The State of Kuwait is a constitutional emirate with a unicameral parliament. The emir is chosen from among the ruling family and acts as chief of state. The prime minister is appointed by the emir, who presides over an elected National Assembly. Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah has held the position of emir since January 2006, at which time he appointed Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah prime minister.
History of the Constitution
- The Kuwaiti constitution (English Text, Arabic Text) was promulgated by Emir Abd Allah as-Salim on November 1, 1962 and ratified on January 29, 1963. It was written and discussed over a period of six months by a 20-member elected body. Eleven ex-officio appointed members were also present, but refrained from voting. In January 1963, the constitution was ratified by the National Assembly in its first meeting as such.
- Since then, its provisions have been suspended twice. In August 1976, the emir suspended the National Assembly along with four provisions of the constitution relating to political and civil rights – including the right to a free press and the ability to dissolve the legislature – when faced with opposition to his rule. In 1980, the National Assembly was reinstated as were the constitutional provisions. Two years later, the government proposed several amendments to the constitution, including one that would allow the emir to declare an extended period of martial law, to increase the size of the legislature, and to extend the terms of those in the National Assembly. These proposals were dropped in May 1983.
- The constitution and the National Assembly were again suspended in 1986. There was widespread opposition to this move, which was intensified by the abrogation of all rights during the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990-1991. After the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait, some restrictions were lifted, and the National Assembly was once again reinstated.
- According to the constitution, executive authority is vested in the emir and the Council of Ministers, while legislative tasks are carried out by the emir and the National Assembly. The state is tasked with caring for the young, the old, and the disabled, as well as providing public education and public health to the extent necessary for its population. However, these rights are only afforded to Kuwaiti citizens, and the substantial non-Kuwaiti population lacks access to state welfare services.
- The constitution states that Islam is the religion of the state, but that Sharia (Islamic) law is only “a main source of legislation.” This phrase has fueled much debate. Some Kuwaiti Islamists have argued that Sharia law should be the main source of legislation, rather than one among other sources.
- In recent years, a debate has been raging over the nature of the constitutional system, in light of political tensions between the executive and the legislative branches. In May 2010, Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah described the National Assembly as a disappointment to the Kuwaiti people. Since the emir’s accession in 2006, he has continuously criticized the legislature and its inability to solve political disputes. He has blamed these problems on the structure of the government itself, and proposes an increase in the powers of the executive at the expense of the parliament.
- Some Kuwaiti members of parliament have suggested the opposite–that is, an increase in the size and stature of the parliament. Those on the parliamentary side of the debate argue that Kuwait has never actually allowed the parliament to function as it should, since the executive has always held the power to override the National Assembly’s decisions or to suspend it altogether. Other MPs have proposed establishing a bicameral legislature with an appointed upper house and an elected lower house so as to overcome crippling disputes between the legislative and executive branches.
The 1962 Kuwaiti Constitution vests executive power in the emir, his cabinet, and his ministers. The emir acts as chief of state.
The emir is the chief of state and:
- Appoints and dismisses the prime minister.
- Appoints and dismisses other ministers in consultation with the prime minister.
- Can adjourn the National Assembly for a period not exceeding one month. May also dissolve the National Assembly and call for new elections within two months.
- May issue decrees, which have the force of law provided they do not run contrary to the constitution or to the budget law.
- Initiates laws and promulgates them.
- Appoints and dismisses civil, military and diplomatic officials.
- Can declare defensive war and martial law by decree. Such decrees are referred to the National Assembly within fifteen days. Martial law may not continue unless a decision to that effect is made by a majority vote in the assembly.
- Can conclude treaties by decree but must submit them to the National Assembly for ratification.
- Can grant a pardon or commute a sentence; general amnesty can only be granted by law.
- Is “immune and inviolable,” according to Article 54 of the Constitution. He is thus beyond political criticism or accountability.
Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah became emir on January 29, 2006 after the death of Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, emir of Kuwait since 1977.
The death of Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah sparked a succession struggle within the ruling al-Sabah family. The Kuwaiti parliament played a significant role in ending the political crisis by invoking a 1964 succession law and voting unanimously to remove Crown Prince Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah for health reasons.
The Prime Minister
The prime minister:
- Is appointed by the emir.
- Proposes the membership of the Council of Ministers to the emir for approval.
- Heads the Kuwaiti cabinet and holds the deciding vote in its deliberations in case of a tie.
- Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah became prime minister on February 7, 2006 and was reappointed for a second term on March 18, 2009.
