Kuwait - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate
INTRODUCTION OF KUWAIT
Kuwait (country), nation in the Middle East, located at the northwestern tip of the Persian Gulf. Kuwait is a small, desert country, but it possesses a strategic stretch of Persian Gulf coastline and significant petroleum reserves. Kuwaiti citizens, who are Arab Muslims, make up less than half of the country’s population—most of the remainder are immigrant workers.
For many years Kuwait was a minor emirate whose economy centered on sea trade and especially pearl exports. The discovery of oil in the 20th century transformed all aspects of Kuwaiti society, and today the country has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. In 1990 neighboring Iraq invaded Kuwait, precipitating the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which an international force expelled the Iraqis.
LAND AND RESOURCES OF KUWAIT
Kuwait is one of the world’s smallest countries, occupying 17,818 sq km (6,880 sq mi). The greatest distance from north to south is 200 km (120 mi) and from east to west 170 km (110 mi). Kuwait is bordered on the north and west by Iraq, on the south and west by Saudi Arabia, and on the east by the Persian Gulf. The capital is Kuwait city.
Natural Regions in Kuwait
The Kuwaiti interior is covered by arid, pebbly desert. The topography is flat with some small rolling hills. Kuwait’s highest point, in the far west, is just 281 m (922 ft) above sea level.
Kuwait’s coastal plain is low and marshy, and the coastline is dotted with mudflats, offshore bars, and low islands. Larger islands include Būbiyān, near the Iraqi border, and Faylakah, the only island with a significant population. Midway along the coast is Kuwait Bay, on which the city of Kuwait is located. This inlet is the only deepwater harbor on the west coast of the Persian Gulf and accounts, in part, for Kuwait’s prominence in maritime activity.
Climate in Kuwait
Climatically, Kuwait is a tropical desert. Summer day temperatures are extremely high–routinely surpassing 45°C (113°F)—but the air is dry except along the coast, where it is often very humid. Winter days are usually warm and pleasant—the average temperature in January, the coldest month, is 13.5°C (56°F). Annual rainfall is typically less than 127 mm (5 in) per year, and almost all of it falls in the cooler winter. Frost occurs at times in the interior on winter nights.
Natural Resources of Kuwait
Kuwait has no lakes and rivers and few sources of fresh water. Water for drinking and irrigation is available only from underground aquifers and through desalination (removal of salt) of seawater. There is little vegetation except for marsh plants along the coast and grasses and scattered thorn trees inland. Kuwait’s only significant natural resource is petroleum, the country’s main economic product. Without the economic resources available from oil, the Kuwaiti environment would be too harsh to support a substantial population.
Environmental Issues in Kuwait
The Persian Gulf War rendered Kuwait an ecological disaster area, the country suffering serious degradation of its air, marine resources, and soil. During the war, huge lakes of spilled oil fouled desert sands, and millions of liters of oil flowed into the Persian Gulf, threatening wildlife and fisheries. Oil wells that were set ablaze created soot that covered the countryside. Some of the environmental damage may be irreparable. Air pollution is an ongoing concern—besides being a top producer of petroleum, Kuwait also has one of the world’s highest rates of petroleum consumption per capita.
PEOPLE AND SOCIETY OF KUWAIT
Most Kuwaitis live in the capital city of Kuwait or its suburbs, such as Hawalli. Even most of Kuwait’s Bedouins—Arabs who are traditionally nomadic—have settled into permanent residences in the districts outside the capital. Thus, virtually the entire population is urban. Kuwaitis often refer to “inner” Kuwait with its more liberal and cosmopolitan atmosphere and “outer” Kuwait, farther from the central city, where conservative Bedouin and tribal influences are stronger.
In 2009 Kuwait had an estimated population of 2,691,158. The average population density was 151 persons per sq km (391 per sq mi). Population growth rate is very high—3.55 percent (2009)—probably owing to Kuwait’s prosperity and high level of health care and social services. About 48 percent of the population was younger than 25 years old in 2004.
Ethnic Groups in Kuwait
Only about 43 percent of the population of Kuwait are native Kuwaiti citizens. Almost all Kuwaiti citizens are Arabs. Most of the remainder of the country’s population are foreign workers. The majority of immigrants are from other Arab countries as well as Iran, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. Kuwait also has a significant population classified as bidun (Arabic for “without”), who are not citizens of any country. Many bidun claim to have lived in Kuwait for generations without receiving citizenship, while Kuwait claims they are recent immigrants who should not be granted full citizenship.
