salim) and those who do not. All rulers since Mubarak have come from these two branches. For decades the ruler largely alternated between the two branches descended from Mubarak, but in recent years the Jaber branch has gained the ascendancy.

The Constitution

The political atmosphere in Kuwait has always differed substantially from that of other Gulf Cooperation Council states. The 1962 Constitution, notwithstanding its internal contradictions and disquieting vagaries, is, by regional standards, a liberal document. It states that ‘the system of government in Kuwait shall be democratic, under which sovereignty resides in the people, the source of all powers’ (Art. 6); and: ‘the system of government is based on the principle of separation of powers’ (Art. 50). At the same time, however, it firmly secures the power of the Sabah family. The Emir, or head of state, is always a descendant of Mubarak al-Sabah (Art. 4). He appoints the government (Art. 56) and shares legislative powers with the Parliament (Art. 65) while retaining the right to dissolve the latter by decree (Art. 107). Despite his great executive and legislative influence, the Emir is ‘immune and inviolable’ (Art. 54) and therefore personally above the law.

Sabah IV Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Emir of Kuwait governance
According to art. 54 of the constitution, Sabah IV Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Emir of Kuwait, is ‘immune and inviolable’ and therefore above the law.

The Executive

The executive branch is headed by the Emir, a member of the Sabah family, who rules in conjunction with the legislature. The Emir has the authority to appoint a crown prince (in consultation with senior members of the ruling family), Prime Minister, and cabinet. Cabinet members (one of whom must be an elected member of the legislature) have the same voting power as elected legislators, giving the Emir more formal power than is typical in a parliamentary system.

As in the other Gulf States, Kuwait is ruled by two overlapping sets of institutions: ministers and department heads on the one hand and a ruling family council on the other. The current ruler, Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, came to power in 2006 following a succession crisis that prompted the legislature to exercise a constitutional provision that allowed it to force the abdication of the Crown Prince, Sheikh Saad, who had been incapacitated by illness.

The Legislative

Elections to Kuwait’s legislature have taken place since the early 1960s and have, with the exception of the 1967 elections, been largely free and open. The Assembly plays an important role in setting and challenging government policy, and it must approve all legislation. It frequently questions government ministers and at times votes ‘no confidence’ in individual ministers. Political parties are illegal in Kuwait, but loose political ‘associations’ do exist, and distinct political blocs can often be discerned in Parliament.


From the elections of May 2009 ‘independent’ candidates – government allies – emerged as the largest ‘bloc’, with 21 seats out of a total of 50. Islamists took nineteen seats (thirteen Sunni, six Shiite), liberals seven. Populist nationalists (the ‘Popular Bloc’), won only three seats. For the first time in Kuwait’s history, women (numbering four) were chosen for Parliament.

Kuwait’s elections in February 2012 followed a year of upheaval in the region. Protests in Kuwait echoed Arab Spring protests in other countries albeit in more muted form. There was no call for an overthrow of the government; protests focused instead on corruption (with serious charges levelled at thirteen MPs), greater transparency, legalization of political parties, and calls for an elected Prime Minister.

Kuwait Legislative Elections 2016 1024 1
Sources: IFES Election Guide, Wikipedia, The Economist, Gulf News, Kuwait Times, Click to enlarge. @Fanack ©Fanack CC BY 4.0

Several factors account for this. Kuwait is wealthier than most countries in the region, and the government was quick to use its economic resources to pre-empt protest. Kuwait is also the most politically open country in the Gulf and consequently offered the opposition many options for non-violent expressions of dissent.

The February 2012 election resulted in the ouster of a large number of incumbents. Islamist candidates won fourteen seats. Tribal candidates, of whom about half were also Islamist, won 21 seats. Liberals did poorly, going from eight seats to five and none of the four women elected in 2009 were returned. Shiite seats were reduced from nine to seven. As a result of the elections, a loose Islamist-tribal coalition emerged.

A period of increasing tensions between the Islamist-tribal coalition and the government followed. After Kuwait’s Constitutional Court’s ruling scrapping the elections and the Emir’s emergency decree sparking further protests, the political deadlock led to another election round in December

The elections of 1 December 2012, boycotted by the opposition, led to a lower voter turnout than in previous years and a victory for pro-government candidates. Shiite candidates, who are known to be pro-government, won 17 out of the 50 seats. Sunni Islamists and tribal candidates lost. In addition, three women were elected for the second time.

The opposition, having lost its position in the National Assembly, has since been staging regular protests demanding the abolishment of the new Parliament and the withdrawal of the one-vote decree.

Despite the opposition, which lost its position in the National Assembly, organizing protests to demand the dissolution of the parliament and to retract the one-person, one-vote law, the Constitutional Court upheld the law.

