Kuwait

GEOGRAPHY

Kuwait (Arabic pronunciation) is a small country situated between kuwait-cia_wfb_map_20101112_1800511977Iraq to the north, Saudi Arabia to the south and west, and the Persian Gulf on the east. It has an area of 17,818 sq km (11,072 sq miles), roughly the size of of the state of New Jersey. Kuwait’s climate is mostly dry with very hot summers, reaching up to 46.9° C (116.4° F), and short cool winters, with low temperatures between 8.5-10° C (47.3-50° F). Kuwait is a relatively flat country and has a peak elevation of 306 m (1004 ft) above sea level.

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 92% of domestic and industrial water needs, and supplies 60% of all general water needs. Six plants produces 620 million imperial gallons per day (1 imperial gallon = 4.545 liters). According to the United Nations Environment Program, Kuwait has 15% of the world’s desalination productive capacity.

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 rulers 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 ruling 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 control 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 reaffirmed 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 world 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 which 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 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, so they do not have Kuwaiti citizenship.) 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.

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.

History and Government Resources

PEOPLE & EDUCATION

The largest ethnic group in Kuwait is Arabs: Kuwaitis Arabs make up 31.3% and other non-Kuwaiti Arabs constitute 27.9%. Asians (37.8%) and other ethnic groups (3%) make up the remainder of the population. 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. The population of Kuwait is growing at a rate of 1.62%.

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)

People and Education 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), which 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

Culture

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 feature 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.

Art 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 worlds is seen a sign of the progressive nature of Kuwaiti society. There are three different towers, two 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

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.

A few of the traditional songs are Al-Fann, performed at weddings; Al-Fareesa, performed on national and religious holidays; and Al-Arda Al-Bahariya, a seafaring song celebrating sailors’ return home.

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.

Music 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. 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; as a result, the country’s participation in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics is in question.

Sports Resources

LATEST NEWS & COMMENTARY ON KUWAIT

Middle East Policy Council

Scholarly essays, commentary and forums on Kuwait

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The New York Times

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

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ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Kuwait: Governance, Security and U.S. Policy

Congressional Research Service, May 2016