Government and Politics

Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

Ruling Family

The modern political history of Kuwait began in the early eighteenth century when a number of families of the Bani Utub section of the Anaizah tribe migrated from central Arabia, settling eventually in Kuwait. Once in Kuwait, they established a self-governing political unit. The date of 1756 is conventionally chosen as the year when the settlers decided to select as their leader Sabah, an Al Sabah shaykh, who was succeeded by his son Abd Allah, in turn succeeded by his son Jabir. All subsequent rulers historically have come from the Al Sabah line, chosen by family council, in consultation with the leading merchant families who, along with the tribal elite, exercise some restriction over the shaykhs' political autonomy.

The shaykh's primary task was to represent his community in foreign policy, negotiating with Ottoman Turkey and with neighboring tribes. The one major and unsuccessful challenge to this system of rule occurred in the 1760s when the Al Khalifa family disagreed with the Al Sabah and in consequence left Kuwait for Qatar, and then Bahrain, where the Al Khalifa continue to rule. Despite the rift, the two settlements maintained good relations, including close trade ties.

In the nineteenth century, members of the Al Sabah oversaw the growing trade and pearling settlement in Kuwait. The rulers also developed a cordial relationship with Britain, beginning with the first contacts with the British East India Company in 1775. As members of a small, vulnerable settlement, Kuwait's rulers attempted to maintain a polite but distant relationship with all the local powers, notably the British, the Wahhabis of Arabia, and the Ottomans. It was only under Abd Allah Al Sabah II, who ruled from 1866 to 1892, that Kuwait began to edge away from this policy of neutrality. Abd Allah developed close ties with the Ottomans, even taking the Ottoman title, albeit largely as a formality, of provincial governor (qaimaqam) in 1871. In practical terms, Kuwait's domestic politics remained unchanged because the Ottoman government did not interfere in the selection of rulers and laws. In any event, this tilt was completely reversed when, following the four-year rule of Muhammad Al Sabah, Mubarak the Great acceded to the rule from 1896 to 1915.

Kuwait came into the British sphere of influence at the end of the nineteenth century when Mubarak sought British support against Ottoman forces. The Ottomans were backing allies of Mubarak's brothers, Kuwait's previous rulers, whom Mubarak had killed on taking power in 1896. Uneasy about Ottoman intentions, Mubarak reversed his predecessors' pro-Ottoman policy and approached Britain, seeking a more formal alliance. Britain, concerned with growing European interests and notably with an Ottoman concession to Germany for construction of a Berlin-to- Baghdad railroad--with a proposed spur line to Kuwait--agreed. Britain signed a treaty with Kuwait in 1899 that promised Mubarak British support and, in return, gave Britain control of Kuwait's foreign policy. This treaty governed relations between the two states until Kuwait's independence in 1961. It granted Britain tremendous influence, most notably in foreign and economic policy.

After Mubarak's death, Kuwait was ruled by two of his sons, Jabir Al Sabah (1915-17) and Salim Al Sabah (1917-21). Thereafter, with one exception, only descendants of Mubarak through these two sons would rule Kuwait, thus forming a major cleavage within the ruling family. After Salim's death in 1921, Kuwait was ruled for nearly three decades by Ahmad al Jabir Al Sabah. Ahmad al Jabir's rule witnessed a serious effort to constrain ruling family power. In 1938 a rebellion, known locally as the Majlis Movement, developed. New issues arose. Kuwait was in the midst of a serious recession as a result of the general decline of the pearling industry, the Great Depression, and a trade dispute with Saudi Arabia that prompted a Saudi embargo. Simultaneously, the recently signed oil concession with KOC promised better times ahead if the resulting income were not monopolized by the ruling family. To prevent that from happening, the leading merchants began petitioning the ruler for a series of reforms. In June the merchants took their protest a step further, holding elections for a legislative assembly to implement the desired reforms using these new revenues. The Legislative Assembly ruled for six months until finally put down by the ruler and his tribal backers. The assembly, however, came to be viewed as Kuwait's first prodemocracy movement. Its popularity gave the idea of formal representation a place in Kuwaiti popular history.

