Like all the little monarchies scattered along the coast of the Gulf, Kuwait used to be a sleepy little backwater, getting by on pearl fishing and trade. Like all the others, it was founded by a tribal chieftain in the 18th century, paid tribute to the Ottoman Empire but was paid little attention by it, and came eventually under the umbrella of British imperial protection in the late 19th century. By the time of independence in June 1961 (some 10 years before its Gulf counterparts) Kuwait had begun to exploit its oil reserves, the mainstay of its economy. In very marked contrast to the other Gulf statelets, however, in August 1990 Kuwait effectively ceased to exist.

The invasion and rapid conquest of the emirate by 100,000 Iraqi troops was the defining moment in the state’s short history. From a little-known land of legendary opulence, it was transformed in much of the world’s conscience into a cause célèbre, a tiny, defenceless innocent party savaged by the forces of a brutal, expansionist dictator.

Kuwait’s demotion in status to a province of Iraq was famously traumatic and short-lived – the Iraqis had been driven out by the end of the following February and the emirate restored by US-led forces. But what is most remarkable about the invasion and the war that followed it is perhaps just how little changed Kuwait is.

Physically, the place even looks the same. What the Iraqis destroyed has been largely rebuilt as near as possible to its pre-invasion state. Demographically, some of the numbers may be different – spectacularly so in the case of the Palestinians, whose number has declined from 400,000 to around 80,000 – but the overall balance is very similar. A minority (45 per cent) of the country’s 2.25 million inhabitants are Kuwaiti nationals; most of the rest come from other Arab countries and from the Indian subcontinent. And the politics is pretty much the same as well.

Photo: Guy Mansfield / Panos Pictures

The ruler – Shaykh Jaber, who is over 80 and has been the Emir since 1977 – is in charge. The Emir designates a successor, the Crown Prince, who is also the prime minister and selects the government. Ministers are answerable to (and may be members of) the Majlis al-Umma, the National Assembly, whose 50 members are elected for four-year terms.

This may look on paper a lot like the set-up elsewhere in the Gulf. But in Kuwait politics is a rather more interesting affair. The Majlis actually has power. The Emir rules by decree but MPs must debate all decrees and frequently do overturn them. They can also legislate, although the Emir can overrule their bills. Of course the Emir can also dissolve the Majlis. But perhaps the biggest change since the invasion is that he has not done so, except to call elections.

Political life centres on the relationship between the Majlis and the ruling family, the al-Sabah, members of which can be summoned to explain their conduct. While this often focuses on issues such as corruption and mismanagement, the tone is not always so healthy.

When Kuwaitis went to the polls in early July to elect a new Majlis, only 15 per cent of citizens were actually able to cast a vote. Women are excluded: in 1999 the Majlis overturned a decree from the Emir which would have allowed female suffrage. Members of the police and armed forces are also excluded. And there are no political parties, although many MPs are members of informal blocs, of which various Islamist groups are best represented.

And then there are the 55 per cent of inhabitants who have no political rights at all. While many are short-term foreign workers, many others have lived in Kuwait all their lives. Some, the 120,000 or so Kuwaitis labelled Bidoon (from the Arabic word for ‘without’), have no other nationality to claim, yet the state denies them citizenship rights on the grounds that neither they nor their ancestors were registered in the 1965 census.

Steve Sherman