Sheikhdom of Kuwait

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State of Kuwait
دولة الكويت
Protectorate of the British Empire


Flag of Kuwait (1915–1961)

Location of Kuwait in the Middle East.
Capital Kuwait City
Languages Arabic
Government Sheikhdom
Historical era 20th century
 -  Established 1899
 -  Disestablished 1961
 -  1920[citation needed] 17,820 km² (6,880 sq mi)
 -  1920[citation needed] est. 50,000 
     Density 2.8 /km²  (7.3 /sq mi)
 -  1961 est. 321,600 
     Density 18 /km²  (46.7 /sq mi)
Currency Kuwaiti dinar
Today part of  Kuwait

The Sheikhdom of Kuwait (Arabic: مشيخة الكويت‎) was a British protectorate between 1899 and 1961.


The Bani Utbah (early migration and settlement)[edit]

Kuwait was founded in the early eighteenth century, in the year 1705, by members of the Bani Utbah tribe, some of which are Al-Sabah, and Al-Jalahma. Kuwait was then known as Guraine. The Bani Utbah established the town and port of Guraine and called it Kuwait ("little fort," from kut, "fort"). They were descendants of the Bani Utbah tribe who gradually migrated in the early eighteenth century from Basra or Najd to the shores of the Persian Gulf. The tribe had originally migrated to Basra and settled there for many generations, they were prominent in Basra's trade market and owned over 300 ships involved in trade. When they arrived at Kuwait, the Bani Utbah tribe established a settlement and possibly built a fortress from which the name Kuwait, a diminutive of kut or fortress, derives.

Early political and economic development[edit]

Early economy[edit]

Merchants entering Kuwait through one of the gates which was used by the Kuwaiti infantry to deliver fire support to the Kuwaiti cavalry engaged in battling invading regional tribes outside the wall, constructed in 1920.

Peace in a region dominated by the Bani Khalid, as well as internal problems that kept other regional powers from interfering, allowed the settlers to develop new maritime skills. Kuwait had arguably one of the best natural harbors in the region. Its location allowed it to benefit from the caravan trade to Aleppo and Baghdad, Shatt al-Arab trade, and from smuggling trade into Ottoman territory that high tariffs encouraged. The settler's self-sufficiency to the desert was abandoned as they became linked to this trading network that included trade in horses, wood, spices, coffee, dates and especially pearls. Kuwait was located within close sail of the pearl banks that stretched down the Persian Gulf coast. In the summer, boats sailed for pearls; in the winter, they turned to entrepôt trade. During the Persian invasion of Basra, most of the trade at Basra was diverted to Kuwait and several Persian merchant families in Basra settled in Kuwait. Kuwait went on to become a prominent trading point along with Basra. Under the Ottoman Empire, Kuwait played a pivotal role in the overland trade to the Mediterranean.

By 1760, the community in Kuwait was diverse. It was mostly merchant traders from the ships and camel caravans from the trade route between Baghdad and Damascus.

Early political environment[edit]

Trade became the basis of the economy and the Al Khalifa, Al-Sabah, Al-Roumi and Al Jalahma developed new political and social arrangements to organize life in a settled economy. Tribal traditions were retained, but were placed within a complex occupational and social stratification. Trade became tightly and hierarchically organized. Pearl divers were distinguished occupationally from ropepullers, captains, or merchants. The proceeds from the pearling industry were divided on the basis of occupation; at the top, a stratum of merchants, the core of which composed of the Al Khalifa), Al-Sabah, Al-Roumi, and Al Jalahma, became the elite. Above the merchants were the Al-Sabah family, who early on enjoyed some preeminence.

British Army soldiers amongst Kuwaitis

Soon after the colony was founded, a Sabah became leader, ruling until his death in 1762. One tradition has it that political preeminence went to the Sabahs as part of an explicit agreement in 1716, the heads of the al-Khalifa, al-Sabah, and al-Jalahima agreed to give the Sabahs preeminence in government and military affairs, subject to consultation, while the Khalifas controlled local commerce and the Jalahima maritime affairs. Another account has it that after reaching Kuwait the Bani Utub held a council and elected a representative to go to Basra to explain their peaceful intent to the Ottomans. The man chosen was a Sabah, Sabah I bin Jaber. Sabah diplomacy may have also been important with neighbouring tribes, especially as Bani Khalid power declined. This selection is usually dated to 1756.[1]

Many theories exist as to the source and origin of the power in the House of Sabah. The Sabahs mainly were the only tribe initially that protected Kuwait from invaders militarily with the assistance of other notable regional tribes none which were merchants. With the commissioning of the Kuwaiti wall in 1920 following the Battle of Jahra; the House of Sabah were able to assure a safe area to conduct sea trade and assure the development of the city as the desert component of the country was sealed and was the main principle of threat to the community.

