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Kuwait: Market Profile

Picture: Kuwait factsheet
Picture: Kuwait factsheet

1. Overview

Plans to invest USD115 billion in Kuwait’s oil sector over the next five years should boost oil production. Additional support coming from public investment spending will support growth over the medium term. Current account and budgetary pressures are expected to continue easing on the back of a partial recovery in oil revenues, and as government spending is gradually trimmed. The baseline assumes gradual implementation of spending and revenue reforms including the introduction of a Value-added tax (VAT) in the second half of 2018 as part of efforts to diversify revenues. Inflation is expected to rise moderately during the implementation of the VAT, before easing in the medium term. Absolute poverty and involuntary unemployment are virtually non-existent. 80% of employed Kuwaiti nationals work in the public sector. In contrast, expatriates, who make up two-thirds of the population, constitute the bulk of lower-income residents. Additional concerns for expatriate workers include unpaid or delayed wages and difficult working conditions.

Sources: World Bank, Fitch Solutions

2. Major Economic/Political Events and Upcoming Elections

June 2013
Constitutional court ordered dissolution of parliament, effectively dismissed results of parliamentary polls.

November 2015
Opposition groups and their allies in Kuwait won nearly half the fifty seats in parliament.

October 2018
The Public Authority for Roads and Transportation in Kuwait was set to award up to 13 deals pertaining to road projects across the country. The schemes to be contracted include an extension of the Seventh Ring Road Project, which involved building 93km of highways; an extension of the Salmi highway; and the construction of a northern regional road from Al Mutla'a. It will also cover works for phases two and three of the South Surra Road modernisation package, which included the construction of roads, bridges and sewerage systems.

Sources: BBC country profile – Timeline, Fitch Solutions

3. Major Economic Indicators

Graph: Kuwait real GDP and inflation
Graph: Kuwait real GDP and inflation
Graph: Kuwait GDP by sector (2016)
Graph: Kuwait GDP by sector (2016)
Graph: Kuwait unemployment rate
Graph: Kuwait unemployment rate
Graph: Kuwait current account balance
Graph: Kuwait current account balance

e = estimate, f = forecast
Sources: International Monetary Fund, World Bank
Date last reviewed: October 20, 2018

4. External Trade

4.1 Merchandise Trade

Graph: Kuwait merchandise trade
Graph: Kuwait merchandise trade

e = estimate
Sources: WTO, Fitch Solutions
Date last reviewed: October 20, 2018

Graph: Kuwait major export commodities (2017)
Graph: Kuwait major export commodities (2017)
Graph: Kuwait major export markets (2017)
Graph: Kuwait major export markets (2017)
Graph: Kuwait major import commodities (2017)
Graph: Kuwait major import commodities (2017)
Graph: Kuwait major import markets (2017)
Graph: Kuwait major import markets (2017)

Sources: Trade Map, Fitch Solutions
Date last reviewed: October 17, 2018

4.2 Trade in Services

Graph: Kuwait trade in services
Graph: Kuwait trade in services

e = estimate
Sources: WTO, Fitch Solutions
Date last reviewed: October 5, 2018

5. Trade Policies

  • The country's Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) membership means that it is part of a single market and customs union with a common external tariff. A tariff of only 5% is imposed on the majority of items imported from non-GCC countries, and there is a single point of entry where tariffs are collected once imports enter the GCC. Only imports on certain sensitive goods from GCC countries will face tariffs, and there is freedom of movement between GCC countries without customs or non-customs restrictions.

  • The average applied import tariff for goods entering Kuwait is 3.9%. This is the fifth highest out of six GCC states. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain are just lower, with average applied import tariff rates of 3.6% and 3.7% respectively. Bahrain does not levy customs duties on any exports. Some further import trade barriers do exist for sensitive goods and prominent domestic industries, although the overall impact on these is fairly minimal.

  • The most extensive non-tariff barrier for trade which mostly applies for non-GCC states is the extensive trade bureaucracy and associated costs that come with exporting and importing from and to Kuwait. On average, the times and associated costs for border and documentary procedures (both for exports and imports) are some of the longest and highest in the GCC, which reduces country's competitiveness as a trading destination when compared to its regional peers.

  • For cultural and religious regions an import ban is applicable for alcoholic drinks imports.

