From the 19th century onward the Sabah clan allied with the indigenous commercial elites, and Kuwait developed as a thriving mercantile community with an economy based on foreign trade. Although never directly under Ottoman rule, the Al-Sabahs paid financial tributes to the empire and recognized the sultan’s power, but Ottoman threats to annex Kuwait pushed the Sabahs to ally with Britain.
An 1899 treaty gave Britain control over Kuwait’s foreign affair, and Kuwait became a British protectorate. From that time forward, border issues continually plagued the country. The British relinquished control in 1961.
The judicial system was based on Islamic law, or sharia, particularly the Maliki school of jurisprudence, but many of the criminal and commercial laws were based on prior British laws. The legislative branch was composed of a National Assembly (Majlis al-Ummah), whose 50 members were elected to four-year terms.
Political parties are legally banned and instead, several organizations have representatives in parliament. Prior to 2005, voting was restricted to men who were able to prove that their ancestry in Kuwait dated prior to 1920 and who were not members of the armed forces. In 2005, women were granted the right to vote. After 2005 the government granted citizenship to 5,000 biduns, people without documents—originally from Syria, Iraq, and Jordan—per year.
Foreigners, called expatriate workers in Kuwait, are needed to fill positions in the workforce and especially in the oil, construction, and service sectors. Since these immigrant workers are not entitled to free government services and benefits and cannot become citizens, there is some hostility between the native Kuwaiti population and the majority immigrant population.
The economy is mostly based on oil and overseas investments. In the 1970s the oil industry increased its extraction and processing capabilities, and by the mid-1980s 80 percent of the oil extracted in Kuwait was also being refined there. Oil production led to a Kuwaiti economic boom, with both direct and indirect services and products. By 2006 Kuwait had one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.