In medieval times, Kuwait was under the nominal rule of the Ottoman Empire. In practice, Kuwaitis have always
maintained autonomy by playing one ruler against another. In that early era, they usually pitted the Ottomans against the
Persians (modern Iran).
In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese established forts to protect their shipping trade routes. Two centuries later, the
British supplanted the Portuguese as the dominant European power in the Gulf. Again the Kuwaitis sought alliances, and
they decided that they would have the most freedom under the British flag. The first treaties between Britain and Kuwait
were signed in 1899.
Despite its ancient history, Kuwait has been recognized as a fully independent nation only since 1961, when British rule
Kuwait’s massive oil reserves were not discovered until the 1930s, and development of the oil fields was delayed by World
War II. Only in the 1950s did oil wealth remake Kuwait. The wealth transformed the economy without making any basic
changes in the political structure.
After Kuwait’s independence in 1961, Iraq made territorial claims on the country. Threatened intervention by Britain kept
the Iraqis from invading in the 1960s. By 1990, Britain was no longer the dominant military power in the Gulf, and Saddam
Hussein convinced himself that the United States would not intervene militarily. Iraq invaded and then annexed Kuwait in
1990. The emir and his cabinet fled to Saudi Arabia.
After Iraq refused to obey a United Nations resolution to withdraw, a coalition of many nations, led by the United States of
America, invaded in January 1991. The shooting war was over within a month, as Iraqi forces quickly retreated from
Kuwait. However, before leaving, the Iraqis set many oil wells on fire. The emir returned in March 1991; under
international and domestic pressure, he allowed the National Assembly to be restored.
Kuwait and Iraq finally moved toward normalizing relations in 2002. But the next year, the Second Gulf War broke out.
Coalition forces—this time primarily belonging to the USA and the United Kingdom—invaded and occupied Iraq. Saddam
Hussein was captured, ending the military threat to Kuwait.
The emir now rules Kuwait as a constitutional monarchy.
Traditionally, the emir of Kuwait—always a member of the al-Sabah family— exercised total authority. However, the emir
was always careful to allow the powerful Kuwaiti merchant families to prosper. In effect, the merchants yielded their
political power in return for economic power.
By and large, the al-Sabah emirs ruled adroitly. They managed to maintain Kuwait’s identity despite being surrounded by
powerful neighbors. Oil wealth brought changes. Health and educational services were transformed, and the populace
(now educated and familiar with Western political ideas) agitated for a voice in government. By 1962 a constitution had
been written, establishing a National Assembly patterned after an assembly that had evolved in the 1930s. Despite being