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Kuwait: Persian Gulf War
Country Study > Chapter 7 > Foreign Relations > Persian Gulf War

PERSIAN GULF WAR


On August 2, 1990, Iraqi forces invaded and occupied Kuwait. On February 26, 1991, United States-led coalition forces restored Kuwaiti sovereignty. These paired events represented both the failure and the success of Kuwait's foreign policy.

The primary impetus for the invasion lay in the dynamics of internal Iraqi politics -- economic and political concerns after the long, debilitating, and ultimately unsuccessful Iran-Iraq War. However, economic and political relations between Iraq and Kuwait provided the context for conflict.

Iraq's first financial disagreement with Kuwait related to oil policy. Iraq objected to Kuwait's production beyond OPEC quotas and the consequent contribution that overproduction made to lowering oil prices internationally. Iraq also claimed Kuwait was siphoning oil from the shared Ar Rumaylah oil field straddling the Iraq-Kuwait border. During the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq ceased production from its side of the field while Kuwait continued operations. Kuwait asserted it had taken oil only from its own side of the field; Iraq claimed it had poached. Another financial disagreement with Kuwait concerned the estimated US$13 billion that Kuwait had lent Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, a debt that Iraq wished Kuwait to forgive. These financial claims were set in a broader context. The Iraqi government experienced serious financial strains following the war with Iran; nearby Kuwait had apparently ample resources. To obtain these resources, Iraq put forward whatever financial claims it could.

In addition to economic issues, Iraq also disagreed with Kuwait over borders. This claim had two somewhat contradictory dimensions. Iraq first disputed the location of the border and then reaffirmed its claim to all of Kuwait. The latter claim rested on the argument that Iraq had once ruled Kuwait. This assertion to historical sovereignty over Kuwait was not solidly grounded: Kuwait had always been a self-governing political entity. Despite Ottoman Iraq's historic interest in Kuwait, it had never ruled the shaykhdom. When Kuwait was first established, the area was under the control of the Bani Khalid of Arabia, not the Ottomans. For a brief period in the late nineteenth century, Kuwait moved closer to the Ottomans, and for a short time Abd Allah as Salim held the Ottoman title of qaimaqam, or provincial governor; part of the Iraqi claim invoked this fact After Britain and Kuwait signed the 1899 treaty, Ottoman forces, anxious to overthrow Mubarak, had no place in the shaykhdom. British forces came to Mubarak's support as needed in favor of Kuwaiti independence.

Kuwait's status was again a matter of international discussion in the period around World War I. In 1913 British and Ottoman representatives drew up the draft Anglo-Ottoman Convention in which Britain recognized Ottoman suzerainty over Kuwait but at the same time declared Kuwait an autonomous district of the Ottoman Empire. The convention conditioned recognition of Ottoman interests in Kuwait on the promise of Ottoman noninterference in the internal affairs of Kuwait. The Iraqi government's later assertion that this constituted British recognition of Iraqi jurisdiction in Kuwait was weak. The document specifically recognized Kuwait's historical political autonomy and disallowed Iraqi interference in Kuwait's domestic affairs. In any event, the document was never ratified, and at the beginning of World War I, Britain moved closer to Kuwait, not further away. At the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire was dissolved. In the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, Turkey renounced claims to all former Ottoman provinces.

In the interwar years, the border question again arose. In 1922 the British convened a conference at Al Uqayr in Saudi Arabia that set Saudi Arabia's borders with Kuwait and Iraq but not Kuwait and Iraq's border with each other. However, in 1923 the British high commissioner in Iraq sent a memorandum to the political agent in Kuwait laying out the border between Kuwait and Iraq. When in 1932 Iraq applied to the League of Nations for membership as an independent state, it included information on the borders from the memorandum.

Iraq thus seemed to be moving toward acceptance of its border with Kuwait when the discovery of oil, the promise of more Kuwaiti oil revenues, and the related Majlis Movement occurred. As the Majlis Movement grew, Iraq began to support dissidents in Kuwait and simultaneously put forward claims to Kuwait. Iraq also explored the idea of building a port on Kuwait's coast to give Iraq an alternative to its port of Basra. Iraq began expressing interest in the islands of Bubiyan and Warbah as well. The Majlis Movement in Kuwait failed, however, and Iraq had to await another opportunity.

As long as Britain was there to support Kuwait, Iraq could do little more than assert a verbal claim. When Kuwait became independent in 1961, the Iraqi government tested Britain's resolve by bringing forces to Kuwait's border in support of its claims on the shaykhdom. British and Arab League forces, however, forestalled any Iraqi military action.

In 1963 a new government came to power in Iraq. Anxious to mend fences, this government formally recognized Kuwait and signed an agreement recognizing the borders between the two states as those set forth in Iraq's 1932 application to the League of Nations. Iraq then dropped its objection to Kuwait's membership in the UN and in the Arab League and established diplomatic relations, including the exchange of ambassadors, with Kuwait.

Nonetheless, tensions lingered. During the 1960s and 1970s, a series of border incidents took place, and there was continuing Iraqi pressure for Kuwait to relinquish, or at least offer longterm leases on, the islands of Warbah and Bubiyan. In the 1980s, relations between the two states appeared to improve as Iraq, desperate for Kuwaiti financial support in its war with Iran, was careful not to press its unpopular claims. Both sides claimed sincerity in their historical effort to negotiate the border issue. When the war ended, however, the border issue reappeared.

The dispute itself does not seem to have been a precipitating factor in the invasion. When Iraq entered Kuwait in August 1990, it claimed to do so in support of a Kuwaiti rebellion. When no pro-Iraqi rebellion (or even bloc) emerged, and Iraq found itself unable to set up a pliable Kuwaiti government, it was forced to resort to direct occupation. It was only at this point that the Iraqi claim to Kuwait resurfaced. On August 9, one week after the invasion, Iraq formally annexed Kuwait, adding the northern part of the country, including the Ar Rumaylah oil field and the islands of Warbah and Bubiyan, to Iraq's province of Basra and creating a separate province out of the rest of Kuwait.

After Kuwait's liberation, the UN established a five-member boundary commission to demarcate the Kuwait-Iraq boundary in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 687, which reaffirmed the inviolability of the Iraq-Kuwait border. In April 1992, the commission announced its findings, which demarcated the Kuwaiti border with Iraq about 570 meters to the north near the Iraqi town of Safwan and slightly north in the region of the contested Ar Rumaylah oil field. These modifications gave Kuwait six oil wells in the field and part of the Iraqi naval base of Umm Qasr. Kuwait accepted the commission's finding and announced it intended to build a security fence along its border with Iraq as an advance warning system. Iraq responded to the findings with an angry letter in May to the UN secretary general rejecting the commission's findings. Domestically, it continued to refer to Kuwait's territory as an integral part of Iraq. Physical demarcation of the land boundary was completed in November 1992.

The postwar period thus opened with many of the issues still unresolved that had played a role in precipitating the invasion and war. In Iraq the government of Saddam Husayn continued to assert its prewar claim to Kuwait, coloring Kuwait's postwar foreign policy. As long as Saddam Husayn remains at the helm in Iraq, Kuwait can feel no real security. Even were he to be replaced, much of the insecurity that haunts Kuwait and drives its foreign policy would remain. Kuwaitis see the war as one waged by the Iraqi people and remember previous Iraqi promises to respect Kuwait's sovereignty. Kuwait will continue to see Iraq as a serious threat, regardless of what transpires in Iraq's leadership.

Data as of January 1993




Last Updated: January 1993


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Kuwait was first published in 1993. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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