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From Antiquity to British Protectorate

Al-Sabah Family
The Al-Sabah, ruling family of Kuwait.


Pre-modern Kuwait
The Founding of Kuwait
Foreign Powers
Mubarak al-Sabah
Majlis Movement and British Protectorate


Given Kuwait’s dependence on oil, it seems appropriate to begin the country’s history in the Jurassic period (208-146 million years ago). Tectonic processes during the Jurassic and the Cretaceous (146-165 million years ago) periods trapped huge deposits of organic material beneath caps of impenetrable rock, resulting in the creation of huge underground oil reservoirs. During these millions of years, the surface area of present-day Kuwait was being formed by the alluvial sediments of a no-longer existent river. This sediment was rich in minerals, and the concentration of these minerals intensified when, at the end of the last ice age, about 11,500 years ago, the climate began to warm. Rising and evaporating groundwater brought these minerals to the surface in ever larger concentrations, contaminating the soil and preventing any sustainable agriculture.

While much of the Fertile Crescent was entering the agricultural era about 11,000 years ago, no such activity took place in what is now Kuwait. Nonetheless, the area was almost certainly in use, as seasonal grazing grounds for nomadic herders, and, while there were no natural springs that permitted permanent settlement inland, the rich fishing grounds off Kuwait’s northern coasts attracted small fishing communities. The Euphrates and Tigris rivers drain into the Gulf just north of Kuwait’s borders. The nutrient-rich soil they deliver to the northern Gulf attracts a huge variety of fish and shellfish. This river delta also provided fresh water that could be transported down the coast by boat, an activity which continued well into the 20th century. The remains of one such early fishing community have been found at Ras al-Subiya. Stone walls, potsherds, and the remains of a boat discovered at this site hint at links with the Ubaid culture (4500-4000 BCE) of Mesopotamia.

More substantial remains of early settlement have been found on the island of Failaka, at the mouth of Kuwait Bay. Since 6000 BCE the sea level in the Gulf had been falling, and human habitation on low-lying Failaka became feasible around the middle of the third millennium BCE. The island’s attractions were obvious: it was located at a strategic point on the coastal trade route from Mesopotamia to the present-day United Arab Emirates. Being an island, it could be defended much more easily against Bedouin raiders than could sites on the mainland surrounding Kuwait Bay.

Excavations of prehistoric settlements at Subiya, dated 4800 to 4500 BCE

On the tells of south-western Failaka have been found the remains of a Bronze Age trading settlement established around 2300 BCE. Archaeological remains are also present of the religious culture thriving in the period of the Dilmun civilization, which around this time probably centred on present-day Bahrain.


The power of Dilmun declined after 1600 BCE. Rising sea levels during the second half of the second millennium BCE also contributed to the fact that around 1000 BCE Failaka appears to have been completely deserted. The age-old cycle of rising and falling sea levels in the Gulf continued to influence local settlement patterns. When Nearchus, admiral of Alexander the Great, arrived at the head of the Gulf in 324 BCE, the water level had dropped again, below the present level. The area of the island Alexander himself is said to have named Ikaros was thus larger than it is today. A Greek trading colony was established on the island, and when Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BCE and his empire collapsed, Ikaros/Failaka retained its Hellenistic identity. Its inhabitants, including Arabs and Persians, continued for some centuries to speak Greek. The modern name Failaka may come from the classical Greek fylakion, ‘outpost’.

Pre-modern Kuwait

During the millennium spanning the Alexandrian and Islamic eras, Failaka and the nearby coastline probably fell under the sway of the Seleucid, Parthian, and Sassanid dynasties. The rulers of these Persia-based empires appear to have had little interest in Failaka. Virtually no literary or archaeological evidence remains of its early Christian inhabitants, who, according to Muslim sources, surrendered to the Muslim armies in the 7th century. By then, the centre of settlement in this region appears to have shifted from Failaka to the mainland. Around 500 CE a settlement was established at Ras Kazima, near present-day al-Jahra, on the western shore of Kuwait Bay; a small oasis can still be found there.

