US Foreign Policy

Edging Towards Reform: Kuwait’s Security Sector

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Only time will tell if the May 21 suspension of the Kuwaiti Parliament represents a true political crisis with constitutional implications.  Just a few months earlier, Kuwait was widely seen as having achieved new political maturity for the way the system, and the Parliament in particular, managed the transition to the new Emir, Shiekh Sabah.1   This is not the first time, however, that the relatively young constitutional monarchy has disbanded Parliament.  Kuwait has historically refused to abandon its Parliamentary system entirely and has each time returned to embrace the Majlis.  While the present political developments are disheartening, they cannot overshadow the example Kuwait has set for the region politically.  Kuwait’s government appears deadlocked on how much reform should be undertaken; the fact that both reformers and conservatives within the government are engaged in public debate on democratic reform illustrates the potential of the Kuwaiti constitutional system, especially in comparison to its Gulf neighbors.

Less noticeable, however, is Kuwait’s relatively transparent security sector, a product of its parliamentary system and the unique threat environment created by the constant fear of an Iraqi invasion.  As the threat of an invasion subsided in the wake of the Iraq war Kuwait gradually adjusted its security apparatus to prepare for contemporary threats. Despite political deadlock over reform, with new elections scheduled for June 29, and a new Emir avowedly in favor of continued democratic reform, it is an opportune time to take a closer look at the Kuwaiti security sector.

Since 2004, NATO has been promoting the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, a new engagement program with the Gulf Cooperation Council states with the goal of enhancing regional security via targeted cooperation with individual nations.  Kuwait, a regional model for good governance of the security sector for the Arab Gulf states, is an ideal partner for NATO’s new initiative.2   Kuwait has advanced military equipment, a relatively open democratic political system, and one of the most transparent security sectors in the region, allowing for ease of cooperation.  Engagement with Kuwait could enhance reform processes already underway, allow NATO’s initiative to have the greatest impact, and would serve as a model for cooperation with other GCC states.  This reality has not been lost on NATO or Kuwait’s leadership, both of whom have demonstrated an eagerness for cooperation.3   The added side effect of promoting security sector reform however, has garnered less attention.

Traditionally, security structures in the Gulf have focused on preserving regime security and preventing internal coups rather than providing national security for the state and its citizens.  Most Gulf leaders rely on elaborate overlapping security structures within their countries to prevent the rise of a charismatic leader who might pose a challenge to the ruling family’s power. Kuwait avoided many of the coup-proofing measures institutionalized by its neighbors because of the need to counter the continuous security risk posed by Iraq on its northern border, which forced Kuwait to focus its security structure to address external rather than internal threats.

Kuwait’s unique history and threat environment also make it a leader in the region as the only GCC state with a politically empowered Parliament.  Kuwait has historically maintained a significant measure of civilian oversight of the Armed Forces.  The Minister of Defense is appointed by the Emir, but has not traditionally been a member of the royal family. This separation of ruling family authority and military control is unusual in a region dominated by nepotistic government appointments.  The separation of Defense and Interior Ministries meant that the mission and authority of security forces were clearly delineated.  Overlap was rare, and legal protections enshrined in the Constitution prevented using security forces for political repression. Kuwait’s new government, however, placed Sheikh Haber al-Sabah in charge of both the Defense and Interior ministries.   Now that these Ministries are once again combined under one authority4 , it will be important for them to maintain their independent jurisdictions if Kuwait is to become the model for transparent security sector governance in the region. 5

In Kuwait, budgetary authority is also separate from the Ministries.  The Kuwaiti Majlis has legislative oversight on all spending, including defense.  It issues the Defense Support Budget by law and members of the Majlis are able to issue inquiries and request special reports on security matters.  Within the Majlis, the Interior and Defense Affairs Committee oversees many aspects of the security sector and publishes white papers and reports on defense spending.  The Majlis is also empowered to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate decision making at the Ministry of Defense and refer abuses of power to the Human Rights Committee.  This Parliamentary oversight is exceptional in a region where defense and security decision making is the royal privilege of a select few.

When a Member of Parliament issues an inquiry the question is also released to the media, making defense inquiries a matter of public record.  The media in Kuwait is one of the most uncensored in the entire Gulf region, and Kuwaiti Members of Parliament eagerly take advantage of the free press to make public speeches and pressure the government on defense spending and other issues. The free press in Kuwait allows public access to information on security sector decision making, and contributes to a more open security culture than exists in most Arab Gulf states.

