In Kuwait you'll find an intriguing mix of Western liberalism and traditional Islamic culture. The capital, Kuwait City, is a bustling metropolis of high-rise buildings and luxury hotels, while the Gulf country is also home to spectacular mosques and palaces. Religion is an integral part of daily life here.
This juxtaposition perhaps stems from Kuwait's marrying of Islamism with oil wealth, which for decades has earned it the attention of Western powers. 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 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, Kuwait became the target of Iraqi territorial claims, leading to Saddam Hussein's invasion of the country 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.
Beyond the geopolitical dimension, Kuwait is a fascinating country with much elaborate architecture and a superb culinary tradition. Its inhabitants are a warm, welcoming bunch, while the fact that Kuwait is a bit less glitzy than other oil-rich Gulf countries means that it can feel like a haven of tradition Arab culture.