In 2013, the Constitutional Court dissolved the National Assembly elected in 2012. As a consequence, parliamentary elections were held in July 2013. The liberals made slight gains (three seats), while the Shia candidates lost nine seats. In contrast, the Sunni candidates won seven seats, and the tribal groups held on to power with 24 seats.

In 2016, against the backdrop of escalating tensions between the government and a number of MPs over fuel price increases, the parliament was dissolved again, this time by the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. After a four-year boycott in protest over the one-person, one-vote system, the opposition participated in the November 2016 elections. It won 24 seats, nearly half of parliament. At the same time, voters dealt a heavy blow to members of the outgoing parliament, retaining only 40 per cent of them. This reduced the government’s overwhelming control in the previous assembly to a fragile majority. The Emir tasked Sheikh Jaber Mubarak al-Sabah, the prime minister, with forming the government. Mazouq Ali al-Ghanim, speaker of the National Assembly, also retained his position.

The Judicial

Traditionally, justice in the Muslim world was dispensed by Islamic judges (qadis), who, in passing judgement, relied heavily on the opinions (fatwas) and legal compendiums of private legal specialists. So, while Islamic judges were often appointed by a ruler – with the ruler sometimes taking on the role of judge, as seems to have been the case in pre-modern Kuwait – the ruler could not influence the law itself. This changed with the introduction of the modern nation state in the Middle East. Except for family law, Sharia (Islamic law) was almost completely eradicated and replaced by Western-style law, which is produced solely by state institutions.

As a result, autocratic rulers in the Middle East acquired a greater influence on both the formulation of law and its application by state-appointed judges. This has had a negative effect on the rule of law in Muslim countries. Kuwait, for example, has seen its Constitutional Court support the ruler in suspending the Constitution. Another concern is that most of Kuwait’s judges are foreign nationals working on temporary contracts, making them especially vulnerable to state pressure.

While the citizens of Kuwait enjoy slightly greater personal freedom and security than the subjects of other Gulf States, there is no actual ‘rule of law’. While torture is explicitly forbidden, accusations of torture committed by state security officials are not followed up by official investigations, let alone legal charges or new measures to prevent its occurrence. That the Constitution mentions freedom of the press and that the new 2006 press law requires court orders to close down newspapers has not stopped the state from prosecuting journalists critical of the government, on the grounds of ‘defamation’. Likewise, Kuwait’s Constitution establishes the principle of equality of the sexes and freedom of religion, but women, non-Muslims, and Shiites continue to face discrimination in law, court, bureaucracy, and society. Migrant workers, who constitute about half the nation’s inhabitants, are not sufficiently protected against abuse and exploitation by local employers. In particular, female domestic workers suffer from a lack of rights, and sexual assault and other forms of mistreatment of this most vulnerable group in Kuwaiti society remains a serious problem.

Kuwait’s court system is unified, unlike many in the region, which have separate Sharia courts for personal-status law. In matters of personal status, Muslims are governed by codified Sunni or Shiite law. Kuwait uses the niyaba system, in which the judiciary handles both investigations and prosecutions.


One of the rare issues on which the parliamentary opposition regularly unites is that of government corruption. In 2007, two ministers resigned after being accused of corruption by the Parliament. In 2008, the government submitted its resignation after Islamist lawmakers accused the Prime Minister, a nephew of Emir Sabah, of corruption. (In the following government, the Prime Minister was reappointed by the Emir.)

In the 2012 election, corruption dominated debate. In recent years, Parliament has been able to force the government to abrogate or renegotiate a significant number of state contracts. Build-operate-transfer (BOT) contracts for real-estate development on public land have come under particular parliamentary scrutiny.

These public-private business deals are generally considered a main source of enrichment for prominent state employees and their partners in the private sector, both domestic and foreign. In fighting state corruption, the Parliament depends heavily on the state audit bureau, which has the reputation of keeping fairly accurate and transparent public accounts. Although the present Emir is widely known for his own extensive business interests, he has so far escaped public scrutiny.

Foreign Policy

Being a small nation in a region where large, traditionally autocratic states compete for regional hegemony in an often aggressive fashion, Kuwait has always preferred military alliances with strong partners from outside the region. After independence from Britain in 1961, Kuwait continued to rely on its former overlord’s military might until 1971, when Britain pulled most of its military personal out of the Gulf. The 1970s and 1980s were a transitional era, during which Emir Jaber established military ties with both the Soviet Union and the United States. The Iraq-Iran War was, however, a turning point in the relationship. The US decision to agree to a Kuwaiti request to reflag its vessels under the US flag led to a US military presence in the Gulf that continues to this day. The Kuwaiti public initially kept Kuwait from developing a too-close relationship with the United States; all pretence of diffidence towards the Americans was shed after the Iraqi invasion of August 1990. Since then, the US has assumed the role, formerly played by Britain, as Kuwait’s dominant military and commercial partner.

