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The Gulf War Reconsidered

Any future regime in Iraq will still have to contend with the unfinished business of the Gulf War. The historical roots are too deep to be ignored for long, whatever happens to Saddam Hussein. In the West, and especially in the United States, this past was largely ignored or held little interest. Yet the future was mortgaged to the past in the Arab world and cannot be so easily forgotten there.


Until oil was discovered in 1938 and began to bring in big money in the 1950s, Kuwait was another poor, marginal Arab territory. Its traditional occupations were pearl fishing, date growing, and transit trade. The Kuwait that Saddam Hussein invaded was a phenomenon no more than a quarter of a century old.

According to the rules of the game, the Sabah clan, not the nation of Kuwait, owned the oil beneath the soil—or at least treated the oil as if it were their own. Kuwait “was run more like a family business than a country.”10 The Sabah dynasty leased the oil fields to a British-American consortium and sat back to collect the royalties. In 1950, Saudi Arabia obtained a fifty-fifty arrangement with Aramco; Kuwait soon followed suit with the Kuwait Oil Co. By 1974, Kuwait increased its share to 60 per cent, and in 1975 nationalized the entire operation.11

Before the exploitation of oil, the Sabahs had shared power with influential merchant families. Oil enabled the Sabahs to free themselves from their traditional rivalry with the merchants. As a recent study of oil and politics in the Gulf puts it, a tacit arrangement was made between the rulers and the trading families, by which the Sabahs guaranteed the merchants a large share of oil revenues in exchange for the merchants’ renunciation of their “historical claim to participate in decision making.”12 Oil was the Sabahs’ fortune and misfortune: it made them rich beyond dreams of avarice and the object of desire on the part of a larger, troubled, and more powerful neighbor.

In 1988, the per capita income of Egypt was $490 a year; of Iraq, $1,950; of Kuwait, $10,410.13 Whatever their other qualities, the Sabahs were accomplished business tycoons. They made so much money in oil that they began to invest their excess wealth all over the world in varied enterprises, which became even more profitable than oil. According to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Kuwait invested some $50 billion in the world economy in the 1980s; the portfolio was worth $100 billion by 1990.14 A British source reports that eighteen families control 90 percent of all Kuwaiti investments.15

The Kuwaiti social structure is unlike any in the Arab—or any other—world. The Sabah family consists of some 2,000 people. Before the recent war, only 17 percent of a population of less than two million were native-born Kuwaitis; they were the only ones entitled to Kuwaiti citizenship.16 Kuwaiti playboys were legendary in Europe, especially at the gaming tables in London, where they gained a reputation for “heavy-drinking, gambling, driving the most expensive cars and hiring the most expensive prostitutes.”17 The behavior of Kuwaitis in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere during their brief exile scandalized their hosts. The rest of the Kuwaiti population consisted of about 350,000 Palestinians, 300,000 Egyptians, 200,000 Indians, Pakistanis, and Filipinos.18 Many of them were second and third generation in Kuwait, but had no civil rights or standing.

Yet the Sabahs also provided more health care and higher education to more people than anywhere else in the Middle East. Many Palestinians had relatively high incomes and greater personal freedom than elsewhere, which made their sudden fall from grace after the war the harder to bear. So long as the good life lasted, the Sabahs’ “personal fiefdom” spread the winnings widely enough to stifle discontents.

John Simpson found:

Those Kuwaiti residents who were of traditional Kuwaiti stock—and who alone had the right of citizenship as the descendants of specified families living in the country in the 1920s—were rarely involved in directly productive activities, except as the locally-appointed directors without whom no business could legally operate. Most work in prewar Kuwait was done by expatriates. Europeans and Americans, Palestinians, Indians and Pakistanis carried out management and consultative tasks; Filipinos, Egyptians, Sri Lankans, Sudanese and Iraqis did the manual labor. The expatriates had no permanent right of abode, could never hope to achieve citizenship and had only limited rights in law.19