Kuwait also appears to be undergoing a paradigm shift in its defense planning.  Excessive arms procurement that was the norm for the war-ravaged state in the post-Gulf war period-and contributed to Kuwait’s large budget deficit in the 1990s-has declined.  This drop in arms acquisitions coincides with increased military to military cooperation with the United States and the launch of NATO’s Gulf outreach initiative.  By reducing its emphasis on equipment procurement, Kuwait’s military spending has dropped from nearly 13% of its GDP in the height of post-Gulf War spending to 4.2% in 2005.6   This past fiscal year, Kuwait posted a $47 billion dollar budget surplus, a result of this reduction in military spending and increased oil revenues.7   The downsizing of its procurement program, coupled with joint training programs with American forces depicts a state that is rethinking its security priorities and transitioning away from conventional combat capability to a more agile force to address modern security threats.

While Kuwait cannot be certain that Iraq will not become a threat in the long term, Kuwait still relies on the US security umbrella to deter the state-based threats it faces.  The presence of over 10,000 US service members stationed at 5 military camps in Kuwait greatly enhances the security of the state.8   This gives Kuwait the flexibility to reduce its military expenditure and explore new measures to combat the spillover of terrorism and unrest from Iraq.  In this vein, Kuwait is preparing for the annual multinational training operation Bright Star in the fall (with a focus on counterterrorism), is part of counter-terrorism efforts with its Gulf Cooperation Council partners in nearby Bahrain, and has successfully uncovered and apprehended terrorists within its own borders.9  The effectiveness of Kuwait’s armed forces without the support of the US military remains to be seen however, and provides additional motivation for Kuwait to develop a fully reformed and independent security sector, in the event of a US withdrawal.

Even with the current political conflict, Kuwait is still ahead of its neighbors in terms of Parliamentary oversight, civilian leadership, separation of interior and exterior defense institutions, and adapting its military procurement strategy to changing threat perceptions.  The dissolution of the Parliament and the upcoming elections provide an opportunity for Kuwait to deepen its commitment to developing transparent and accountable institutions.  The current debate over how to engage in reform suggests that NATO’s initiative is well timed to assist Kuwait in the development of a security sector that can provide for national defense.  The challenge will be for NATO and the United States to gently encourage this indigenous process through the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, and to show the other GCC states that gradually engaging in security sector reform is truly in their best interest.  Despite its flaws, Kuwait may just be the home grown example NATO is looking for.

1 For more on Kuwait’s peaceful power transition see Tetreault, Mary Ann. “Three Emirs and a Tale of Two Transitions.” Middle East Report Online. 10 February 2006. 6 June 2006.
2 For more on NATO’s new initiative and its potential see Laipson, Ellen ed. Security Sector Reform in the Gulf. Washington DC: The Henry L. Stimson Center, 2006.
3 According to Kuwait Times. “Help for Kuwaiti Women.” Financial Times Information Limited-Middle East Intelligence Wire. 12 December 2005. Accessed on Lexis Nexus 10 February 2006., a NATO delegation visited Kuwait in December of 2005 to “discuss during their visit the possibility of training officers from NATO member states in Kuwait due to the advanced equipment of the Kuwait military.”
4 They were last combined from 1964-1978 under one minister, but both ministries maintained their independence from one another. For more on governance of the Kuwaiti security sector see Al-Najjar, Ghanim. Challenges of Security Sector Governance in Kuwait. Working Paper No. 142, presented at the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces. August 2004.
5 Ibid.
6 From Central Intelligence Agency. World Factbook. 2006. Washington DC: CIA, 2006. Compared to previous CIA World Factbooks dating back to 1989.
7 MENFN. “Kuwait Posts Record $47 Billion Revenue Last Year.” Middle East North Africa Financial Network News. 23 April 2006. 24 April 2006.
8 Redmon, Jeremy. “General: US to be in Kuwait for years; Strategic Site makes small ally big asset.” The Atlanta Journal Constitution. 11 February 2006. 4B. Over 80,000 additional US military personnel at any given time are in Kuwait in total, once the number includes the military personnel rotating in or out of Iraq according to Katzman, Kenneth. Kuwait: Post-Saddam Issues and U.S. Policy. Congressional Research Service. May 18, 2005.
9 DPA. “US Praises Country’s Anti-Terror Steps, GCC Centre in Bahrain.” Khaleej Times Online. 8 May 2006; Kuna. “Kuwait Army Officers Comment on Next ‘Bright Star’ Maneuvers.” BBC Monitoring International Reports. 8 February 2005. Accessed on Lexis Nexis 10 February 2006.; “UK Arabic Paper Says Gulf States Threatened Due to ‘Openness’ to West.” BBC Monitoring International Reports. 11 January 2005. Originally from Al-Quds al-Arabi. Accessed on Lexis Nexis, 10 February 2006.


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