Kuwait

GEOGRAPHY

Kuwait (Arabic pronunciation) is a small country situated between Iraq to the north, Saudi Arabia to the south and west, and the Persian Gulf on the east. It has an area of 17,818 square kilometers (11,072 square miles), roughly the size of the state of New Jersey. Kuwait’s climate is mostly dry with very hot summers, reaching up to 116.4° F, and short cool winters, with low temperatures between 47.3-50° F. Kuwait is a relatively flat country, with the Arabian Desert covering most of its territories, and has a peak elevation of 1,004 feet above sea level. Kuwait has nine islands, most of which are uninhabited. The vast majority of Kuwait’s population lives in Kuwait City, making Kuwait one of the world’s most urbanized countries. Altogether, Kuwait is slightly larger in area than the U.S. state of Hawaii.

Kuwait suffers from a limited supply of fresh water. As of 2011, there was an estimated .02 km³ of renewable water in the country. One of the ways Kuwait obtains fresh water is through desalination of water in the Persian Gulf. According to the Water Resources Division of the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, desalinated water accounts for 90% of domestic and industrial water needs, and supplies 60% of all general water needs. The country has a very high consumption of water at 500 liters per person per day. Between 2005 and 2014, the country invested $5.28 billion into the water sector.  While the government is implementing awareness programs, it is unlikely that the consumption will lower, with the population increasing at almost 1.62% annually.

When Iraq retreated from Kuwait towards the end of the First Gulf War, the Iraqi forces set fire to most of the oil wells in Kuwait. The fires resulted in one of the largest environmental catastrophes caused by mankind. According to NASA, an estimated 1 to 1.5 billion barrels of oil were released into the environment. After most burned, 25 to 40 million barrels ended up spread across the desert and 11 million barrels in the Persian Gulf. The fires burned for ten months, polluting the air. Kuwait’s agriculture has yet to recover from the Iraqi invasion of 1990, which destroyed much of the arable land. Today, less than 1% of the land is arable, which poses major problems for the food supply. In an effort to alleviate this, the government has experimented with hydroponics (growing plants using only water) and small-scale farming.

Geography Resources

HISTORY & GOVERNMENT

800px-Sheikh_Sabah_IV_AmirKuwaitThe earliest settlers in Kuwait were Mesopotamians (6,500-3,800 BCE) who lived on Failaka Island, a part of modern-day Kuwait. In the fourth century BCE, the Greeks settled on Failaka under Alexander the Great, and called it Ikaros after the mythical being Icarus and a similar island in the Aegean Sea.

By 123 BCE, the Persian Characene Empire had established itself in the city of Charax in present-day Kuwait. In 224 CE, the Persian Sassanid Empire took control of Charax and ruled until 626 CE, when the Rashidun Caliphate armies defeated them. The Rashidun Caliphate ruled the region for a short time and was replaced by the Ummayad Caliphate in 661. The area surrounding Charax came to be recognized as a strategic location for Muslim armies due to its proximity to the Persian Gulf; by the 9th century it had also become a well-known trading center. The Portuguese came to the region in 1507, and conquered the area surrounding the Persian Gulf in 1521. Locals began to rise against the Portuguese shortly thereafter and by 1660 the Portuguese were ousted and control of Kuwait was passed into the hands of the indigenous tribes.

In 1705 Kuwait was known as Guraine and was home to the Bani Utbah tribe. They founded a small fishing port named Kuwait that became very successful. Much of the port’s success was due to its proximity to the pearl banks along the Persian Gulf. The pearls made Kuwait an important stop along Ottoman trade routes that linked the Ottomans to distant markets in India. In 1775, seeking to gain a share of Ottoman wealth in the region, the Persian Empire invaded the rich agricultural region of nearby Basra in present-day Iraq. Many wealthy merchant families escaped to Kuwait after the invasion and Kuwait became a prominent trading hub along the Persian Gulf due to the influx of wealthy merchants. The al-Sabah clan came to Kuwait in the early 18th century and swore allegiance to the Ottoman Empire who, in turn, made the family administrators of Kuwait. Their willingness to cooperate with the Ottomans gained Kuwait partial autonomy from the Empire.

