Country Profile: Kuwait

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An overview of the key moments from the history of interaction between the British and Kuwait, as illustrated through the India Office Records.

The State of Kuwait is an Emirate situated in the north-east of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the south and Iraq to the north-west. The country’s capital and largest city is Kuwait City, a natural harbour in the north-western corner of the Gulf. The Al Sabah family, originally from the Nejd region of what is now Saudi Arabia, have ruled Kuwait since 1756.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Kuwait developed into a regional trading and pearling centre and a class of successful merchants emerged. During this period, Kuwait managed to maintain its independence from imperial powers. This changed, however, in 1870 when – in response to the growing power of the British Empire in the Gulf – the Ottoman Empire began to expand southwards and formally absorbed Kuwait into its territory by making it an administrative dependency of the Ottoman province of Basra.

In 1896, a rupture in Ottoman-Kuwaiti relations occurred when Shaikh Mubarak Al Sabah murdered his brothers, Muhammad and Jarrah, and proclaimed himself ruler of Kuwait in Muhammad’s place. After this incident Mubarak asked for British protection and, in 1899, signed a secret treaty with the British Empire in which he agreed not to lease or cede any Kuwaiti territory to foreign powers in return for their protection against external threats.


Photogravure of Kuwait's shoreline in 1903 from ‘Koweit. A report compiled in the Intelligence Branch, Quarter Master General’s Department’. IOR/L/PS/20/153
Photogravure of Kuwait's shoreline in 1903 from ‘Koweit. A report compiled in the Intelligence Branch, Quarter Master General’s Department’. IOR/L/PS/20/153

Following the treaty of 1899, in the early twentieth century, a series of other agreements were signed between Kuwait and the British Government which formalised the relationship between the two. Many of these agreements restricted the power of the Al Sabah to rule independently including their ability to exploit Kuwait’s pearling and oil resources without prior approval of the British Government. In 1904, the first British Political Agent A mid-ranking political representative (equivalent to a Consul) from the diplomatic corps of the Government of India or one of its subordinate provincial governments, in charge of a Political Agency. was appointed to Kuwait; this post became a highly influential one and lasted until 1961.

Significant oil deposits were discovered in Kuwait in 1938, but the first exports did not leave the country until 1946. As the oil industry developed, the state began to receive significant revenues and the Al Sabah family’s dependence on trade dues from the country’s successful merchants was lessened.

Kuwait became independent from Great Britain on 19 June 1961.

Key moments from Kuwait’s history in the India Office Records include

Suggested reading

Ahmad M. Abu Hakima, The Modern History of Kuwait (London: Luzac, 1983)
Frederick F. Anscombe, The Ottoman Gulf: The Creation of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997)
Husain M. Al Baharna, The Legal Status of the Arabian Gulf States (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968)
Jill Crystal, Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)