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History of Kuwait
 
 
 

Early History

The headland now occupied by Kuwait City was settled only 300 years ago. Life which was centred on the sea was not easy in those days but probably the harshest life of all was that of the desert bedouin. He roamed the desert in search of water and food for himself, his family and his animals. He generally gravitated to the town in the hotter weather and out into the desert in the winter. His life was based on his camels, his sheep and his goats. In the early 18th century, Kuwait was nothing more than a few tents clustered around a storehouse-cum-fort. Eventually the families living around the fort divided among themselves the responsibilities attached to the new settlement..The Al Sabah family, whose descendants now rule Kuwait, were appointed to handle local law and order. The small settlement grew quickly. By 1760, when the town's first wall was built, Kuwait's dhow fleet was reckoned to be 800 and its camel caravans travelled regularly to Baghdad and Damascus.

By the early 19th century, Kuwait was a thriving trading port. But trouble was always, literally, just over the horizon. It was often unclear whether Kuwait was part of the Ottoman Empire or not, though official Kuwaiti history is adamant that the sheikhdom was always independent of the Ottomans. During the second half of the 19th century, the Kuwaitis generally got on well with the Ottomans. They skilfully managed to avoid being absorbed into the empire as the Turks sought to solidify their control of eastern Arabia (then known as Al Hasa). They did, however, agree to take the role of provincial governors of Al-Hasa.

That decision led to the rise of the pivotal figure in the history of modern Kuwait. Sheikh Mubarak Al Sabah Al Sabah, commonly known as Mubarak the Great, who reigned from 1896 to 1915. Mubarak was deeply suspicious of Turkey and was convinced that Constantinople planned to annexe Kuwait. He overthrew and murdered his brother, the emir, did away with another brother and installed himself as ruler. In 1899 Mubarak signed an agreement with Britain: in exchange for the British navy's protection, he promised not to give away territory to, take support from or negotiate with any other foreign power without British consent. Britain's motive for signing the treaty was a desire to keep Germany, then the main ally and financial backer of Turkey, out of the Gulf. The Ottomans continued to claim sovereignty over Kuwait, but they were now in no position to enforce it.

Modern History

Kuwait spent the early 1920s fighting off the army commanded by Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. In 1923 the fighting ended with a British-brokered treaty. As a result, an oil concession was granted in 1934 to a US-British joint venture known as the Kuwait Oil Company (KOC). The first wells were sunk in 1936, and by 1938 it was obvious that Kuwait was virtually floating on oil. The outbreak of WWII forced the KOC to suspend operations, but when oil exports took off after the war so did Kuwait's economy. As the country became wealthy, health care, education and the general standard of living improved dramatically. On 19 June 1961, Kuwait became an independent state. Elections for the first National Assembly were held the following year. Although representatives of the country's leading merchant families won the bulk of the seats, radicals had a toehold in the government from its inception. In August 1976, the cabinet resigned, claiming the assembly had made day-to-day governance impossible. The emir suspended the constitution, dissolved the assembly and asked the crown prince (who, by tradition, also serves as prime minister) to form a new cabinet. New elections were not held until 1981, but the assembly's new majority proved just as troublesome as the last and parliament was dissolved again in 1986.


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