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Kuwait: Country Profile


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Official country name: State of Kuwait
Area: 6,880 sq miles (17,820 sq km)
Population: 3.2 million (2006 est.), only 950,000 of whom are Kuwaiti citizens. The rest are laborers of Asian or Arab origin.
Median age: 26
Ethnic Groups: Arab 80 percent, South Asian 9 percent, Iranian 4 percent, others 7 percent
GDP and GDP per capita: $102 billion and $32,094 (2006 estimates)

Government and Politics:

Kuwait is a constitutional emirate, which is similar to a monarchy. The ruling emir is always chosen from the al-Sabah family, who chooses the prime minister. The prime minister appoints a cabinet with the emir’s consent. A 50-member unicameral National Assembly, or Majlis al-Umma, is popularly elected every four years. Strictly speaking political parties are banned, but groupings such as Sunni Islamists are represented by salafi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood. Shiites are represented by the National Islamic Alliance. The Popular Action Bloc is a secularist group. The emir frequently dissolves the assembly.


Islam is the official religion. Sunnis represent 70 percent of Kuwait’s Muslims, Shiites 30 percent. Sharia law is the “main source of legislation,” according to the Kuwaiti Constitution, but not the only source of legislation.


Kuwait’s economy is largely oil-based. Kuwait, the world’s 11th-largest oil producer, sits on more than 100 billion barrels of oil reserves, or 8 percent of the world’s total. Crude oil accounts for about 93 percent of Kuwait’s total exports. High oil prices increase Kuwait’s revenue and limit its incentive to diversify its economy.


Kuwait’s military is small and was rapidly decimated by Iraq's invasion of 1990. In 1991, Kuwait signed a 10-year defense agreement with the United States, renewing it for another 10 years in September 2001. The text of the agreement is secret. “The pact,” the Congressional Research Service notes, “does not explicitly require that the United States defend Kuwait in a future crisis,” but provides for joint military exercises, U.S. arms sales, and U.S. military access to Kuwaiti facilities. About 90,000 U.S. military personnel are in Kuwait at any given time, 20,000 permanently--immune from Kuwaiti law.

Human Rights, Civil Rights and Media:

Kuwaitis, many of whom don’t work, rely on a vast mass of foreign domestic workers. Those workers are paid about $142 a month and work 16 to 18 hours a day for an effective wage of less than 30 cents an hour, according to Human Rights Watch. Women’s rights are severely limited, as are those of Bedouins and foreign workers. The country’s parliament in 2006 approved a law ending the government’s monopoly on issuing media licenses and limiting the government’s authority to jail journalists. Self-censorship is rife. Nevertheless, Kuwait’s media is among the Arab world’s most outspoken.


The al-Sabah dynasty has been ruling Kuwait since 1759. Kuwait was a British protectorate from 1899 to 1961, when, as oil production multiplied faster than in other oil-producing states, Kuwait sought and won independence. The majority of the country, however, is not Kuwaiti and cannot vote. Iraq has historically held claim over Kuwait. Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and was repelled in February 1991 by a U.S.-led coalition. Iraq has since maintained intimate political and military links with the United States, Britain and France.

Current Issues:

The emir and the legislature are not getting along as members of parliament continue to demand more input in vetting ministerial appointments. Those movements toward more transparency in government paradoxically may lead to yet another dissolution of the assembly, as it was From 1976 to 1981, in 1981, 1985, 1999 and 2006, each time retarding Kuwaiti political reforms. Kuwait, whose native population is about 30 percent Shiite, is nervous about a complete Shiite take-over in Iraq.
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