The Crown Prince
The Crown Prince:
- Is appointed by the emir.
- The offices of crown prince and prime minister were separated in 2003 for the first time since independence.
Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (the emir’s brother and former interior minister and deputy prime minister) became crown prince on February 7, 2006.
The Council of Ministers
The Council of Ministers (official Website in Arabic):
- Is composed of fifteen ministers appointed by the emir on recommendation of the prime minister.
- Functions as the Kuwaiti cabinet, and is responsible to the emir.
- Has authority over all ministries and formulates government policy.
- Deliberations of the Council of Ministers are secret. Resolutions are passed only when the majority of its members are present and with the approval of the majority of those present. In the case of a tie, the prime minister’s vote is decisive.
- Submits resolutions to the emir for approval in cases requiring the issuing of a decree.
- Comprises the fifteen appointed seats of the 65-member parliament, and thus works with the 50 elected National Assembly members to pass legislation.
Certain key members of the ruling family control the most important ministries: Interior, Defense, Foreign Affairs, Energy, and Planning and Administration.
Kuwait’s Council of Ministers has witnessed instability in recent years. In March 2008, Kuwait witnessed a mass resignation of the cabinet, with the Council of Ministers complaining that it could not function due to a lack of cooperation from the National Assembly. In response, the emir had two choices under the constitution: to appoint a new (or maintain the existing) prime minister and order the formation of a new cabinet, or to dissolve the National Assembly and call for early elections. He chose the latter. That November, there was another resignation in the Cabinet, this time to avoid allowing MPs to question Prime Minister al-Sabah on accusations that he had failed to perform his constitutional duties and had misused government funds. In this instance, the emir reinstated the prime minister (who had resigned with his cabinet) and requested that he form a new cabinet. In a similar set of events, the most recent cabinet resigned in March 2009 when pressured by members of the National Assembly to set a date for the questioning of Prime Minister al-Sabah. This time, the emir dissolved the parliament and called for new elections. On May 29, 2009, Sheikh Nasser announced a new sixteen-member Cabinet.
Most key ministers kept their positions, including Minister of Energy and Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Shaikh Ahmed Fahad al-Sabah, Minister of Oil (and Minister of Information) Shaikh Ahmed Abdullah al-Sabah, and Minister of Finance Musafa al-Shamili. New appointments included Ahmed al-Haroun as minister of commerce and industry, Bader al-Azmi as minister of electricity and water, and Fadhel Safar as minister of public works. Female ministers decreased from two to one, with Mudhi al-Hamoud as minister of education and higher education.
The political crisis has calmed down somewhat since the prime minister finally agreed to a private questioning by the parliament on December 8, 2009. This questioning, referred to as “grilling” by Kuwaiti English newspapers, is a constitutional right afforded to MPs. They may file a motion to grill any cabinet official, including the prime minister. This questioning is then followed by a vote of no confidence, and a majority vote against the cabinet member leads to his automatic dismissal. However, until late 2009, the government had continuously decided to resign en masse rather than subject its members to this questioning.
Since the prime minister’s decision to participate in the questioning process, other ministers have done the same. However, the cabinet still expresses its reluctance to participate, and several MPs have walked out of parliament due to the stipulation that grilling sessions must be conducted behind closed doors.
The National Assembly consists of 50 members elected to four-year terms, in addition to the eleven to sixteen ministers appointed by the emir to his cabinet. These ministers participate as ex-officio members (and thus abstain from voting). Elected officials may also serve in the cabinet, in which case the number of ex-officio members is reduced accordingly. Five electoral constituencies each elect ten members to the legislature. In each district, the ten candidates with the highest number of votes win the seats, even if they receive less than a majority of the votes.
The National Assembly
The National Assembly (Majlis al-Umma):
- Is a parliamentary body that can initiate legislation. Laws must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the assembly and then submitted to the emir for consideration. The emir then has 30 days to respond to the proposal. This period is reduced to seven days in certain urgent cases. Such urgency is decided upon by a majority vote of the members of the assembly. If the period of promulgation expires without a demand for reconsideration by the emir, the bill becomes law. Laws are published in the Official Gazette (found in Arabic here) before they become effective.
- Can overturn decrees announced by the emir during a dissolution of the assembly.
- Can veto laws proposed by the government. To become law, a bill must gain approval from both the National Assembly and the emir. Royal decrees issued by the emir are referred to the National Assembly within fifteen days of their announcement. If the Assembly does not confirm them, they cease to have the force of law.