Desert landscape with modern Kuwait City skyline / Photo Fanack

It may seem strange that Kuwait Bay, the best natural harbour in the Gulf, experienced no substantial human settlement until modern times. Indeed, it was only during the latter 20th century that the town of Kuwait evolved into the metropolitan hub called Kuwait City. This was partly the result of ecological circumstances. The unproductive soil and scarce natural water resources of the area could not, until very recently, sustain a substantial population, much less a large city. But there is an additional reason, with a strong contemporary resonance: the area around Kuwait Bay was highly vulnerable to attack. Directly north of Kuwait Bay loomed the continually expanding and contracting empires of Mesopotamia and Iran, with armies seeking spoils and rulers craving taxes and tribute, and from the desert plains to the south, Bedouin raiders harassed and plundered the settlements of what is now Kuwait right into modern times.

This transitional area between centralized empire and tribal desert that characterized Kuwait made for uneasy settlement, no matter how productive its soil or its fishing grounds. In the centuries before the coming of Islam, the area was the scene of several battles between Arab and imperial armies. In 623, a year after the Prophet Muhammad arrived in Medina, according to Muslim sources, one such battle between Arab and Persian forces took place near Ras Kazima. But after the arrival of the Muslim armies in the 640s another millennium passed with little or no contemporary literary reference to the area. The only significant development during classical Islamic times seems to have been the gradual conversion of the area’s inhabitants to the new Arab religion of Islam.

The Founding of Kuwait

The modern history of Kuwait begins in the early 17th century, when the present territory of Kuwait was considered part of the tribal territory of the Bani Khalid, a powerful Bedouin tribal federation controlling north-eastern Arabia. Kuwait was still sparsely inhabited. There was a tiny fishing settlement on the southern shore of Kuwait Bay, called al-Qurain (Little Hill), in reference to the elevated patch of land that protected the cluster of tents and huts from tidal encroachment. During the 1670s or 1680s Sheikh Barrak bin Ghurair of the Bani Khalid build a small fort (Arabic kuwayt) at al-Qurain. This fort, which gave Kuwait its present name, no longer exists. The original site of the fort is in the present al-Watiya neighbourhood of Kuwait City. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, a succession of severe droughts struck the Najd region of central Arabia. In response, Bedouin families from this region took what was left of their herds and migrated to the coastal regions of the Gulf, looking for additional means of subsistence in maritime activities such as pearling, fishing, sea trade, and piracy. In this transformation from a nomadic to a semi-settled, semi-maritime lifestyle, these enterprising migrants appear to have been very successful. Their example was followed by other families and clans. Collectively, these migrant groups from the Najd became known as the Bani Utba. Among them were the nuclei of the later Al Sabah, Al Khalifa, and al-Jalahima clans, all of which would come to play a primary role in the history of the modern states of Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar.

It is unclear when the first Bani Utba settled in Kuwait. The present Sabah family claims to have arrived as early as 1613, but modern historians trace their arrival to the first half of the 18th century. According to local tradition, the Al Sabah soon rose to prominence as the family to whom was allotted control of tax collection, military affairs, and external contacts. The Bani Utba took advantage of the fact that the main regional powers – the Bani Khalid, and the Ottoman Turks that controlled Iraq – were both in decline by the latter half of the 18th century. This allowed the Bani Utba to gain control of Kuwait and strengthen its commercial network along the coasts of the Gulf and southern Asia. Kuwait soon thrived as an entrepôt for interregional trade in horses, ghee, pearls, wood, spices, slaves, and other merchandise.

While the weakening of Bani Khalid power was in many ways beneficial to the Bani Utba, it also exposed them to external threats, because Bani Khalid warriors no longer provided a defensive shield. The military position of Kuwait’s Bani Utba was further weakened by the departure of most Al Khalifa and al-Jalahima families for eastern Qatar, beginning in the 1760s. Their migration may have been motivated by the growing power of the Al Sabah clan. From their base in Qatar, the Al Khalifa and al-Jalahima would soon wrest Bahrain from Persian overlordship. To this day, Al Khalifa sheikhs continue to rule the Bahrain archipelago, while Al Sabah sheikhs rule Kuwait. The less fortunate Jalahima failed to establish their own power base, although they would continue to harass their former fellow-travellers for some time.

Foreign Powers

Both the Al Sabah and the Al Khalifa have always been obliged to turn to powerful third parties to protect their interests. They cannot survive on their own: their numbers are insufficient to repel the major aggressors who arise at frequent intervals in this part of the world. In 1794, the Bani Saud of Najd and their Wahhabi allies could be prevented from taking Kuwait only by the military intervention of the British East India Company. The Kuwaitis were no strangers to the British in India. Kuwaiti merchants regularly shipped thoroughbred Arabian horses for the British army in South Asia, among other merchandise. Earlier in the century the East India Company had established a factory-fort in nearby Basra, which was of prime importance for imperial mail communications. When Basra was struck by the plague in 1775 and invaded by the Persians, British mail was for some years routed through Kuwait with the consent of the leading Al Sabah sheikh, Abdullah I (1740-1814).

In the course of the 19th century British India – represented from 1858 on by the British Government of India – strengthened its position in the Gulf. The government of India was determined to keep its lines of communication with London open and its geopolitical competitors at a safe distance. The strengthening of the British-Indian position in the Gulf in turn triggered an expansionist policy by the Ottoman governor of Baghdad, Midhat Pasha, who realized that Ottoman interests in the region were being seriously threatened. By the second half of the 19th century the British had signed ‘peace treaties’ with virtually every major tribal sheikh of the Gulf, except for Abdullah II (1814-1892) of Kuwait. So, when Midhat Pasha decided to recapture eastern Arabia in 1870, he could safely pressure Abdullah II to assist him militarily. In 1871, Abdullah accepted Ottoman suzerainty and received the title of kaymakam (district officer). Kuwait had formally become part of the province of Basra of the Ottoman Empire.

But the imperial power of the Ottomans was actually very weak. They would never be able to rule Kuwait directly. In 1896 a violent palace coup brought Mubarak al-Sabah (1837-1915) to power in Kuwait. Realizing the weak position of the Ottoman Empire in the face of European global hegemony, he strengthened Kuwaiti ties with Great Britain. For their part, the British were keen to prevent the actual integration of Kuwait into the Ottoman Empire. In 1899, Mubarak signed a secret agreement with the government of India, in which he handed over control of Kuwait’s foreign relations to the latter. In return, Mubarak received a yearly payment and a vague promise of protection from external aggression. A Kuwaiti merchant was appointed as local political agent, to be replaced in 1904 by a British Government of India official.

Mubarak al-Sabah

Emir Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabah, or Mubarak al-Kabir (the Great), to his left Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah (the 8th Emir of Kuwait), to his right Sheikh Salim al-Mubarak al-Sabah

The reign of Mubarak al-Sabah (1896-1915) – Mubarak al-Kabir (the Great), as he came to be known – represents a watershed in Kuwait’s political history. Al Sabah rule had traditionally been based on a sharp division of roles within Kuwaiti society. The merchants controlled outside trade, especially sea trade, and the pearling industry. The Al Sabah tribe was responsible for security and diplomatic contacts with the Bedouin desert tribes and the Ottoman Empire. The Al Sabah did not tax the inhabitants of Kuwait directly, and the latter did not consider themselves subjects of the Al Sabah in a modern sense. The merchant families made their donations to the Al Sabah rulers in explicit exchange for the political and security services provided by the latter. The Al Sabah rulers could not force the payment of taxes, and their acceptance as rulers depended in large part on their personal tact and competence.

The traditional Kuwaiti political system based on consensus experienced a violent crisis at the end of the 19th century. In 1896, Mubarak the Great had his two older brothers – the then ruler Muhammad and his confidant Jarrah al-Sabah – murdered in a violent palace coup. But as a recent scholarly biography of Mubarak the Great points out, nothing is known with certainty about the actual perpetrators and their motives. One thing, however, is clear: when Mubarak succeeded his slain brother Muhammad, he was supported by the majority of the Al Sabah, the merchant elite, and the Ottoman military commander in the region. So, the dominant view of ‘the tyrant’ Mubarak, who personally brought an end to Al Sabah ‘republican’ rule and ruled Kuwait ‘through his slaves’, may have to be modified in future. Under Mubarak, the threat of absorption by the Ottoman Empire or an invasion by warrior-king Muhammad Ibn Rashid of Arabia was averted. Commerce thrived, and political stability returned.

The advantages of Mubarak’s rule came at a price. In 1899 he signed a secret agreement with the dominant regional power, the British government of India. In this treaty, which was modelled after the treaties the British had concluded earlier with the sheikhdoms of the Lower Gulf, Mubarak transferred his control of Kuwait’s ‘foreign relations’ to the government of India. In return, the British government promised to defend Kuwait against the Ottoman Empire. The British-Indian backing strengthened the dominant position of Mubarak in Kuwait; what Mubarak really accomplished was thus an exchange of his diplomatic sovereignty for greater domestic manoeuvring space. By cleverly manipulating the international situation – especially the British-Ottoman imperial rivalry and the threat of Muhammad ibn Rashid of Arabia – he was able to gain firm control of Kuwait. This is evident from the fact that Mubarak in 1899 imposed a customs levy on the merchants and later introduced a series of other new taxes. He used his new resources to finance a rudimentary state administration.

Majlis Movement and British Protectorate

Wellhead of Burgan No. 1: the first producible oil well in Burgan oil field (1938)

Mubarak’s authoritarian style of rule was continued by his sons, Jaber (r. 1915-1917) and Salim (r. 1917-1921), and his grandson, Ahmad (r. 1921-1950). Throughout this period, the Al Sabah rulers and the merchants jockeyed for power, with the latter trying to regain their former dominance. Jaber was forced to repeal some of Mubarak’s unpopular taxes, but Salim managed to introduce Kuwait’s first official security apparatus. When, in 1934, Sheikh Ahmad granted an oil concession to the British-American-controlled Kuwait Oil Company, it assured the ruler of a regular income, in addition to the tax on merchants. The merchants rightly felt that this would further reduce their political influence, leading them to choose from among their ranks Kuwait’s first National Assembly (al-Majlis al-Watani) in order to counter growing Al Sabah power. But the Majlis Movement of 1938 faltered on account of its lack of unity, its generally pro-Iraqi stance, and the withdrawal of Britain’s initial support. The Al Sabah then divided control of all fledgling government departments – some of them set up by the Majlis – among its senior members. The Gulf region’s first dynastic monarchy was born.

After World War I, which had brought about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Britain tightened further its grip on Kuwait. With the last traces of nominal Ottoman sovereignty removed, the sheikhdom became a British protectorate. At the eastern Arabian port of Uqair in 1922, Kuwait, the new British-controlled Kingdom of Iraq, and Abdulaziz Saud (Ibn Saud) of Najd were supposed to resolve their territorial conflicts and delineate their mutual boundaries. Both the Sheikh of Kuwait and the King of Iraq were represented by a British colonial official. Underlining the geopolitical realities of the day, Sir Percy Cox, the British High Commissioner in Baghdad, at Uqair handed over two-thirds of Kuwait’s claimed territory to Ibn Saud, the future founder of Saudi Arabia. The Kuwaitis were in no position to protest: Percy Cox might very well have incorporated Kuwait into the new state of Iraq, or just as threatening, he might have left the sheikhdom unprotected from the fierce (Wahhabi) Ikhwan, the militiamen of Ibn Saud.