FAS Home | ASMP Home | Search | About ASMP
Publications | Sales Data | Issues | Resources


Arms Sales Tables | Country Profile | Background Information

Arms Sales Tables

Country Profile

Kuwaiti society has been dominated since the early 1700's by a few families. Only some 14.5% of the population (males whose ancestors lived in Kuwait before 1920, and are over the age of twenty-one) are permitted to vote. Although the National Assembly influences laws and budget decisions, the Emir has twice (1976 to 1981 and 1986 to 1992) suspended the constitution, dismissed the National Assembly and ruled by decree. Kuwaiti citizens cannot change their head of state.

While the Kuwaiti constitution provides for the protection of many basic human rights, these rights are either limited or not extended to some 60% of the state's residents who are not considered citizens, including women, foreign workers, and the nomadic bedouin or Bidun. Foreign workers cannot own property and can be deported if the Kuwaitis consider them dangerous. Tens of thousands of Palestinian, Jordanian and Yemeni workers have left or been forced out of Kuwait since the 1991 Gulf War. According to the 2000 State Department Human Rights Report, Kuwaiti security forces have committed a number of human rights abuses, and though the government claims to investigate allegations of abuse, it does not publicize either the findings of its investigations or what, if any, punishments are imposed. This omission creates a climate of impunity, which diminishes deterrence against abuse.

According to Amnesty International's 2001 report on Kuwait , "At least 42 political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, convicted in unfair trials since 1991, continued to be held. The fate of more than 70 people who ''disappeared'' in custody in 1991 remained unknown."  The 2001 Human Rights Watch World Report added that "Almost ten years [after the Iraqi occupation], enduring violations far outweighed incremental improvements" in human rights. 

Kuwait was the only country with the dubious distinction of spending more on its military in 1991 than its entire economy produced (including $7.5 billion in off-budget Desert Storm expenses). Despite pre-Gulf War military spending of around $2 billion annually, the Kuwaiti armed forces only put up a very brief fight during the 1990 invasion, and cannot be expected to fare better in the future as they lack the manpower and training needed for an effective defense. Furthermore, the United States is still fully committed to defending Kuwait itself; former Secretary of Defense Cohen reiterated in an address to troops on March 10, 1999 that "any attack upon Kuwait we're going to consider as an attack upon us."  If this is the case, what is the purpose of large arms sales?

Shortly after the 1991 Gulf War, then Undersecretary of State Reginald Bartholomew told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that arms sales to Kuwait were part of an "overall security system" involving the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council states (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) (Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, 6 June 1991, p. 26). Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell asked why the United States proposed "to sell sophisticated weapons such as the F-18 to tiny nations like Kuwait" when it was his recollection that the weapons "we sold to Kuwait before [the invasion] were mostly seized by Iraq and there was no benefit to Kuwait." Undersecretary Bartholomew conceded that the Kuwaiti armed forces were "swamped," but emphasized the silver lining, saying that "a significant part of its air force did escape, actually."

Equipment now being deployed by Kuwait includes 40 F/A-18C/D fighter bombers, M-1A2 Abrams tanks (with 130,000 rounds of ammunition), armored personnel carriers, and Patriot and Hawk anti-aircraft missiles. Anthony Cordesman, a military affairs analyst who has written in favor of Middle East arms sales, has said that Kuwait "will be unable to use its arms against any nation without supplier assistance, although Iran and Iraq could operate many Kuwaiti weapons systems if these were seized in a future invasion." (Cordesman, After the Storm, p. 626) Hawk and TOW missiles were seized by Iraq during their invasion of Kuwait. Although the Iraqis were able to lock onto some allied planes with the Hawk radars, no missiles were fired and many Western analysts said the threat, in this case, was low. Some Western military officials expressed relief in 1990 that Kuwait had not yet taken delivery of the 40 F/A-18 aircraft and associated weapons. (Washington Post , 8 August 1990, p. A15). 

One purpose of U.S. arms transfers to Kuwait is to standardize U.S. and Kuwaiti equipment. The desire to achieve a greater level of interoperability culminated in the two states signing a 10-year bilateral defense agreement in 1991. Although the defense agreement is classified, some details are known. For example, U.S. and Kuwaiti troops regularly hold joint exercises involving thousands of soldiers. Kuwait has also welcomed U.S. warships and aircraft at Kuwaiti ports and airfields. This move stands in contrast with the situation in the late 1980s, when U.S. ships were not allow to stop in Kuwaiti ports when they when escorting Kuwaiti tankers, as Kuwait did not want to associate itself too closely with the United States.

More importantly, the United States has a brigade's worth of heavy mechanized equipment---tanks and artillery---as well as ground attack aircraft, pre-positioned in Kuwait (Washington Post, 4 July 1994, p. A16). But the propositioning of equipment may be dangerous. At best, the United States may be pressured to intervene on behalf of Kuwait to protect U.S. equipment. In the worst case, the equipment would be captured by an invader. In 1990, Iraq reached Kuwait City in about three hours.

Another objective of U.S. arms sales is the recycling of "petrodollars." As with the Shah of Iran in the 1970s, arms sales to major oil exporters help maintain America's balance of payments (Michael Klare, American Arms Supermarket (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984), pp. 118-121). Foreign sales also delay the shutdown of arms production lines. Kuwait received the first of its M-1A2 tanks in August 1994 (Aerospace Daily, 23 August 1994), less than a year after General Dynamics built the last M-1A2 for the U.S. Army. Although the Army plans to upgrade some older M-1 tanks, the tanks being built in Lima, Ohio are for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait only. Kuwait's purchase of F/A-18C/D fighter-bombers also reduces unit costs for the Pentagon and subsidizes development of the F/A-18E/F aircraft.  

Reports indicate skepticism among Kuwaitis about relations with the United States.  For example, Nabil al-Khodr, editor of a popular, pro-government newspaper, was quoted in the Washington Times as saying "The United States frightens us with Saddam to make us buy weapons and to sign contracts with American companies.  But the Kuwaitis are not foolish." ("U.S. Welcome Wears Thin in Kuwait," Nov. 23, 1997).  A Kuwaiti MP who supports the government complained to the Washington Post that "I feel bullied.  We do appreciate the role [the United States] played, but from a financial situation, we are unable to buy as much as we would wish to buy.... To keep pushing for arms is too much." ("U.S. Role as Arms Merchant to Kuwait Faces Challenge by China," July 15, 1997). During a spate of procurement decisions by Kuwait, former Vice-President Gore intervened personally with Kuwaiti leaders imploring them to choose American arms ("Kuwait to Split Artillery Purchase: Politics Play Role in Choice of China, U.S. Suppliers," Defense News, April 13-19, 1998). Yet, the emirate has increased military cooperation with China and France, including possible arms purchases.  

In May 2001, further military acquisitions were placed on hold due to the dearth of manpower and the need for further military training. A Defense News article quotes Kuwaiti legislator Nasser Al-Sane as saying that some newly purchased military equipment is "in storage with no staff that have been trained to use them." ("Kuwait Downplays Arms, Highlights Readiness Issue," Defense News, May 21, 2001, p. 1).  The United States has sought to remedy this problem by approving a sale of $166 million worth of defense articles and services, especially to support and maintain the F/A 18 aircraft that Kuwait purchased.  In autumn of 2001, Defense News reported that many of the intended purchases were again likely. Budgetary constraints have necessitated a reduction in the quantity of some of the weapons being purchased, and lengthy delays in the procurement of others, although Kuwait looks to be on target to complete the long awaited $1 billion Apache Longbow combat helicopter sale from Boeing.

Background Information

Last Updated: February, 2002