- Can question cabinet ministers and subsequently has the power to remove such ministers from office through a vote of no confidence. Withdrawal of confidence is accomplished through a majority vote of the assembly.
- Elects a speaker and a deputy speaker from among its members. The speaker has the power to convene sessions; establish and modify the agenda; organize the debates and set speaking times; examine the admissibility of bills and amendments; and bring new items to the floor. He draws up the assembly’s budget and submits it to the Bureau of the National Assembly. He is also consulted by the head of state prior to the appointment of the prime minister.
- The government draws up an annual draft budget of the state’s revenue and expenditures, and submits it to the National Assembly for discussion and approval at least two months before the end of the fiscal year. The Financial Control Diwan (Audit Bureau) is a committee within the National Assembly that assists the government and the National Assembly in controlling the collection of state revenues and the disbursement of its expenditures. The Audit Bureau submits an annual report to both the government and the National Assembly. It has no judicial competence. Click here for a list of National Assembly committees and subcommittees.
Despite the presence of members appointed by the emir, the assembly demonstrates considerable independence and often votes against the government.
Although political parties are banned, parliamentary blocs are permitted. The most recent parliament consists of 50 members categorized into five groups – the Independents, the Islamic Bloc (which is Sunni), the Liberal bloc, the Popular Action bloc (which is Shiite), and other Shiite members.
The National Assembly was suspended from 1976 to 1981 and then again from 1981 to 1985. New elections for the National Assembly were held in 1992, fulfilling a promise made by the emir during the period of Iraqi occupation. However, in recent years Kuwait’s National Assembly has experienced considerable instability. Since 1992, the emir has dissolved the parliament several times – in 1999, 2006, 2008, and 2009.
In March 2008, the Council of Ministers resigned en masse citing a lack of cooperation from the National Assembly. In response, the emir had two choices under the constitution: to appoint a new (or maintain the existing) prime minister and order the formation of a new cabinet, or to dissolve the National Assembly and call for early elections. He chose the latter. In November 2008 the cabinet resigned again, in reaction to the National Assembly’s insistence on questioning Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah on accusations that he misused government funds. In this instance, the emir reinstated the prime minister (who had resigned with his cabinet) and requested that he form a new cabinet, thus preserving the National Assembly. In March 2009, the most recent cabinet resigned when pressured by members of the National Assembly to set a date for the prime minister’s questioning. This resignation led the emir to dissolve the National Assembly one year after it had been reassembled, and to call for early elections to convene a new parliament.
The Kuwaiti parliament is a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union (AIPU).
Elections for the National Assembly were last held in May 2009. In the current cycle, the Independents currently dominate the parliament with 21 seats, followed by the Islamic bloc, which holds thirteen seats. The next elections will take place in 2013.
Updated National Assembly news is reported here in Arabic.
Kuwait’s legal system is based on the Egyptian model and combines British common law, Islamic law, and Ottoman civil code.
Judges are appointed by the emir acting on the advice of the Supreme Judicial Council. The government must approve the renewal of most judicial appointments.
Judges who are citizens have lifetime appointments. A significant number of judges are non-citizens with one-to-three year renewable contracts. Contracts for non-citizen judges are concluded with the Ministry of Justice.
- The Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) administers the judiciary and consists of the president and deputy of the Court of Cassation; the president and deputy of the Court of Appeal; the attorney general; the president of the al-Kulliyya Court; and the deputy minister of Justice. The Council is almost exclusively judicial in character except for the position of deputy minister of justice.
- The SJC, at the request of the minister of justice, has the authority to review all matters related to the appointment, promotion, and transfer of judges and members of the public prosecution.
- A 1966 reform significantly strengthened the role of the SJC in its dealings with the executive. Since this reform the Ministry of Justice is required to consult with the SJC on budgetary issues. The council subsequently gives its opinion not only to the ministry but also to the parliament (which is responsible for approving the budget).
Courts of First Instance are subdivided into administrative units with specialized jurisdictions: civil, commercial, labor, personal status, penal matters, etc. Personal status cases are not assigned to a separate Shari’a judiciary; instead, sections of the civil courts are designated to hear personal status cases. In cases involving Muslims, these courts rule on the basis of codified Sunni or Shi’i law, depending on the religious affiliation of the litigants. Cases involving non-Muslims are tried in separate courts, and religious minorities have the right to be tried in courts employing their own religious laws. Rulings in Courts of First Instance are issued by a panel of three judges except in cases in which the law provides for a single judge ruling.