Language and Religion in Kuwait
Kuwait’s official language is Arabic, which is spoken by all citizens. Both Arabic and English are taught in Kuwaiti schools, and English is widely used among Kuwait’s many foreign communities. Because Islam is the official religion, all Kuwaiti citizens are Muslim, and Islamic practices, such as fasting during the month of Ramadan, are widely observed. Sunni Muslims make up about 45 percent of the population while Shia Muslims make up about 40 percent. Foreigners living in the country are free to practice their own religions, but conversion by a Muslim to another religion is not allowed. Although Kuwait follows the Western calendar for business purposes, Islamic feasts and festivals, which follow the lunar Islamic calendar, dominate the year.
Education in Kuwait
Oil revenues have allowed Kuwait to build an extensive educational system, yielding a literacy rate of 94 percent. Public school is free and compulsory from the age of 6 to 14, and several private schools also teach this age group. Kuwait University (founded in 1966) is also free and offers programs in a wide range of professional and scientific fields at several campuses. Both the extensive library system at Kuwait University and the collection at Kuwait National Museum (1957) were heavily damaged and looted during the Iraqi occupation in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Society in Kuwait
Kuwait offers free medical care to all residents, including citizens of other countries. The government also provides several other benefits, including housing subsidies, without levying taxes. As a result, many Kuwaitis depend on the government for support, but poverty, unemployment, and crime are low by global standards. However, affluence and rapid change have brought their own difficulties. By hiring many foreign workers, Kuwaitis have made themselves a minority in their own country. Relations between Kuwaitis and immigrants are sometimes strained, and foreigners often complain of unfair treatment in the workplace. Obtaining Kuwaiti citizenship is extremely difficult, further widening the gulf between the two groups. Among Kuwaitis, the rapid expansion of educational opportunities, wealth, and foreign travel has led many older people to feel estranged from the younger generation.
Kuwaitis tend to have strong attachments to their families. A house is designed to show little to the outside world, and often has a nearby structure, called a diwaniyya, for receiving guests. Men spend much of their evenings in the diwaniyyas with friends and associates while women are usually inside the house. In large part because cultural life is centered around home and diwaniyya, there are few theaters or other places of public entertainment.
Most Kuwaiti men wear a modified form of traditional gown called the dishdasha along with Arab headdress. Kuwaiti women wear a wide variety of clothing, from jeans to loosely fitting gowns and head coverings. Foreigners tend to dress the way they would in their home countries, although more revealing clothing, such as shorts, is frowned upon. Thanks to the large immigrant population, many types of food are available in Kuwait, especially Lebanese and Indian food. In accordance with Islamic teaching, alcohol and pork products are banned. Team sports, especially soccer, are popular in Kuwait. Many Kuwaitis also enjoy maritime sports such as sailing, yachting, and fishing.
ECONOMY OF KUWAIT
Kuwait is one of the world’s richest countries per capita. Its initial prosperity was founded almost completely on oil reserves, which, at an estimated 102 billion barrels (2007), is roughly 8 percent of the world’s total. Over time, however, Kuwait used oil earnings to make large investments abroad. By 1990 the country earned more from foreign investment than from oil exports. The expenses of the Iraqi invasion and postwar reconstruction placed a heavy economic burden on the country, but by the mid-1990s Kuwait had resumed its preinvasion prosperity. Gross domestic product (GDP) for 2007 was $112.1 billion, giving Kuwait a per capita GDP of $42,102. The labor force totals 1,363,345 people, only about one-quarter of whom are Kuwaiti citizens.
Oil Industry in Kuwait
Because the government owns the oil industry, it controls most of the economy—in all, about 75 percent of the GDP. Kuwait’s oil exports vary depending on internal needs (almost all of Kuwait’s energy is derived from oil), international demand and prices, and production quotas fixed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), of which Kuwait is a member. OPEC’s quotas, however, are difficult to enforce, and Kuwait and other countries have been accused of violating them. In 2004 oil production was 795 million barrels.
Foreign Trade in Kuwait
While efforts have been made to encourage local agriculture and industry, Kuwait imports most products, including a wide range of food and manufactured goods. Imports totaled $19.4 billion in 2007, while exports amounted to $62.2 billion. Leading purchasers of Kuwait’s exports are Japan, South Korea, the United States, and Singapore; chief sources for imports are the United States, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
Currency in Kuwait
The Central Bank of Kuwait in the capital city issues Kuwait’s currency, the Kuwaiti dinar. The dinar is valued at 0.30 dinars per U.S.$1 (2007 average).
Transportation in Kuwait
Kuwait’s transportation system is modern and efficient, with a road system that is well developed by regional standards. Roads total 5,749 km (3,572 mi), of which 85 percent are paved, and most people travel by automobile. A small public bus system serves mainly foreign workers. An international airport is located on the southern outskirts of the Kuwait city metropolitan area and Kuwait Airways is the national airline. The country has three modern seaports, one of which specializes in oil exports.
