A Brief History of Kuwait
In the very best of times the interior of Arabia is a harsh environment. In a land devoid of trees (trees are so rare in the area that a bush causes great excitement and is generally called a tree) and with little water, the blazing sun quickly becomes man's worse adversary.
The camel made life possible in this barren land. The nomadic bedouin tribes that roamed Arabia in the eighteenth century depended solely upon the creature for their livelihood. Camels provided milk, food, clothing, and transport. The dung of the camel supplied fuel for their fires. The camel could survive on prickly bushes and meager amounts of water but some vegetation was necessary for life. When drought and famine visited the region in the early 1700s it became difficult for the camel to survive. Therefore, the bedouin tribes that roamed the area with their camels and goats scattered into various directions in search of water and foliage.
The Utab family, a division of the Anizah tribe of the Nejd (today's Saudi Arabia), migrated across the Arabian Peninsula and settled in what today is Kuwait City. It is not possible to fix an exact date for the establishment of Kuwait City but most researchers agree that the town facing the sea was built around 1716. No one knows just why the location was selected, for it was one of the most merciless bits of land on earth. Certainly, the soil was no better than the sand that the Utabs had left. There was little drinkable water. Perhaps the bedouins grew weary and simply gave up searching for green grass and cool springs. For whatever the reason, the people of the tribe looked upon the waters of the Persian Gulf, noted the natural harbor and gave up their wandering ways. Although they remained strongly attracted to the desert by virtue of their past (for they were descended from desert nomads), they saw the possibilities of wealth in the sea. Thus, the settlers, ancestors of modern-day Kuwaitis, abandoned nomadism and became sailors and traders.
The Persian Gulf (called the Arabian Gulf by present-day Gulf countries) was rich in fish and pearls. In addition, there were ports from which Kuwaitis could export goods. Their nomadic culture quiddy changed to one shaped by pearl-diving, seafaring international traders and travelers.
The settlers faced their new town toward the sea. They built their mud homes so close together that they looked like apartments. Their noisy bazaars were centers for community socialization.
In spite of the wealth of the sea, the Kuwaitis were depressingly poor. But the sting of poverty was removed by the fact they were more or less on the same level with other peoples of the area. Everyone lived in mud homes and ate the same bleak diet. Death came early and infant mortality was a serious problem. Travelers to the area wrote that the excessive poverty combined with the searing desert climate made life in Kuwait unbearable.
Like its neighbors, Kuwait was built upon a conservative, Islamic society. Smoking, drinking, and even singing were forbidden. However, the Kuwaitis' new residence by the sea influenced their behavior somewhat, and over the years the people became less stern and more spontaneous. As a result, Kuwaitis are known in the region for their tolerance of other religions, political movements, and practices different from their own.
Excluding a few events, daily life in Kuwait from 1716 until the discovery of oil in 1938 was monotonously predictable. The men put to sea in search of fish or pearls. Others traveled afar via desert camel caravans or ships to trade their wares. The women stayed in the homes and tended to the children and domestic duties, venturing out to the bazaars to purchase needed items of food or clothing and to socialize with other village women.
There are no surviving records of the first rulers of Kuwait. The earliest European travelers wrote that the town was ruled by a sheik but they made no mention of a family name. The first reference of the present day ruling family shows that a tribal council held in 1752 elected Sabah Bin Jaber of the Al-Sabah family to administer justice. Evidently, the Al-Sabah family was held in high esteem and thought to be fair-minded and impartial. Since the election of the first Al-Sabah, excluding one ugly incident in 1896, the family has more or less ruled peaceably.
In 1896, three brothers of the Al-Sabah family broke ranks over decision-making and power. Two full blood brothers, Mohammed and Jarrah, forced their half-brother, Mubarak, into the desert to manage the bedouins while they controlled the financial affairs of the city.
Already incensed over his limited influence, Mubarak learned of a plot by a rich Kuwaiti merchant, who was Iraqi by origin, to discharge the Al-Sabah family and become the ruler of Kuwait. This influential merchant, Yusuf Ibra him, was closely associated with the Ottoman Governor of Basra (the Ottoman Empire had been created in 1300 and over the years had advanced their rule in the Arab world) and Mubarak feared that the Al-Sabah family would lose their rightful place as rulers. Convinced that his brothers were too cowardly to stop the conspiracy, Mubarak decided to kill them and assume leadership of the country.
One night in June, 1896, Mubarak, along with his sons, raided the home of his brothers. Mohammed was sleeping on the roof of the palace when Mubarak shot him. Surviving, Mohammed cried out for his brother to have mercy. The second shot killed him. Mubarak's other brother, Jarrah, was stabbed to death by Mubarak's son.
However, before Mubarak could consolidate his rule, Yusuf Ibrahim contacted the Governor of Basra in order to gain control of the area. Mubarak hastened to the Ottornan Governor of Baghdad. In addition, both men sought the support of the British who were always interested in undermining Ottoman influence. In the end, Mubarak was more shrewd than Yusuf and he retained the power given his family in 1752. During Mubarak's rule (1896-1915), Kuwait grew more prosperous and as a result Mubarak became known as Mubarak the Great.
By the late 1800s, after six centuries of domination, the Ottoman Empire started to crumble. The empire, which at its height governed most of what we recognize today as Eastern Europe, along with vast holdings in Asia and the Middle East, was overextended and discontent was widespread with regard to over taxation and conscription. The Ottomans manned their huge armies by unpopular and particularly cruel methods. Ottoman soldiers would appear without warning in small villages across the empire, gather all able-bodied men, and take them off to wars. Families were left to starve. Naturally, the citizens grew bitter and hostile. In addition, the Ottomans were in constant conflict with European powers for control of their Empire. After decades of political maneuvering and war, along with the difficulty of governing disgruntled citizens, the Ottoman Empire weakened and became vulnerable to Western intervention.
The Imperial British Empire at its political peak with colonies spread across the globe and with a strong naval power, saw a long-awaited opportunity to gain a foothold in the Middle East. It was only natural that they sought out the rulers of the region in an attempt to exclude their bitter European rivals France, Germany, and Russia from advancing their cause in the area. When Germany attempted to extend the Berlin-Baghdad railway to the port of Kuwait, Great Britain intensified its efforts to influence Mubarak Al-Sabah. Mubarak's earlier, successful dealings with the British during his bid for power left him open to their seduction. As a result, Great Britain and Kuwait concluded an agreement in 1899 which gave the European country control of Kuwait's foreign affairs.
In 1914, when the First World War broke out, the Ottomans joined forces with Great Britain's enemy, Germany. In order to protect their Middle Eastern interests, Great Britain established a protectorate over the tiny state of Kuwait. World War I rang the death knell for the Ottoman Empire. The victorious European allies Great Britain, France, and Russia partitioned the Ottoman territories with a series of wartime agreements that paved the way for numerous border disputes in the twentieth century.
In 1922, after tiring of continuous bickering among the governments of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, Sir Percy Cox, the British High Commissioner in Iraq, simply took pen in hand and made a new map. He gave some of Kuwait's territory to Iraq and some to Saudi Arabia. He gave a bit of Saudi land to Iraq. Not surprisingly, no one was happy. When the Kuwaiti ruler, Ahmad Al-Sabah, questioned the fairness of the decision, Sir Percy informed him that due to Kuwait's small size and status, Kuwait would have to adhere to the wishes of its larger neighbors. Iraq, not satisfied with just a small amount of Kuwaiti and Saudi territory, insisted upon a larger bite. Saudi Arabia's ruler, Abul Aziz Al-Saud, was furious with the loss of any land at all. Yet, due to the might and influence of the British Empire, the borders remained fairly stable until the great wealth of oil generated rumblings of greed.
In 1938, oil was discovered in the Burgan oil field about 80 miles from the Saudi border. Even so, the effects were not immediately felt due to the outbreak of World War II, during which exploration and production were halted. On June 30, 1946, the oil tap was turned. Kuwait has never been the same since.
The economic boom arrived; oil money quickly transformed Kuwait into a sophisticated modern state. The Kuwaiti people embraced the deluge and developed an advanced economic and social welfare system.
On June 19, 1961, the British government announced that Kuwait was fully independent. On June 25, the Iraqi government claimed Kuwait as an inherent part of their country. The Iraqis argued that Kuwait had belonged to the Ottoman Empire along with Iraq and was governed under the same province; therefore, it belonged with Iraq. The Iraqi prime minister stated that ethnically and socially Iraq and Kuwait were as one. To further their claim, the Iraqis massed troops along the border. Abdul Allah Al-Sabah, the ruler of Kuwait, appealed to the British for help and in July, the British landed forces on Kuwait's beaches. On July 20, the Arab League, formed in 1945, embraced Kuwait as a member and refuted the Iraqi claim. The Iraqis withdrew their troops but did not drop their claim until October, 1963.
Although the threat of a takeover by Iraq continued to remain a factor in Iraqi-Kuwaiti relations, relative calm prevailed in Kuwait until the late 1970's. During this period, Kuwait became the most open society in the Gulf, with full education and work possibilities for women. Unlike most Arab countries, the Kuwaitis welcomed the homeless Palestinians. By 1990, over 450,000 Palestinians lived and worked in Kuwait. Favored by many Asians as a work haven, the country literally hummed with activity. Many third world workers said that Kuwait gave them hope for a prosperous future.
While their neighbors, Iran and Iraq, spent their newfound oil wealth on arms, the Kuwaiti government emphasized the needs of the people and provided education, jobs, homes, and health care. When the oil money overflowed, the Kuwaitis formed committees and channeled their extra funds into works of charity worldwide. Orphanages in Lebanon, dams in Africa, and schools in Palestine benefited from Kuwaiti generosity.
Kuwait's peaceful era ended with the downfall of the Shah of Iran on January 16, 1979. The new Islamic Republic of Iran was headed by Ruhollah Khomeini, who was awarded the title of Ayatollah (which means sign from God) by an Islamic jurist. Suddenly, an angry revolution led by a religious fundamentalist confronted Kuwait. Determined to overthrow the leaders of all Arab states and replace their governments with revolutionary Islamic republics, the Ayatollah began a concerted campaign against the Kuwaitis. With Islamic rhetoric, suicide bombings, and plane hijackings, the Ayatollah sought to dismantle the facade of the peaceable nation.
The hint of worse to come arrived when Iraq invaded Iran in September, 1980. Caught between two aggressive neighbors, the Kuwaitis backed what they considered the lesser evil, Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
The days turned into months and the months into years and still the determined Iranians and Iraqis fought on with apocalyptic fury. The Kuwaitis, terrified of an Iranian Islamic fundamentalist victory, poured billions of dollars into Saddam Hussein's war-drained coffers and pleaded his cause in the West. There is little doubt that without the help of Kuwait and other moderate Gulf states, Saddam Hussein would have been toppled by Ayatollah Khomeini.
The war finally ended in August, 1988, with scores of victims but no clear cut victor. The Kuwaitis assumed the danger had passed. Iran had been neutralized by eight years of bloodletting and Saddam Hussein was thought to be their grateful friend.
The Kuwaiti people started the year 1990 with optimism. The long war between Iran and Iraq was over and the Kuwaiti people were anxious to look ahead and forget the somber decade-long dread of regional tensions. In spite of the past huge economic outlay to Iraq's war efforts, the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development continued to maintain its lending programs. There was talk of concentrated attention on the deteriorating situation regarding the continuing call for a Palestinian homeland. Most importantly, there was a growing movement to reinstate the Parliament.
In July, 1990, just as people were happily anticipating their long-awaited summer holidays, Saddam Hussein made a call for Kuwait to lower their oil production. He charged that Kuwait was overproducing in order to ruin Iraq's economy. An accusation was made that Kuwait was slant drilling and stealing Iraqi oil from the Rumaila oilfields. Hussein brought up the old subject of ports. He demanded a favorable lease for the Warba and Bubiyan islands. Iraq's 26-mile shoreline had been ruined by the war with Iran (ships were sunk in the harbor, thereby making it virtually useless). Hussein reminded the Kuwaitis that scores of young Iraqi men had lost their lives in the war with Iran, the war that he claimed was fought to protect Kuwaitis from the Iranians. (Actually the war was fought over disputed territory between Iran and Iraq.) Hussein claimed that the Kuwaitis were ungrateful for the tremendous sacrifices made by Iraq, and, while he was on the subject, suggested that the twelve to fifteen billion dollar loan from Kuwait for war purposes should be forgiven.
Though shaken, the Kuwaitis could not believe Saddam Hussein was serious or would invade their country. They felt the bond of friendship and family with their neighbor country. Kuwaitis and Iraqis had intermarried, they helped each other in times of need, they were brothers.
The Kuwaitis watched in quiet dismay as Hussein moved 100,000 men from his 1,000,000 man army on their border. The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt grew nervous at the hawkish moves of the Iraqi leader. Presidents and kings flew to Baghdad and conferred with Hussein. Hope for a diplomatic settlement was kept alive by assurances from the Iraqi leader that he would not resort to military action.
Saudi Arabia's King Fahd arranged a special meeting in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, to resolve the difficulties once and for all. The meeting was not successful. The Iraqis made unreasonable demands and then marched out of the meeting in protest when their demands were not met. The Kuwaitis were concerned but still confident that a peaceful solution would be found.
Following developments closely, the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington cancelled his planned trip home but felt no apprehension as he watched his wife and 16-year-old daughter board a flight to Kuwait.
At dawn, August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein commanded his army to invade Kuwait. In 1773, a plague arrived from Baghdad and almost wiped out the entire population of Kuwait. Two hundred and seventeen years later, another plague arrived from Baghdad. Somehow, this latest plague seems worse.