In 1762, Sabah I died and was succeeded by his youngest son, Abdullah. Shortly after Sabah's death, in 1766, the al-Khalifa and, soon after, the al-Jalahima, left Kuwait en masse for Zubara in Qatar. Domestically, the al-Khalifa and al-Jalahima had been among the top contenders for power. Their emigration left the Sabahs in undisputed control, and by the end of Abdullah I's long rule (1762–1812), Sabah rule was secure, and the political hierarchy in Kuwait was well established, the merchants deferring to direct orders from the Shaikh. By the 19th century, not only was the ruling Sabah much stronger than a desert Shaikh but also capable of naming his son successor. This influence was not just internal but enabled the al-Sabah to conduct foreign diplomacy. They soon established good relations with the British East India Company in 1775.[1]

Clothing used by Kuwaiti divers searching for pearls. (Al-Hashemi-II Marine Museum, Kuwait City.)
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The House of Sabah provided protection of Kuwait and it's wall; enabling merchants to accumulate financial power. One of the well known merchants, Hussain Ali Bin Saif Al-Roumi, was known as the leader in pearl trade throughout the region, sustaining the economy for decades before the discovery of oil. The financial influence of the merchants came from their control of trade and imports, duties on which sustained the survival of the City. Because wealth was imbedded in movable property, refuge was tolerated by neighbouring Shaikhs, and Britain intervened only when important interests were at stake, secession was an effective merchant tactic. A large secession could reduce the shaikhdom's economic and military power and create a refuge for future dissidents.

Assassination of Muhammad Bin Sabah[edit]

Although Kuwait was nominally governed from Basra, the Kuwaitis had traditionally maintained a relative degree of autonomous status.[2] In the 1870s, Ottoman officials were reasserting their presence in the Persian Gulf, with a military intervention in 1871—which was not effectively pursued—where family rivalries in Kuwait were breeding chaos. The Ottomans were bankrupt and when the European banks took control of the Ottoman budget in 1881, additional income was required from Kuwait and the Arabian peninsula. Midhat Pasha, the governor of Iraq, demanded that Kuwait submit to Ottoman rule. The al-Sabah found diplomatic allies in the British Foreign Office. However, under Abdullah II Al-Sabah, Kuwait pursued a general pro-Ottoman foreign policy, formally taking the title of Ottoman provincial governor, this relationship with the Ottoman Empire did result in Ottoman interference with Kuwaiti laws and selection or rulers.[1]

In May 1896, Shaikh Muhammad Al-Sabah was assassinated by his half-brother, Mubarak, who, in early 1897, was recognized, by the Ottoman sultan, as the qaimmaqam (provincial sub-governor) of Kuwait.[2]

Mubarak the Great[edit]

Mubarak's seizure of the throne via murder left his brother's former allies as a threat to his rule, especially as his opponents gained the backing of the Ottomans.[1] In July, Mubarak invited the British to deploy gunboats along the Kuwaiti coast. Britain saw Mubarak's desire for an alliance as an opportunity to counteract German influence in the region and so agreed.[1] This led to what is known as the First Kuwaiti Crisis, in which the Ottomans demanded that the British stop interfering with their empire. In the end, the Ottoman Empire backed down, rather than go to war.

In January 1899, Mubarak signed an agreement with the British which pledged that Kuwait would never cede any territory nor receive agents or representatives of any foreign power without the British Government's consent. In essence, this policy gave Britain control of Kuwait's foreign policy.[1] The treaty also gave Britain responsibility for Kuwait's national security. In return, Britain agreed to grant an annual subsidy of 15,000 Indian rupees (£1,500) to the ruling family. In 1911, Mubarak raised taxes. Therefore, three wealthy business men Ibrahim Al-Mudhaf, Helal Al-Mutairi, and Shamlan Ali bin Saif Al-Roumi (brother of Hussain Ali bin Saif Al-Roumi), led a protest against Mubarak by making Bahrain their main trade point, which negatively affected the Kuwaiti economy. However, Mubarak went to Bahrain and apologized for raising taxes and the three business men returned to Kuwait. In 1915, Mubarak the Great died and was succeeded by his son Jaber II Al-Sabah, who reigned for just over one year until his death in early 1917. His brother Sheikh Salim Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah succeeded him.

