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Kuwait: Balancing for Survival - 2004-04-19

The State of Kuwait has survived and prospered since its beginnings in the 1700's because of its skill in forging and maintaining alliances, both with other nations as well as within. Some of these bonds are geopolitical, while others connect Kuwait economically. Jeff Young reports on how recent events, including the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, have impacted Kuwait's relationships both with its neighbors and within its own society.

Large countries can act essentially independent of other nations. Small countries, however, often must build alliances with larger nations to achieve their goals. The State of Kuwait, which occupies just under 2.2 million square kilometers at the northern end of the Persian Gulf, has survived because of its skill in forging and maintaining alliances, both with other nations as well as among diverse factions in its society. Recent events, including the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, have impacted and even changed these relationships.

When Iraq invaded in August, 1990, Kuwait pleaded for help from the world community. The United States responded by assembling a multinational force which expelled the Iraqis in early 1991.

In the wake of the Gulf War, a mutually beneficial relationship between the United States and Kuwait was forged. The United States became a guarantor of Kuwait's security, while Washington gained a controlling position in the northern Gulf. In 2003, the United States wanted to use Kuwait to launch the Iraq war. The Director of the Kuwait Information Office in Washington, Tarek al-Mezrem, says his country was pleased to respond. “In 1991 we saw how America came and helped liberate Kuwait,” adding “It was a great opportunity again to work together liberating Iraq last year.”

Kuwait's positive response came after Saudi Arabia, which had allowed extensive use of its military bases in the 1991 Gulf War, declined to do so again in 2003. But Kuwait's "yes" in the face of Riyadh's "no" raised few eyebrows.

While Riyadh has historically dominated Arabian Peninsula decision making, Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says regional sympathy for Kuwait enabled it to chart a course independent of the Saudis. “A great many Arab countries understand that the Kuwaitis bear a deep grudge against Saddam Hussein,” he says. “So, it was understandable that Kuwait would actively cooperate with the United States.”

Kuwait's cooperation, however, had regional reverberations. Salameh Nematt, Washington bureau chief for the Arabic language al-Hayat newspaper, says when the United States built its operations in Kuwait for the 2003 Iraq war, it tilted the traditional Arabian power base. Mr. Nematt observes “There's no doubt that the fact that Kuwait played a major role in this war has made Saudi Arabia very worried that perhaps the U.S. reliance on smaller Gulf states and more or less a disengagement with Saudi Arabia could have political repercussions.”

Kuwait's support for the U.S.-led war had internal repercussions as well. Despite vivid memories of what Iraq did to Kuwaitis in 1990, Trinity University professor Mary Anne Tetrault says there was a degree of turmoil and division in Kuwait before the outbreak of hostilities. “There are Kuwaiti individuals who were very negative about the United States role. There were a number of shootings and a couple of killings before the invasion.” Ms. Tetrault also says there were those who felt quite differently. “By the same token, there were Kuwaitis who bent over backwards to extend their personal hospitality to the Americans who were in Kuwait.”

Kuwaiti society is made up of diverse groups that have learned over the years to cooperate with each other to achieve common goals. There is a very traditional sector, which includes the Bedouins and others organized along tribal lines. There are modernists externally similar to their counterparts in London and Los Angeles. The merchant class, despite an oil-dominated economy, makes significant contributions through capital generation and employment. There is also an Islamic fundamentalist element.

The ruling family of Kuwait, the al-Sabahs, has for centuries skillfully balanced the interests of each group for the collective benefit of all, and for the continuation of its reign. Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says the Kuwait government's support for the Iraq war represented not only an opportunity to punish Saddam Hussein, but also provided a windfall to be shared by all sectors of Kuwaiti society. “There have been tremendous opportunities for Kuwaiti contractors,” Clawson says, “many of whom have gotten quite lucrative contracts from the United States government for the reconstruction of Iraq.”

Another important place in Kuwaiti society that gives citizens the opportunity to participate - and sometimes disagree - is its parliament. Creating both urban and desert electoral districts gave a legislative voice to people ranging from city-dwelling office workers to Bedouin sheepherders. Kuwaiti official Tarek al-Mazrem points to parliament as proof of Kuwait's democratic government. “In Kuwait, people participate in a parliament, speaking up and bringing and advocating their agenda. Mr. Al-Mezrem continues “that's what you need to have in any society, any system, any country.”

Kuwait's parliament has been surprising - even startling - in the Arab world because its members engage in spirited debate and sometimes openly challenge the government of the Emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah. Former U.S. Ambassador Richard Murphy, who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations, says these disagreements have at times disrupted the government. He observes “The relationship between the parliament and the Emir and the Crown Prince has been an uneasy one to the point that often, some very important programs have gotten stalled because of the almost paralysis in the functioning of the parliament.”

Parliamentary threats of "no confidence" votes against certain Ministers have led to Cabinet reshuffles, such as in 1998 when Islamist MP's sought the removal of the relatively liberal Minister of Information. Rather than allow a "no confidence" vote to take place, the entire cabinet resigned. Then-Prime Minister Sheikh Sa'ad Abdallah al-Sabah resolved the confrontation by appointing the Minister of Information to the post of Minister of Oil. The ruling family thus defused the Islamists without handing them a direct parliamentary victory that could have antagonized other Kuwaiti groups.

Despite descriptions of parliament as inclusive, there are notable exceptions. In order to vote for parliamentary candidates, or to run for a seat, one has to be a full Kuwaiti citizen, defined as having ancestors counted in the 1920 Kuwait census. Even with full citizenship is another voting restriction - being male. The women of Kuwait have insisted on the right to vote and run for office, and in 1999, the emir sent their voting rights measure to parliament. After weeks of passionate debate, it was narrowly defeated in a 30-to-32 vote. Al-Hayat's Salameh Nematt notes who opposed it. “The Islamic element was, in a way, allied with the conservative elements to abort the decision on giving women the right to vote,” he says.

After the 2003 parliamentary elections, in which Islamist candidates gained additional seats, Kuwait's Emir once again called on lawmakers to consider women's voting rights. Tarek al-Mezrem says this historic change is inevitable: “It's a matter of time,” adding “soon, women will have the right to vote and run for parliament.”

Kuwaiti women are not alone in their demands for full participation. Kuwait also has stateless Arabs, so-called "Bedouns", demanding legal status and state benefits. There are others whose families immigrated to Kuwait decades ago seeking recognition and opportunities now reserved for full Kuwaiti citizens. On the political front, maintaining balance and harmony among diverse groups remains a challenge for the government and the ruling family. Externally, Kuwait's alliances will continue to reflect the strategic issues facing a country situated in such a volatile region.