As the British expanded their influence in the Persian Gulf during the 1800s, they looked to incorporate the affluent trading center of Kuwait into the British Empire. The British reached an agreement with the al-Sabah family in 1897, which designated Kuwait and the surrounding desert as a British protectorate. Two years later, the country’s leader, Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabah, signed another agreement that gave the British full control over Kuwait’s foreign policy. Kuwait continued to drift farther from Ottoman influence and closer to the British in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The British and Ottomans agreed to designate Kuwait as an autonomous region within the Ottoman Empire in 1913, although the British continued to administer Kuwait as a protectorate. After the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I, the British separated Kuwait from the newly created Iraq mandate and drew Kuwait’s present-day borders.

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Following Great Britain’s loss of its Indian colony in 1947, and the Suez Canal in 1956, there were few benefits in directly administering Kuwait’s development as a protectorate. Britain withdrew its influence from the Persian Gulf in the early 1960s. On June 19, 1961, Britain officially declared the independence of Kuwait and named Emir Abdullah Al-Salim Al-Sabah the monarch. In response, Iraqi Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim contested Kuwait’s independence and claimed sovereignty over the country due to Kuwait’s past incorporation into the Ottoman Empire. By late June 1961, a military confrontation seemed imminent; however, the Iraqi military refrained from invading after Kuwait received significant military support from Saudi Arabia and Britain. After a violent overthrow of Iraqi Prime Minister Qasim in 1963, Iraq declared its acceptance of Kuwait’s independence.

The next two decades of Kuwait’s history saw significant development of its petroleum economy and the decline in the production of pearls, Kuwait’s traditional export. The oil found in 1938 was later discovered to be 10% of the world’s oil reserves. Emir Sabah Al-Salim Al-Sabah presided over much of the oil industry’s development from November 1965 until his death in 1977. The outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in September 1980 threatened the entire Gulf oil economy, although Kuwait was particularly vulnerable due to its close proximity to the conflict. In response to the war, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman established an economic and security alliance known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC, a collection of majority Sunni states, feared the spread of Shia Islam from the new Islamic Republic of Iran. The GCC gave billions in support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. In response, Iran began attacking oil tankers in the Gulf in an effort to persuade the GCC nations to abandon their support of Saddam Hussein. In order to prevent a collapse of the Gulf oil market, the United States initiated a program called Operation Earnest Will, which provided naval escorts for Kuwaiti ships under Iranian fire.

Kuwait escaped the conflict with its economy and infrastructure mostly intact. In an effort to offset some of Iraq’s losses, Saddam Hussein annexed and invaded Kuwait in August 1990. His military seized Kuwait’s oil fields and removed Emir Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah from power. In response, the United Nations authorized a U.S.-led coalition force to expel Hussein and reinstate the emir. The result was Operation Desert Storm, an aerial bombardment campaign and ground invasion that fully expelled the Iraqi army by the end of February 1991. During the retreat, the Iraqis set fire to over 700 oil wells throughout Kuwait, which resulted in $1.5 billion in damage to Kuwait’s economy and widespread pollution. In addition, the war affected Kuwaiti-Palestinian relations, as Kuwait expelled nearly all of its 200,000 Palestinian citizens due to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s support for Saddam Hussein during the invasion.

In the 1990s, Kuwait’s oil economy rebounded from the invasion with the monetary support of the United States and the other GCC countries. In return, Kuwait provided a critical staging point for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which ended the regime of Saddam Hussein. The country housed over 100,000 troops in preparation for the invasion and maintained bases along the border with Iraq. The U.S. Navy also utilized Kuwait’s waters to launch airstrikes and bombing campaigns in the lead-up to the initial invasion.

Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah became the monarch of Kuwait in 2006. In 2008, parliament refused to work with the government citing widespread corruption and Emir Al-Sabah dissolved parliament in response. Three years later the Arab Spring protests began, and created more problems for Kuwait’s government. These protests occurred following a move by the emir to refuse a free food grant to the stateless Bedouin people in Kuwait. Many of these people were born in Kuwait, however, their ancestors did not file for citizenship in 1960 when the country was founded. As protests spread over corruption and the lack of citizen status for these groups, Prime Minister Nasser Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah resigned and the emir dissolved parliament on December 6, 2011. The country held new parliamentary elections on December 1, 2012, but many cited unfair changes in Kuwait’s electoral laws and protested the results. In June 2013, Kuwait’s Constitutional Court ordered anther dissolution of parliament and Kuwait again elected a new parliament in July 2013. In 2016, the emir once more dissolved parliament after an emergency government meeting; in November elections, opposition groups and their allies from a Muslim Brotherhood-linked group and Salafists won nearly half parliament’s 50 seats, raising fears of fresh political wrangling. The move to dissolve parliament for the 4th time since February 2012 was widely seen as linked to disputes between government and parliament over austerity measures including a sharp hike in state-subsidized petrol prices.

