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Map of Kuwait.
Since they established diplomatic relations upon Kuwait’s independence in 1961, the United States and Kuwait have enjoyed a long history of friendship and cooperation, rooted in shared values, democratic traditions, and institutional relationships.
US State Department.[1]
Kuwaiti authorities continue to use provisions in the constitution, the national security law, and other legislation to restrict free speech, stifle political dissent, and prosecute dissidents. Moreover, journalists, politicians, and activists have been punished for criticizing the emir, the government, religion, and rulers of neighboring countries in blogs or on social media platforms.
Human Rights Watch.[2]

The State of Kuwait is an Arab state at the very tip of the Persian Gulf and wedged into Iraq. It's not too big, and its land is primarily harsh desert sand. The important part is what's underneath that sand: shitloads of oil. Its capital is Kuwait City.

Kuwait historically was also an important commercial and trade center due to its strategic location in the Persian Gulf. To avoid being swallowed up by the Ottoman Empire, though, the Kuwaitis struck a deal with the devil in 1899 and agreed to become a protectorate of the British Empire. Unfortunately, that protectorate didn't do much to protect Kuwait from other ravenous neighbors like Saudi Arabia, as the British were invested elsewhere and preferred to diplomatically pawn off Kuwaiti land.

After World War II, though, Kuwait's fortunes turned around thanks to the rapidly growing global demand for that sweet, sweet oil. Even better, the Suez Crisis in Egypt convinced the British to rapidly withdraw from Kuwait, meaning that they could keep the cash for themselves. Kuwait used oil revenues to build itself a greatly developed civilization in the desert. They also used a lot of that money to advance its geopolitical agenda, most notably supporting Saddam Hussein with financial aid during the Iran-Iraq War. At the war's end in 1988, Hussein ended up critically in debt to Kuwait, and the Kuwaitis refused to forgive any of it. Pissed off and desperate, Hussein ordered a rapid invasion and annexation of Kuwait in 1990. Of course, you can't fuck around with an oil-rich country with impunity. The United States and the United Nations assembled a coalition of oil-interested countries to attack Hussein's forces and drive them out of Kuwait. This was the Gulf War, also known as the First Iraq War.

Since then, Kuwait has been a staunch US ally in the region, even allowing itself to be used as the US' springboard for its 2003 invasion of Iraq. Kuwait has also slowly begun to liberalize itself, but it remains effectively an absolute monarchy led by the House of Al Sabah. Kuwait is also a close friend of Saudi Arabia, and strict fundamentalist interpretations of Sunni Islam shape its legal system. Perhaps worst off are the many foreign workers in Kuwait, who are held under the kafala system that enables their severe exploitation and mistreatment.


Ancient coins from Failaka island.

Early history[edit]

Kuwait, as stated above, is a barely-hospitable desert hellhole, so it's not terribly surprising that there wasn't a lot of action here in ancient times. Around 1800 BCE, though, the Mesopotamian Dilmun people from nearby Bahrain settled on the Kuwaiti island of Failaka.[3] They did this to build a trading post, aiming to cash in on the Persian Gulf trade routes. Money talks and money walks.

Over time, conquerors like Alexander the Great blew through, eventually followed by the Sasanian Persian Empire. During the period of Persian rule, the mostly pagan Kuwait came under attack by the followers of Muhammad. In 636 CE, the Rashidun Caliphate smashed the Persians in the so-called Battle of Chains, ensuring Arab domination here going forward.[4] The Arab occupiers did some remodeling, building themselves a city called Kāzimah.[5] The city functioned as an important center of trade in the region, bringing merchants from all over the Muslim world. Constant exposure to the Muslim religion through both rule and trade brought about the rapid conversion of the population.

Forming a nation[edit]

Bedouin tribesmen in Kuwait.

After a brief stint of Portuguese rule in the early 1500s, Kuwait was well and truly settled for the first time by the Bani Utub tribe. Through a series of internal conflicts, the House of Al Sabah came out on top, becoming the monarchs of the Kuwaiti nation.[6] As the primary port between Baghdad, western India, and Arabia, Kuwait became rich and independent enough to start developing its own cultural sense of self.[7]

Kuwait evolved into a merchant oligarchy as trader families struck political marriage alliances and competed against each other to control Kuwait's politics and economy.[8] These elite families sent their children abroad to receive education in Europe and brought European-style technologies and management styles back home.

British protectorate[edit]

British airplanes in Kuwait, 1928.

Kuwait's role as a trade port brought it into repeated contact with the British East India Company. It was strategically located between the UK's main colonial production center, India, and its primary market, back home. Unfortunately for them, though, Kuwait's role in trade faced competition from the Ottoman-controlled port of Basra in Iraq.[9] The Turkish Ottoman Empire didn't take long to decide that Kuwait had to be destroyed or conquered to ensure Turkish dominance over the Persian Gulf trade.

Kuwait's lost land under the Uqair Protocol, overtop modern borders.

