The country is a low, sandy region that is generally barren and sparsely settled. It has a warm climate, dry inland and humid along the coast. The population is about 80% Arab; however, somewhat more than half the population are non-Kuwaitis. Native Kuwaitis have an extremely high per capita income, pay no taxes, and enjoy numerous social services. Since the development of the oil industry, large numbers of foreigners have found employment in Kuwait; non-Kuwaitis represent about 80% of the labor force. Foreign ethnic groups include South Asians, Iranians, and others. Arabic is the official language, but English is widely spoken. Some 85% of the population is Muslim, with about twice as many Sunnis as Shiites. There are Christian, Hindu, and Parsi minorities.
Kuwait's traditional exports were pearls and hides, but since 1946 it has become a major petroleum producer and oil now dominates the economy. The country is mostly desert, with some fertile areas near the Persian Gulf coast; there is virtually no agricultural industry aside from fishing.
Kuwait has the third largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The main concession for oil exploitation was held by a joint British-American firm until 1974, when Kuwait took control of most of the operations; it had previously retained a large part of the oil profits. Much of the profits have been devoted to the modernization of living conditions and education in the country. The petroleum industry, which accounts for about 95% of Kuwait's export revenues, was severely damaged in the Persian Gulf War. However, by the end of 1992, the country had repaired nearly all the damage to its war-ravaged oil fields and its oil output was at about prewar levels. Huge amounts of natural gas complement Kuwait's oil and petrochemical production.
To provide against the possible future exhaustion of the oil reserves, in the 1960s the government launched a program of industrial diversification and overseas investment. Present industries include shipbuilding and repair, water desalinization, food processing, construction, and fertilizer production. Food, construction materials, vehicles, and clothing are the principal imports. Kuwait's major trading partners are Japan, the United States, South Korea, Taiwan, and Germany.
Kuwait is a monarchy governed under the constitution promulgated in 1962. The emir, the hereditary monarch of the Mubarak line of the ruling al-Sabah family, serves as head of state. The government is headed by the prime minister, who is appointed by the monarch; until 2003 the prime minister traditionally was the crown prince. The unicameral legislature consists of the 50-seat National Assembly, whose members are elected by popular vote to serve four-year terms. There are no official political parties, although several political groups act as de facto parties. Administratively, the country is divided into six governorates.
The development of the nation of Kuwait dates to the early 18th cent. when the town of Kuwait was founded by Arabs. The present ruling dynasty was established by Sabah abu Abdullah (ruled 1756-72). In the late 18th and early 19th cent. the emirate, nominally an Ottoman province, was frequently threatened by the Wahhabis. In 1897, Kuwait was made a British protectorate. In June, 1961, the British ended their protectorate, and Kuwait became an independent emirate, with Emir Abdullah al-Salim al-Sabah as its ruler. However, the British supplied troops in July at the request of the emir when Iraq claimed sovereignty over Kuwait. A short time later the British forces were replaced by detachments from the Arab League, of which Kuwait is a member. In Oct., 1963, Iraq officially recognized the nation of Kuwait.
Oil-rich Kuwait was a founding member (1961) of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The country's oil revenues have been used to provide financial aid to other Arab countries, and the nation became a supporter of Palestinian causes. Although Kuwait has maintained strong ties with Western nations, it also established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1963, the first of the Persion Gulf states to do so. In 1965, Emir Sabah Al-Salim al-Sabah succeeded to the throne. Kuwait took part in the oil embargo against nations that had supported Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and during the war Kuwaiti troops stationed in Egypt along the Suez Canal fought against Israeli forces. Emir Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah succeeded to the throne in 1977 on the death of Emir Sabah. In 1981, Kuwait became a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Kuwait supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, which caused the country's oil income to decrease by nearly 50%. An oil refinery was attacked by Iran in 1982, Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf came under Iranian fire, and Iran instigated terrorist activity in Kuwait through radical Muslim groups. An assassination attempt on Emir Jaber occurred in May, 1985. In 1987, Kuwait sought U.S. protection for its oil tankers in the Persian Gulf; U.S. forces patrolled the gulf's waters until the end of the war in 1988.
