What Should I Know About Kuwait?

Brendan McGuigan

Kuwait is a small Middle Eastern nation. It covers 6,880 square miles (17,800 sq. km), making it a bit smaller than the state of New Jersey. It borders both Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

A map of the Middle East, including Kuwait.
A map of the Middle East, including Kuwait.

In the late 1600s a number of small clans of the large ‘Anizzah clan began to migrate from Nejd, in central Saudi Arabia, to the shore of the Persian Gulf. While this region was already somewhat settled by the Bani Khalid who ruled eastern Saudi Arabia, there was plenty of room for the new clan. In the early 1700s these clans banded together, forming a tribe known as the Bani Utab. The Bani Khalid kept the peace in the region, and kept mostly to the deserts, allowing the Bani Utab to focus on the ports and on developing their maritime skills. The Bani Utab used their ideal location to grow a substantial trading culture, dealing in pearls, dates, wood, spices, and coffee.

A U.N. authorized military action, which was led by the United States, liberated Kuwait from Iraq in 1991.
A U.N. authorized military action, which was led by the United States, liberated Kuwait from Iraq in 1991.

This early colony was ruled by a member of the al-Sabah family, who was chosen by other important members in the community. Why the al-Sabah family gained so much prestige and power so early, and held it, is a matter of some debate, but it was likely a result of many factors, including their control of taxation over the desert, their famed diplomatic skills, and skill with administration.

Over the next two generations the Sabah family consolidated their power in Kuwait, shifting more from the sphere of a traditional desert Shaikh and more to that of a sedentary ruler. Although the merchants still held a great deal of power, the Sabah family was relatively secure in their dominance of the political sphere.

The Ottoman Empire eventually took control of the area, along with most of the Middle East. During the Ottoman era, the country was technically ruled from the seat of Basra in Iraq, but in practice remained fairly autonomous. This lasted until near the end of the 19th century, when the Ottomans began to pressure Kuwait to come more directly under their rule. In this midst of this, the ruling Sabah was assassinated by his half-brother, who took leadership of the area.

This leader, Mubarak, negotiated with the British to minimize Ottoman control over the country. Through a series of agreements he essentially turned Kuwait’s foreign policy over to Britain in exchange for British protection and personal payments to the Sabah family. During this time the country nonetheless remained an Ottoman territory, a condition that lasted until the end of World War I, when it became a British protectorate.

In the 1930s, following the invention of artificial pearls, Kuwait’s economy collapsed completely, and over the course a few short years it went from being a relatively wealthy merchant nation to being one of the poorest nations in the region. For the next two decades it struggled with poverty, before the discovery of oil made it one of the wealthiest nations in the entire Middle East.

In 1961 Kuwait was granted independence from Britain. At that time Iraq laid claim to the country, although it had earlier accepted the borders that had been drawn up in 1913, and again when it achieved its own independence in 1932. In the early 1980s Kuwait supported Iraq economically in its war with Iran, as it was worried about the new leadership in Iran. A few years later Iraq invaded Kuwait, once again reasserting its earlier claims of ownership. Iraq conquered the country, and held it for approximately six months before it was taken by US troops.

Kuwait is often seen as a good place for travelers to get their feet wet in the Middle East, so to speak. The security situation is quite stable, and its vast oil wealth, managed by the ruling Sabah family, makes for a good infrastructure and comfortable tourist accommodations. The nation enjoys a very friendly relationship with the United States and the West in general, and the famed Middle Eastern hospitality is very evident.

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