  • Kuwait's main exporting partners are largely reflective of the economic bloc and free trade agreements (FTAs) which the country is party to.

Sources: WTO - Trade Policy Review, Fitch Solutions

6. Trade Agreement

6.1 Trade Updates

Gradual implementation of spending and revenue reforms including the introduction of a VAT in the second half of 2018 form part of efforts to diversify revenues, among GCC members.

6.2 Multinational Trade Agreements


  1. Greater Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA): GAFTA was declared within the Social and Economic Council of the Arab League as an executive programme to activate the Trade Facilitation and Development Agreement and the elimination of most tariffs among the GAFTA members. The GAFTA saw tariffs between 17 Arab states rapidly decline from an average 15% in 2002 to 6% in 2009.

  2. Member of GCC: Kuwait's trade with GCC countries is tariff free. The geographic proximity of these countries and their general adoption of free trade economic policies are factors that foster a competitive business environment. Trade between Kuwait and the GCC amounted to more than USD7.4 billion in 2014, with the bulk consisting of imports.

  3. GCC (member state) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland: EFTA, taken as a single entity, is one of Kuwait's largest import partners. The agreement covers the progressive elimination of tariffs in trade in services and manufactured goods as well as investment, and other trade-related issues such as protection of intellectual property, and is fully consistent with provisions of the WTO. In addition, bilateral arrangements on agricultural products between three individual EFTA states and the GCC form part of the instruments establishing the free-trade area between both sides.

  4. Singapore (via GCC) FTA: This is a comprehensive agreement on trade in goods, rules of origin, customs procedures, trade in services and government procurement, among others. With tariff eliminations on 99% of Singaporean domestic exports to the GCC, importing companies will benefit from a more competitive position and manufacturing input costs are kept low. Key sectors that benefit include telecommunications, electrical and electronic equipment, petrochemicals, jewellery, machinery and iron and steel-related industry. The recognition of the Halal certification of Singapore's Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) will also pave the way for trade in Halal-certified products to gain faster access to GCC countries.

Under Negotiation

  1. The United States-Middle East Free Trade Area Initiative (MEFTA): In 2004, the United States and Kuwait signed into force the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), with the aim of regulating all commercial matters between Kuwait and the United States. The countries targeted to join MEFTA are Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Israel (and through Israel, the Palestinian Authority), Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. This includes a wide range of trade and investment issues such as market access, intellectual property rights, and labour and environmental issues. MEFTA will help in growing commercial and investment opportunities by identifying and working to remove impediments to trade and investment flows between member states. This expands the scope of markets for businesses in Kuwait to export products to, and will significantly reduce trade costs.

  2. Australia (via GCC) FTA: Australia and the GCC share a significant economic relationship, encompassing trade and investment across a broad range of goods and services. The GCC is a key market for agricultural exports such a livestock, meat, dairy products, vegetables, sugar, wheat and other grains. The agreement provides an opportunity to address a range of tariff and non-tariff barriers related to food exports that will benefit the food and drink sector in Kuwait. With a large proportion of the world's petroleum resources and a rapidly growing population, the GCC's prospects for continued economic growth are strong. The agreement will also help maintain a level playing field for automotive imports to the GCC market. These factors, along with a plurilateral FTA, will help sustain growth in Kuwait's trade and investment relations with the country.

  3. China (via GCC) FTA: Kuwait is a net importer of Chinese goods, and trade liberalisation will help develop the industrial and service sectors. The value of imports from China stood at over USD4 billion in 2014 with emphasis on electrical goods and machinery. Kuwait mainly exports commodities such as oil to China; hence trade liberalisation with the GCC will help the group integrate and grow with mutual cooperation and comprehensive tariff reduction.

  4. The Pan-Arab Free Trade Area (PAFTA): The agreement came into force in January 1998 and today Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the UAE, Yemen and the Palestinian Authority of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are party to the agreement.

