Main languages: Arabic (official), English (widely spoken), Persian, Urdu, Hindi
Main religions: Islam is the main religion in Kuwait, and official statistics do not differentiate between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. The Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI) estimates that 70 per cent of some 1.4 million Kuwaiti citizens are Sunni and the remaining 30 per cent Shi’a (Ahmadis and Ismailis are included in this designation). With the exception of around 300 Christians and a small number of Bahá’i, according to informal community estimates, the large majority of Kuwaiti citizens are Muslim.
In addition, PACI estimates that there are around 3.3 million expatriate residents in Kuwait, most of whom (64 per cent) are Muslim (with around 5 per cent of this group estimated by local groups to be Shi’a). Non-Muslim minorities in the country are made up almost exclusively of expatriate residents, with Christians making up 26 per cent of expatriates according to PACI (amounting to around 850,000) and the remaining 10 per cent of non-Kuwaiti nationals comprised of members of non-Abrahamic religions. Informal estimates suggest these include Hindus 250,000, Buddhists 100,000, Bohra Muslims 25,000, Sikhs 10,000, Druze 7,000 and Bahá’i 400. Key countries of origin for expatriates living in Kuwait are India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
Updated June 2020
While widely regarded as more political open that its neighbouring countries in the Gulf region, much of Kuwait’s governance continues to be shaped by the ruling Al Sabah family. While Kuwaiti nationals are almost universally Muslim, this includes a significant Shi’a minority who make up around 30 per cent of the estimated 1.4 million Kuwaiti citizens. Though Sunni Islam remains dominant, as reflected in public education and other aspects of public life, the government has taken some steps to curb communal tensions and promote minority inclusion. Shi’a are permitted many religious freedoms, including the right to maintain their own mosques and select their own clerics without state interference. Nevertheless, community members report restrictions on various forms of public religious expression, such as the observance of Ashura and other ceremonies, and discrimination in political participation and others areas.
The country also includes a large stateless Arab minority, known as Bidoon. Denied citizenship in the wake of Kuwait’s independence in 1961, with many unable or unwilling to register for citizenship, their situation became significantly more precarious from the 1980s when the government began to impose heavier restrictions on their access to education, health care and other rights. Subsequently classified as ‘illegal residents’, Bidoon now number around 100,000 people and despite repeated promises their situation remains unresolved, with many struggling to secure schooling, medical care and employment. Periodic protests against their treatment have been met with a heavy-handed response from authorities. In July 2019, for instance, 15 Bidoon activists were arrested following demonstrations in the wake of the death of a young Bidoon who had committed suicide after reportedly struggling to secure official documentation, culminating in the loss of his employment. The arrests were widely criticized by human rights groups in the region.
Kuwait also has a large population of migrant workers, numbering around 3.2 million people, who account for 70 per cent of the total population and 85 per cent of the country’s labour force. The majority, originating primarily from Asia and other Arab countries, are engaged in poorly paid labour as construction or domestic workers. Similar to other Gulf countries, foreign labourers in Kuwait are subject to the Kafala system where they are ‘sponsored’ by a Kuwaiti employer – a system that leaves them heavily dependent on their employers and open to exploitation, sexual abuse and other rights violations.
While current labour law in Kuwait prohibits employers from holding the passports of their domestic workers, imposes penalties for unscrupulous recruiting practices and sets minimum wages for domestic labour, significant shortcomings remain. For instance, while the law in principle allows workers to form and join unions, foreign workers are only permitted to join unions as non-voting members after five years of work, while domestic workers are still excluded from the union system. In 2016, Kuwait issued a new administrative decision allowing migrants to transfer their sponsorship to a new employer after three years of work, without consent from the existing employer. However, this reform does not include migrant domestic workers. Despite recent reforms, abuse of the sponsorship system is still widespread, especially with respect to visa trafficking. Migrants remain vulnerable to exploitation, forced labour and deportation for leaving their employer.
Updated June 2020
Kuwait borders Iraq to the north and west, Saudi Arabia to the south and the Arabian/Persian Gulf to the east. Exploitation of its natural resources, especially oil, is the main driver of Kuwait’s economy: the energy sector accounts for around half of national GDP and 90 per cent of government revenue.
Kuwait is a small emirate positioned between Iraq and Saudi Arabica. In 1756, Kuwait emerged as an autonomous sheikhdom, when a sheikh from the Al Sabah family was chosen as ruler by the six leading notable families. In 1899 Britain acquired control of Kuwait’s external affairs and defence matters until its independence in 1961.
In 1990, Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait but was defeated by a UN coalition led by the United States in 1991. Before retreating, the Iraqi army looted the country and set fire to most of its oil wells, heavily damaging Kuwait’s economy at the time. However, Kuwait’s economy has since then recovered and is now one of the richest countries in the world per capita.
Kuwait has been ruled by the Al Sabah family since the mid-eighteenth century. Its 1962 Constitution designates the Amir as the head of state and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Currently, Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al Sabah is the ruling prince. He appointed a Prime Minister from the Al Sabah family to act as the head of government, who in turn appoints the ministers. Most key ministries, such as defence, foreign policy and finance, are led by members of the Al Sabah family.
The Kuwaiti Constitution protects the right to religious freedom. Nevertheless, the law prohibits non-Muslims from proselytizing.
In 2005, the National Assembly passed a bill giving women the right to vote and to run for office – although an amendment to the legislation requires women to conduct themselves in accordance with Islamic law, Sharia, in their political activities. This had been resisted by the National Assembly for years, in the face of strong protests. Women now serve at the municipal council, ministerial, cabinet and ambassadorial levels.
Political parties are illegal. Nevertheless, long-standing parliamentary opposition to the Al Sabah family has broadened in recent years, driven by demands for political and economic reforms. A Salafi Islamist attempt to establish a political party, Hizb Al-Ummah, was quashed. Under civil and parliamentary pressure, the government was forced to accept a rearrangement of the electoral districts, reducing them from 25 to 5 electoral districts, which was thought drastically to reduce opportunities for political corruption.
Updated June 2020
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
Ali Mohammad, N. S., Population and Development of the Arab Gulf States: The Case of Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
al-Mughni, H., Women in Kuwait, London, Saqi Books, 2001.
Hicks, N. and al-Najjar, G., ‘The Utility of Tradition: Civil Society in Kuwait’ in Norton, A. R., Civil Society in the Middle East, Leiden: Brill, 1995, vol. 1.
‘Kuwait’, in The Middle East and North Africa 2007 [Europe regional Surveys of the World]. London: Routledge, 2006 (pp. 640-675).
Longva, A. N., Walls Built on Sand: Migration, Exclusion, and Society in Kuwait, Boulder: Westview Press, 1997.
Nonneman, G., Political Reform in the Gulf Monarchies: From Liberalisation to Democratisation? A Comparative Perspective. Durham: IMEIS, Durham University, 2006. “retrieved 20 July 2007, http://eprints.dur.ac.uk/archive/00000222/”
Rizzo, H. M., Islam, Democracy and the Status of Women: The Case of Kuwait, London: Routledge, 2004.
Tetreault, M, Stories of Democracy: Politics & Society in Contemporary Kuwait. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000
Human Rights Watch, The Bidouns of Kuwait: Citizens without Citizenship, New York and Washington, DC, 1995.
Fuller, G.E. and Francke, R.R., The Arab Shi’a: The Forgotten Muslims, New York, St Martin’s Press, 1999 and Palgrave, 2001