Monday, April 10, 2017

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

Kuwait remains pivotal to U.S. efforts to secure the Persian Gulf region because of its consistent cooperation with U.S. strategy and operations in the region and its proximity to both Iran and Iraq. Kuwait and the United States have a formal Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) under which the United States maintains forces and pre-positioned military equipment in Kuwait. These forces contribute to U.S. efforts to project power and otherwise operate in the region, including to combat the Islamic State. Kuwait receives no 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.

On regional issues, Kuwait usually, but not always, acts in concert with its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman). In March 2011, Kuwait supported the GCC military intervention to help Bahrain’s government suppress an uprising by the majority Shiite population, but it sent only largely symbolic naval ships and not ground forces. Kuwait’s leadership, along with that of Saudi Arabia and UAE, sees Muslim Brotherhood-related organizations as a potential domestic threat, and all three countries supported the Egyptian military’s July 2013 removal of elected president and senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammad Morsi. Kuwait is participating militarily in the Saudi-led coalition that is trying to defeat the Shiite “Houthi” rebel movement in Yemen, but has also focused on trying to forge a diplomatic solution to that conflict. Kuwait has supported U.S. efforts to contain Iran and has periodically arrested Kuwaiti Shiites that the government says are spying for Iran, but it also engages Iran at high levels, including on the Yemen conflict. As part of this engagement, in mid-February 2017, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani visited Kuwait and the other GCC state that consistently engages Iran, the Sultanate of Oman. Kuwait has generally refrained from offering its own proposals to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Kuwait supports U.S.-led efforts to combat the Islamic State organization by hosting the operational command center for U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) and allowing U.S. and partner forces to use its military facilities, but it is not participating militarily in OIR. Some U.S.-Kuwait differences linger over Kuwait’s apparent failure to prevent wealthy Kuwaitis from raising funds for extreme Islamist rebels in Syria or elsewhere.

Kuwait’s political system and political culture has been widely viewed as a regional model. It has successfully incorporated secular and Islamist political factions, both Shiite and Sunni, for many decades. However, Kuwait experienced political turmoil during 2006-2013, initially manifesting as parliamentary opposition to Sabah family political dominance but later broadening to visible public unrest in 2012-2013 over the ruling family’s power and privileges. Parliamentary elections in July 2013 produced a National Assembly amenable to working with the ruling family, but the elections held on November 26, 2016, saw a return to political strength of Islamist and liberal opponents of the Sabah family who held sway in earlier Assemblies. The government also has increasingly imprisoned and revoked the citizenship of social media critics for “insulting the Amir,” tarnishing Kuwait’s reputation for political tolerance. On the other hand, Kuwait has made increased efforts to curb trafficking in persons, causing the State Department to upgrade Kuwait’s rating in the 2016 report on that issue.

Years of political paralysis also have contributed to economic stagnation relative to Kuwait’s more economically vibrant Gulf neighbors such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As are the other GCC states, Kuwait is also struggling with the consequences of the sharp fall in oil prices since mid-2014.

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