On the regional diplomatic level Kuwait’s priorities are twofold. First, it has to prevent its powerful neighbours from finding any pretext for meddling in the country’s internal affairs – or worse. Second, regional conflicts should be settled peacefully, in order to keep the Gulf sea lanes open and safe for trade. In order to achieve these two major policy goals, the country needs to appear strictly neutral in the face of regional conflicts and power struggles. This is not an easy task in the Middle East. The fact that Kuwait only accepted Saudi military assistance when under imminent threat of occupation – or even during a later phase, as in 1990 – can in large part be explained by Kuwait’s need for a balanced regional diplomatic policy. Likewise, Kuwait’s decision to appoint a (Shiite) ambassador to Shiite-governed Iraq in 2008 – for the first time since the Iraqi invasion – does not mean that it has stopped seeing its neighbour as a threat – rather the opposite (although US pressure was probably decisive in the timing of the ambassadorial appointment).

The Military


As a major oil producer, stability in Kuwait is needed for itself, the Gulf region and the world. As such, Kuwait is an important ally of the United States, providing basing, access and transit for American forces in the region.

In 2019, Kuwait ranked 84 out of 137 countries included in the annual GFP review. That year, the number of people who reached military age was estimated at 34,425 personnel, while military expenditure was estimated at $5.2 billion. In 2018, military expenditure accounted for 5.1% of GDP, compared with 5.6 per cent in 2017 and 5.8 per cent in 2016, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

IndexNumberRank out of 137
Total military personnel39,500-
Active personnel15,500-
Reserve personnel24,000-
Total aircraft strength8574
Fighter aircraft2748
Attack aircraft2755
Transport aircraft252
Total helicopter strength 4061
Flight trainers1369
Combat tanks56734
Armoured fighting vehicles71563
Rocket projectors2751
Total naval assets38-

Kuwait’s military strength in 2019. Source: GFP review.

Defence budget (2010): USD 4.4 billion
Active military personnel:
professional, conscription and reserves: 35,000

  • Army 13,000
  • Navy 500
  • Air force 2,500
  • Paramilitary 7,000

MBT: 350 American M-1 Abrams and Yugoslav M-84

APC + AIFV: 800 American M-113, Russian BMP-2 and BMP-3 and British Desert Warriors

Surface Combatants: a dozen French and German fast attack craft and a handful of patrol boats

Combat Aircraft: 39 Boeing F/A-18 Hornet

The Iraqi invasion of 1990 of Kuwait meant a watershed for the Kuwaiti Armed Forces. As could be expected, the small, modestly equipped and insufficiently trained forces proved no match for the Iraqi armoured formations and helicopter borne troops – with eight years of experience in the Iraq-Iran War – that steamrolled southwards. A few Kuwaiti armoured cars put up some resistance, but the outcome had already been decided. Many Kuwaiti armoured units fled across the border to Saudi Arabia, as did some aircraft.

In 1991, after the Iraqi occupying forces had been ousted and left ineffective, the government of the oil-rich country decided to re-equip and modernize its armed forces with a programme worth more than 10 billion dollars and spanning ten years. The country chose its suppliers carefully and geostrategically: the United States, Great Britain, but also Russia, an important UN Security Council member. Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Chinese defence equipment was also bought.

Most notable equipment are the American M-1 Abrams tanks, AH-64 Apache attack-helicopters and Russian armoured vehicles and artillery rockets.

military of Kuwait
Source: @Fanack

Like all Gulf States, Kuwait faces a number of demographic and socio-economic problems in its bid to keep its enemies at bay in future conflict scenarios. These problem stem mainly from the fact that it is a small country, and that a lot of expertise to handle the high-tech weaponry has to be bought abroad.

Kuwaiti doctrine focuses on being able to delay a foe from occupying the capital and industrial targets for about two days, which is how long it takes, it is assumed, for American reinforcements to arrive. Nowadays, much more emphasis is put on training, in view of past events.

In August 2016, Kuwait ordered 30 H225M Caracal helicopters, as part of a deal with Airbus Helicopters worth $1.1 billion.

In October 2015, Kuwait announced its intention to buy 120 Sherpa tactical and light armoured vehicles from France’s Renault Trucks Defense (RTD). In April 2016, it signed a deal to buy 28 Eurofighter Typhoon jets worth $8.8 billion, and in December 2016, it announced the purchase of a further 300 Sherpa vehicles from RTD.

In January 2017, the US State Department approved the sale of support equipment and services for Kuwaiti AH-64D Apache helicopters, worth an estimated $400 million.