Kuwait consitutes a puzzling but intriguing mix of Western liberalism and strict Islam. The capital, Kuwait City, is a bustling metropolis full of the high-rise buildings and luxury hotels. Yet the country is also host to elaborate and opulent mosques and palaces, and its religion is an integral part of its affairs.
This juxtaposition perhaps stems from Kuwait's marrying of Islamism with oil-wealth, mostly traded with Western superpowers. Upon independence from Britain in 1961, Sheikh Abdullah assumed head of state, adopting the title of Emir. The large revenues from oil production allowed independent Kuwait to build up its economic infrastructure and institute educational and social welfare programmes.
In the early 1990s, the emir established a National Assembly (Majlis), which placed limits on the power of the ruling family. Since then, the national assembly has clashed several times with the emir and the cabinet (which is still dominated by the al-Sabah family) over misuse of state funds and poor management of the all-important oil industry. Underlying these disputes is the growing impression that the ageing and increasingly infirm al-Sabah clan is no longer capable of running the country. However, they continue to dominate Kuwaiti policies.
Surrounded by three major Middle Eastern powers, the main threat to the country came from the renewal of Iraqi territorial claims over Kuwait (along with the overdue repayment of some US$40-60 billion on the part of Iraq), which led to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The Kuwaitis later recovered their country by virtue of a US-led, UN-backed multinational military force.
After a period of euphoria, the Kuwaitis had to address a number of difficult questions; the future security of the country was dealt with by the signing of defence and security pacts with the USA, the UK and Kuwait's Gulf allies. More recently, Kuwait was one of the first countries to join Operation Iraqi Freedom following the US-led war against Iraq, and provided aid and support during Iraq's (ongoing) process of reconstruction.