Kuwait lies on the northwest corner of the Persian Gulf, bordered by Saudi Arabia to the south and Iraq to the north and west. Slightly smaller than New Jersey, Kuwait has more than 300 miles of coastline and a population of 2.5 million. Approximately half of those people, however, are not Kuwaiti citizens. Resident ethnic groups include Iranians, Indians, Pakistanis, Yemenis and Palestinians, most of whom came to Kuwait to find employment in the oil industry. Arabic is the official language, but English is widely spoken. More than 85 percent of the population is Muslim (about 45 percent Sunni and 40 percent Shiite), and there are Christian, Hindu and Parsi minorities.
Settlers arrived at the present-day site of Kuwait City in the early 1700s and turned it into a bustling trading center. Before then, like the rest of the northeast portion of the Arabian Peninsula, the area had been governed by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. In 1756, Sheikh Sabah bin Jaber, also known as Sabah the First, was chosen by the community of traders to be ruler of Kuwait. Descendants of Sabah I, members of the al-Sabah family, still rule the country today. Kuwait retained semi-autonomy from Ottoman Turkey until the late 1800s, when fear of direct rule by Turkey led Sheikh Mubarek al-Sabah, the seventh in the line of al-Sabah rulers, to strike a deal with Britain for protection. Kuwait became a protectorate of Britain in 1899, and the colonial power provided naval protection in return for control of Kuwait’s foreign affairs.
In 1937, the U.S.-British Kuwait Oil Company discovered large oil reserves in the southeastern part of the country. After World War II, oil money transformed Kuwait into a modern commercial center. With Kuwait’s great influx of money, Britain ended its protectorate in 1961, and in June of that year, Kuwait became independent.
However, when Iraq renewed its claim that Kuwait was part if its territory, Britain and, later, the Arab League provided support. Iraq backed down and, by 1963, recognized Kuwait’s independence. In the same year, elections were held to create a national assembly under the terms of a newly drafted constitution, making Kuwait the first Arab country in the Gulf to have an elected parliament. Kuwait also became a founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1961.
In 1990, tensions between Iraq and Kuwait bubbled over when Kuwait refused to pardon Iraq’s heavy debt for funding during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Saddam Hussein accused Kuwait of stealing oil from the Rumaila oil field, which traverses the two countries, and of flooding the international oil market to force prices down. The Iraqi government also still believed that Kuwait was a natural part of Iraq, carved off by British imperialism. In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, forcing the ruling family and other members of the cabinet to flee to Saudi Arabia, while the United Nations Security Council demanded “immediate and unconditional” withdrawal of Iraqi troops. In January 1991, after Iraq refused to comply, the United States launched a bombing and aerial assault called Operation Desert Storm. By February, President George H.W. Bush announced the liberation of Kuwait and the end of the Gulf War.
When the current war with Iraq began in 2003, Kuwait became a strategic base for tens of thousands of U.S. troops. Today, it remains an important transit route for forces and civilians moving in and out of Iraq.
Leadership and Economy
Governed as a constitutional monarchy, Kuwait is ruled by Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, the 15th in the al-Sabah line of rulers. Sheikh Sabah, who had previously been foreign minister for 40 years, took over in January 2006. Observers expect him to maintain Kuwait's pro-Western stance and to continue recent reforms, exemplified by his appointment of Kuwait’s first female cabinet member, Planning Minister Massouma al-Mubarak, in 2005.
Kuwait maintains the third-largest oil reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia and Iraq, self-reported to be about 96 billion barrels, or 10 percent of the world’s oil reserve. Petroleum accounts for nearly half of Kuwait’s GDP, 95 percent of its export revenues and 80 percent of government income. Kuwait's intensely hot and dry climate and extensive deserts limit agricultural development. Except for fish, the country imports almost all its food, and about 75 percent of the country’s drinking water is distilled or imported.
Kuwait has maintained a tradition of progressive reform over the course of its history. In recent years, the country has made efforts to change the male-dominated political structure, beginning in 1999, when former head of state Sheikh Jaber issued an edict giving Kuwaiti women the right to vote and run for office. Initially, the parliament failed to ratify the edict, but the government secured political rights for women by May 2005. In June, women voted for the first time.
Kuwait also has some of the most liberal newspapers in the Arab world, often aggressive in their coverage of politics and the government. The country’s press laws, however, forbid publication of insulting references to God and the Prophet, and prison sentences are often meted out to transgressors.
Sources: CIA World Factbook, BBC, The New York Times, The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia