The development of the nation of Kuwait dates to the early 18th cent. when the town of Kuwait was founded by Arabs. The present ruling dynasty was established by Sabah abu Abdullah (ruled 1756–72). In the late 18th and early 19th cent. the emirate, nominally an Ottoman province, was frequently threatened by the Wahhabis. In 1897, Kuwait was made a British protectorate. In June, 1961, the British ended their protectorate, and Kuwait became an independent emirate, with Emir Abdullah al-Salim al-Sabah as its ruler. However, the British supplied troops in July at the request of the emir when Iraq claimed sovereignty over Kuwait. A short time later the British forces were replaced by detachments from the Arab League, of which Kuwait is a member. In Oct., 1963, Iraq officially recognized the nation of Kuwait.
Oil-rich Kuwait was a founding member (1961) of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The country's oil revenues have been used to provide financial aid to other Arab countries, and the nation became a supporter of Palestinian causes. Although Kuwait has maintained strong ties with Western nations, it also established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in 1963, the first of the Persion Gulf states to do so. In 1965, Emir Sabah Al-Salim al-Sabah succeeded to the throne. Kuwait took part in the oil embargo against nations that had supported Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and during the war Kuwaiti troops stationed in Egypt along the Suez Canal fought against Israeli forces. Emir Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah succeeded to the throne in 1977 on the death of Emir Sabah. In 1981, Kuwait became a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Kuwait supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, which caused the country's oil income to decrease by nearly 50%. An oil refinery was attacked by Iran in 1982, Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf came under Iranian fire, and Iran instigated terrorist activity in Kuwait through radical Muslim groups. An assassination attempt on Emir Jaber occurred in May, 1985. In 1987, Kuwait sought U.S. protection for its oil tankers in the Persian Gulf; U.S. forces patrolled the gulf's waters until the end of the war in 1988.
In 1989, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein accused Kuwait of flooding the international oil market and consequently forcing oil prices down. Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, and Hussein declared Kuwait annexed. Many native Kuwaitis, including the royal family, fled. Western and Arab coalition forces, the largest part of which were American, drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War. Thousands of foreign workers who were based in Kuwait fled to Iran, Turkey, and Jordan, or were housed in temporary refugee camps throughout the Middle East. Iraqi forces devastated the country, setting fire to Kuwaiti oil wells before retreating. Over 80% of all wells were destroyed or damaged, causing phenomenal environmental hazards. The emir returned to Kuwait from Saudi Arabia in Mar., 1991. The Palestinians remaining in Kuwait after the war were expelled because of the Palestine Liberation Organization's support of Iraq.
In the war's wake, Kuwait concentrated on restoring its oil industry and on rebuilding the country. Parliamentary elections in 1992 resulted in the victory of a majority of the opposition candidates, but despite promises of democratic reform, the al Sabah family continued to dominate the government. In Oct., 1994, Iraq massed elite troops along the border with Kuwait, but it removed them when Kuwait and the United States moved forces into the area. Parliament was dissolved by the emir in May, 1999; new elections held in July gave Islamist and liberal candidates the most seats. Also in 1999, the emir issued an edict giving Kuwaiti women the right to vote and to run for office, but parliament failed to ratify it. In the July, 2003, parliamentary elections Islamists won 42% of the seats, while liberals retained only a handful; government supporters won 28% of the seats. The government finally succeeded in securing parliamentary ratification of political rights for women in May, 2005.
In Jan., 2006, Emir Jaber died; he was succeeded by Emir Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, who was himself in poor health (and died in 2008). Emir Saad was soon removed from office for health reasons by the parliament, and the prime minister, Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, succeeded him. Clashes in parliament over consolidating voting districts, which opposition members wanted in order to prevent vote-buying, led the emir to call new elections. In the June vote, women voted for the first time, but no female candidate won a seat; reformers, both largely Islamists, won 36 of the 50 seats.
Differences between the cabinet and the parliament led the government to resign in Mar., 2008. The May parliamentary elections largely repeated the results of two years before, with Islamists again controling the largest number of seats. A power struggle over some legislators demands to be allowed to question the prime minister, Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah, about the circumstances of an Iranian cleric's visit led the government to resign in November; the emir reappointed Sheikh Nasser the following month, and a new cabinet was formed in Jan., 2009.
In Mar., 2009, however, legislators and the government were again in a standoff, and when the government again resigned, the emir dissolved parliament. Sunni Islamists suffered some losses in the May elections, which also produced Kuwait's first female legislators; the emir again asked Sheikh Nasser to form a government. In Mar., 2011, the cabinet again resigned in order to avoid parliamentary questioning. Sheikh Nasser formed a new cabinet in May, but corruption protests led to that government's resignation in November.
Jaber al-Mubarak al-Hamad al-Sabah, the former defense minister, was appointed prime minister, and in December parliament was dissolved. The Feb., 2012, elections resulted in a majority of the seats being held by opposition Islamist groups, with Sunni Islamists winning nearly half the seats. Sheikh Jaber was reappointed as prime minister after the elections. In June, however, amid renewed tensions between parliament and the government, the courts ruled that the February elections were unconstitutional, and reinstated the earlier parliament, and Sheikh Jaber was again reappointed as prime minister in July.
The opposition boycotted parliament, however, and in October it was dissolved. The opposition also boycotted the Dec., 2012, elections (turnout was roughly 40%), objecting to new voting rules that could diminish its power; this led to the election of progovernment legislators, including a few women. The previous government was essentially reappointed. Opposition leaders denounced the result as illegitimate and mounted a series of protests. In June, 2013, the constitutional court ordered the parliament dissolved because of problems before the December vote. New elections in July were again boycotted by the opposition; turnout was roughly 50%. After the election Sheikh Jaber was appointed prime minister.
In Nov., 2016, early parliamentary elections resulted in successes for opposition candidates, which won roughly half the seats, due in part to voters' opposition to government austerity measures that had been introduced as a result of weak oil prices. Sheikh Jaber was reappointed prime minister. In Nov., 2019, the government resigned, and Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah, the foreign minister, was named prime minister; a new government was formed in December.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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