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The Gulf War Reconsidered

The Outlaw State: Saddam Hussein’s Quest for Power and the Gulf Crisis

by Elaine Sciolino
Wiley, 320 pp., $22.95

Kuwait and Iraq: Historical Claims and Territorial Disputes

by Richard Schofield
Royal Institute of International Affairs, 134 pp., £7.50 (paper)

From the House of War

by John Simpson
Arrow Books, 390 pp., £6.99 (paper)

Saddam’s War: The Origins of the Kuwait Conflict and the International Response

by John Bulloch, by Harvey Morris
Faber, 210 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Under Siege in Kuwait

by Jadranka Porter
Houghton Mifflin, 250 pp., $21.95


We are now getting the first flurry of books on the Gulf War. They already number at least thirty, with more certain to come. Some are paperback quickies of little interest or importance; some merit more serious attention. Taken together, they invite a larger and fuller view of the war than was possible before.

For the US government, Iraq was guilty of an aggression. Saddam Hussein was a savage, ruthless ruler, an Arab Hitler. The innocent victim, Kuwait, had to be rescued and restored to its former rulers. Iraq had to be made to pay for its evildoing. The war itself was a glorious victory. For President Bush, the war was morally “black and white, good versus evil.”1 It was enough that Iraq had committed an aggression.

In the Arab world, however, the historical roots of the war give it a different and less one-sided dimension. The United States today represents the West as Great Britain and France represented it yesterday. The West did not come into the Middle East with clean hands. The Gulf War was an episode in a long history of Western intervention in the region. There is good reason why someone in the Middle East might view the war differently from someone in the West.

When Arab armies were defeated by Israel in 1948 and again in 1967, a spasm of self-questioning shook the Arab world. It did not have much lasting effect and little was changed. But the Gulf War was an even more serious challenge. It pitted Arabs against Arabs, and one Arab side had to resort to Western intervention to defeat the other Arab side. For the Western powers, the Gulf War was no more than a passing incident; for the Arabs, it was the continuation of a historic crisis; the war represented another Arab failure in a long history of failures.

For this reason, it is necessary to go back to how the aggressor, Iraq, and its victim, Kuwait, came to be nations in their present form. Why has the West such responsibility for their very existence? What were the Western roots of this war?


The story is bizarre. It was told in a book of memoirs published in England some years ago.2

In November 1922, Sir Percy Cox, British High Commissioner for Iraq, decided to fix the boundaries of Iraq and Nejd, the territorial core of what later became Saudi Arabia. Kuwait was squeezed between them and had its boundaries fixed at the same time. Cox was in a position to make the decisions, because Iraq was then a British mandate; Kuwait was a British protectorate; Ibn Sa’ud, the ruler of Nejd, was a British client.

It was a strange affair. Cox called their representatives together in a British Army tent at Uqair in the Arabian desert. Kuwait was represented by Major J.C. More, its British political agent, who was in charge of its external affairs. Iraq sent its minister of communications, Sabíh Beg. Ibn Sa’ud came for the Saudis. Cox let the Arabs quarrel among themselves for five days. Sabíh Beg wanted Iraq to extend southward almost to Riyadh, Ibn Sa’ud’s capital. Ibn Sa’ud wanted his realm to reach northward as far as the Euphrates, deep into Iraq.

The rest of the story is told in the memoirs of Cox’s aide, Major Harold Dickson.

On the sixth day Sir Percy entered the lists. He told both sides that, at the rate they were going, nothing would be settled for a year. At a private meeting at which only he, Ibn Sa’ud and I were present, he lost all patience over what he called the childish attitude of Ibn Sa’ud in his tribal boundary idea. Sir Percy’s Arabic was not too good, so I did the translating.

It was astonishing to see the Sultan of Nejd being reprimanded like a naughty schoolboy by H.M. High Commissioner, and being told sharply that he, Sir Percy Cox, would himself decide on the type and general line of the frontier. This ended the impasse.

Ibn Sa’ud almost broke down, and pathetically remarked that Sir Percy was his father and brother, who had made him and raised him from nothing to the position he held, and that he would surrender half his kingdom, nay the whole, if Sir Percy ordered.

Having put Ibn Sa’ud in his place, Cox was ready to hand down the law.

As far as I can remember, Ibn Sa’ud took little further part in the frontier discussions, leaving it to Sir Percy to decide for him this vexed question. At a general meeting of the conference, Sir Percy took a red pencil and very carefully drew in on the map of Arabia a boundary line from the Persian Gulf to Jabal ‘Anaizan, close to the Transjordan frontier. This gave Iraq a large area of her territory claimed by Nejd. Obviously, to placate Ibn Sa’ud, he ruthlessly deprived Kuwait of nearly two-thirds of her territory and gave it to Nejd, his argument being that the power of Ibn Sabah [the desert title of the sheikh of Kuwait] was much less in the desert that [than] it had been when the Anglo-Turkish Agreement [1913] had been drawn up.3 South and west of Kuwait proper, he drew out two zones, which he declared should be neutral and known as the Kuwait Neutral Zone and the Iraq Neutral Zone.

Cox was not yet finished with Ibn Sa’ud:

At about nine o’clock that evening there was an amazing sequel. Ibn Sa’ud asked to see Sir Percy alone. Sir Percy took me with him. Ibn Sa’ud was by himself, standing in the center of his great reception tent. He seemed terribly upset.

My friend,” he moaned, “you have deprived me of half my kingdom. Better take it all and let me go into retirement.”

Still standing, this great strong man, magnificent in his grief, suddenly burst into sobs. Deeply disturbed, Sir Percy seized his hand and began to weep also. Tears were rolling down his cheeks. No one but the three of us were present, and I relate exactly what I saw.