History & Government Resources

INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES

Kuwait has few ongoing international disputes. Together with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait continues to negotiate the maritime boundaries with Iran which remains unsettled. Since the conclusion of the Gulf War, Kuwait has made efforts to secure and maintain allies throughout the world. In addition to the United States, defense arrangements have been concluded with Russia, the United Kingdom, and France. Close ties to other key Arab members have also been sustained, particularly with the other GCC nations.

Society

Kuwait has a population of around 4 million people, and the largest ethnic group in Kuwait is Arabs. Kuwaiti Arabs make up 31.3% of the population and other non-Kuwaiti Arabs constitute 27.9%. Asians and other ethnic groups make up the remainder of the population with Asians representing roughly 37%. Kuwait’s population is increasing at a rate of 2.9%, which is relatively high in comparison to most other Middle Eastern nations. Kuwait was a destination for Palestinian refugees who moved to Kuwait for employment in various industries. Some 80,000 Palestinian refugees are in Kuwait but there were upwards of 400,000 before the Gulf War; many fled due to the negative backlash caused by the PLO’s support of Saddam Hussein in the conflict.

Kuwait’s constitution states that education is a fundamental right of every citizen. Schools in Kuwait consist of four levels: kindergarten (2 years), primary (5 years), intermediate (4 years) and secondary (3 years). The primary and intermediate levels are compulsory, so school is mandatory for children 6-14 years of age. The government encourages students to continue education after their secondary year and students have the option of going to vocational school or university. Kuwait University is a public university established in 1966. Originally, it only had two colleges: a college of science, arts, and education, and a college for women. There are now 16 different colleges as well as graduate programs. The Australian College of Kuwait was Kuwait’s first private technical college and offers courses in vocational skills. In addition, the government sponsors citizens studying abroad, offering scholarships and stipends, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Consequently, there is a large population of Kuwaitis who study in America, and elsewhere, and then return to Kuwait.

The literacy rate in Kuwait is 96.3%. Men are slightly more literate than women (96.5% vs. 95.8%), although men spend less time in school than women (13 years vs. 15 years). The Kuwaiti government provides free state-run education for all children. This free education includes food at school, clothing, transportation, and books. Schools below the university level are typically segregated by gender, but offer the same programs.

Kuwait ranks 51st on the Human Development Index. Most Kuwaiti nationals are employed by the government, and enjoy short working days and early retirement.

Demographics in Kuwait

Kuwaiti Arab 31.3%
Non-Kuwaiti Arab 27.9%
Asian 37.8%
Other 3%

Kuwait’s constitution states that education is a fundamental right of every citizen. Schools in Kuwait consist of four levels: kindergarten (2 years), primary (5 years), intermediate (4 years) and secondary (3 years). The primary and intermediate levels are compulsory, so school is mandatory for children 6-14 years of age. The government encourages students to continue education after their secondary year and students have the option of going to vocational school or university. Kuwait University is a public university established in 1966. Originally, it only had two colleges: a college of science, arts, and education, and a college for women. There are now 16 different colleges as well as graduate programs. The Australian College of Kuwait was Kuwait’s first private technical college and offers courses in vocational skills. In addition, the government sponsors citizens studying abroad, offering scholarships and stipends, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. Consequently, there is a large population of Kuwaitis who study in America, and elsewhere, and then return to Kuwait.

The literacy rate in Kuwait is 96.3%. Men are slightly more literate than women (96.5% vs. 95.8%), although men spend less time in school than women (13 years vs. 15 years). The Kuwaiti government provides free state-run education for all children. This free education includes food at school, clothing, transportation, and books. Schools below the university level are typically segregated by gender, but offer the same programs.

Literacy Rate in Kuwait ( Men)

Literacy Rate in Kuwait ( Women)

Society Resources

RELIGION

Islam is the official religion of Kuwait and nearly 77% of the population is Muslim. Of that amount, 70% are Sunni and 30% are Shia. Christians make up 17.3%. The remaining population practices other and unspecified religions such as Hinduism, or Parsi. Parsi adherents are generally descendants of Persian followers of Zoroastrianism who fled from religious persecution. Zoroastrianism is based on the philosophy of Zoroaster who in the 6th century BCE reduced the traditionally many Persian gods into two spirits: Ahura Mazda (illuminating wisdom) and Angra Mainyu (destructive spirit), who are constantly fighting.

