Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

History of Kuwait

people and soldiers celebrating the liberation of Kuwait after the first Gulf War


Kuwait and its islands are full of monuments that might be traced back to ancient ages before Christ. These monuments represent civilizations of several ages, starting from the stone ages and passing by the bronze ages. Some have been found in Failaka Island and Umm Al Namil Island, dating back to the Hellenistic civilization. At that time, Kuwait’s populace was influenced by the Dilmun civilization that resided in Bahrain during this period.

Although the Hellenistic people have lived in Failaka Island since the 6th century BC, Kuwait’s first appearance in history was during the Greek era (3rd century BC). That was when Alexander the Great’s forces took over Failaka Island and named it “Icarus”. Alongside natives, Greeks and foreign traders lived in the island.

During the millennium covering the era running from Alexander’s time and the Islamic one, Failaka Island and the adjacent coast might have fallen under the domination of the Seleucids, Parthians and Sassanid dynasties.

During the far ancient ages, Kuwait was a part of the ancient Bahrain region, which extended from Basra to Oman on the Persian/Arab Gulf, covering the regions of Al-Ahsa, modern Bahrain and Qatar. The land of Kuwait was home to Arab tribes, the most prominent of which is the Banu Tamim tribe.

The state of Ara’eer family and Bani Khalid Emirs appeared in Al-Ahsa and secured their dominance over Najd, Qatar, and Iraq. They built a fort in the location of Kuwait city (which was called Kut back then). The fort is located on the Bahniyah high plateau in front of Sayf Palace.

Arrival of Al-Sabah family and the British protection (1601-1961)

In the 17th century (1601-1700), the city of Kuwait was founded. Since the foundation of Kuwait city, most of its residents have been working as divers for collecting pearls and in naval trade between India and Arabia. This helped turning Kuwait into a commercial hub in northern Arabian/Persian Gulf.

Kuwait became a main port for the Arabian Peninsula and Mesopotamia. The city has prospered since Al Sabah and their relative Banu Utbah settled in it in 1716 after it was under the Bani Khalid reign.

In the 17th and the 18th centuries, Kuwait tried to maintain its independence from colonial powers. However, the situation has changed in 1870 when the Ottoman Empire began expanding towards the south. This came as a reaction to the growing dominance of the British Empire in the Gulf region. The Ottoman Empire annexed Kuwait and made it a vassal of the Ottoman Basra Vilayet.

In 1896, the Kuwaiti-Ottoman relations were severed when Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah assassinated his brothers Muhammad and Jarrah. Sheikh Mubarak announced himself the ruler of Kuwait instead of his brother Muhammad. After this incident, Mubarak requested protection from the British.

In 1899, he signed a secret treaty with the British Empire, whereby he agreed not to lease or forfeit any Kuwaiti land to foreign powers in exchange for the British protection against any external threats.

After the 1899 treaty, many other treaties were signed between Kuwait and the British government in the early 20th century. These treaties provided an official form to the relationship between the two countries. Most of these treaties restricted the authority of Al-Sabah family regarding the independent rule.

Al Sabah were prohibited from using oil resources and trading pearl without a pre-approval from the British government. The first British political agent in Kuwait was appointed in 1904. A lot of authority was granted to the agents who remained in Kuwait until 1961.

Since 1716, Kuwait has been ruled by 15 Sheikhs. At that time, the populace of Kuwait that “Sabah I” would take charge. Since then, Al Sabah family rules the emirate. Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah is considered the true and actual founder of the state. The 4th article of the Kuwaiti constitution states that all of Kuwait rulers have to be from his descendants.

The first electoral experience in this small community was carried by establishing the Municipal Council in 1930. The Kuwaitis chose a council of 11 members and a permanent leader from Al Sabah dynasty.

The Municipal elections were followed by elections for the directorates of Education, Health, and Awqaf in 1936. These elections had a great impact, increasing awareness of the principle of consultation and participation when it comes to organizing state affairs through its institutions.

The first Iraqi claim in Kuwait was in 1938, which is the same year when oil was discovered in the emirate. However, Kuwait was never effectively ruled by Iraq and or the Ottoman Empire. Iraq continued its claim for even a single part of Kuwait, especially Bubiyan and Warbah strategic islands.

The first shipment of oil exports left in 1946. With the ongoing oil industry development, Kuwait began to reap high returns and Al-Sabah decreased their dependence on the commercial fees that used to be paid by senior traders in Kuwait.

From Independence to Current Kuwait (1961-2020)

Britain recognized Kuwait as an independent state on the 19th of June 1961. Six days later, Iraq renewed its claim in Kuwait, which was now rebuffed first by British and then by the Arab League.

It was not until October 1963 when a new Iraqi regime formally recognized both Kuwait’s independence and, subsequently, its borders. However, this regime continued to press for access to the islands.

In the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion, the government of Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Salim continued managing the state affairs from the Saudi city of Taif. This process continued until the liberation of Kuwait by an American led military campaign in February 1991.

Regarding the political reform, Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah announced a historical decree in 2003 separating the prime minister position from the Crown Prince. Two years later, the Kuwaiti woman acquired her right to elect and run for parliamentary elections.

In January 2006, Sheikh Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber was pledged allegiance as an Emir for the country, succeeding Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Salim Al-Sabah, whose reign only lasted for a few days.