Sources: WTO Regional Trade Agreements database, Fitch Solutions

7. Investment Policy

7.1 Foreign Direct Investment

Graph: Kuwait FDI stock
Graph: Kuwait FDI stock
Graph: Kuwait FDI flow
Graph: Kuwait FDI flow

Sources: UNCTAD, Fitch Solutions
Date last reviewed: October 5, 2018

7.2 Foreign Direct Investment Policy

  1. Kuwait continued to encourage foreign direct investment (FDI) with the implementation of Law No.116 of 2013 Regarding the Promotion of Direct Investment in the State of Kuwait (hereafter referred to as the FDI Law). With the decline in oil revenue and the need to diversify its economy, the government seeks increased foreign investments. The FDI Law established the Kuwait Direct Investment Promotion Authority (KDIPA) to solicit investment proposals, evaluate their potential, and assist in the licensing processes. In reviewing licensing requests, KDIPA places emphasis on creating jobs and training/education opportunities for Kuwaitis, technology transfer, diversification of national income sources, increasing exports, support for local SMEs, and utilization of Kuwaiti products and services.

  2. KDIPA is a specialised public authority that is responsible for promoting direct investment in Kuwait through developing, promoting, advocating, and regulating the environment. The Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA) is the oldest sovereign wealth fund in the world. KIA traces its roots to the Kuwait Investment Board, which was established in 1953, eight years before Kuwait's independence in 1961. In 1982, KIA was created by Law No. 47 as an autonomous governmental body responsible for the management of the assets of the country.

  3. While the FDI Law allows 100% foreign ownership in several industries, KDIPA excludes foreign firms from investment in national security and state-owned sectors. Opportunities may increase as KDIPA takes over the existing free-trade zone at Shuwaikh and creates two new zones at Al-Abdali and Al-Nuwaiseeb.

  4. Moves towards privatisation have continued in the stock exchange, as well as in the aviation, telecommunications and postal services sectors, potentially bringing increased opportunities for more competition in the coming years. In 2014, the Central Bank of Kuwait (CBK) announced that foreign banks could open multiple branches in Kuwait - before then, they could open only one branch - and this presents opportunities in the financial sector. Furthermore, the National Assembly established the cornerstones of the current Kuwaiti Direct Investment Promotion Authority (KDP), with the intent to create a 'one-stop shop' designed to streamline and simplify investment procedures and thus attracting greater levels of FDI. Since 2015 the KDP has issued foreign ownership business licenses to the likes of IBM, Huawei, General Electric, and the Berkeley Research Group.

  5. In 2014 the country also passed new public private partnership (PPP) legislation, which is leading the way for significantly increased private participation in Kuwait's construction sector. Kuwait's Law No. 116 streamlines existing laws and introduces new regulations which improve transparency and investor safeguards. This has been the catalyst for the rapid development of the country's PPP market, with it going from a single PPP project in 2013 to 17 in 2016 (the second most in the MENA region). Therefore, Kuwait's economy is slowly emerging as being more open to foreign and private investment. Meanwhile, Kuwait has limited free trade areas or special economic and industrial zones.

  6. Non-GCC nationals are not allowed to own land in Kuwait. Foreign investment in the extractive and real estate sectors is not permitted. Prior to the coming into force of the FDI law, foreign businesses were highly restricted in how they conducted business in Kuwait. Foreign businesses were not allowed to open independently or even establish a branch office, without the appointment of a Kuwaiti partner or agent. This Kuwait partner or agent had to own at least 51% of the business. Now under the new FDI law, 100% business ownership is permitted in a variety of sectors. However, businesses must apply through the KDP for a foreign ownership license in order for this 100% ownership rule to apply.

  7. Given growing unemployment levels in the public and extractive sectors, the Kuwaiti government has started to impose stricter rules for the hiring of foreign workers since 2014.

Sources: WTO - Trade Policy Review, ITA, US Department of Commerce

7.3 Free Trade Zones and Investment Incentives

Free Trade Zone/Incentive ProgrammeMain Incentives Available
Kuwait Free Trade Zone (KFTZ) at Shuwaikh port- 100% foreign ownership is permitted
- Improved access to work permits for expatriate staff
- Moderate utilities rates
- Low land rental and utilities rates
- Exemption from taxation on all imports and exports from the zone
- Modern infrastructure including IT and multimedia facilities
- Capital and profits are freely transferable outside the KFTZ and are not subject to any foreign exchange controls

