Kuwait Towers CREDIT Nelson Dsouza Pixabay

COMMENT: Kuwait - A Good Friend, But Watch The Politics

"Today, Kuwait, the only Gulf state with an internationally recognized sense of democracy, is threatened beyond its horizons."

Kuwait Towers CREDIT Nelson Dsouza Pixabay

When you think of Kuwait, start with the national emblem.

In its centre is a two-masted lantern rigged dhow. It is a reminder of the lifeblood of this Gulf State.

Kuwaitis were land traders until the Al Sabar tribe came in the 18th century. They expanded along 100 miles of coastline and traded beyond Kuwait’s horizons.

Today, Kuwait, the only Gulf state with an internationally recognized sense of democracy, is threatened beyond its horizons. 

The Americans, with a new command centre outside Kuwait City, and the British with an obligation that goes back to the Victorians, are committed to defending Kuwait against enemies not seen but heard.

At the end of the 19th century, the Turks wanted Kuwait. The British went to help the al Sabah family defend the country, and in 1899 Queen Victoria was given another colony to call her own.

The prospects should have been good, but after the First World War, they took a tumble. Kuwait survived on pearl diving, but with the global introduction of artificial, cultured pearls, that market collapsed.

Kuwait was all but bankrupt and the Iraqis and Saudis tried to snatch bits of the country believing it could not defend itself, but the British faced off the intruders and imposed an agreement called the Uqair 1922 Protocol.

The borders were defined for all three states and Kuwait was safe. The British had done well.

Prime Minister Theresa May visits Bahrain 2016 CREDIT PA
Theresa May met Emir of Kuwait, Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (right) at the Kuwait villa in Manama, Bahrain, while on a three-day visit to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in 2016. (Picture: PA)

Ten years later, Kuwait struck oil. Within less than 20 years, it was the largest oil exporter in the Middle East, and until the 1970s British companies took big profits.

Today, Kuwait owns 10 percent of global oil reserves. Importantly, the country became independent from the UK in 1961 and established a political system including parliamentary elections - unusual in that region, that exist today.

But in this political and cultural oasis, there is the threat of an invasion.

On 2 August 1990, Saddam Hussein repeated the old Iraqi claim that it owned part of Kuwait and invaded.

The coalition rescue effort pleaded for at the UN by the then Amir, Sheikh Jaber Al Sabah, began with five weeks of shock and awe bombing followed by Desert Storm's land assault. Within two days, Saddam Hussein’s forces were all but gone.


Today, Kuwait is inevitably full of security doubts. During the 2011 Arab Spring, Kuwaiti activists took to the streets.

The courts are still hearing cases against the protests. Just this past week, a leading lawyer and activist Bader al-Dahoum was rallying support- and getting it.

Most nights see demonstrations outside the centre of what has made Kuwait so different in the Gulf for half a century: Parliament and the National Assembly.

How and why? The Amir rules, but the constitution allows criticism.

But sedition has a long shadow and the old Amir understands that Kuwait - a relatively liberal state - is vulnerable to what goes elsewhere in the Gulf and further.

It needs outside protection, and because of friendships it has to offer military homes to many engaged in the Iraq and Syria campaigns.

Which is why there are more than 13,000 US troops in Camp Arifjan for all to see and wonder why the US is establishing its Central Command in Kuwait City. Those remembering 1991 understand.

The protestors talk of their only crime being patriotism. The rulers believe any protest could easily become sedition and then the collapse of a beacon of liberalism as far as it can go.

Britain, for more than a century Kuwait’s policeman, will add to its commitment. In doing so, the UK is protecting her own interests.

In spite of British declarations to Brussels about European defence, for the moment at least, the UK military front line is in the Middle East.

It’s likely to be there for some time, which is why the commitments have to make sure Kuwait is defended both from outside aggression and from internal misunderstandings that could too easily amount to the same thing.

Thus, the military perception is obvious, the political uncertainty less so.

Cover picture courtesy of Nelson Dsouza/Pixabay.

Christopher Lee is the Forces Radio (BFBS) defence analyst. He can be heard every week on the only radio programme devoted to discussing matters of defence and security, Sitrep. To download, click here.