History of Kuwait

16 October 2012

The origins of Kuwait lie in the early 18th century, when clans of the Anaiza tribe migrated north from Qatar and the centre of the Arabian peninsula and came to populate the region

Archaeological discoveries on Kuwait’s Failaka Island have suggested an ancient civilisation inhabited the region prior to this, from around 2800BC, which had trade links with the Sumerians. The island was known to the ancient Greeks and exploited as a supply route for trade, yet appears to have been abandoned as a permanent settlement in the 1st century.

In 1938, oil was discovered in the Burgan field in commercial quantities

In 1718, the settled tribesmen selected their ruler from the Al-Sabah family, Sheikh Sabah al-Awal. He became the Gulf state’s first emir and his successors remain in power today.  The country suffered during the latter part of the 18th century, with raids by land and sea that damaged its trade links. But with British assistance in suppressing marine piracy, the emirate became a vital stopover point on international trading routes.

The 19th century saw Kuwait seek closer ties with the British government, to ward off threats from the Ottoman Turks and other powerful forces in the Arabian Peninsula seeking to annex the country into their boundaries. In January 1899, Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabah signed a treaty with Britain pledging that he and his successors would not cede any territory or receive agents or representatives of any foreign power without the consent of the British government.

In exchange, he received naval protection and an annual subsidy. Bahrain and the Trucial States (later to become the UAE) already had a similar agreement in place with Britain.

During Mubarak’s rule, Kuwait’s pearl industry flourished, becoming the primary source of income for the country’s 35,000 inhabitants. Small scale fishing and ship building provided additional sources of revenue. Arabian pearls were traded worldwide during this time, but their value began to decline in the 1920s when Japanese cultured pearls entered the market. The industry was further hit by a fall in demand as a result of the Great Depression, which began in 1929, and the Second World War. Fortunately for Kuwait, this period also marked the establishment of the emirate’s oil industry.

Sheikh Mubarak was succeeded by his two sons, Jaber and Salim, who ruled from 1915-17 and 1917-21 respectively. But it was under the subsequent reign of Jaber’s son, Sheikh Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, who held power from 1921 until his death in 1950, that oil was first discovered in Kuwait.

The find was preceded by the formation of Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) in 1934, a partnership between the then Anglo-Persian Oil Company, now known as BP, and Gulf Oil Corporation, now known as Chevron. In 1938, oil was discovered in the Burgan field in commercial quantities, laying the path for Kuwait to become a leading oil exporter.

Sheikh Ahmed’s rule also saw the establishment of Kuwait’s first internationally recognised boundaries. In 1922, the Treaty of Uqair fixed Kuwait’s border with Saudi Arabia and determined a Kuwaiti-Saudi Arabia Divided Zone, which comprised a 5,180 square kilometre area adjoining Kuwait’s southern border.

Sheikh Ahmed was succeeded by his cousin and son of former ruler Sheikh Salem, Sheikh Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah. During his tenure, on 19 June 1961, Kuwait and Great Britain terminated their protective treaty relations and Kuwait declared itself a sovereign and independent nation. Iraq refused to recognise its independence and claimed it had inherited the Ottoman claim to the territory. Later conflicts between the two countries had their roots in this territorial dispute.

The Gulf War was a turning point in Kuwaiti-US relations

Sheikh Abdullah’s death in 1965 ushered in the rule of his half-brother, Sheikh Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah. Kuwait witnessed unprecedented prosperity during his reign, driven by its burgeoning oil trade. The state took full control of KOC in 1975 under efforts to nationalise Kuwait’s oil resources, a pivotal point in the country’s history.

Sheikh Sabah’s government also signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia that split the Divided Zone and demarcated new international boundaries. The nations share the onshore and offshore petroleum of the Divided Zone equally. Kuwait was transformed during this period into a highly developed welfare state with a free market economy.

The death of Sheikh Sabah in 1977 saw him succeeded by Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, son of former ruler Sheikh Ahmed. During his rule, tensions between Kuwait and Iraq over the oil-rich border regions reached new heights, culminating in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990. Taken by surprise, the country fell in one day and Sheikh Jaber and his cabinet fled to Saudi Arabia. 

Within days, the UN Security Council had issued resolutions condemning the Iraq attack, demanding its withdrawal and enforcing sanctions. After Iraq’s failure to comply, coalition forces led by the US began bombing targets in Iraq on 17 January 1991. Following several weeks of aerial bombardment, an overwhelming ground assault was launched on 24 February and a ceasefire was called four days later. Iraqi forces torched more than 600 oil wells during their withdrawal.

On 3 April 1991, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 687 demarcating the boundary between Iraq and Kuwait. This was formally accepted by Iraq in November 1994. However, Kuwaiti-Iraqi relations remained troubled by unresolved issues regarding border delineation and Iraq’s debt of $13bn to Kuwait accumulated during the Iran-Iraq War.

The conflict that became known as the Gulf War was a turning point in Kuwaiti-US relations, as the Arab nation subsequently became a key military base for Western powers. In the months leading up to the second US invasion of Iraq in 2003, tens of thousands of coalition troops were first deployed to Kuwait before crossing the border. The removal of Saddam Hussein from power was fully supported by Kuwait, which remains the only Arab nation to have wholly supported the Iraq War.

On 15 January 2006, Sheikh Jaber died. He was briefly succeeded by Sheikh Saad, son of former ruler Sheikh Abdullah, who abdicated after nine days due to poor health. He was succeeded by the current ruler, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, the fourth son of former ruler Sheikh Ahmed. Under Sheikh Sabah, Kuwait’s vast oil wealth has continued to serve the country well. Strong economic growth in recent years saw Kuwait post its 13th consecutive annual budget surplus in fiscal year 2011/12.

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