In 1989, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein accused Kuwait of flooding the international oil market and consequently forcing oil prices down. Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, and Hussein declared Kuwait annexed. Many native Kuwaitis, including the royal family, fled. Western and Arab coalition forces, the largest part of which were American, drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War. Thousands of foreign workers who were based in Kuwait fled to Iran, Turkey, and Jordan, or were housed in temporary refugee camps throughout the Middle East. Iraqi forces devastated the country, setting fire to Kuwaiti oil wells before retreating. Over 80% of all wells were destroyed or damaged, causing phenomenal environmental hazards. The emir returned to Kuwait from Saudi Arabia in Mar., 1991. The Palestinians remaining in Kuwait after the war were expelled because of the Palestine Liberation Organization's support of Iraq.
In the war's wake, Kuwait concentrated on restoring its oil industry and on rebuilding the country. Parliamentary elections in 1992 resulted in the victory of a majority of the opposition candidates, but despite promises of democratic reform, the al Sabah family continued to dominate the government. In Oct., 1994, Iraq massed elite troops along the border with Kuwait, but it removed them when Kuwait and the United States moved forces into the area. Parliament was dissolved by the emir in May, 1999; new elections held in July gave Islamist and liberal candidates the most seats. Also in 1999, the emir issued an edict giving Kuwaiti women the right to vote and to run for office, but parliament failed to ratify it. In the July, 2003, parliamentary elections Islamists won 42% of the seats, while liberals retained only a handful; government supporters won 28% of the seats. The government finally succeeded in securing parliamentary ratification of political rights for women in May, 2005.
In Jan., 2006, Emir Jaber died; he was succeeded by Emir Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, who was himself in poor health (and died in 2008). Emir Saad was soon removed from office for health reasons by the parliament, and the prime minister, Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, succeeded him. Clashes in parliament over consolidating voting districts, which opposition members wanted in order to prevent vote-buying, led the emir to call new elections. In the June vote, women voted for the first time, but no female candidate won a seat; reformers, both largely Islamists, won 36 of the 50 seats.
Differences between the cabinet and the parliament led the government to resign in Mar., 2008. The May parliamentary elections largely repeated the results of two years before, with Islamists again controling the largest number of seats. A power struggle over some legislators demands to be allowed to question the prime minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah, about the circumstances of an Iranian cleric's visit led the government to resign in November; the emir reappointed Sheikh Nasser the following month, and a new cabinet was formed in Jan., 2009. In Mar., 2009, however, legislators and the government were again in a standoff, and when the government again resigned, the emir dissolved parliament. Sunni Islamists suffered some losses in the May elections, which also produced Kuwait's first female legislators; the emir again asked Sheikh Nasser to form a government.
See J. Daniels, Kuwait Journey (1971); S. Demir, The Kuwait Fund and the Political Economy of Arab Regional Development (1976); N. A. Abraham, Doing Business in Kuwait (1981); S. N. Ghabra, Palestinians in Kuwait (1987); A.-R. Assiri, Kuwait's Foreign Policy (1989).
City (pop., 2005: city, 32,403; urban agglom., 1,810,000), capital of Kuwait. It is located at the head of the Persian Gulf. It was founded in the 18th century and was a trading city relying on sea and caravan traffic. Until 1957 it was enclosed by a mud wall separating it from the desert and was only 5 sq mi (13 sq km) in area. The development of the country's oil industry after World War II (1939–45) transformed the city into a modern metropolis. Almost all of the country's population is concentrated near the capital. The city was damaged during the Iraqi occupation and the Persian Gulf War (1990–91) but soon recovered.
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The barrier, made of electrified fencing and concertina wire, is braced by a -wide and -deep trench, complete with a -high dirt berm and guarded by hundreds of soldiers, several patrol boats, and helicopters. The construction of the barrier was begun in 1991.
In January 2004, Kuwait decided to install a new 217 km iron separation barrier along the existing border. The stated needs were protecting the northern border, and preventing cars coming from Iraq from approaching the electricity bars.
The barrier will cost an estimated 28 million dollars and will extend from Umm Qasr until the joint border triangle where Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait meet. Asphalted roads will be also constructed to facilitate border security movement.
Under Saddam Hussein's rule Iraq viewed Kuwait as part of Iraq, and viewed the barriers as illegally separating two parts of Iraqi territory. It is not yet clear if a new government in Iraq will relinquish that territorial claim.