The emotional storm did not last long. Still holding Ibn Sa’ud’s hand Sir Percy said:

My friend, I know exactly how you feel, and for this reason gave you two-thirds of Kuwait’s territory. I don’t know how Ibn Sabah will take the blow.”

Cox soon found how Ibn Sabah took the blow.

Both Major More and myself, I only in a secretarial capacity, were present when Sir Percy broke the news to the ruler of Kuwait that he had been obliged to give away to Ibn Sa’ud nearly two-thirds of the kingdom claimed by Sheikh Ahmad. Sheikh Ahmad pathetically asked why he had done this without even consulting him. Sir Percy replied that, on this unfortunate occasion, the sword had been mightier than the pen, and that had he not conceded the territory, Ibn Sa’ud would certainly have soon picked a quarrel and taken it, if not more, by force of arms. As it was, he (Sir Percy) had placated Sheikh Ahmad’s powerful neighbor and brought about a friendly feeling for Kuwait.

The final scene was worthy of this drama:

Sheikh Ahmad then asked if Great Britain had not entered the war in defence of the rights of small nations. Sir Percy admitted that this was correct.

If some day,” said Sheikh Ahmad, “Ibn Sa’ud dies and I grow strong like my grandfather, Mubarak, will the British Government object if I denounce the unjust frontier line and recover my lost territories?”

No!” laughed Sir Percy. “And may God bless your efforts.”

Thus faced with a fait accompli Sheikh Ahmad agreed to add his signature to the agreement.4

This is how Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia were fashioned and how such matters were handled in the old days—which are not all that old.


The border was marked ludicrously. In 1923, Major More placed a large notice board at the southerly edge of some date palms with the words: “Iraq-Kuwait Boundary.” Richard Schofield relates:

A full quarter of a century later, British officials were frantically trying to calculate where, precisely, and on what basis the Kuwaiti Political Agent had placed the board during 1923. Such information was deemed vital as the board had been removed by the Iraqis on several occasions during the 1930s and evidently replaced by Britain in an incorrect position. It was eventually established that More had decided on the site of the notice-board by marching out paces from the most southerly date palms at Safwan. When it was realized that extra date palms had been planted by the Iraqis south of Safwan by the mid-1940s, it was obvious that More’s original spot was never likely to be rediscovered with any precision.5

The border still threatens the peace between Iraq and Kuwait. In December 1991, a UN Iraq/Kuwait Boundary Demarcation Commission was still trying to rediscover More’s original spot. To prevent incidents from recurring in the area, it needs to establish where the border is or should be. In August, Iraqi police fired on Kuwaiti police. Kuwaitis have arrested Iraqi farmers who had apparently been tilling Kuwaiti soil for years: Iraq still occupies five police posts on the Kuwaiti side but refuses to give them up until the border is finally determined. So far, the UN observers have not been able to make up their minds.6

In effect, Iraq and Kuwait were put together in such a way that they seemed doomed sooner or later to collide. Iraq, a large country with an estimated population at present of over 16 million, was given a narrow coastline of about thirty miles. Its outlet to the gulf was almost blocked by two adjoining Kuwaiti islands, Warba and Bubiyan.7 Kuwait, little more than a city-state, with a population under two million, was provided with a coast-line of 310 miles. Iraq wanted a secure outlet to the Gulf and a change in the ownership of the two islands long before Saddam Hussein tried to do anything about them.

Another result of Cox’s red line was the later dispute over the Rumaila oil field, a “mega-field.” When Cox drew his line, oil had not yet been discovered in the Gulf region. Since the border was never properly demarcated, there was no telling later whether the Rumaila field was all in Iraq or, as Kuwait claimed, a small, southern tip of it was in Kuwait. Since oil is fungible, the Kuwaitis could extract oil from the entire field. When Saddam Hussein charged that the Kuwaitis had taken more than their share of Rumaila oil or that they had no share at all, he might have blamed Sir Percy’s red pencil.

It is necessary to take these historical roots into account because they left such an explosive legacy in the Gulf region—the Iraqi quest for a coastal outlet, the obstruction of the Kuwaiti barrier islands of Warba and Bubiyan, the dispute over Kuwait’s exploitation of the Rumaila oil field, the precarious borders, the pocket-sized Gulf emirates. All these unsettled issues could mean little to Americans, satisfied that it was enough to convict the brutal Saddam Hussein of an unprovoked aggression against a vastly weaker neighbor. But as Richard Schofield points out:

  1. 1

    Cited by Elaine Sciolino, The Outlaw State, p. 244.

  2. 2

    H.R.P. Dickson, Kuwait and Her Neighbors (London: Allen and Unwin, 1956).

  3. 3

    Richard Schofield in Kuwait and Iraq: Historical Claims and Territorial Disputes, p. 60, claims that Dickson erred in saying that Cox had given away two thirds of Kuwaiti territory to Ibn Sa’ud to compensate for the latter’s loss of a large slice of territory to Iraq. According to Schofield, the line drawn at Uqair merely ratified a line established by Great Britain in early 1921. Nevertheless, it is significant that the principals in this account thought so at the time and did not realize that an earlier British decision had been responsible for Cox’s action.

  4. 4

    Dickson, Kuwait and Her Neighbors, pp. 270–279.

  5. 5

    Schofield, Kuwait and Iraq, p. 62.

  6. 6

    The Wall Street Journal, December 5, 1991.

  7. 7

    The Kuwaiti islands of Bubiyan and Warba that dominate the estuary leading to the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr,” Iraq: A Country Study (Library of Congress/Area Handbook Series, 1990), p. 60.

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