The government has strict laws concerning non-Muslim religions: they must be recognized by the Quran in order to be legal in Kuwait. Adherents of a legal religion can apply for permits to build places of worship although the government limits the number of clergy allowed.

Religion Resources

ECONOMY

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Kuwait’s economy is largely dependent on trade. Imports and exports make up around 99% of the total GDP. Like the other Gulf States, Kuwait is in need of diversifying its economy. The country invests heavily abroad, particularly in the UK, and they encourage foreign direct investment into their own country as well, although the Government of Kuwait has a right to screen any foreign investment. Currently petroleum accounts for over half of GDP, 92% of export revenues, and 90% of government income. Kuwait’s stock exchange was privatized in 2016.

The Kuwaiti government subsidizes many of the basic services for its citizens, including the cost of water, food, fuel, and healthcare. Often, this has resulted in overuse and waste of products within Kuwait. When the subsidies have been cut, however, as was the case for fuel subsidies in 2015, there has been widespread outrage among the public and National Assembly (parliament), leading to strikes and even the dissolution of the National Assembly by the emir.

Culture

In the Arab world Kuwait is known as the “Hollywood of the Gulf” because it produces popular television shows and theater productions which are distributed and enjoyed throughout the Gulf. Kuwait is well known for its tradition of theater, though other Gulf countries have followed suit with their own performance art industries including opera and theater. The theatrical movement in Kuwait constitutes a major part of the country’s cultural life. Abdulhussain Abdulredha is one of the most prominent actors from Kuwait.

Food

Seafood is a staple in the Kuwaiti diet, and has been for centuries. The most famous Kuwaiti dish may be Machboos, a dish of rice and meat (usually lamb, chicken or fish) served with a homemade tomato sauce called daqqus. The meat is seasoned with an assortment of spices. Iranian khubz is a flatbread served in Kuwait. It is a large flatbread baked in a special oven. Kuwait has a strong local presence of bakeries, and Iranian bakers are common.

The majority of Kuwait’s food is imported from other nations, due to the low availability of arable land. As a result of the often processed foods that are imported from far away, Kuwait has a high prevalence of obesity and diabetes.

Clothing

Most Kuwaiti men wear a dishdasha, which is a long-sleeved, floor length garment. In the summer they will typically wear white, while gray, beige or blue is common in the winter. Long or short white cotton pants are worn under the dishdasha.

The Kuwaiti male headdress consists of a gahfiya (a close fitting knit white cap) and the gutra (the main cloth). The gutra is a square piece of cloth that is placed so that the ends hang down equally over the shoulders. The gutra is usually white in the summer, and red and white in the winter.

There is much more variety in dress when it comes to women in Kuwait. The traditional Kuwaiti woman wears a long-sleeved, loose, floor length dress known as a daraa’.  On festive occasions it is often covered with a sheer, sequined or embroidered dress called a thobe. For everyday activities the abaya is popular, as with neighboring Gulf states. Muslim women in Kuwait wear a hijab.

Women of Bedouin origin often cover their face more fully, wearing a niqab or a bushiya (a semi-transparent veil that covers the entire face).

Art

Traditionally, art in Kuwait has focused on calligraphy based on Quranic writings or abstract art due to Islamic beliefs. The representation of people in art is seen by some religious authorities as a form of idolatry for Muslims. However, there is a vibrant contemporary arts movement taking place in the country. ArtKuwait.org is a blog that monitors the arts scene there with information on museums and galleries, exhibits, initiatives, and notable artists. The website features the Abolish 153 Initiative which seeks to remove article 153 from Kuwait’s penal code. Article 153 effectively gives men regulatory, judicial and executive power over their female kin in cases where alleged sexual misconduct is accused; men who kill female relatives are charged with misdemeanors. The movement is bringing attention to gender inequality and violence through arts and other creative channels.

Folk arts are also popular in Kuwait. Bedouin women weave camel hair, goat hair, and wool into long strips called qatas. These strips are then woven into rugs or curtains used to divide a tent. The Kuwaiti Society of Formative Artists; the National Council of Culture, Arts, and Literature; and the Free Art Studio all promote visual art in Kuwait and are active in assisting local artists by displaying their work or granting them scholarships.

The Kuwait National Museum was the original home of Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, an organization founded to create an exhibition from the collection of Sheikh and Sheikha al-Sabah in 1983. The collection contains many objects from the history of Islam. In 1990 the museum was looted by the Iraqi forces and everything was taken. Most of the collection has since been recovered, although many objects have been damaged.

