The oil-rich nation of Kuwait is strategically located at the northern end of the Persian Gulf. It is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the south, Iraq to the west and north, and the Persian Gulf to the east. The topography is flat, low desert, and the climate is very hot and dry. Over 95 percent of the Kuwait people live in urban areas, mostly along the coast. The nation's major natural resources are oil and natural gas, comprising an estimated 10 percent of the world's known reserves. There is a minor fishing industry, but oil sales make up half of Kuwait's gross domestic product (GDP) and provide 80 percent of the government's yearly revenues. The large oil reserves have sustained a relatively high per capita GDP annually and allow for extensive social services for Kuwaiti citizens.
Oil and geographic location have made Kuwait a crucial strategic state far beyond what might be expected of a country its size and population. Kuwait has been a key to British imperial interests in the Middle East, a major player in regional affairs, a staunch Cold War ally of the United States, the focus of the 1990 Persian Gulf War, and an important staging area for subsequent American-led operations in Iraq.
In contrast to its current prominence, Kuwait was a remote part of the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century, largely left to manage its own affairs. This earlier insignificance is manifest in the fact that the Utub tribes that settled in the area early in the eighteenth century called their central town Kuwait, the Arabic diminutive for kut, meaning a fortress built near water. By midcentury the Utub's al-Sabah tribe, whose descendants still rule Kuwait to this day, had emerged as the most prominent in the area. The al-Sabah focused on developing the local pearl beds and taking advantage of location to promote regional trade.
Recognizing the fact that any increase in the wealth of Kuwait and the al-Sabah family would attract Ottoman attention and invite closer imperial control and higher taxation, Sheik Mubarak al-Sabah sought the protection of Britain, the major European power in the region. The result was an 1897 agreement in which Kuwait ceded control over its foreign affairs and defense to the British. In return, Kuwait agreed to eschew alliances with other powers and promised not to cede any concessions—economic or military—to any other nations. Kuwait thus became a British protectorate. This situation remained fairly static until Britain reduced its imperial commitments after World War II. Kuwait became fully independent in June 1961.
Kuwait then aligned itself with the West—the United States in particular—in regional and international affairs. The 1979 Iranian Revolution served to further strengthen this alliance, and Kuwait became a staunch supporter of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980. That support included nearly $35 billion in grants, loans, and other assistance to the Iraqis. After the war, which ended in 1988, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein demanded that Kuwait forgive its loans, reasoning that Iraq had been the bulwark in the Arab world against Iran and was thus owed monetary concessions. Iraq also accused the Kuwaitis of slant-drilling for oil into Iraqi fields and then claimed that Kuwait was a "lost" Iraqi province, the administrative boundaries of which dated back to the defunct Ottoman Empire.
Angry with Kuwait's refusal to forgive the Iraqi debt and convinced that the kingdom was keeping oil prices artificially low by pumping too much oil, Hussein launched an invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990. The international response, which was divided into two stages, was strong and swift. The U.S.-led Operation desert shield saw a large-scale military buildup in Saudi Arabia. Then in January 1991, when Hussein steadfastly refused to withdraw from Kuwait, Operation desert storm began, during which the United States led an international military coalition, including other Arab nations, to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The brief war ended on 27 February 1991, with Iraq compelled to recognize Kuwaiti independence.
Thereafter, Kuwait remained a firm ally of the United States and allowed its territory to be used as a staging area for the U.S.-led effort to oust Hussein from power in spring 2003. In return the United States has been restrained in any criticism of Kuwaiti internal affairs. In May 2005, however, Kuwait's parliament granted full political rights to women. The United States maintains a significant military and naval presence in the region that protects the al-Sabah ruling family of Kuwait, which has had long experience in maintaining its position from the nineteenth century to the present. Daniel E. Spector
Cordesman, Anthony J. Kuwait: Recovery and Security after the Gulf War. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1997.; Daniels, John. Kuwait Journey. Luton, UK: White Crescent, 1971.; United States Army. Area Handbook Series: Persian Gulf States. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1984.
Daniel E. Spector