Kuwait, once a small emirate with an economy dependent largely on pearl diving, has been transformed into a wealthy nation whose massive oil reserves support a highly developed welfare state. The country's name has its origins in two words; qarn, meaning high hill, and kut, an Arabic word that means fort.
Although the historians debate the exact year, 1756 is generally considered when the Al-Sabah family, still in power, was first chosen to rule Kuwait. Upon the death of the ruling Emir, the crown prince assumes his position and a new crown prince is selected by members of the Al-Sabah family. The Emir appoints the prime minister and, on the latter's recommendation, the other ministers. The ruling family retains control of foreign affairs, the investment portfolios, and the defense appropriations.
Legislative power is vested in the unicameral National Assembly, Majlis al-Umma, composed of 50 members, elected for four-year terms, and government ministers, who are given membership through the Constitution.
In May 2005, the National Assembly voted in favor of allowing women to vote, subject to Islamic law, and to run for office. This leaves Saudi Arabia the only remaining Middle Eastern country where women cannot vote. In June 2005, Dr. Massouma al-Mubarak was appointed the first female cabinet minister.
Oil was discovered in commercial quantities in Kuwait in 1938, and exploration, delayed by World War II, began in 1945. The revenues from oil production created a wealthy citizenry and have enabled the government to provide extensive social welfare benefits.
In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the economy sustained several shocks. These include a massive increase in government intervention and control of the commercial economy during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the collapse of the stock market in 1982, and of world oil prices during the mid-1980s, and the Iraqi invasion of 1990.
Kuwait's dependence on oil, with its fluctuating prices, and the costs of the extensive welfare state in which many products and services are heavily subsidized, have created an ever-increasing deficit. The Al-Sabah government recognizes the need to cut spending and find ways to raise additional revenue. The Assembly, however, is less willing to institute politically painful steps, which results in friction between the Emir and his ministers, and the legislature.
Expatriates are numerous in Kuwait. In fact, even after government efforts to make the native Kuwaiti population a majority, over 60 percent of the population is non-Kuwaiti. Some foreigners hold executive, managerial, and technical positions of responsibility, while others hold lower-level and lower-paying jobs as laborers and domestics.
Expatriates will find that Kuwait is a Muslim country with a fairly tolerant attitude toward foreigners. Islamic law and custom still govern some aspects of society, however. For instance, alcohol is prohibited.
There is freedom of religion, and Kuwaiti women have some rights that women in other Arab countries do not, such as the right to an education, to drive, and to travel freely, unaccompanied by a male family member.
Traditional dress is still worn by conservative Kuwaitis: men wear the long robes and headdress, while women wear cloaks, head scarves, and sometimes veils. Other Kuwaitis dress in Western attire. Some women, younger ones in particular, chose not to wear a head scarf.