George Bush in Oval Office. Shutterstock

What Caused The Gulf War?

George Bush in Oval Office. Shutterstock

In early 1991, a coalition of 39 nations launched an invasion over the Saudi Arabia border into Kuwait and Iraq against the Kuwaiti-occupying forces of Saddam Hussein. The conflict became known as the Gulf War, and the UK played a significant role in fighting it and the persuading of other nations – notably the USA – to act with force. 

But what were the key moments that led to all-out war initiating in January 1991? Here, BFBS explores the historical events that led to the Gulf War. 

Gulf War Operation Desert Storm Infantry CREDIT MOD
The British name for the operation in the Gulf War was Granby.

The cause of the Gulf War is commonly considered as being a reaction to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. And ultimately, it was this that prompted international condemnation at the UN, the consequential Resolutions that provided the pathway to war.

But behind the Iraqi invasion of sovereign Kuwait on August 2, 1990, lay emotive issues that prompted Saddam Hussein to take the course of history he would ultimately come to regret. But what were they?

map of Gulf Region
Kuwait and neighbouring Gulf states. Credit: Google


At the end of the 19th century, the al-Shebah family – Kuwait's ruling dynasty – signed a protection pact with the United Kingdom which gave control of the country's foreign affairs to the British. Twenty-three years later, in 1922, Britain established Kuwait's borders with Iraq by effectively drawing a line on the map. Seventy-eight years later, Saddam Hussein used this as an excuse to invade, but, it was just a small part of a more comprehensive set of reasons.

Iraq's Economy 

The Iran-Iraq war was a costly eight-year affair that saw prolonged fighting and no eventual victor. 

Throughout, the USA saw the war as an opportunity to bring Iraq under Washington's influence and so provided resources to give Saddam Hussein's forces a better chance of victory against anti-US Iran. When, in 1982, Iran looked to be getting the upper hand, the USA brokered arms deals with Gulf states on behalf of Iraq. It significantly increased its support of her forces, which effectively allowed Saddam's military to remain in the fight and finally, in 1988, conclude the war without defeat. But this racked up enormous debts for Iraq with her Gulf state neighbours … obligations that would one day need to be settled.

At the end of the Iran-Iraq war and in the two years before the start of the Gulf War, faced with an economy that could not make ends meet, Iraq called on her neighbours to write-off the debt. However, those creditors would not yield to such requests, and Iraq's crippled economy continued to suffer.  

Iraq artillery weapons iran-iraq war
The Iran-Iraq War raged for 8 years, from 1980 to 1988. Pictured - Iranian troops fire 152 mm D-20 Howitzer. Credit: GNU


Iraq's economy had a shortfall of $7billion in 1989. To bring down this hole in the economy, Saddam Hussein ordered the demobilisation of 200,000 Iraqi soldiers … soldiers who had, in the most part, fought a long war with Iran throughout the 1980s. The country desperately needed to rebuild infrastructure but was unable to do so due to those economic problems.

Meanwhile, Kuwait had broken trading rules by over-producing oil in contravention of OPEC terms and conditions that in turn lead to a slump on the value of oil across the Gulf region. This may have cost the Iraqi economy about the same amount of money in 1989 alone as the deficit - $7billion. Kuwait viewed its actions a reasonable levy in place of any compensation for the neighbouring eight-year Iran-Iraq war that was not forthcoming. 

At this point, the US still held on to the preference of having Iraq under its sphere of influence. It agreed to support Saddam Hussein in his efforts to engage with fellow Gulf states over the oil dispute with Kuwait and the national debt. But, the marginal cordiality between Iraq and the West would soon come to an end. 

Oil fields alight
Oil played a significant role in the cause of the Gulf War. This image captures the Kuwaiti Oil Fields alight, having been set on fire by Saddam Hussein's retreating forces at the end of the conflict in February 1991.

Civil Unrest And Torture In Iraq

On the streets of Iraq's larger cities, the mass-unemployed were becoming disruptive. Among them, feeling sudden hardship, many of the demobilised veterans of the Iran-Iraq war.

The brunt of the anger was felt by expatriates in Iraq who held employment. In several incidents, violent attacks were enacted upon them, a disproportionate number of victims were Egyptian nationals. There was also reports of torture by Iraqi officials … news that increased political friction among Iraq and fellow Gulf states, chief among them Egypt.

The arrest and subsequent execution in Iraq of Iranian-born Farzad Bazoft, a British journalist employed by the Observer, stood only to engulf the situation. On March 15, 1990, his death was widely condemned internationally and drew significant criticism from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Iraq had accused Bazoft of being an Israeli spy. It called on Israel to withdraw from its occupied territories, stating that they were willing to attack the Israeli state with chemical weapons if it attacked Iraq. This threat of using internationally banned chemical weapons was the straw that broke the camel's back for the United States. At that point, it withdrew any resources and all support. Iraq's position became increasingly isolated. 

