On April 5, 2022, Kuwait saw the collective resignation of its third government in 18 months after critically needed reforms failed to move forward. The resignation came ahead of a vote of no confidence in the prime minister scheduled for later in the week. The deepening political crisis in the small Persian Gulf nation caps a long history of uncertainty.
Small but strategic
The largely Sunni Muslim emirate of Kuwait, nestled between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, is located in the midst of one of the most deserted land spaces on earth. But it also curves around the strategically important harbor depths of Kuwait Bay.
The name Kuwait comes from an Arabic variation on the Hindustani word kūt, which means “fort,” harkening back to an 18th-century trading post established in the country. Ever since then, Kuwait’s fortunes have been linked to foreign trade.
In 1756 the Al Sabah dynasty officially created an autonomous sheikhdom on the territory that is now Kuwait. Today’s Kuwait City, the sole major population center, is among the world’s most densely urbanized nations with almost 250 people per square kilometer.
Kuwait came into its own as a self-governing center of commerce in the 19th century. Sheikh ʿAbd Allāh II, whose 26-year rule began in 1866, turned Kuwait away from its previous neutrality, tilting its foreign policy toward building close ties with the Ottoman Empire. ʿAbd Allāh was assassinated by his brother, Mubārak the Great, who set his sights on an alliance with the British after the Ottomans began rumbling about annexation. In 1899 Mubārak gave the direction of foreign policy over to Great Britain.
British domination, Iraqi pretensions
As the First World War was tearing Europe apart, Kuwait officially became a British protectorate. Britain subsequently handled the negotiations that led to a reconfiguration of the borders with Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Long before the memorable Mideast conflicts of our time, Iraq laid the first of its dubious claims to Kuwait. In 1938 oil was discovered beneath Kuwaiti soil, so it’s little wonder that Iraq—only six years after its independence from British protection— suddenly discovered a “historical” claim to Kuwait, one that had never surfaced before, either on the part of Iraq or the Ottoman Empire of which it remained a part until World War I. In particular, Iraq emphasized its supposed claims to two strategically situated islands off Kuwait’s coast.
It was also in 1938 that Iraq lent verbal support to the Majlis Movement, an uprising against the emir of Kuwait.
Independence and fragility
In 1961 Kuwait and the British Empire agreed to end the Anglo-Kuwaiti Treaty of 1899, giving Kuwait its independence from Britain. Recognition by the US and other nations soon followed, but it was not until 1987 that the US-Kuwaiti strategic relationship fully developed. In that year, Kuwait granted freedom of navigation through the Persian Gulf to Kuwaiti tanker ships reflagged with American markings.
But it was in the fateful summer of 1990, when invading Iraqi forces prepared to cross the border, that the partnership between the US and Kuwait came to full fruition.
Even after Kuwaiti independence, Iraq had continued to press its claim on the offshore islands, only to be met with resistance from the nations of the Arab League, as well as from Britain.
In the 1980s, the region was dominated by intense conflict between Iraq and Iran. The repercussions touched Kuwait, which saw no alternative but to ally with Iraq to counter the menace from Iran. The emirate gave logistical and monetary support to Iraq, resulting in Iranian acts of sabotage in Kuwait and an attempt on the life of its ruling sheik. After the Iran-Iraq War drew to a close later in the decade, relations with Iraq soured.
In 1981 Kuwait joined Saudi Arabia and other neighbors in establishing the Gulf Cooperation Council to enhance mutual security and commerce. After Iran launched attacks against Kuwaiti tankers operating in the Gulf, Kuwait sought assistance from both the US and the Soviet Union.
A pawn of war
Then came Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait, despite the vociferous anti-Iraq sentiments of the Kuwaiti people. The Iraqi invasion followed on August 2, 1990. The Iraqis under President Saddam Hussain gave the same old specious arguments for their claims on Kuwait, but the real reasons boiled down to a few: the strategic and commercial advantage of a position in the Gulf, a desire to achieve a position of power and influence among the Arab states, and a means of awakening positive feelings among Iraqis after the heavy losses sustained in the war with Iran.
Iraq’s takeover of Kuwait provoked the Persian Gulf War, with the UN Security Council, as well as the US Congress, authorizing the use of force to remove Iraq from the country. The year 1991 began with US attacks on Iraqi positions in both Kuwait and Iraq as part of Operation Desert Storm.
American and coalition forces quickly gained supremacy in the air, even as Kuwait’s oil wells were on fire below. A ground invasion in February 1991 put the coalition in command of the war, which quickly ended with a cease-fire in the space of 100 hours. The fighting left tens of thousands of Iraqi casualties, with only a few hundred on the coalition side.
After its liberation from Iraqi control, the damage to Kuwait in terms of looting, population displacement, and infrastructure damage became a matter of urgent concern. More than 50 percent of all Kuwaitis had fled due to the war, although most eventually returned. Intra-Kuwait clashes divided people based on the degree to which they called for political liberalization and whether they had left the country or stayed behind to fight.
The immediate post-war years saw the imposition of martial law, followed by new elections that ushered in a large number of politicians representing Islamic parties. UN-supervised border revisions went largely in Kuwait’s favor, bringing former Iraqi-controlled oil fields into its possession.
Rising tensions with Hussain’s Iraq led to Kuwait being used as a military base for American and British troops invading Iraq in 2003. But the Anglo-American victory that followed, along with the death of Hussain and his regime, led to new problems, particularly as some Kuwaitis were pulled into terrorist activities.
Then, beginning in 2011, Kuwait saw stepped-up public dissent and rebellions against corruption as part of the waves of activism during the Arab Spring.
In 2020 plummeting oil prices as a result of pandemic lockdowns meant that Kuwait’s finances were on the line. Meanwhile, the problems of succession and policy that ensued following the death of the 91-year-old emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, contributed greatly to the current recurring crises of government.