Communication in Kuwait
Kuwait has a lively press with several independently owned daily newspapers that publish in Arabic and English. Formal press censorship ended in 1992, and today newspapers argue vigorously about most public issues. However, certain subjects (such as the emir) are considered beyond public criticism. Television, radio, and the Kuwaiti News Agency (KUNA) remain under government control and are less spirited.
GOVERNMENT OF KUWAIT
Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy. It is governed by its 1962 constitution, which established a National Assembly that shares power with an emir. The emir suspended the constitution and parliament from 1976 to 1980 and again from 1986 to 1992, both times for loosely specified reasons. Although the emir and his family dominate the political system, there are significant elements of a parliamentary democracy. When the emir attempted to create a purely consultative national council in 1990 to replace the parliament, the opposition boycotted elections. Before the issue could be resolved, Iraq invaded. In return for unity during the invasion, the emir agreed to restore the constitution and parliament.
Native Kuwaiti citizens who are at least 21 years old have the right to vote and run for political office. Naturalized citizens are required to have lived in Kuwait for a certain period of time before they can vote or run for office. Police and military personnel are not allowed to vote.
Executive of Kuwait
Executive power is vested in an emir. Only male descendants of Mubarak al-Sabah, the founder of Kuwait, may become emir. A cabinet of ministers assists the emir. The most important cabinet posts, such as the ministries of defense, foreign affairs, and interior, have generally remained within the Sabah family as well. Other cabinet members are typically selected from legislators and experts in the general population.
Legislature of Kuwait
Fifty members are elected to the unicameral (one-house) National Assembly every four years. The emir selects a prime minister to lead the National Assembly, and the prime minister in turn selects the cabinet ministers. The crown prince, heir apparent to the emir, has traditionally served as prime minister. The assembly’s role in day-to-day governing is limited, but it has the exclusive right to pass laws—a field where it has often displayed independence from the government. The assembly has the authority to withdraw confidence from the cabinet or from individual ministers, but it has rarely done so. Parliamentary debates are often vigorous and members feel free to criticize the government, its policies, and each other vociferously, although the emir is never personally criticized.
Judiciary in Kuwait
Kuwait has three courts: primary, appellate, and supreme. There are also specialized courts for administrative, military, and constitutional cases. Most Kuwaiti law is modeled after European law. Personal matters, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance, are governed by Islamic law but handled by the regular court system. The majority of judges are Kuwaiti, although the shortage of labor prompted the government to hire judges from other Arab countries.
Political Groups in Kuwait
Formal political parties in Kuwait have no legal standing. However, the government tolerates umbrella organizations with strong ideological tendencies that air many different views. Most of these organizations are either traditional and Islamic or liberal and secular (nonreligious), and within these factions are further divisions. Many leading merchant families use the country’s chamber of commerce to play a strong political role. Even without parties, political affiliations are widely known.
Defense of Kuwait
Kuwaiti men are required to serve two years in the armed forces beginning at the age of 18. However, exemptions are easily granted, such as for schooling, and most Kuwaitis who wish to avoid service are able to do so. Before 1990 the army had 16,000 troops, the air force 2,200, and the navy 1,800. Following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, these numbers dropped to less than half their prewar strength. The government implemented a plan to increase overall armed strength to 30,000. In 2006 army troop forces numbered 11,000, the navy totaled 2,000 members, and the Kuwaiti air force had 2,500 personnel.
International Alliances in Kuwait
Kuwait relies heavily on international alliances. Following independence in 1961, Kuwait joined the United Nations and the Arab League. At the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Kuwait joined other small, oil-rich states in the region to form the Gulf Cooperation Council. In 1991, after Iraq was evicted from Kuwait, Kuwait signed a ten-year defense agreement with the United States; this agreement was renewed in 2001. Agreements were also made with some European and Arab states, although Kuwait considers the United States its chief international protector. American troops are stationed west of the capital. The number of American troops in Kuwait swelled in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was launched from Kuwait.
HISTORY OF KUWAIT
The area around Kuwait has been settled for thousands of years, although the harsh physical conditions have led to shifting populations. The Kuwaiti island of Faylakah was home to an important Bronze Age settlement 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. This settlement was linked to the ancient trading culture of Dilmun, which was centered on the Persian Gulf island of Bahrain, to the south. The ancient Greeks built a fortress on Faylakah in the 4th century BC and knew the island as Ikaros.
