The area around Kuwait has been settled for thousands of years, although the harsh physical conditions have led to shifting populations. In the 18th century several groups migrated from the interior of the Arabian Peninsula and settled at the site of present-day Kuwait city. One family, the Sabahs, established themselves as rulers. Economic activity centered around pearling and long-distance trade. In the late 19th century, the British established a presence in the area to secure the lines of communication and transportation to India. In particular, the British formed close relationships with local rulers who were anxious to assert their autonomy from the Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of the area. In 1899 Mubarak al-Sabah, then ruler of Kuwait, signed an agreement with Britain, making Kuwait a protectorate of the British Empire. Britain gained control over Kuwait’s foreign and defense affairs and in return protected Kuwait and allowed the Sabahs to rule over internal affairs.
Oil was discovered in Kuwait in the late 1930s, but not until after World War II (1939-1945) did Kuwait begin to export large quantities of oil. Oil wealth transformed the society. Large-scale construction and economic development became possible, and since the government controlled oil revenues, the power of the Sabah family grew as well. Oil wealth also brought more contact with the outside world, and many younger Kuwaitis favored the pan-Arab movement, which sought greater ties among Arab countries.
In 1961 Britain granted independence to Kuwait. Iraq, which had long claimed Kuwait was part of southern Iraq, argued that Kuwait had been separated from it illegitimately. After being pressured by Arab countries and Britain, Iraq eventually backed down from its claim. The emir of Kuwait nonetheless felt it necessary to promote national unity. He allowed elections for a constituent assembly, which took place in late 1961, and the assembly wrote a constitution the following year that guaranteed the Sabah’s dominance but allowed the people a role in government. On two occasions, in 1976 and 1986, the emir’s successors suspended parts of the constitution, but on both occasions they later consented to renew constitutional life.
In the 1960s and 1970s Kuwait became a leading, although not radical, voice in support of Arab nationalism and Palestinian claims to a homeland. Pan-Arabism was popular, especially among students, and many Kuwaiti teachers and journalists were Palestinians. In 1980, when war broke out between Iran and Iraq, Kuwait helped the Arab Iraqis even though it exposed them to Iranian attacks. In 1990, however, relations with Iraq worsened. Iraq accused Kuwait of exceeding OPEC production quotas for oil and “stealing” more than $2 billion in oil from a contested reserve that lay beneath both countries. Iraq also demanded Kuwait cancel the debt Iraq owed from the Iran-Iraq War. When Saddam Hussein mobilized Iraqi troops on the border in late July, Kuwait had neither the military might nor the external protection to prevent an invasion. On August 2 Iraq invaded Kuwait and quickly overwhelmed Kuwaiti forces. An international force assembled in neighboring Saudi Arabia and evicted Iraq from Kuwait after six weeks of fighting in early 1991.
As the Iraqis retreated, much of Kuwait’s industry, infrastructure, and buildings were destroyed. Among the most heavily damaged were palaces of the royal family, government and other public buildings, oil wells, and roads. Looting was widespread, on both an individual and organized basis: Entire collections from libraries, museums, and laboratories were transported to Iraq. Since the war, Kuwait has been largely rebuilt. However, due to later crises, such as a 1994 incident in which Iraq amassed troops near the Kuwaiti border, Kuwaitis are keenly aware of their country’s vulnerability. Since the war, Kuwait has relied heavily on the United States for continued protection.