Source: Fitch Solutions

8. Taxation – 2018


9. Foreign Worker Requirements

9.1 Localisation Requirements

The Kuwaiti government is attempting to increase the employment of its citizens in the private sector. The government has applied more stringent requirements for the employment of foreign workers in light of this since around 2014, as part as this ‘Kuwaitisation’ policy. Kuwait made significant efforts to reduce the number of foreign workers in the domestic labour force over the course of 2016. In January 2017, it was reported that Kuwaiti authorities deported over 29,000 foreign workers throughout 2016 (an average of 80 per day) for reasons such as work permit violations, criminal activity and labour law violations. Kuwaiti MPs are continuing their clampdown of foreign workers in Kuwait by advocating for further restrictions on their employment and making Kuwait a more expensive relocation destination. The latest measure is an announcement that all non-Kuwaitis working for the government will be replaced by locals over the course of the next five years. This follows a range of proposals since a November 2016 election that led to a large increase in the number of seats held by the opposition in parliament. The majority of these opposition MPs are anti-austerity populists who have made a range of proposals targeting foreigners in the country, including the imposition of a 5% tax on all remittances being sent home by foreign workers and the removal of subsidised healthcare for non-Kuwaitis. Other proposals have included the introduction of nationality quotas and increasing charges for residency permits and visas for visiting family members.

9.2 Obtaining Foreign Worker Permits

To live and work in Kuwait, expatriates from outside the GCC must have iqama (a residence permit) which requires a Kuwaiti sponsor to obtain. The sponsoring employer must apply for a work permit from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour and acquire a no-objection certificate from the General Administration of Criminal Investigation at the Ministry of Interior.

9.3 Visa/Travel Restrictions

Business visitors from non-GCC states require a visa in order to obtain a one month visa for business or tourism purposes. British citizens can obtain a visa upon arrival. It is noted that Israeli passport holders or those with an Israeli stamp in their passport may be denied entry to Kuwait on arrival.

9.4 The 'Kafala' Sponsorship System

While the 'Kafala' system has provided ease of access to inexpensive foreign labour imports for many businesses in Kuwait for years, this has also limited Kuwaiti employers from employing foreign labourers who are already in country. This is because foreign workers currently employed under the 'Kafala system' in Kuwait require the permission of their current employer (the 'sponsor' of their work permit) if they want to change employers. After receiving significant criticism from international human rights groups over the fact that the country has not made significant reforms to its 'Kafala system' as many other GCC states have done, the Kuwaiti government announced in February 2017 that it was considering the cancellation of this system. The government is currently considering a system where it would effectively be the sponsor of all foreign private sector employees and where foreign workers (especially in low-skilled positions) would be accorded more rights.

Sources: Government websites, Fitch Solutions

10. Risks

10.1 Sovereign Credit Ratings

Rating (Outlook)Rating Date
Aa2 (Stable)26/05/2017
Standard & Poor'sAA (Stable)20/07/2011
Fitch RatingsAA (Stable)02/05/2018

Sources: Moody's, Standard & Poor's, Fitch Ratings

10.2 Competitiveness and Efficiency Indicators

World Ranking
Ease of Doing Business Index
Ease of Paying Taxes Index
Logistics Performance Index
Corruption Perception Index
IMD World CompetitivenessN/AN/AN/A

Sources: World Bank, IMD, Transparency International

10.3 Fitch Solutions Risk Indices

World Ranking
Economic Risk Index Rank52/202
Short-Term Economic Risk Score60.859.2
Long-Term Economic Risk Score6059.462.8
Political Risk Index Rank83/202
Short-Term Political Risk Score8073.873.8
Long-Term Political Risk Score68.466.466.4
Operational Risk Index Rank70/201
Operational Risk Score56.555.455.1

Source: Fitch Solutions
Date last reviewed: October 20, 2018

10.4 Fitch Solutions Risk Summary

Kuwait has made substantial fiscal and structural progress, however with oil revenues accounting for around 65% of GDP and 80% of the government's revenues, the economy remains vulnerable to fluctuations in global energy markets. The process of diversifying the economy away from oil has been pedantic. That said, growth should accelerate in 2018-2020 due to higher oil prices and output, combined with the country's large infrastructure investment push and business-friendly reforms to attract FDI inflows.

Kuwait is attractive for commercial businesses as it offers one of the more secure operating environments in the region, along with its excellent availability of low-cost fuel and basic utilities. However, stringent foreign investment policies, limited economic diversity and an over-reliance on the hydrocarbon sector inhibit opportunities for investors, while extensive and time-consuming bureaucracy hinders many business operations.

Source: Fitch Solutions
Date last reviewed: October 21, 2018

10.5 Fitch Solutions Political and Economic Risk Indices

Graph: Kuwait short term political risk index
Graph: Kuwait short term political risk index
Graph: Kuwait long term political risk index
Graph: Kuwait long term political risk index
Graph: Kuwait short term economic risk index
Graph: Kuwait short term economic risk index
Graph: Kuwait long term economic risk index
Graph: Kuwait long term economic risk index

100 = Lowest risk; 0 = Highest risk
Source: Fitch Solutions Economic and Political Risk Indices
Date last reviewed: October 20, 2018

10.6 Fitch Solutions Operational Risk Index

Operational RiskLabour Market RiskTrade and Investment RiskLogistics RiskCrime and Security Risk
Kuwait Score55.1
MENA Average47.649.348.148.844.1
MENA Position (out of 18)7699
Global Average49.649.749.949.149.8
Global Position (out of 201)7084917750

100 = Lowest risk; 0 = Highest risk
Source: Fitch Solutions Operational Risk Index

Graph: Kuwait vs global and regional averages
Graph: Kuwait vs global and regional averages
Operational Risk Index
Labour Market Risk Index
Trade and Investment Risk IndexLogistics Risk IndexCrime and Security Risk Index
Saudi Arabia
West Bank And Gaza
Regional Averages47.549.348.148.444.1
Emerging Markets Averages46.848.047.545.746.0
Global Markets Averages49.649.7

100 = Lowest risk; 0 = Highest risk
Source: Fitch Solutions Operational Risk Index
Date last reviewed: October 21, 2018

11. Hong Kong Connection

11.1 Hong Kong’s Trade with Kuwait

Graph: Major export commodities to Kuwait (2017)
Graph: Major export commodities to Kuwait (2017)
Graph: Major import commodities from Kuwait (2017)
Graph: Major import commodities from Kuwait (2017)

Note: Graph shows the main Hong Kong exports to/import from Kuwait (by consignment)

Graph: Merchandise exports to Kuwait
Graph: Merchandise exports to Kuwait
Graph: Merchandise imports from Kuwait
Graph: Merchandise imports from Kuwait

Note: Graph shows Hong Kong exports to/import from Kuwait (by consignment)
Exchange Rate HK$/US$, average
7.76 (2013)
7.75 (2014)
7.75 (2015)
7.76 (2016)
7.79 (2017)
Sources: Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department, Fitch Solutions
Date last reviewed: October 21, 2018

Growth rate (%)
Number of Kuwaiti residents visiting Hong Kong3,441

Sources: Hong Kong Tourism Board, Fitch Solutions

Growth rate (%)
Number of GCC residents visiting Hong Kong38,629-22.7%

Sources: Hong Kong Tourism Board, Fitch Solutions
Date last reviewed: October 21, 2018

11.2 Commercial Presence in Hong Kong

Growth rate (%)
Number of Kuwait companies in Hong KongN/AN/A
- Regional headquarters
- Regional offices
- Local offices

Sources: Hong Kong Census And Statistics Department, Fitch Solutions

11.3 Treaties and agreements between Hong Kong and Kuwait

The Double Taxation Agreement (DTA) between Hong Kong and Kuwait was signed by the two nations on May 13, 2010 and entered into force on July 24, 2013.

Source: Fitch Solutions

11.4 Chamber of Commerce (or Related Organisations) in Hong Kong

The Arab Chamber of Commerce & Industry (ARABCCI)

ARABCCI was established in Hong Kong 2006 as a leading organisation at promoting commercial ties between Hong Kong, Greater China and the Arab World.

Address: 20/F, Central Tower, 28 Queens Road, Central, Hong Kong
Email: info@arabcci.org, secretariat@arabcci.org
Tel: (852) 2159 9170

Source: The Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry

Consulate General of the State of Kuwait

Address: Unit 4502, Office Tower, Convention Plaza, 1 Harbour Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong
Email: kuconshk@netvigator.com
Tel: (852) 2832 7866

Source: Consulate General of the State of Kuwait

11.5 Visa Requirements for Hong Kong Residents

People travelling to Kuwait on a Hong Kong SAR passport have visa-free access or visa-on-arrival for a duration of stay of up to three months.

Source: Consulate General of the State of Kuwait

Content provided by Picture: Fitch Solutions – BMI Research