Kuwait: Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy

Kuwait has been pivotal to the decades-long U.S. effort to secure the Persian Gulf region because of its consistent cooperation with U.S. military operations in the region and its key location in the northern Gulf. Kuwait and the United States have a formal Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA), under which the United States maintains over 13,000 military personnel in country and prepositions military equipment to project power in the region. Only Germany, Japan, and South Korea host more U.S. troops than does Kuwait, which has hosted the operational command center for U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) that has combatted the Islamic State since 2014.

Kuwait is a partner not only of the United States but also of the other hereditary monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman). Kuwait is participating militarily in the Saudi-led coalition that is trying to defeat the Shia “Houthi” rebel movement in Yemen, but Kuwait tends to favor mediation of regional issues over the use of military force. Kuwait has sought to resolve the intra-GCC rift that erupted in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia and the UAE moved to isolate Qatar. Kuwait has refrained from intervening in Syria’s civil war, instead hosting donor conferences for victims of the Syrian civil conflict, Iraq’s recovery from the Islamic State challenge, and the effects of regional conflict on Jordan’s economy. Kuwait has not followed some of the other GCC states in building quiet ties to the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. Kuwait generally supports U.S. efforts to counter Iran and has periodically arrested Kuwaiti Shias that the government says are spying for Iran, but it also engages Iran at high levels. U.S. government reports have praised steps by Kuwait to counter the financing of terrorism, but reports persist that wealthy Kuwaitis are still able to donate to extreme Islamist factions in the region. Kuwait has consistently engaged the post-Saddam governments in Baghdad in part to prevent any repeat of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Experts have long assessed Kuwait’s political system as a potential regional model for its successful incorporation of secular and Islamist political factions, both Shia and Sunni. However, since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Kuwait has followed other GCC states in incarcerating and revoking the citizenship of social media and other critics. Kuwait’s political stability has not been in question but long-standing parliamentary opposition to the ruling Sabah family’s political dominance has in recent years included visible public pressure for political and economic reform. Parliamentary elections in July 2013 produced a National Assembly amenable to working with the ruling family, but the subsequent elections held in November 2016 returned to the body Islamist and liberal opponents of the Sabah family who held sway in earlier assemblies. Kuwait has increased its efforts to curb trafficking in persons over the past few years. Years of political paralysis contributed to economic stagnation relative to Kuwait’s more economically vibrant Gulf neighbors such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Like the other GCC states, Kuwait has struggled with reduced income from oil exports during 20142018. Kuwait receives negligible amounts of U.S. foreign assistance, and has offset some of the costs of U.S. operations in the region since Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.