Literature & Film

Kuwait is known as the “Hollywood of the Gulf”, as mentioned previously. The reputation stems for its tradition of theater, but in modern times Kuwait is perhaps most known for its numerous soap operas, which are aired all over the Gulf. In fact, most Gulf television dramas are filmed in Kuwait and they are home to the most-watched soap operas in the Gulf region.

Music

The Kuwaiti government kept examples and records of music throughout its history until most of these records were destroyed during the Iraqi invasion in the early 1990s. Women, mostly in private settings, perform traditional music in Kuwait which sets it apart from the other Gulf States.

The following are a selection of most important folk songs and dances:

Al-Fann: Al-Fann is usually performed at weddings.

Al-Khamary: One dancer performs Al-Khamary wearing a cloak that cover part of her face.

Al-Sameri: It is a song accompanied by a dance, which is usually performed at weddings. The performing band is divided into two groups. The first group beat the tambourines while the second sing. The dancer wears a “thoub” and covers half of her face with it.

Al-Fareesa: This dance is performed on national and religious feasts by a special band.

Al-Arda Al-Bahariya: It is one of the most famous Kuwaiti sailors songs that are known for its charming and distinct melodies. The song is performed when the ship comes close to the shore after weeks of sailing on the high sea. The sailors beat drums and tambourines to celebrate their safe arrival.

Al-Arda Al-Barriya: This song and dance is about war and peace. Men perform this dance as they walk in a circle holding their swords demonstrating their use and skill with the sword. They are accompanied by the rhythm of drums and singing of a special band.

Al-Nahma: The “Nahham” performs this song on the ship deck. Other types for Al-Nahma are performed accompanying each activity performed by sailors.

Al-Sout: It is performed accompanied by a lute and a small drum called the “merwas”. Two men perform “Zaffan”, which is the dance accompanying the song. When Al-Sout is performed at night gatherings of men, it is called “Samra”, which means chatting by night.

Khaliji is traditional Arabic music native to the Persian Gulf countries played with an oud and tabl (drum). Abdallah Al Rowaished is a khaliji performer in Kuwait. Rowaished has been playing since 1983, and has released over 30 albums and toured throughout the world. Nawal El Kuwaitia is another popular khaliji artist from Kuwait. She released her first album in 1983 and still records music today.

Culture Resources

Sites

Kuwait is home to ruins from ancient civilizations. Failaka Island houses the barest remnants of Dilmun culture, which date back to the third century BCE. There are ongoing archaeological digs on the island; a few of the sites are Al-Khidir, Al-Quraniya, and Al-Qusur. These digs have revealed the foundations of various structures and some pottery.

Sweco, a water distribution company in Kuwait, built the Kuwait Towers, a popular tourist attraction that contains a mixture of contemporary western and traditional Islamic architecture. The combination of the two separate styles is seen a sign of the progressive nature of Kuwaiti society. There are three different towers, two of which are water towers. The tallest holds 4,500 cubic meters of water and has a restaurant at the top. The middle tower is just a water tower, holding the same amount of water as the tallest, and the third and shortest tower houses electrical equipment for the other two towers.

Sites Resources

Sports

The most popular sport in Kuwait is football (U.S. soccer). The national team, “The Blue,” has had some success competing in the Asian League. They won the championship in 1980, were runners up in 1976, and the team took third place in 1984. The Kuwait Football Association was banned from international play by FIFA in October 2015 because of government interference. The suspension was reconfirmed in May 2017 and it is unclear when the ban will be lifted.

Kuwait also has an active men’s basketball team. They won the Gulf Cup in 1981, 1983, and 1986. Kuwait has made 12 appearances at the Summer Olympics, and has won two bronze medals, one in 2000, and 2012. Fehaid Al-Deehani won both of them in the shooting event men’s trap and men’s double trap. Recently, Kuwait has been sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee for government meddling in official proceedings. Kuwait was not allowed to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games, but individual Kuwaiti athletes were able to participate by competing under the Olympic flag as Independent Olympic Athletes. Fehaid Al-Deehani won a gold medal in men’s double trap and Abdullah Al-Rashidi won a bronze medal in men’s skeet.

Sports Resources

LATEST NEWS & COMMENTARY ON KUWAIT

Middle East Policy Council

Scholarly essays, commentary and forums on Kuwait

Click here to visit

The New York Times

News about Kuwait, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

Click here to visit

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Kuwait: Governance, Security and U.S. Policy

Congressional Research Service, May 2016