Arab League

Iraq lodged a formal protest at the Arab League over Kuwait's breaking of OPEC trading regulations in July 1990. They also accused Kuwait of horizontal drilling into their oilfields cross-border. In compensation, Iraq demanded $10billion, money desperately needed for the ailing economy. 

Kuwait offered just $500million. Two days later, Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait. 

The Occupation

The invasion by Saddam Hussein's forces began with a bombing campaign on Kuwait City.

Kuwaiti forces were dramatically outnumbered. Iraq's standing army consisted of over 950,000 men compared to a thin 16,000 in Kuwait's military. Most of those were on leave. Yet, had they not been, Saddam Hussein had at his disposal, alongside the standing army, 650,000 in paramilitary forces, 4,500 tanks, 484 combat aircraft, 232 helicopters and 20 special forces brigades. 

Saddam Hussein could field an army of one million men while holding an additional 850,000 troops in reserve. At the time, it was the fourth largest military in the world. 

The invasion took 12 hours. In that time, the Kuwaiti Royal family fled the country. The Emir's youngest brother, Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, was killed while mounting a Kuwait City airport defence. Within days, Saddam Hussein installed his cousin as Kuwait Governor. With it, the small sovereign state had been utterly annexed. 

UN Headquarters New York
Within hours of the invasion of Kuwait, Resolution 660 was passed at the United Nations in New York. Credit: UN

USA Reluctance

A UN Resolution (Resolution 660) was passed within hours. The Resolution provided international condemnation and demanded the immediate withdrawal of Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait. Concurrently, a motion at the Arab League expressed the matter be dealt internally among Gulf states and not by those in the West. However, the move was opposed by both Iraq and Libya.

On August 6, 1990, the UN passed a further two motions (resolution 661 and 665) which placed Iraq under the harshest trade sanctions (in effect a total ban on trade) and gave authority for a naval blockade.

"Don't go wobbly on me, George."

Famously, during the UN discussions, Margaret Thatcher told George Bush not to "go wobbly" on her. It was in response to the indecisive American position on the Kuwaiti invasion. America did not assume war as a necessary course of action. It was only after the Prime Minister discussed the consequences of appeasement with the President, pointing out that Saddam Hussein could easily capture up to 65% of the world's oil supply if left unchecked. 

This diplomatic overture by Margaret Thatcher to President Bush, mounted personally, moved the American position to that of aggression.  

Secretary-General Meets with Foreign Minister of Iraq
UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar (second left), holds talks with the Foreign Minister of Iraq, Tariq Aziz (second right), during his visit to Amman for discussions on Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Credit: UN

The next stages in the build-up to war were recalled by Margaret Thatcher herself in her memoirs – The Downing Street Years – and are today available via the Margaret Thatcher Foundation.

She discussed the hours spent inside the Oval Office debating George Bush and his White House officials over next steps.

Her recounting of the events in Washington describes some personal reservations the Iron Lady held regarding UN authority based on her previous experiences in the build-up to the Falklands War. She appears to suggest that the international support of the United Nations would not deter her position from that of a counter-invasion on Kuwait to push Saddam Hussein's forces out. 

My mind was now turning to the next practical steps we could take to exert pressure on Iraq. The European Community countries had agreed to support a complete economic and trade embargo of Iraq. But it was the Iraqi oil exports and the willingness of Turkey and Saudi Arabia to block them which would be crucial. The Americans had some lingering doubts about whether Turkey and Saudi Arabia would act. I was more confident. But these doubts increased the importance of enforcing all other measures still more effectively. I instructed the Foreign Office to prepare plans to implement a naval blockade in the northeast Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the north of the Gulf to intercept shipments of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil. I also asked that more thought be given to precise military guarantees for Saudi Arabia and for details of what aircraft we could send to the Gulf area immediately.

I had planned to take a few days holiday with my family after the Aspen speech, but after an invitation from the White House decided instead to fly to Washington and resume my talks with the President. For all the friendship and cooperation I had had from President Reagan, I was never taken into the Americans' confidence more than I was during the two hours or so I spent that afternoon at the White House.

President Bush awards Margaret Thatcher the Presidential Medal of Freedom
After the war, President Bush Sr awarded Margaret Thatcher the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Credit: Shutterstock

The Prime Minister's memoirs continued:

The President that day was an altogether more confident George Bush than the man with whom I had had earlier dealings. He was firm, cool, showing the decisive qualities which the Commander in Chief of the greatest world power must possess. Any hesitation fell away. I had always liked George Bush. Now my respect for him soared.

The President began by reporting what was known about the situation and US plans to deal with it. Saddam Hussein had sworn that if American forces moved into Saudi Arabia he would liberate the Kingdom from the Saudi Royal family. There were now clear photographs which the President passed around to us showing that Iraqi tanks had moved right up to the border with Saudi Arabia. I said that it was vital to bolster the Saudis. The main danger was that Iraq would attack Saudi Arabia before the King formally asked the United States for help.

