Kuwait emerged as a semi-autonomous political entity in the late eighteenth century when the leading families of the Bani Utab section of the Anazah tribe led by the Sabah family settled there. Its independence was secured from the Ottoman Empire when Sheikh Mubarak negotiated a treaty with the British in 1899, giving the British control over Kuwait's foreign policy. Complete independence from the British was secured in 1961.
Kuwait became a semiconstitutional monarchy ruled by the emir from the Sabah family. Its Constitution, promulgated on 11 November 1962, declared Kuwait to be an Arab state, with Islam as the state religion and shariah (Islamic jurisprudence or system of law) the source of legislation. The Constitution defines the political system as "democratic, under which sovereignty resides in the people, the source of all powers." The Constitution lays the basis of the extensive welfare system by obliging the state to care for the young, sick, old, and handicapped, and to promote education and provide for public health. Executive power resides in the emir, who exercises it through a Council of Ministers. The emir is always selected from the Mubarak line of the ruling Sabah family. The emir appoints the prime minister after traditional consultations and appoints and dismisses ministers on the recommendation of the prime minister.
The emir shares legislative powers with the Majlis al-Umma (National Assembly), a 50-member body serving four-year terms. Until 1996, suffrage was limited to males over 21 who were born in Kuwait, or who had lived in Kuwait since 1920, and their male descendants at age 21. Legislation enacted in 1994 provided voting rights for Kuwaiti-born literate males over the age of 21 who have been naturalized for more than 30 years; those who qualified voted for the first time in 1996. Expatriates, servicemen, police, and women are not permitted to vote. In the 1996 elections, only about 10% of all citizens were eligible to vote. Political parties are not permitted. However, there are loose political groupings based on political orientation, such as Arab nationalists, pro-Islamic activists, and Shias. While Kuwait is only one of two Arab Gulf petromonarchies to have an elected legislature (the other is Bahrain), the democratic experience has not been smooth. The first National Assembly was elected in 1963. Since then, the emir dissolved the Assembly three times: in 1976, in 1986 (after which it remained suspended until the elections of 1992), and in 1999. In elections that followed the 1999 suspension, progovernment politicians dropped from 30 seats to 14, while liberal candidates won 16 seats, and Islamists won 20. Turnout was high, with an estimated 80% of those eligible casting ballots. The next elections are scheduled for June 2003.