Kuwait's Democracy — Introduction

Kuwaiti Coat of Arms

Kuwait, a constitutional, hereditary emirate, is the most progressive democracy in the Persian Gulf.  Throughout its history, and particularly during the 20th century under British suzerainty, Kuwaiti society and domestic political systems developed independently of outside influence.  Kuwaiti sheikhs briefly experimented with an elected assembly as early as the late 1930s.  Upon attaining complete independence from Great Britain in June 1961, Kuwait moved quickly to establish an elected Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution. The Assembly was formed by December 1961, and on November 11, 1962, the Kuwaiti Constitution -- the oldest in the Gulf – was ratified.

Elections held in January 1963 established the Gulf’s first fully-elected representative assembly. The Constitution grants decision-making authority to both the Amir as head of state and the National Assembly (Majlis Al-Umma) in its legislative capacity.  As dictated by the Constitution, the Amir takes the oath of office at a special sitting of the National Assembly, a mark of Kuwait’s commitment to democracy that occurs nowhere else in the Gulf.

Kuwait’s political system cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the past.  The 17th century tribal structures are an enduring aspect of Kuwaiti culture, and from the beginning informed the developing polity.  According to national mythology, the descendents of the original tribal families who settled the region selected the Al-Sabah family to rule them and the al-Sabah accepted the responsibility.   In 1756 Sabah I bin Jaber became the first Amir of Kuwait; Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabah (Mubarak the Great) the founder of modern Kuwait, ruled from 1896 to 1915. All contemporary al-Sabah rulers descend directly from his line. The al-Sabah family is intricately woven into the fabric of Kuwaiti identity; its leadership has defined the modern state.