In fact, part of the way through our discussions, Dick Cheney telephoned the President from Saudi Arabia. He reported that King Fahd was fully behind the United States plan to move the 82nd Airborne Division together with 48 F 15 fighters to Saudi Arabia. The King's only condition was that there should be no announcement until the forces were actually in place. This was excellent news. But how would we be able to conceal all this from the world media and the Iraqis who, if they knew about it, might well decide to go into Saudi Arabia at once? In fact, we were helped by the fact that all eyes were on the United Nations which was discussing Security Council Resolution 661, that imposed a ban on trade with Iraq and Kuwait, though making no explicit provision for its enforcement. American aircraft were eight hours into flight by the time the press discovered they had left.

Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher's diary details the conversations she had with President George Bush Sr over the prospects of war with Iraq. Credit: Crown.

This meeting also saw the beginning of an almost interminable argument between the Americans particularly Jim Baker and me about whether and in what form United Nations authority was needed for measures against Saddam Hussein. I felt that the Security Council Resolution which had already been passed, combined with our ability to invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter on self defence, was sufficient. Although I did not spell this out on the present occasion there were too many other pressing matters to decide my attitude, which had been reinforced as a result of our difficulties with the UN over the Falklands, was based on two considerations. First, there was no certainty that the wording of a Resolution, which was always open to amendment, would finish up by being satisfactory. If not, it might tie our hands unacceptably. Of course, with the end of the Cold War the Soviet Union was likely to be more cooperative. Communist China, fearful of isolation, was also disinclined to create too many problems either. But the fact remained that if one could achieve an objective without UN authority there was no point in running the risks attached to seeking it.

Second, although I am a strong believer in international law, I did not like unnecessary resort to the UN, because it suggested that sovereign states lacked the moral authority to act on their own behalf.

If it became accepted that force could only be used even in self defence when the United Nations approved, neither Britain's interests nor those of international justice and order would be served. The UN was a useful for some matters vital forum. But it was hardly the nucleus of a new world order. And there was still no substitute for the leadership of the United States.

The discussion between President Bush and myself in Washington continued. I emphasised the importance of preparing to respond to any Iraqi use of chemical weapons. I also stressed that we should fight the propaganda war with vigour. This was a defensive action by the West to preserve Saudi Arabia's integrity and anything which complicated or obscured that must be avoided. So, for example, we had to do everything to keep the Israelis out of the conflict. I also promised to use my contacts with Middle Eastern rulers to try to increase support for American action in defence of Saudi Arabia and to heighten the pressure on Iraq.

Margaret Thatcher continued by discussing her follow-up conversations with the King in Saudi Arabia over deploying the RAF and units from the British Army. Upon agreement between the pair, the Armed Forces were moved to a state of readiness.

However, Margaret Thatcher would be ousted as leader of the Conservative Party by the end of November 1990, after a challenge to her leadership proved fatal.

This paved the way for a new leader and Prime Minister of Great Britain, John Major. The crisis in the Gulf would be his to deal with, not the Iron Lady.

John Major
John Major took over as Prime Minister on November 28, 1990. Credit: Shutterstock

A Five-Year-Old Boy Called Stuart

Stuart Lockwood was a young boy who, alongside other foreign nationals based in Iraq, was detained by Saddam Hussein's officials and effectively used as hostages against Western aggression. 

During this crisis within a crisis, the Iraq leader appeared on state-controlled television with five-year-old Stuart, asking him on camera whether he was getting his milk while being held as a prisoner.

Saddam Hussein said to the prisoners in the broadcast:

"We hope your presence as guests here will not be for too long. Your presence here, and in other places, is meant to prevent the scourge of war."

This propaganda and tactical stunt drew international indignation. In London, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said that "the manipulation of children in that sort of way is contemptible." The pictures dominated news bulletins worldwide. The situation is remembered as a chilling moment in the build-up to war. The execution of Farzad Bazoft just months before had left a lingering shadow on the safety of Brits inside Iraq. 

new york times front page story on failed last ditch peace talks ahead of Gulf War. Credit: New York Times
The New York Times of January 11, 1991, reported the futile last-minute peace talks between the US and Iraq in Switzerland. Credit: New York Times

At the United Nations in New York, a final resolution (no. 687) was passed which provided a deadline of January 15, 1991, for Saddam Hussein to remove his forces out of Kuwait. The same Resolution also allowed nations to respond with force if Iraqi troops had not complied with the order.

In response, Iraq tabled a motion calling on all Israeli forces to withdraw from occupied territories. However, the US used its power of veto to the demand. 

In the final days before the deadline, last-ditch efforts were held in Switzerland between the US and Iraq but ended in failure. The US claimed Iraqi officials had turned up to the talks with nothing to offer. They brought no proposals or hypothetical scenarios for a pathway to peace. The New York Times reported that Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz of Iraq, "had not come from Baghdad with the authority to make even the smallest concession."

If Saddam Hussein's tanks did not head north back to Baghdad by January 15, war would be permissible under the terms of Resolution 687. 

The deadline passed with no movement from the Iraqis. The next day, a five-week bombing campaign by coalition forces commenced. 

The Gulf War had begun.

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