The wonder is how little time it took Kuwait to transform itself from a humble trading post to a cosmopolitan center. By the time Saddam Hussein decided to devour it, Kuwait had the first Arab stock exchange, the first Arab department store equal to any in the West, five-star hotels, super-highways, luxurious shopping malls, office towers, a $400 million conference center, everything that “reeked of wealth.”20 The Sabahs had toyed with introducing a tightly controlled consultative assembly, only to draw back whenever it showed signs of independence. Though Kuwait enjoyed something of a reputation as a more liberal and open society than any other in the Middle East, this was more of a commentary on the others than on Kuwait. The press, for example, was said to be less constricted than elsewhere in the Arab world. But a journalist, Yugoslav-born but a British citizen, who spent five years working for the Arab Times, an English language newspaper in Kuwait, had no illusions:

The Kuwaiti government was congenitally secretive. Even before 1986, when censors were officially introduced in newspaper offices, unspecified constraints were in force. Editors were expected to know the guidelines and avoid issues and areas regarded as sensitive. The possibilities of what might offend were so wide-ranging and changing, many played safe in the extreme. It resulted in the blandest of news coverage. The more shrewd and conscientious learned how to write around sensitive subjects by using a kind of code language and burying a point deep down the story.21

Wealth seems to have gone to the Kuwaiti rulers’ heads. Nouveaux riches, they overestimated what their riches could do for them. Money could buy them many things, but not the kind of power they needed to protect themselves from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.


When the Iran-Iraq war came to an end in August 1988, Saddam Hussein confronted a number of urgent problems, only one of which was new. What they were can be seen from the way the prewar phase of the Iran-Kuwait crisis developed.

The beginning appears to be a visit on August 7, 1988, barely a fortnight after the end of the war with Iran, by the Iraqi minister of the interior, Samir Abdul Wahhab, to Kuwait at the latter’s request. The purpose was to hold talks on the old and still unresolved border question. Another visit to Kuwait in December 1988 by Saddam’s second in command, Izzat Ibrahim, continued the discussions. In February 1989, more talks went on during a visit to Baghdad by the Kuwaiti crown prince and prime minister.22

According to Elaine Sciolino, whose book is one of the best of the current lot, matters were only made worse because each side now knew what the other wanted:

Both sides said they were eager to resolve the matter of the border. Kuwait had never taken Iraq’s war debt off its books; it wanted drilling rights for the Rumaila oil field since Iraq’s war with Iran was over. It had plans to build a new city for 100,000 people on the Subiya Peninsula across from Bubiyan island and to build a resort on the island itself. Iraq’s idea of a border agreement meant gaining control over both Bubiyan and Warba. Saddam was spending $1 billion to develop the ports of Umm Qasr and Khor Zubair [facing the two islands], and he did not like the idea that Kuwait controlled his access to the sea.23

By this time, it was clear that Kuwait was trying to take advantage of its financial and other aid to Iraq during the Iran war to get agreement on the Kuwait-Iraq border. Instead, these negotiations in February 1989 were soon followed by a campaign in the Iraqi-controlled press against Kuwait’s support of Syrian policy in Lebanon and its assumption that a border agreement should deny Warba and Bubiyan to Iraq.24 Nothing came of these preliminary meetings.

By 1990, Saddam Hussein knew that he could not get what he wanted from Kuwait by negotiation. In February, he set in motion the campaign of accusations and threats that took him to war six months later. Just what Iraq was after was clear and should have left no doubt in Washington that Saddam Hussein was aiming at the United States as well as at Kuwait.

Saddam made four major speeches, on February 24, April 1, May 28, and July 17, which prepared the way for war. In them, he attempted to whip up Arab hostility against the United States and Israel. He first concentrated on Israel as a strategy for uniting the Arab world behind his leadership but soon turned on the United States to warn it against interfering with his plans.

On February 24, he warned that “if the Gulf people, along with all Arabs, are not careful, the Arab Gulf region will be governed by the US will.” If the United States ever imagines that it can give Israel the cover to strike at Iraqi metallurgical factories, he threatened on April 1, “by God, we will make the fire eat up half of Israel.” By May 28, at an Arab summit meeting in Baghdad, he publicly turned his attention to Kuwait. He charged that it had, by exceeding its OPEC oil production quota, cost Iraq $14 billion in depressed oil prices and he demanded $27 billion from Kuwait alone.