To save themselves from Ottoman conquest, the rulers of Kuwait appealed to their British friends for protection. In 1899, Kuwait became a protectorate of the Empire, allowing British control over their foreign affairs, exclusive arrangements for British ships in their ports, and British military occupation.[9] The British quickly leveraged these agreements into increasingly overt control of Kuwait, as you can imagine.

Within the British Empire, though, Kuwait's role was relatively minor due to its lack of natural resources in the desert. It simply functioned as a port and didn't even act as a reliable ally like other protectorates would have. For instance, in World War I, the emir of Kuwait stonily and stubbornly refused to support the British or join the conflict.[10] Of course, dying pointlessly in a war between colonial powers would have been stupid, but the British didn't quite see it that way.

The British got back at Kuwait not too long after this, though. Right after the war, Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia invaded Kuwait in an attempt to annex it into a greater Arab state.[11] British military involvement in protecting their protectorate was minimal. Then, in 1922, the British sent High Commissioner Percy Cox to hand off a giant chunk of Kuwait's territory to the Saudis in exchange for peace.[12] Kuwait wasn't invited to the negotiations. You can understand why they were very pissed off about this arrangement.

Kuwait started drilling oil in significant amounts after World War II, but it stayed neutral in that war and took measures to keep the profits to itself.[13] After Britain's humiliation in the Suez Crisis, they started looking for a way out of the Middle East. The always uncooperative Kuwaiti protectorate was a good example of dead weight that needed to be dropped. The British were out by 1961, with the breakup being relatively amicable.


Kuwait City in 1961. You can tell they're modernizing because there's already ads for Pepsi.

After independence, Kuwait developed rapidly with its oil money. In the 1960s and 1970s, Kuwait was the most developed country in the Persian Gulf region.[14] It was also the first Gulf state to establish a constitution and a legislature.

Kuwait was also surprisingly far-sighted with its economy. Economic planners there realized that a country can't safely survive on just one trade good. Therefore, Kuwait diversified its economy to focus on international finance, creating the world's first sovereign investment fund.[15]

Kuwait combined its international trade importance with genuine societal progress, unlike its neighbors. Kuwait had a largely free press, and one of its magazines, Al Arabi, became the most popular in the region.[16] Kuwait's literary and writing scene is still diverse. Kuwait also embraced Western dress to the point where more women chose to wear miniskirts than hijabs.[17]

Unfortunately, though, all wasn't well. Most of Kuwait's wealth and power remained concentrated in the hands of its oligarch families, continuing Kuwait's old traditions. Kuwait's wealth was also made off the backs of oppressed foreign workers, mainly from places like Palestine, whose people had nowhere else to go.[18]

Geopolitical power plays[edit]

Kuwait Airways Flight 422, which was hijacked by Iranian proxies in 1988.

Despite its more liberal attitude, Kuwait locked arms with its fellow Sunni-majority states in opposing post-Revolution Iran. Kuwait drew closer to Western powers like the United States and started financing Saddam Hussein's war against Iran.[19] Iran retaliated by sneaking suicide bombers into Kuwait in 1983, targeting Kuwait's airport and oil facilities.[20] Luckily, the attack wasn't too successful.

In 1984, Iran also sent its proxy Hezbollah to hijack a Kuwait Airlines flight and redirect it to Tehran, where people were killed and held hostage.[21] Iran did it again in 1988, hijacking another Kuwait Airlines flight in the longest airline hijacking in history, resulting in two fatalities.[22] That second time was to demand the release of the captured bombers from Iran's first attempted attack.

If all of that wasn't enough, Iranian proxies also tried to blow up the Emir of Kuwait's motorcade in 1986.[23] Damn, Iran went crazy.

Gulf War[edit]

Burning oil wells in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm.
See the main article on this topic: Gulf War
It was like a cloudy day all day long, in fact, we didn’t realize it was smoke at first. The smoke was about 500 feet above us, so we couldn’t see the sky. However, we could see horizontally for long distances with no problem. We knew it was smoke when the mucous from our nostrils started to look black...
—US Gulf War veteran.[24]

Although Iraq didn't lose anything in the eight-year war, it didn't gain anything either. Even worse, Iraq was mired in $37 billion worth of debt, much of it owed to Kuwait.[25] Hussein went to Kuwait with a request to drop the debt, hoping that Kuwait's earlier support meant that they were friendly. Kuwait refused because money is money. Furious, Hussein later claimed that Kuwait was apparently stealing oil from Iraq by drilling diagonally under the border.[26]

War properly broke out in 1990, when Hussein cited an island dispute as casus belli for an invasion of Kuwait. Thanks to Iraq's huge military forces, the operation lasted two days, and Kuwait entered into a seven-month occupation.[27] Hussein first set up a puppet "republican" government but later dispensed with pretenses and annexed the country outright.[28] This aggression, combined with the probable threat towards Saudi Arabia, prompted the US and NATO to station almost a million troops in the Arabian peninsula.[29]

The UN ordered Iraq to back the fuck off. When Saddam predictably didn't do that, they imposed a destructive worldwide ban on trade with Iraq.[30] The US then assembled a coalition to attack Iraq, including the UAE, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Senegal, South Korea, Qatar, Oman, and Honduras.[31] Following more defiance from Saddam, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 687, which authorized the coalition to use "all necessary means" to uphold the previous resolutions and liberate Kuwait.[32]

A short campaign later, Kuwait was free from Iraqi occupation. On their way out, though, Iraqi forces set many of Kuwait's oil wells on fire, causing a months-long environmental catastrophe.[33]

Kuwait today[edit]

Emir Al-Sabah visits Donald Trump's White House.
The escalation of terrorism and its impact in the region reaffirms the importance of having a comprehensive strategy to eliminate it. It is crucially important not to link terrorism and extremism with a faith, sect or ethnicity.
—Kuwaiti Deputy Premier and Defence Minister, Shaikh Khalid Jarrah Al Sabah.[34]

The Gulf War caused a significant change in relations between Kuwait and the United States. Kuwait went from being lukewarm towards the US to being a staunch regional ally. Kuwait agreed to host US soldiers abroad, which the US loves to do in the Middle East. That arrangement paid dividends to both parties in 2003 when the US used Kuwait as a springboard to send 100,000 soldiers into Iraq.[35]

That relationship continues with the US selling weapons and providing military training for Kuwait.[36] Perhaps in response to its relationship with the US, Kuwait has slowly moved to further advance its society. In 2005, for instance, Kuwait granted women the right to vote.[37] In 2015, Kuwait was ranked first among all Arab states for women's rights by the World Economic Forum.[38] Kuwait hopes to diversify its economy further and reduce its dependence on the oil trade.


External links[edit]


  1. U.S. Relations With Kuwait. US State Department.
  2. Kuwait. Human Rights Watch.
  3. Traders from Ur? Archaeological Institute of America.
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Battle of Chains.
  5. Dipiazza, Francesca Davis (2008). Kuwait in Pictures. Francesca Davis DiPiazza. pp. 20–21. ISBN 9780822565895.
  6. "'Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf. Vol I. Historical. Part IA & IB. J G Lorimer. 1915' [1001] (1156/1782)". qdl.qa. p. 1000
  7. Bell, Sir Gawain (1983). Shadows on the Sand: The Memoirs of Sir Gawain Bell. Gawain Bell. C. Hurst. p. 222. ISBN 9780905838922.
  8. Crystal, Jill (1995). Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar. Jill Crystal. p. 37. ISBN 9780521466356.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Kuwait. British Empire.
  10. Mary Ann Tétreault (1995). The Kuwait Petroleum Corporation and the Economics of the New World Order. pp. 2–3. ISBN 9780899305103.
  11. See the Wikipedia article on Kuwait–Najd War.
  12. See the Wikipedia article on Uqair Protocol of 1922.
  13. Acquiring Modernity: Kuwait's Modern Era Between Memory and Forgetting. National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters. 2014. p. 7. ISBN 9789990604238.
  14. Al-Nakib, Farah (1 March 2014). "Towards an Urban Alternative for Kuwait: Protests and Public Participation". Built Environment. 40 (1): 101–117. doi:10.2148/benv.40.1.101.
  15. What Can Nations Learn from Norway and Kuwait in Managing Sovereign Wealth Funds? Market Oracle.
  16. Kuwait Literary Scene A Little Complex. Arab Times. Archived.
  17. Rubin, Barry, ed. (2010). Guide to Islamist Movements. Volume 1. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe. p. 306. ISBN 9780765641380.
  18. Tsourapas, Gerasimos (2 July 2016). "Nasser's Educators and Agitators across al-Watan al-'Arabi: Tracing the Foreign Policy Importance of Egyptian Regional Migration, 1952–1967" British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. 43 (3): 324–341. doi:10.1080/13530194.2015.1102708. ISSN 1353-0194.
  20. See the Wikipedia article on 1983 Kuwait bombings.
  21. Iran Loses $42 Million Judgment in Hijack Suit. Washington Post.
  22. See the Wikipedia article on Kuwait Airways Flight 422.
  23. See the Wikipedia article on Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah.
  25. The Gulf War, 1991 "Office of the Historian". US Department of State.
  26. Gregory, Derek (2004). The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-57718-090-6.
  27. See the Wikipedia article on Invasion of Kuwait.
  28. Wines, Michael, "CONFRONTATION IN THE GULF; Iraq Seen Looting Kuwait of Identity", NYT 29 September 1990.
  29. Operation Desert Storm: 25 Years Since the First Gulf War Taylor, Alan. The Atlantic. 01.14.16
  30. Iraq Sanctions Kill Children, U.N. Reports Crossette, Barbara. New York Times. 1995
  31. Coalition Members "National Desert Storm War Memorial"
  32. Security Council Resolutions - 1990
  33. See the Wikipedia article on Kuwaiti oil fires.
  34. Kuwait. Wikiquote.
  35. U.S. has 100,000 troops in Kuwait. CNN.
  36. U.S. Relations With Kuwait. US State Department.
  37. Kuwait grants women right to vote. CNN.
  38. The Global Gender Gap Index Results in 2015. World Economic Forum.