Courts of Appeal
Courts of Appeal serve as intermediate or final courts of appeal for cases that cannot be appealed to the Court of Cassation. A three-judge panel is required to hear appeals cases.
Court of Cassation
The highest court in Kuwait is the Court of Cassation, which serves as the final court of appeal. It is divided into commercial, civil, and criminal boards. Lower courts are not bound by the precedents set by the Court of Cassation, but their decisions are usually respected. Rulings in this court are issued by a panel of five judges.
- The State Security Court : Prior to its abolishment in 1995 (see Act no. 55/1995 in Arabic), the State Security Court heard cases related to national security.
- The Constitutional Court: The Constitutional Court (official website in Arabic) has exclusive jurisdiction to interpret the constitutionality of legislation. It is also empowered to rule on electoral disputes. The court is composed of five members chosen by the Judicial Council in a secret selection session. It also includes one reserve member appointed directly by the emir. The members are all senior judges from the civil judiciary. The judgment of the Constitutional Court is binding on all lower courts.
In October 2009, the Kuwaiti parliament approved a set of minor judicial reforms intended to ensure the independence of the judiciary. In April 2010, Kuwaiti lawyers called for further judiciary reforms to correct inconsistencies in the legal system. In particular, they cited the need to consolidate the prosecution department and to draft legislation permitting suits to be brought against judges. They also declared the need for a standardized certification exam to test whether law school graduates are equipped to practice law.
Click here for a list of constitutional provisions regarding the judiciary.
The Kuwaiti Armed Forces consist of the Kuwaiti Land Forces (KLF, also known as the Kuwaiti Army), the Kuwaiti Navy (which includes the Coast Guard), and the Kuwaiti Air Force (KAF). They report to the Minister of Defense and to the emir, who is the supreme commander of the armed forces. The Kuwaiti National Guard (KNG) operates separately from the armed forces and has its own commander who reports to the minister of defense (official Defense Ministry website in Arabic). The National Guard is responsible for internal and border security.
Members of the military are banned from voting in National Assembly elections.
Political parties are not technically illegal (the constitution does not discuss them), but are not permitted in practice. De facto, informal political groupings are created to support candidates for the National Assembly. See the section on political party laws for more information .
The main parliamentary blocs are: The Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM); the Salafi Movement; the National Democratic Alliance (NDA); the Kuwait Democratic Forum (KDF); and the Shi’i National Islamic Alliance (INA):
- The Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) is a political affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood and calls for the implementation of Shari’a law. It is a Sunni Islamist movement. The Islamic Popular Grouping is another Sunni Islamist grouping. The main bloc for Shi’i Muslim candidates is the Islamic National Alliance (NIA).
- The Kuwait Democratic Forum (KDF) is a grouping comprised of Arab nationalists and pan-Arabists, many of whom served as deputies in recent parliaments, they pursue a secularist agenda and have often been critical of cabinet ministers.
- The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is a secular progressive movement with liberal tendencies.
- Other political groupings include the Justice and Development Movement, the National Democratic Forum, and Tribal Confederations.
- On January 29, 2005, Sunni Islamist activists declared the creation of the first political party. The Umma Party (Hizb al-Umma) is a Sunni Islamist group drawn from the Salafi movement. The secretary general of the party, Hakem al-Matairi, said that the party was established to promote pluralism, transfer power through peaceful means, and accomplish the task of applying the provisions of Islamic Law (Shari’a). However, the Kuwaiti government has refused to license the new party and its founders have been called in for interrogation (although later released). Its founders have been charged with plotting to overthrow the government.
- In 2001 there were reports that the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) planned to declare itself a political party. The ICM denied this report, which was followed by calls from the Salafi Movement for a constitutional amendment to formally allow political parties. The speaker of the National Assembly had also called for the legalizing of political parties, although he later retracted this position, arguing the step would be premature. Legalizing parties would require a constitutional amendment, which needs both a two-thirds majority in parliament and the endorsement of the emir. In 2004 a senior minister said that political parties would be allowed in the country at some point in the future.
Results National Assembly (Majlis al-Ummah), held on April 9, 2009:
- Elections for the National Assembly (Majlis al-Ummah) were last held in May 2009. In the election, 210 candidates – including sixteen women – ran for 50 seats in the Assembly.
- The winners can be categorized into five groups, or blocs: the Independents, the Islamic bloc (which is Sunni), the Liberal bloc, the Popular Action bloc (which is Shiite), and other Shiite members. Independents gained the biggest bloc in the 2009 parliamentary elections with 21 seats. The Islamic bloc came in second with eleven seats, down from 21 seats in the 2008 elections.