On this occasion, Saddam Hussein is said to have privately delivered a warning to the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah. According to Saddam, he had given the Kuwaiti ruler the first of three warnings that Kuwait’s oil policy was playing into the hands of a US conspiracy to undermine Iraq. He called Kuwait’s policy of exceeding its OPEC oil-production quota “an act of war.”

And on July 17, Saddam Hussein accused “certain rulers of the Gulf states” of intentionally reducing oil prices and of serving the interests of the United States. “If words fail to afford us protection,” he said, “then we will have no choice but to resort to effective action to put things right and ensure the restitution of our rights.”25

More concrete demands and threats were made by Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. On July 16, in a letter to Arab League Secretary General Chedli Klibi, Aziz charged that Kuwait had encroached on Iraqi territory and that Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates had schemed to glut the oil market by exceeding their quotas. Part of the oil dumped by Kuwait on the world oil market was “stolen” from the “Iraqi al-Rumaila oil field.” The Kuwaiti government “wants to destroy the Iraqi economy.” It was incumbent on the Arab states to which Iraq owed money “not only to cancel these debts but also organize an Arab plan similar to the Marshall Plan to compensate Iraq for some of the losses during the war [with Iran].”26

  1. 10

    John Simpson, From the House of War, p. 212. Simpson is foreign affairs editor of the bbc who covered the Gulf War.

  2. 11

    The story is engagingly told by Daniel Yergin, The Prize (Simon and Schuster, 1991).

  3. 12

    Jill Crystal, Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar, pp. 1, 57, 89–91, 171–174. This author calls Kuwait and its neighbors on the Gulf “accidental states” (p. 2). She points out that “oil-based states are unusual in that their higher degree of autonomy from other social groupings is not the result of a momentary crisis, but part of a structurally determined, ongoing process. This independence is almost uniquely peculiar to oil. Almost any other export—coffee, cotton—involves some accommodation between the rulers and the elite who control the work-force and extract surplus revenues. Oil does not. The elites on whom the ruler depends are not local, but rather multinational oil companies. The new revenues snapped the link binding the rulers to the merchants” (pp. 6–7). This book is vital for an understanding of Kuwait’s political economy—or economic politics.

  4. 13

    Elaine Sciolino, The Outlaw State, pp. 125, 129. This book contains two fine chapters, “The Arming of Iraq” and “A Case Study in a Failed Policy.”

  5. 14

    Crisis in the Persian Gulf: Sanctions, Diplomacy and War (Hearings before the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, December 4–20, 1990), p. 523. Sciolino says that individual Kuwaitis had invested $50 billion more, making a total of $150 billion (The Outlaw State, p. 216).

  6. 15

    John Bulloch and Harvey Morris, Saddam’s War, p. 130.

  7. 16

    Bulloch and Morris, Saddam’s War, pp. 126–127.

  8. 17

    Simpson, From the House of War, p. 77.

  9. 18

    Judith Miller and Laurie Mylroie, Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf (Times Books, 1990), pp. 200, 203.

  10. 19

    Simpson, From the House of War, p. 75. Also see more of the same in Sciolino, The Outlaw State, p. 217.

  11. 20

    The phrase comes from Jadranka Porter, Under Siege in Kuwait, p. 5.

  12. 21

    Porter, Under Siege in Kuwait, pp. 7–8. Strict control still goes on. Donald Kirk reported in The New Leader, October 7-21, 1991, that “press restrictions have been tightened and public protest has been banned. ‘There is a censor in our office all the time,’ notes Mohammad al-Sagar, editor of the daily al-Qabas. He reads everything, including the crosswords.’ “

  13. 22

    Schofield, Kuwait and Iraq, p. 124. Schofield cites other sources.

  14. 23

    Sciolino, The Outlaw State, p. 196.

  15. 24

    Schofield, Kuwait and Iraq, p. 125.

  16. 25

    These statements by Saddam Hussein are based on the transcripts of the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, February 27, April 3, May 29, and July 28, 1990. The personal warning to the emir of Kuwait is noted in Simon Henderson, Instant Empire (Mercury House, 1991, p. 218). The source is an interview with Independent Television News, a British television news program, in November 1990.

  17. 26

    Foreign Broadcast Information Service, July 18, 1990.

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