Ahmad al Jabir was succeeded by his cousin Abd Allah as Salim Al Sabah (1950-65), who oversaw the distribution of now substantial oil revenues, the consequent emergence of a large bureaucratic state, and the transformation of Kuwait into a wealthy oil-producing shaykhdom. In terms of internal developments, Abd Allah as Salim made two transformative political decisions. The first was to distribute these new revenues broadly throughout the population, primarily through wide-ranging social services, notably education and health care. The second was to introduce a greater degree of political participation to Kuwait in the form of the newly elected National Assembly. This body held its first elections in 1963. Abd Allah as Salim also oversaw Kuwait's transformation into a formally independent state on June 19, 1961, when he and British representatives signed new letters of friendship to replace the treaty of 1899.

When Abd Allah as Salim died in 1965, he was succeeded by his brother Sabah as Salim Al Sabah--a somewhat unusual choice in that he, like Abd Allah as Salim, came from the Salim line rather than the Jabir line of the family, breaking the alternation between the two sides of the family that had existed since the rule of Mubarak's sons Jabir and Salim. Nonetheless, Sabah as Salim's rule proved to be largely a continuation and consolidation of policies set in place by Abd Allah as Salim. When Sabah as Salim died in December 1977, he was succeeded by Shaykh Jabir al Ahmad al Jabir Al Sabah, a succession that returned the former pattern of alternation between the lines of Jabir and Salim.

The influence of external events has dominated Jabir al Ahmad's rule. The first was the Iran-Iraq War, which rapidly increased the level of political violence in this historically relatively peaceful shaykhdom. Major events included the 1983 bombing of the United States embassy and, probably most notable, the dramatic public assassination attempt on the amir in 1985. The tension associated with the war also exacerbated divisions within Kuwaiti society, notably that between Sunnis and Shia, and prompted the amir increasingly to limit public participation in political life. Although in 1980 Shaykh Jabir al Ahmad restored the National Assembly (which Sabah as Salim had abolished in 1976), the increasing political tension prompted him to do away with it again in 1986 and to introduce new measures curtailing civil and political rights. These measures prompted a wide range of opposition leaders--including old parliamentarians, Islamists (sometimes seen as fundamentalists), and merchants--to form the Constitutional Movement of 1989-90, a prodemocracy movement calling for the restoration of the National Assembly.

The second external event was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, which, for the first time in Kuwait's history, placed the state under direct foreign rule. Although sovereignty was restored in February 1991, events leading up to the invasion and the amir's behavior during and after the occupation prompted open grumbling about the ruling family itself. The criticism centered on the amir and the fact that most of the ruling family spent the time of the Iraqi occupation in comfortable exile abroad and delayed their return to the country after the war ended.

In 1993 Shaykh Jabir al Ahmad still ruled Kuwait; his designated successor, Prime Minister Saad al Abd Allah as Salim Al Sabah, also came from the Al Sabah ruling family. Although the Al Sabah remained paramount, the family as a ruling institution had changed dramatically since it assumed its leading role in the mid-eighteenth century. First, succession patterns within the family had changed. In the nineteenth century, rule passed regularly from father to son. With the accession of Mubarak in the late nineteenth century, a new pattern was established that excluded all but Mubarak's line from the top position. This custom is formalized in the Kuwaiti constitution and in practice created a new pattern of alternation of rulers between the two lines of Mubarak's sons, Jabir and Salim. It was in keeping with this pattern that Shaykh Jabir al Ahmad (from the Jabir line) named as his crown prince and heir apparent Saad al Abd Allah as Salim, from the Salim line.

The relationship between the ruling family and Kuwaiti society also changed in more subtle ways. Members of the family other than the ruler, once first among equals in a society where merchants and other elites played an important role in decision making, became in the years after oil was discovered far wealthier because their wealth was guaranteed by a civil list--a list of sums appropriated to pay the expenses of a ruler and his household. Ruling family members also became socially more prominent and politically more important as they took over many of the state's highest posts. In part, this transformation occurred as a result of the emergence of a large state bureaucracy and the need Kuwaiti rulers felt to fill the state's highest posts with loyal supporters, notably kin.

The Media

For more information about the government, see Facts about Kuwait.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress