At the time of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, there was some speculation, in Western countries at least, as to why such an unprepossessing splinter of desert should be worth the trouble. Of course, anyone watching the retreating Iraqi army, under skies black from burning wells, could find an easy answer: oil. But oil was only half of the story. Kuwait is not, nor has it ever been, simply a piece of oil-rich desert. Rather, it represents a vital (in all senses of the word) piece of coast that for centuries has provided settlement, trade and a strategic staging post. The latter is a point not lost on US military forces, who until recently camped out on Failaka Island. A decade ago, the same island, at the mouth of Kuwait Bay, was occupied by the Iraqis. Roughly 2300 years before that, it was the turn of the ancient Greeks, attracted to one of only two natural harbours in the Gulf; and 2000 years earlier still, it belonged to the great Dilmun empire, based in Bahrain. The country has a curious way of cleaning up history once the protagonists have departed, and just as there’s very little evidence of recent events without some determined (and ill-advised) unearthing, the same could be said of the rest of Kuwait’s 10, 000 years of history.
Standing at the bottom of Mutla Ridge on the road to Bubiyan Island, and staring across the springtime grasslands at the estuary waters beyond, it’s easy enough to imagine why Stone Age man chose to inhabit the area around Ras Subiyah, on the northern shores of Kuwait Bay. Here the waters are rich in silt from the mighty river systems of southern Iraq, making for abundant marine life. Evidence of the first proper settlement in the region dates from 4500 BC, and shards of pottery, stone walls, tools, a small drilled pearl and remains of what is perhaps the world’s earliest seafaring boat indicate links with the Ubaid people who populated ancient Mesopotamia. The people of Dilmun also saw the potential of living in the mouth of two of the world’s great river systems and built a large town on Failaka Island, the remains of which form some of the best structural evidence of Bronze Age life in the world.
A historian called Arrian, in the time of Alexander the Great, first put the region on the map by referring to an island discovered by one of Alexander’s generals en route to India. Alexander himself is said to have called this, the modern-day island of Failaka, Ikaros, and it soon lived up to its Greek name as a Hellenistic settlement that thrived between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC. With temples dedicated to Artemis and Apollo, an inscribed stele with instructions to the inhabitants of this high-flying little colonial outpost, stashes of silver Greek coins, busts and decorative friezes, Ikaros became an important trading post on the route from Mesopotamia to India. While there is still a column or two standing proud among the weeds, and the odd returning Kuwaiti trying to resettle amid the barbed wire, there’s little left to commemorate the vigorous trading in pearls and incense by the Greeks. There’s even less to show for the Christian community that settled among the ruins thereafter.
Over time, Kuwait’s main settlements shifted from island to mainland. In AD 500 the area around Ras Khazimah, near Al-Jahra, was the main centre of population, and it took a further 1200 years for the centre of activity to nudge along the bay to Kuwait City. When looking at the view from the top of the Kuwait Towers, it’s hard to imagine that 350 years ago this enormous city was comprised of nothing more illustrious than a few Bedouin tents clustered around a storehouse-cum-fort. Like a tide, its population swelled in the intense summer heat as nomadic families drifted in from the bone-dry desert and then receded as the winter months stretched good grazing across the interior.
Permanent families living around the fort became able and prosperous traders. One such family, Al-Sabah, whose descendants now rule Kuwait, assumed responsibility for local law and order, and under their governance, the settlement grew quickly. By 1760, when the town’s first wall was built, the community had a distinctive character. It was comprised of merchant traders, centred around a dhow and ocean-going boon fleet of 800 vessels, and a craft-oriented internal trade, arising from the camel caravans plying the route from Baghdad and Damascus to the interior of the Arabian Peninsula.
By the early 19th century, as a thriving trading port, Kuwait City was well in the making. However, trouble was always quite literally just over the horizon. There were pirates marauding the waters of the Arabian coast; Persians snatched Basra in the north; various Arab tribes from the west and south had their own designs; and then, of course, there were the ubiquitous Ottomans. Though the Kuwaitis generally got on well with the Ottomans, official Kuwaiti history is adamant that the sheikhdom always remained independent of them, and it is true that as the Turks strengthened their control of eastern Arabia (then known as Al-Hasa), the Kuwaitis skilfully managed to avoid being absorbed by the empire. Nonetheless, Al-Sabah emirs accepted the nominal Ottoman title of ‘Provincial Governors of Al-Hasa’.
Enter the British. The Kuwaitis and the British were natural allies in many regards. From the 1770s the British had been contracted to deliver mail between the Gulf and Aleppo in Syria. Kuwait, meanwhile, handled all the trans-shipments of textiles, rice, coffee, sugar, tobacco, spices, teak and mangrove to and from India, and played a pivotal role in the overland trade to the Mediterranean. The British helped to stop the piracy that threatened the seafaring trade, but were not in a position to repel the Ottoman incursions – that is until the most important figure in Kuwait’s modern history stepped onto the stage. Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabah al-Sabah, commonly known as Mubarak the Great (r 1896–1915), was deeply suspicious that Constantinople planned to annex Kuwait. Concerned that the emir was sympathetic towards the Ottomans, he killed him, not minding he was committing fratricide as well as regicide, and installed himself as ruler. Crucially, in 1899, he signed an agreement with Britain: in exchange for the British navy’s protection, he promised not to give territory to, take support from or negotiate with any other foreign power without British consent. The Ottomans continued to claim sovereignty over Kuwait, but they were now in no position to enforce it. For Britain’s part, Prussia, the main ally and financial backer of Turkey, was kept out of the warm waters of the Gulf and trade continued as normal.
Mubarak the Great laid down the foundations of a modern state. Under his reign, government welfare programmes provided for public schools and medical services. In 1912, postal and telegraphic services were established, and water-purification equipment was imported for the American Mission Hospital. According to British surveys from this era, Kuwait City numbered 35, 000 people, with 3000 permanent residents, 500 shops and three schools, and nearly 700 pearling boats employing 10, 000 men.
In the 1920s a new threat in the guise of the terrifying ikhwan (brotherhood) came from the Najd, the interior of Arabia. This army of Bedouin warriors was commanded by Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman al-Saud (Ibn Saud), the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. Despite having received hospitality from the Kuwaitis during his own years in the wilderness, so to speak, he made no secret of his belief that Kuwait belonged to the new kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Red Fort, currently being restored at Al-Jahra, was the site of a famous battle in which the Kuwaitis put up a spirited defence. They also hurriedly constructed a new city wall, the gates of which can be seen today along Al-Soor St in Kuwait City. In 1923 the fighting ended with a British-brokered treaty under which Abdul Aziz recognised Kuwait’s independence, but at the price of two-thirds of the emirate’s territory.
The Great Depression that sunk the world into poverty coincided with the demise of Kuwait’s pearling industry as the market became flooded with Japanese cultured pearls. At the point when the future looked most dire for Kuwait, however, an oil concession was granted in 1934 to a US-British joint venture known as the Kuwait Oil Company (KOC). The first wells were sunk in 1936 and by 1938 it was obvious that Kuwait was virtually floating on oil. WWII forced KOC to suspend its operations, but when oil exports took off after the war, Kuwait’s economy was launched on an unimaginable trajectory of wealth.
In 1950, Sheikh Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah (r 1950–65) became the first ‘oil sheikh’. His reign was not, however, marked by the kind of profligacy with which that term later came to be associated. As the country became wealthy, health care, education and the general standard of living improved dramatically. In 1949 Kuwait had only four doctors; by 1967 it had 400.
On 19 June 1961, Kuwait became an independent state and the obsolete agreement with Britain was dissolved by mutual consent. In an act of foreboding, the President of Iraq, Abdulkarim Qasim, immediately claimed Kuwait as Iraqi territory. British forces, later replaced by those of the Arab League (which Kuwait joined in 1963), faced down the challenge, but the precedent was not so easily overcome.
Elections for Kuwait’s first National Assembly were held in 1962. Although representatives of the country’s leading merchant families won the bulk of the seats, radicals had a toehold in the parliament from its inception. Despite the democratic nature of the constitution and the broad guarantees of freedoms and rights – including freedom of conscience, religion and press, and equality before the law – the radicals immediately began pressing for faster social change, and the country changed cabinets three times between 1963 and 1965. In August 1976 the cabinet resigned, claiming that the assembly had made day-to-day governance impossible, and the emir suspended the constitution and dissolved the assembly. It wasn’t until 1981 that the next elections were held, but then parliament was dissolved again in 1986. In December 1989 and January 1990 an extraordinary series of demonstrations took place calling for the restoration of the 1962 constitution and the reconvening of parliament.
Despite these political and economic tensions, by early 1990 the country’s economic prospects looked bright, particularly with an end to the eight-year Iran–Iraq War, during which time Kuwait had extended considerable support to Iraq. In light of this, the events that followed were all the more shocking to most people in the region. On 16 July 1990, Iraq sent a letter to the Arab League accusing Kuwait of exceeding its Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) quota and of stealing oil from the Iraqi portion of an oilfield straddling the border. The following day Iraqi president Saddam Hussein hinted at military action. The tanks came crashing over the border at 2am on 2 August and the Iraqi military was in Kuwait City before dawn. By noon they had reached the Saudi frontier. The Kuwaiti emir and his cabinet fled to Saudi Arabia.
On 8 August, Iraq annexed the emirate. Western countries, led by the USA, began to enforce a UN embargo on trade with Iraq, and in the months that followed more than half a million foreign troops amassed in Saudi Arabia. On 15 January, after a deadline given to Iraq to leave Kuwait had lapsed, Allied aircraft began a five-week bombing campaign nicknamed ‘Desert Storm’. The Iraqi army quickly crumbled and on 26 February 1991, Allied forces arrived in Kuwait City to be greeted by jubilant crowds – and by clouds of acrid black smoke from oil wells torched by the retreating Iraqi army. Ignoring demands to retreat unarmed and on foot, a stalled convoy of Iraqi armoured tanks, cars and trucks trying to ascend Mutla Ridge became the target of a ferocious Allied attack, nicknamed ‘the turkey shoot’.
Physical signs of the Iraqi invasion are hard to find in today’s Kuwait. Gleaming shopping malls, new hotels and four-lane highways are all evidence of Kuwait’s efforts to put the destruction behind it. However, the emotional scars have yet to be healed, particularly as hundreds of missing prisoners of war are yet to be accounted for, despite the fall of Saddam Hussein.
In March 2003 the Allied invasion of Iraq threw the country into paralysing fear of a return to the bad old days of 1990, and it was only with the death of Saddam Hussein (he was hanged on 30 December 2006) that Kuwaitis have finally been able to sigh with relief. Without having to look over its shoulder constantly, Kuwait has lost no time in forging ahead with its ambitious plans, including that of attracting a greater number of regional tourists. The annual Hala Shopping Festival in February is proving a successful commercial venture, attracting visitors from across the region, and resorts offer R&R mostly to the international business community. More significantly, cross-border trade with Iraq (particularly of a military kind) has helped fuel the economic boom of the past five years.