The Sabah Monarchy
In the 18th century AD several groups migrated from the interior of the Arabian Peninsula and settled at the site of present-day Kuwait city. One family, the Sabahs, established themselves as rulers. Economic activity centered around pearling and long-distance trade. In the late 19th century the British established a presence in the area to secure the lines of communication and transportation to India. In particular, the British formed close relationships with local rulers who were anxious to assert their autonomy from the Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of the area. In 1899 Mubarak al-Sabah, then ruler of Kuwait, signed an agreement with Britain, making Kuwait a protectorate of the British Empire. Britain gained control over Kuwait’s foreign and defense affairs and in return protected Kuwait and allowed the Sabahs to rule over internal affairs.
Oil was discovered in Kuwait in the late 1930s, but not until after World War II (1939-1945) did Kuwait begin to export large quantities of oil. Oil wealth transformed the society. Large-scale construction and economic development became possible, and since the government controlled oil revenues, the power of the Sabah family grew as well. Oil wealth also brought more contact with the outside world, and many younger Kuwaitis favored the pan-Arab movement, which sought greater ties among Arab countries.
In 1961 Britain granted independence to Kuwait. Iraq, which had long claimed Kuwait was part of southern Iraq, argued that Kuwait had been separated from it illegitimately. After being pressured by Arab countries and Britain, Iraq eventually backed down from its claim. The emir of Kuwait nonetheless felt it necessary to promote national unity. He allowed elections for a constituent assembly, which took place in late 1961, and the assembly wrote a constitution the following year that guaranteed the Sabah’s dominance but allowed the people a role in government. On two occasions, in 1976 and 1986, the emir’s successors suspended parts of the constitution, but on both occasions they later consented to renew constitutional life.
In the 1960s and 1970s Kuwait became a leading, although not radical, voice in support of Arab nationalism and Palestinian claims to a homeland. Pan-Arabism was popular, especially among students, and many Kuwaiti teachers and journalists were Palestinians. In 1980, when war broke out between Iran and Iraq (see Iran-Iraq War), Kuwait helped the Arab Iraqis even though it exposed them to Iranian attacks.
Persian Gulf War and Recent Developments
In 1990 relations with Iraq worsened. Iraq accused Kuwait of exceeding OPEC production quotas for oil and “stealing” more than $2 billion in oil from a contested reserve that lay beneath both countries. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein also demanded Kuwait cancel the debt Iraq owed from the Iran-Iraq War and revived Iraq’s claims of sovereignty over Kuwait. When Hussein mobilized Iraqi troops on the border in late July, Kuwait had neither the military might nor the external protection to prevent an invasion. On August 2 Iraq invaded Kuwait and quickly overwhelmed Kuwaiti forces. An international force assembled in neighboring Saudi Arabia and evicted Iraq from Kuwait after six weeks of fighting in early 1991.
As the Iraqis retreated, much of Kuwait’s industry, infrastructure, and buildings were destroyed. Among the most heavily damaged were palaces of the royal family, government and other public buildings, oil wells, and roads. Looting was widespread, on both an individual and organized basis: Entire collections from libraries, museums, and laboratories were transported to Iraq. Since the war, Kuwait has been largely rebuilt.
In 1994 Iraq again massed troops near the Kuwaiti border. Following months of diplomatic pressure from the UN and military buildup by the United States and its allies, Iraq withdrew troops from the border. Hussein also signed a decree formally accepting Kuwait’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, effectively ending Iraq’s claim to Kuwait. Kuwait served as the launching point for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which overthrew Hussein’s regime (see U.S.-Iraq War).
Following elections in July 2003 in which liberal candidates lost ground to Islamists and government supporters, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah was appointed as prime minister by the emir. This was the first time in the country’s history that the roles of crown prince and prime minister had been separated. The separation of powers had been a key modification demanded by reform groups.
In May 2005 the National Assembly approved an amendment to Kuwait’s election law that granted women full political rights, including the right to vote and run for political office. Previously, the constitution restricted these rights to men even though the constitution barred discrimination on the basis of gender. In June Massouma al-Mubarak became Kuwait’s first woman cabinet minister.
In January 2006 the emir of Kuwait died. His cousin, Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah, had long been designated his successor. However, Sheikh Saad was in ill-health and unable to take the oath of office. The ruling family remained divided on succession, but after ten days it allowed the National Assembly to designate the emir. The National Assembly chose the prime minister and late emir’s brother, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah. In June 2006 elections for the National Assembly, 32 of the 402 candidates were women, but women failed to win a single seat. A loose coalition of Islamist and reformist candidates won a resounding victory, securing a majority of the seats. Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad appointed his nephew, Sheikh Nasser Muhammad, as prime minister.
Women were elected to the National Assembly for the first time in the 2009 parliamentary elections. Altogether four female candidates, including former cabinet member al-Mubarak, won office. The elections also represented a setback for those with Islamist affiliations. However, Shia representation increased from 5 seats to 9 in the 50-seat chamber. Muhammad continued as prime minister.