- Two separate Islamist groups – the Islamic Salafi Alliance (ISA) and the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM or Hadas, the political arm of the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood) gained two seats and one seat, respectively. The ISA suffered a considerable loss, as it had previously gained ten seats in the 2008 elections.
- The Liberal bloc gained eight seats, up from seven in 2008. The largest group in the Liberal bloc is the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
- Twenty-nine incumbents retained their seats.
- Women won seats in the National Assembly for the first time in Kuwaiti history. Female candidates were only granted the right to run in Assembly elections in 2005. Four female members of parliament were elected, despite propaganda from the Islamic Salafi Alliance (ISA) and other Islamist groups urging people not to vote for them.
- Voter turnout was registered at 59 percent of eligible voters. Click here for detailed election results in Arabic.
- On May 31, 2009, two weeks after the election, the National Assembly convened for the first time and re-elected Mr. Jassem M. Al-Kharafi as its speaker.
Results National Assembly (Majlis al-Ummah), held on April 9, 2009:
- Seventy-one candidates from ten districts ran for ten of the sixteen seats in the Municipal Council. The remaining six seats are appointed by the emir.
- Voter turnout was 20 percent, down from 50 percent in the 2005 municipal elections. The low turnout has been attributed to the fact that the elections were held on a workday in the beginning of summer, and were only one month after the much anticipated National Assembly elections.
- In 2005, Kuwait established regulations for Municipal Council elections, membership and activities. Click here for Act No. 5 of 2005 regarding the Kuwait Municipality.
Kuwait has a limited civil society sector, which is composed of public interest associations, trade unions, and informal groups such as cooperative societies. As of 2009, there were 73 licensed official non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Kuwait. The government uses its licensing power as a means of political control. Licensing is currently pending for 149 NGOs. These do not receive government subsidies and do not have legal status.
The government gives financial support to licensed NGOs and has the right to dissolve them at any time.
The first official human rights NGO was established in 2004 when the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor granted a license to the Kuwait Human Rights Society (KHRS) some 10 years after it was formed. KHRS’s 2009 Human Rights Report is available online in English and Arabic.
Cooperative societies informally perform civic as well as economic tasks. They purchase foodstuffs and household goods and distribute them through retail outlets. The cooperatives control more than 80 percent of the retail food market. Each Kuwaiti resident over 18 years of age is eligible to subscribe to his neighborhood’s cooperative society. Subscribers are entitled to a share of the cooperative society’s annual profit. All subscribers, including women, have the right to vote. Serving on the board of a cooperative is one way of developing a support base in a particular neighborhood and is a common first step in launching a campaign for election to the National Assembly. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor has considerable supervisory powers over these societies’ activities. Click here for Decree Law No. 24 of 1979 on Cooperative Societies in Arabic.
Influential Kuwaitis regularly host informal meetings or diwaniyas in their homes. These meetings play an important role in the political process.
Workers are permitted to form and join unions. Workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively, but this is very rare in practice. Trade unions cannot be dissolved without a court ruling.
Worker’s Unions are treated as para-statal organizations, which receive government subsidies (as much as 90 percent of most union budgets) after vetting and approval by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. The government’s oversight powers tend to erode union independence. Unions are not banned from striking, but must obtain a permit from the Ministry of the Interior before doing so. This permission is rarely granted.
The expanded unions tend to benefit only citizens employed in the public sector, while expatriate workers continue to face restrictions. Non-citizens cannot vote within unions or be elected. Approximately 5 percent of the workforce participates in unions, but most of these workers are concentrated in the public sector or in the petroleum industry.
Only one national federation–the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF)–is permitted to operate in Kuwait. KTUF organizes workers from the petroleum sector and the public sector.
- Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF)
- Bank Workers Union
- Kuwait Airways Workers Union
- Kuwait Oil Company Workers Union
- Kuwait Ports Authority Workers Union
- General Confederation of Kuwaiti Workers
Labor syndicates (which have been established within several government ministries):
- Workers’ Syndicate in the Ministry of Health
- Workers’ Syndicate in the Ministry of Education and Higher Education
- Workers’ Syndicate in the Municipality
- Workers’ Syndicate in the Ministry of Public Works
A new Law of Labor in the Private Sector was passed in December 2009 by the National Assembly and implemented in early 2010. The new code removed the requirement that unions consist of at least 100 workers, and eliminated restrictions on how many unions could be established in each trade. Conversely, it also restricted the collective bargaining abilities of unions by limiting the length of all collective agreements to three years. Under the new law, the authorities still have considerable supervisory powers and influence over the trade unions, but a union’s assets no longer pass to the government in case of dissolution. Click here for more information.
- The Kuwaiti constitution (English text, Arabic text) guarantees freedom of assembly, but this is restricted in practice. Public gatherings require government approval. Law No. 65 of 1979 concerning public meetings and assemblies (found online in Arabic) regulates such gatherings.
- Freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of the press are guaranteed by the constitution within the limits of the law. However, activists and those who insult the emir are sometimes detained. In 2010, the journalist Mohammed Abdel Qader Al-Jassem was arrested and detained for several months on charges of insulting the emir, inciting the overthrow of government, and promoting false allegations that could affect Kuwait's national interests.
- The constitution provides for freedom of religion and equality, but in practice these rights are restricted to some extent. There is some discrimination against the Shi’i minority, which represents about one-third of Kuwait’s native population (although their number is contested). Shi’i remain disadvantaged in the provision of mosques, access to Shi’i religious education, and representation in the upper levels of government. However, they are better integrated into Kuwaiti society than are their counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Iraq.
- Although the constitution prohibits the “infliction of physical or moral injury on an accused person” (Article 34) and prohibits torture (Article 31), police and members of the security forces sometimes abuse detainees during interrogation. This is most common in the detainment of non-citizens, particularly non-Gulf Arabs and those of Asian descent.
- The constitution states that “all people are equal in human dignity and in public rights and duties before the law” (Article 29), yet the legal status of around 100,000 Arab residents remains unresolved. These residents are known as the bidoon or bidun (short for the Arabic “bidoon jinsiya” or “without nationality”), and are Arabs who either lack or have failed to produce documentation of their nationality. For many of these Arabs, their legal status became uncertain after Kuwait enacted its 1959 Nationality Law, which defined nationals as those who had settled in the country before 1920. Those who had not been “settled” at that time – some because they were living a nomadic lifestyle–were not given citizenship. The bidoon of Kuwait are the largest such group in the Arabian Peninsula. The bidoon have reported discrimination in areas such as education, medical care, employment, and mobility. In May 2000 the government introduced legislation intended to resolve the issue of the bidoon. This included a move to extend citizenship to up to 2,000 bidoon annually. In 2004 the government approved free education and health care for all bidoon families. Click here for a 2008 analysis on the situation from Refugees International, and here for 2009 updates from Ireland’s Refugee Document Centre.
- Expatriates in Kuwait have fewer personal liberties than Kuwaiti citizens. All foreign workers are required to have a Kuwaiti sponsor, despite the efforts of some MPs to exclude this condition from the 2010 labor law. This stipulation often leaves them at the mercy of their employers, who hold the power to have them deported. As a result, many workers are not paid regularly, or are treated poorly by their employers, but have no way out of the situation (except deportation, in some cases). On the other hand, the new law requires the granting of holidays to workers, and calls for the establishment of a public authority for manpower to oversee the recruitment of expatriate workers. It also bans women from working between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., and requires employers to provide “proper accommodations” for their employees.
- The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the U.S. Department of State provides a comprehensive 2009 Human Rights Report exploring personal freedoms in Kuwait.
Political Party Laws
- Political parties are not technically illegal (the constitution does not discuss them) but are not permitted in practice. De facto, informal political groupings are created to support candidates for the National Assembly.
- The legal status of these political groupings is debated. Article 45 of the constitution gives organizations the “right to address the authorities” and some take this stipulation as proof of the legitimacy of forming political parties. However, the uncertain legal status of these political groups limits their effective functioning. Despite such groups, candidates must still technically nominate themselves and run formally as independents.
- Kuwait’s cabinet approved a major electoral reform in July 2006 that reduced the number of electoral districts from 25 to five. Proponents of the amendment had long argued that the large number of constituencies allowed for vote-buying. They argued that redistricting would reduce electoral corruption and make constituencies more representative. Under the new law, each of the five districts will elect ten parliamentarians.
- Election Law No. 35 of 1962 was amended on May 16, 2005 to allow women to vote in National Assembly elections and run for membership in the assembly. Only two weeks earlier, the parliament had maintained the ban on female suffrage in municipal council elections, a decision that was overturned in 2006. Women first voted in parliamentary elections in 2005 and in municipal elections in April 2006.
- Discussion on lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 or allowing military servicemen to vote has been postponed indefinitely. Voting is still restricted to citizens above the age of 21 who have resided in Kuwait since 1920, their male descendants, and the descendants of naturalized citizens. Naturalized citizens cannot vote or seek election to the National Assembly for twenty years after naturalization. Before the granting of female suffrage, only 130,000 people, or 15 percent of Kuwaiti nationals, had the right to vote.
- Judges and members of the uniformed services (i.e., police and military personnel) are barred from voting.
Law on Associations
- The Kuwaiti constitution guarantees freedom of association (Article 43). Law No. 24 of 1962 concerning clubs and public welfare associations controls the political and legal framework within which such associations operate. According to Law 24, the Ministry of Social Affairs can monitor associations that receive state subsidies. It may also dissolve these associations.
- Associations may not engage in political activities.
- Law 38 of 1964 guaranteed the rights of workers and employers to form labor unions. However, it required that any union include at least 100 workers, fifteen of whom must be citizens. After criticism from the International Labor Organization (ILO), the new 2010 Labor Law for the Private Sector removed this stipulation regarding the composition of unions. In addition, it eliminated the restrictions that only one union could be established in each trade.
- The Kuwaiti parliament approved a new press law (Arabic text) on March 6, 2006 by unanimous vote of the 53 MPs present at the session. The law, which replaces the 1961 press and publications law, prohibits the arrest and detention of journalists until a final court verdict is delivered by the Supreme Court. Furthermore, it allows citizens whose applications for newspaper licenses are rejected to sue the government in court (the 1961 law gave applicants the right to appeal only to the government itself). While the new law prohibits the closure of publications without a final court verdict, publications may be suspended for up to two weeks for investigation.
- According to the new law, the authorities may not detain journalists unless they have committed religious offences (i.e. published blasphemous statements), criticized the emir, or called for the overthrow of the government. These crimes can be punished with up to one year in jail and fines ranging between $17,000 and $70,000. This last stipulation was the source of heated debate in parliament before the law was passed; liberal MPs called for abolishing all jail terms while Islamist MPs insisted that jail penalties must be greater for religious offenses. Some Kuwaiti journalists have criticized the new law, arguing that it stifles freedom of speech by imposing high penalties on those who criticize state institutions or policies. Moreover, they cite the vague nature of these stipulations, which has led to arbitrary arrests of journalists in the past.
- The Ministry of Information runs the government press, including its radio and television broadcasting stations. It operates the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA), the three stations of Radio Kuwait, and the Kuwait television station. Residents have access to satellite broadcasting without government interference. Only one privately owned Kuwaiti television station existed prior to the 2006 press law, which permitted the creation of new media outlets. By 2010, eleven privately-owned television stations and seventeen independent newspapers had been established.
- In January 2010, the Information Minister Sheikh Ahmad Abdullah Al-Sabah put forth a set of amendments to the 2006 press law. The proposed amendments would lengthen jail terms and increase fines for journalists convicted of criticizing the state, the emir, or Islam. They would also implement a censorship law that would restrict Internet blogging. Kuwaiti legal experts disparaged the proposed amendments as “emotionally motivated and lacking consistency,” while journalists joined together to boycott those MPs who supported the bill. The amendments were never submitted to the National Assembly for voting, probably due to the negative backlash against them.
- The Council of Ministers retains the authority to suspend newspapers. The General Organization of Printing and Publishing controls the printing, publishing, and distribution of informational materials.
- In 2003 the Ministry of Information issued new regulations that require Internet café owners to collect the names and civil identification numbers of their customers.
- According to the 2009 Worldwide Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders, Kuwait ranks 60 out of 175 countries. The index runs from 1 (most press freedom) to 175 (least press freedom).
- Despite penal legislation against defamation, journalists have continued to criticize the government and the presidency, and indeed did so especially in the run up to the 2004 presidential elections. This has resulted in the severe application of sanctions against several journalists and newspapers. Mohamed Benchicou (editor), his newspaper (Le Matin), and Hafnaoui Ghoul (journalist for el-Djazair News and human right activist) have been arrested and suspended.
Personal Status Law
- Kuwait’s Personal Status Law (Arabic text) was first promulgated in 1984, and amended in 1996 (Arabic Text of the amendments).
- The law gives women the legal right to own land, access bank loans, and enter into financial contracts. However, it does not grant women full equality under the law. For example, women’s testimony is given less value in court proceedings (one male witness is equivalent to two female witnesses), and the male parent determines a child’s nationality. Women also face discrimination in divorce and inheritance decisions, but these rules vary in accordance with Shi’i and Sunni doctrine. Moreover, women cannot pass their citizenship to their children, such that if a Kuwaiti woman marries a non-citizen, her children will be treated as expatriates under the law and denied rights of citizenship. The law also forbids marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men, while Muslim men are permitted to marry non-Muslim women. Kuwaiti women have recently been pushing for amendments to the Personal Status Law, specifically appealing to new female National Assembly members for help.
- In October 2003, the parliament voted to establish a Shi’i appeals court to hear personal status and family law cases involving Shi’i litigants.
- In February 2010, a new labor law for the private sector was enacted after passing through the Kuwaiti parliament. This law does not apply to the public sector, whose own labor law was passed in 1960 (Arabic text) and amended in 1963 (Arabic text). The private sector law aims to improve labor conditions for foreigners who are barred from entering the public sector and receiving other benefits afforded to Kuwaiti workers. The law requires employers to grant holidays to their workers and to provide them with “proper accommodations.” It also calls for the establishment of a public authority for manpower, which would oversee the recruitment of expatriate workers.
- The new law attempts to remedy the problem of unfair conditions for Kuwait’s 1.8 million foreign workers. One of the changes under discussion relates to the issue of sponsors. All foreigners are required to have a Kuwaiti sponsor, despite the efforts of some MPs to exclude this condition from the new law. This stipulation often leaves them at the mercy of their employers, who possess the power to have them deported. As a result, many workers are not paid regularly, or are treated poorly by their employers, but have no way out of their situation (except deportation). Kuwait has been cooperating with the International Labor Organization (ILO) on changes to the sponsorship requirement. The ILO has proposed eliminating private sponsorship and appointing one governmental or independent body to sponsor all expatriate workers.
- The new law also bans women from working between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
- On April 14, 2010, the Administrative Court ruled against a suit petitioned by a female Kuwaiti law graduate. The graduate, Shurouk Al-Failakawi, was fighting a Supreme Judicial Council ruling that banned her (and all women) from being hired by the office of the public prosecutor. In effect, the precedent set by this ruling amounts to a total ban on the hiring of female prosecutors in the Kuwaiti judiciary.
- In November 2008, the Ministry of Information banned 500 books that it considered “extremist” in nature. Many of these were inspired by the Muslim Salafi movement.
- In the same month, members of the Salafi-inspired bloc in parliament demanded that Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah withstand questioning from the assembly on accusations of corruption and of allowing Iranian Shiite cleric Muhammad al-Fali to enter the country. The Iranian cleric was arrested on arrival on charges of insulting Sunni Islam. He was subsequently released, but then asked by state security services to leave the country to reduce the parliamentary hostility toward Interior Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Khalid Al-Sabah, who was accused with the prime minister of letting the cleric into the country. The Kuwaiti Council of Ministers (including the Prime Minister himself) walked out of a parliamentary session after National Assembly members decided to set a date for the prime minister’s questioning.
- In February 2008, security forces arrested 1,500 people–mostly Shiites–for publicly mourning a Shiite Hezbollah leader.
- As the result of a Constitutional Court ruling in October 2009, women can now be issued passports without the approval of a husband or a close male relative. The ruling abolishes an article in the Passport Act of 1962 that required a woman to gain her husband’s approval before obtaining a passport. The ruling came after a woman sued her husband for confiscating her passport and thus prohibiting the woman and her three children from traveling. The defense argued that Islamic law bars women from traveling on their own. However, the court agreed with the prosecution, which argued that freedom of movement is guaranteed by the Kuwaiti constitution.
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) on May 21, 1996 with reservations that in Kuwait, military and police officials may not vote (with reference to Article 25), and that the rights guaranteed in articles 2 and 3 must be exercised within the limits of Kuwaiti law. Click here for more.
- The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) on May 21, 1996 with reservations that social security only applies to Kuwaiti workers. Click here for further reservations.
- The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) on March 8, 1996. Click here for reservations.
- The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) on October 15, 1968.
- The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) on September 2, 1994 with reservations that Kuwaiti nationality may only be passed to children by their fathers (regarding Article 9). Click here for further reservations.
- The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) signed on June 7, 1990 and ratified on October 21, 1991 with reservations for provisions that do not accord with Islamic Law, such as adoption by non-Muslims (regarding Article 21). Click here for further reservations.