Kuwait Health and Welfare

Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

The health care system and health conditions also improved dramatically in the years after oil revenues brought wealth to the country. Kuwait's first attempts to introduce a modern health care system date back to the first years of the twentieth century when the ruler, Shaykh Mubarak Al Sabah the Great, invited doctors from the Arabian Mission of the Dutch Reformed Church in the United States to establish a clinic. By 1911 the group had organized a hospital for men and in 1919 a small hospital for women. In 1934 the thirty-four-bed Olcott Memorial Hospital opened. Between 1909 and 1946, Kuwait experienced gradual, albeit limited, improvement in health conditions. General mortality stood between twenty and twenty-five per 1,000 population and infant mortality between 100 and 125 per 1,000 live births. After the government began receiving oil revenues, it expanded the health care system, beginning with the opening of the Amiri Hospital in 1949. The Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) also opened some small health facilities. By 1950 general mortality had fallen to between seventeen and twenty-three per 1,000 population and infant mortality to between eighty and 100 per 1,000 live births.In the 1950s, the government introduced a comprehensive health care system offering free services to the entire population. Free health care was so extensive that it even included veterinary medicine. Expenditures on health ranked third in the national budget, after public works and education. As with education, the system relied heavily on foreigners. Most of the physicians were foreigners, particularly Egyptians. Critics charged the designers of the system with paying undue attention to acquiring the most modern and expensive medical equipment, without regard to the country's health priorities, and favoring treatment over prevention. Nonetheless, improvements in available health care and in public health were dramatic. The number of doctors grew from 362 in 1962 to 2,641 in 1988. The doctor-to-patient ratio improved from one to 1,200 to one to 600. Infant and child mortality rates dropped dramatically; in 1990 the infant mortality rate was fifteen per 1,000 live births. Life expectancy increased ten years in the postindependence years, putting Kuwait at a level comparable to most industrialized countries. In 1990 life expectancy for males was seventy-two years and for females seventy-six years.

In addition to a comprehensive system of health care, the government provides residents with one of the world's most encompassing social service systems. Not only does it indirectly support the national population through guaranteed state employment and subsidized services (such as water and electricity), but it also supports those most in need through direct subsidies. These include the disabled, the elderly, the unemployed, students and their families, the widowed, the unmarried, and even the families of prisoners.

By 1990 Kuwait had an extensive welfare program, exceeded perhaps by no other country. Citizens receive free medical services from highly trained practitioners in modern facilities; free education through the university level; subsidized food, housing, utilities, and transportation; and various other benefits. For all this, they pay no taxes: the system is supported by oil revenues from outside the country. On the eve of the Iraqi invasion, the United Nations Development Programme placed Kuwait at the top of its annual human development index with a life expectancy of 73.4 years, an adult literacy rate of 73 percent, and a real per capita gross domestic product of US$15,984. The benefits of the welfare system, however, are unevenly distributed among the population. Noncitizens in particular benefit much less, and many, especially those from Arab states and those who have worked many years in Kuwait, resent their disadvantaged position.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress