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Kuwait

History & Background


The modern State of Kuwait lies at the northwestern end of the Persian Gulf, or the Arabian Gulf—as the Arabs prefer to call the body of water separating the Arabian Peninsula from Iran. In ancient times Iran was known as the Kingdom of Persia, from which the descriptor Persian came to be used in the West as the proper adjective for describing the Gulf. But to the Arabs, it is the Arabian Gulf, and to avoid causing offense on either side, the Persian/Arabian Gulf is usually referred to as merely the Gulf.


Flanked to the north and northwest by Iraq, and bordering Saudi Arabia to the south and southwest, Kuwait occupies a position of strategic importance in the Gulf region. The land area of Kuwait amounts to 17,818 square kilometers (6,969 square miles). With a coastline of 195 km, Kuwait's access to the waters of the Gulf is a coveted asset. The ease of oil-export enjoyed by the Gulf littoral states is an added bonus for the petroleum producing nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). From the west, the desert plain of Kuwait slopes from 300 meters above sea level to the shores of the Gulf. The southern regions of Kuwait are generally flat, although there are a number of depressions, sand dunes, and escarpments in the northwest. Off the coast of the mainland are nine islands belonging to Kuwait: Failaka, Bubiyan, Miskan, Warba, Auhha, Umm al-Maradim, Umm al-Naml, Kubbar, and Qaruh.

Kuwait's head of state is HH (His Highness) Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah. Arabic is the official language, and Islam is the state religion, although there are a very few non-Muslim Kuwaitis, Christians originally of Iraqi or Lebanese origin. There are also Christians, Hindus, and Parsees among the expatriate communities who are allowed to practice their religious faiths with a fair degree of freedom. The population of Kuwait as of 1997 was 2,152,775, and at 3.35 percent, Kuwait has one of the highest population growth rates in the world. But of the total population in 1997, only 745,189 were Kuwaiti nationals, the rest being expatriate workers residing in the country, providing their services in areas such as banking and commerce, or providing the manual labor needed in areas such as construction and cleaning. The exact population statistics are hard to determine due to factors such as illegal entry of foreign workers and a large number of stateless Arabs collectively referred to as bidoon, or "without [nationality]." These stateless Arabs are a mix of descendants of desert Bedouin who never registered as citizens in the 1960s, as well as immigrants from surrounding countries. Asian and foreign Arab workers comprise by some estimates around 90 percent of the labor force in Kuwait. More conservative estimates place the foreign labor population at around 70 percent of the total populace.

Foreign laborers have quite literally built modern Kuwait, including the ultramodern city buildings and the country's infrastructure of roads, communications networks, and industrial operations. Without foreign workers, Gulf states such as Kuwait would not enjoy the level of prosperity that they do. Foreign workers provide the hard labor needed in the Gulf region for any profit to be realized from the geological stroke of fortune that has placed more than half of the world's known oil reserves in the hands of the Gulf states. But the harsh treatment of foreign laborers has drawn increasing international attention. Gulf states have been known to violate workers rights, housing them in squalid labor camps, withholding pay, providing dismally low wages for grueling and dangerous work in what might be described as a modern form of slavery or indentured servitude. Rioting in Kuwait by enraged laborers in the late 1990s shocked Kuwait, particularly because it is the only Gulf country where trade unions are legal.

In a tense, war-torn region of the world, the security of the Gulf region's extremely affluent oil states has been threatened in recent times by the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), by the hegemonic designs of Iraq and the Gulf War (1990-91), and by serious social problems hidden beneath an outward appearance of prosperity, Westernization, and modernization. The purported historical claims to Kuwait that Iraq resurrected periodically throughout the twentieth century, most dangerously in the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, constitutes a repeated serious threats to Kuwaiti sovereignty. Even since the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait by coalition forces, the saber-rattling of Kuwait's aggressive northern neighbor continues. For example, Baghdad labeled Kuwait's celebration of Liberation Day on February 26, 2001, as "provocative." Without the U.S.-led intervention and eventual expulsion of Iraqi forces, Kuwait would have been annexed as the de facto nineteenth province of Iraq. If past history is an indicator of future actions, Kuwait may face further challenges to state sovereignty in the early years of the twenty-first century.

In its past history Kuwait was but a small town with a wall around it, referred to as Qurain (or also Grane) in the 1600s. Qurain is derived from the Arabic word qarn, meaning a high hill. The name Kuwait is derived from the Arabic kout, meaning a fortified house built next to water. The plural of kout, or akwat, is the source of Kuwait, and the term was used to refer to towns comprising a number of castles and fortified homes surrounded by walls. Thus, the historical description of Qurain (Grane) or Kuwait (kout/akwat) as a fortified town adjacent to water came to be used as the proper name of not only the city of Kuwait, but also the state of Kuwait itself.

The country has benefited from the oil revenues generated since the discovery of oil in 1938. Other areas of economic development in Kuwait in addition to oil exports have included manufacturing industries, petrochemicals, foodstuffs, building materials, trade, real estate, communications, and transport. Although Kuwait has generally recovered, economically speaking, from the Iraqi invasion and occupation of 1990-91, the rebuilding and the financing of the war effort drained hundreds of billions of dollars from Kuwaiti financial reserves, a serious blow to what had been an extremely comfortable state of existence.

It was on June 19, 1961 that Kuwait transitioned from its status as a British protectorate since 1897 to become an independent, sovereign state. A draft constitution was approved on November 11, 1961, outlining Kuwait's system of governance as a "fully independent Arab State with a democratic style of government, where sovereignty rests with the nation, which is the source of power." In the Amir, or national head of state, is vested the legislative authority in combination with the elected National Assembly. Executive power resides exclusively with the Amir, his cabinet, and his ministers.

In this context of a constitutional democracy, with the super affluence brought about through oil revenues, Kuwait was transformed from a poor city-state dependent upon fishing, pearling, and trade for subsistence, into an ultramodern nation-state able to provide the highest level of social services and welfare benefits that money can buy for its citizens—not to mention a comfortable level of living for about 1.5 million expatriates living and working in Kuwait. The early development and independence in relation to other Gulf states resulted in the states of the lower Gulf looking to Kuwait as a model for their own social welfare systems, particularly education. Social development has been a priority of the Kuwaiti government, and oil wealth has made possible the use of the latest technologies and resources in education and the social services sectors. However, that wealth has also created unique—and even enviable, from the developing world's vantage point—challenges for the government and citizens of Kuwait. In education, at the outset of the twenty-first century, the challenge has been one of reforming the educational institutions and training centers in order to align them with the needs of the labor market in the process of moving young, educated nationals into gainful and productive employment.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceKuwait - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education