Kuwait is governed by its 1962 constitution, which established a National Assembly that shares power with an emir (prince) from the Sabah family. The emir suspended the constitution and parliament from 1976 to 1980 and again from 1986 to 1992, both times for loosely specified reasons. Although the emir and his family dominate the political system, there are significant elements of a parliamentary democracy. When the emir attempted to create a purely consultative national council in 1990 to replace the parliament, the opposition boycotted elections. Before the issue could be resolved, Iraq invaded. In return for unity during the invasion, the emir agreed to restore the constitution and parliament.
Fifty members are elected to the unicameral (one-house) National Assembly every four years. Only men who are at least 21 years old and have lived in Kuwait for at least 20 years may vote, and police and military personnel are excluded from voting. The emir selects a prime minister who in turn selects a cabinet of ministers. Neither the prime minister nor the cabinet ministers have to be members of the assembly. The assembly has the authority to withdraw confidence from the cabinet or from individual ministers, but it has rarely done so. The crown prince, heir apparent to the emir, has traditionally served as prime minister. The most important cabinet posts, such as the ministries of defense, foreign affairs, and interior, have generally remained within the Sabah family as well. Other cabinet members are typically selected from the assembly and experts in the general population. The assembly’s role in day-to-day governing is limited, but it has the exclusive right to pass laws—a field where it has often displayed independence from the government. Parliamentary debates are often vigorous and members feel free to criticize the government, its policies, and each other vociferously, although the emir is never personally criticized.
Kuwait has three courts: primary, appellate, and supreme. There are also specialized courts for administrative, military, and constitutional cases. Most Kuwaiti law is modeled after European law. Personal matters, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance, are governed by Islamic law but handled by the regular court system. The majority of judges are Kuwaiti, although the shortage of labor prompted the government to hire judges from other Arab countries.
Formal political parties in Kuwait have no legal standing. However, the government tolerates umbrella organizations with strong ideological tendencies that air many different views. Most of these organizations are either traditional and Islamic or liberal and secular (nonreligious), and within these factions are further divisions. Many leading merchant families use the country’s chamber of commerce to play a strong political role. Even without parties, affiliations are widely known.
Kuwaiti men are required to serve two years in the armed forces beginning at the age of 18. However, exemptions are easily granted, such as for schooling, and most Kuwaitis who wish to avoid service are able to do so. Before 1990 the army had 16,000 troops, the air force 2,200, and the navy 1,800. Following the Persian Gulf War, these numbers dropped to less than half their prewar strength. The government implemented a plan to increase overall armed strength to 30,000. In 2001 army troop forces numbered 11,000, the navy totaled 2,000 members, and the Kuwaiti air force had 2,500 personnel.
Kuwait relies heavily on international alliances. Following independence in 1961, Kuwait joined the United Nations and the Arab League. At the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Kuwait joined other small, oil-rich states in the region to form the Gulf Cooperation Council. In 1991, after Iraq was evicted from Kuwait, Kuwait signed a ten-year defense agreement with the United States. Agreements were also made with some European and Arab states, although Kuwait considers the United States its chief international protector. A small contingent of American troops is stationed west of the capital; they have been joined by larger forces during times of crisis or military exercises.