Anglo-Ottoman convention[edit]

Despite the Kuwaiti government's desire to either be independent or under British rule, in the Anglo-Ottoman Convention of 1913, the British concurred with the Ottoman Empire in defining Kuwait as an autonomous caza of the Ottoman Empire and that the Shaikhs of Kuwait were not independent leaders, but rather qaimmaqams (provincial sub-governors) of the Ottoman government.

The convention ruled that Shaikh Mubarak had authority over an area extending out to a radius of 80 km, from the capital. This region was marked by a red circle and included the islands of Auhah, Bubiyan, Failaka, Kubbar, Mashian, and Warba. A green circle designated an area extending out an additional 100 km, in radius, within which the qaimmaqam was authorized to collect tribute and taxes from the natives.

Post-Ottoman history[edit]

Border War with Najd[edit]

After World War I, the Ottoman Empire was defeated and the British invalidated the Anglo-Ottoman Convention, declaring Kuwait to be an independent sheikhdom under British protectorate. The power vacuum left by the fall of the Ottomans sharpened conflict between Kuwait and Najd. Shaikh Salim Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah insisted that Kuwait was in full control of all territory out to a radius of 140 km from the capital; however, the ruler of Najd, Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Saud, argued, in September 1920, that the borders of Kuwait did not extend past the walls of the capital. ibn Saud noted that the Convention had never been ratified and that Kuwait was not effectively in control of the disputed territory.

In May 1921, ibn Saud's Wahhabi Bedouins of Nejd attacked a Kuwaiti detachment in southern Kuwait, forcing its retreat. In October they raided Jahra, 40 km from the capital battles occurred in which the Kuwaitis were mostly victorious. In response, the British deployed gunboats, armored cars and aircraft. The Bedouins withdrew.

Uqair protocol[edit]

In response to the various Bedouin raids, the British High Commissioner in Baghdad, Sir Percy Cox, imposed the Uqair Protocol of 1922 which defined the boundaries between Iraq and Nejd and between Kuwait and Nejd.

On 1 April 1923, Shaikh Ahmad al-Sabah wrote the British Political Agent in Kuwait, Major John More, "I still do not know what the border between Iraq and Kuwait is, I shall be glad if you will kindly give me this information." More, upon learning that al-Sabah claimed the outer green line of the Anglo-Ottoman Convention (4 April), would relay the information to Sir Percy.

On 19 April, Sir Percy stated that the British government recognized the outer line of the Convention as the border between Iraq and Kuwait. This decision limited Iraq's access to the Persian Gulf at 58 km of mostly marshy and swampy coastline. As this would make it difficult for Iraq to become a naval power (the territory did not include any deepwater harbours), the Iraqi King Faisal I (whom the British installed as a puppet king in Iraq) did not agree to the plan. However, as his country was under British mandate, he had little say in the matter. Iraq and Kuwait would formally ratify the border in August. The border was re-recognized in 1932.


Kuwait was recognized as a separate province from Iraq and given autonomy under Ottoman suzerainty in the draft Anglo-Ottoman Convention, however this was not signed before the outbreak of the first World War. The border was revisited by a memorandum sent by the British high commissioner for Iraq in 1923, which became the basis for Kuwait's northern border. In Iraq's 1932 application to the League of Nations it included information about its borders, including its border with Kuwait, where it accepted the boundary established in 1923.[3]

The 1920s and 1930s saw the collapse of the pearl fishery and with it Kuwait's economy. This is attributed to the invention of the artificial cultivation of pearls.

The discovery of oil in Kuwait, in 1938, revolutionized the sheikdom's economy and made it a valuable asset to Britain. In 1941 on the same day as the German invasion of the USSR (22 June) the British took total control over Iraq and Kuwait. (The British and Soviets would invade the neighboring Iran in September of that year).

See Also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Crystal, Jill. "Kuwait: Ruling Family". Persian Gulf States: A Country Study. Library of Congress. Retrieved 5 March 2011. 
  2. ^ a b Anscombe 1997, p. [page needed]
  3. ^ Crystal, Jill. "Kuwait – Persian Gulf War". The Persian Gulf States: A Country Study. Library of Congress. Retrieved 5 March 2011.