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Kuwait: The Port Nobody Wants

Gulf access endowed Kuwait with excellent opportunities for maritime trade on the Persian Gulf. Potential trading partners not only included the other littoral states, but more importantly, South Asia. The Persian Gulf offered passage to the Indian Ocean via the Straits of Hormuz.

As a result, Kuwait has featured prominently in the the economy of the Persian Gulf region — but not so much beyond that.

Over many centuries, while prized lands changed hands dozens of times, dominion over Kuwait was relatively uncontested. There were invasions and disputes, but surprisingly few.

In fact, before Iraq's 1990 incursion, the most recent externally-instigated regime change had been the 16th Century expansion of the Ottoman Empire, which resulted in an entirely notional Ottoman rule over the sleepy little city-state.

Perhaps it was the appeal of a peaceful settlement with a pleasant, coastal climate that inspired the Shaykh of the Powerful Bani Khalid tribe to build a home near the fishing village of Q'rain sometime around 1613CE.

It's not clear who, if anyone, had power in the area when the Shaykh arrived — other than the nominal Ottoman sovereignty, of course. There's some indication that the fishing village had, at times, operated as a functional anarchy, although it's more likely that the society was in a pre-chieftain stage, where a "Big Man" achieved a tenuous authority by acting as a facilitator.

Whatever the case, that was all over when Shaykh Beni Khalid decided to make Kuwait the Hamptons of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Shaykh — in the tacky tradition of pretentious rich people throughout history — built his compound to resemble something unnecessarily grandiose. In this case it was a small fortress. This earned it the name Kuwait, which is the diminutive form of kut, meaning fortress. Over the next century, Kuwait would supplant Q'rain as the name of the settlement.

Those Guests who Never Leave

Oh come on, we've all been there — unless you've never had any friends who you might invite to stay with you.

Anyway, a terrible drought that started in 1722 drove nomadic Bedouins from the interior of the Arab peninsula toward the coastal areas. Shaykh Bani Khalid has always shown hospitality to a group of confederated clans known as the Al Utab, so naturally he made them welcome in Kuwait, where they were invited to wait out the dry spell.

After waiting out a few years of drought, the Al Utab became accustomed to beach-front living, so they settled in and became the first "Kuwaitis" (as opposed to Q'rainis). Then, in the 1740's all hell broke loose the the Arab world, and the remote bayside town became more than a new home, it became a refuge.

Unitarians?! No Fucking Way!

Fucking way.

In the first half of the 18th Century, the Arabian Peninsula was plagued with the unwelcome emergence of a militant, radical, and violently expansionist faction of … Unitarians. I realize that this invokes horrifying images of being forced at sword-point to attend a vegan potluck where you'll be subjected to a lecture about lesbian rabbis, but they weren't those kind of Unitarians.

A Muslim scholar named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1704-1792) had been inspired by a school of thought started much earlier by Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328). This was basically a literalist, fundamentalist version of Islam. Abd al-Wahhab was responding to remnants of pre-Islam religious practices still extant in the culture. These included animism and ancestor worship — pretty standard features of older tribal religions.

Abd al-Wahhab's fundamentalism was militant and absolutist. In his Kitab at-Tawhid (Book of Unity), he sought the establishment of a pure Islamic state uniting all Muslim cultures and enforcing a strict adherence to the letter of the Q'ran. After his extremist views got him kicked out of the school in Medina, Abd al-Wahhab settled in Ad-Dir'iyah, a small town outside of Ridyah.

It was in this town, in 1744, that Abd al-Wahhab's ideology would get its biggest boost. Abd al-Wahhab made an agreement with Ibn Sa'ud, tribal leader of the land of Najd. Ibn Sa'ud started a campaign of conquest that gave birth to Saudi Arabia and established the Muwahiddun ("unitarians") as a dominant force in Islam. Non-Muslims and critics of the movement called them Wahhabis, although the Muwahiddun consider this label insulting.

Seeing as how Wahhabist Osama bin Laden was driven by this ideology to have jumbo jets crash into buildings, I'll stick with the name "Wahhabis" — if I just call them "assholes," it wouldn't be clear enough who I was talking about.

As the Wahhabis began their first wave of violent repression across the Arabian Peninsula, the remote coastal town of Kuwait turned out to be a great place to stay away from trouble. It was beyond the reach of the early Wahhabist aggression, and neither the Europeans nor the Ottomans seemed particularly interested in it.

With rising interest in Gulf access, why not?

Because, prior to the 19th Century, Kuwait didn't rank very high on anyones list if ideal port cities for much the same reasons that no one has built a ski resort in the Sentinel Mountains.


Why would oil stop you from building a ski resort?

Wait — don't answer that. I'd rather not know what qualifies for thinking in your world. Shit. Where was I? Right — the Sentinel Mountains.

Skiing, Space Travel, and Kuwait

The Sentinel Mountains not only feature some very ski-able slopes, but they have year-round snow cover without the usual risk of altitude sickness that exists on most permanent snow caps; The highest peak it about 4700 ft. (1400m) above sea level. How does such a low mountain stay snow capped year-round?

By being located in Antarctica.

The Antarctic location effectively negates the value of uninterrupted snow cover; there is still something preventing you from using the slopes all year. Simply put, for at least half of each year, the weather in the Sentinel mountains will kill you. The only environmental gear that can reliably keep you alive in these mountains, during the winter — the Antarctic winter — is a NASA EVA suit. Unfortunately, while skiing in an EVA suit sounds really fun, it would actually suck pretty hard.

The suits are unbelievably ponderous. They are designed with the assumption that you will be using them in a reduced-gravity environment. If you think my assessment is overly negative, there is a way that you can approximate the experience of skiing in a space suit in the middle of an Antarctic Winter. The simulation can be conducted on a regular ski slope with easily-obtained materials.

Rent a grizzly bear costume. Put it on soaking wet and then have a friend create a water-tight layer around it by wrapping you shoulder-to-ankle in several ply deep of duct tape. On your way to the top of the slope, take twice the recommended clinical dose of Xanax and Dexedrine, and guzzle a one-liter bottle of Listerine brand mouth wash — it must be original flavor, not Cool Mint or some crap like that. When you get to the top of the ski-lift, put on a motorcycle helmet and have a friend apply more duct tape so that you can't move your head.

Now, hit the slopes!

Oh, I forgot something. You'll need to gather or hire a large number — possibly hundreds — of assistants. Position an assistant every four meters along the slope. Each assistant should have a five gallon bucket filled with liquid nitrogen. As you ski past each assistant, he or she should douse you with the contents of the bucket.

To sum up, the Sentinel Mountains might seem like a good place for a ski resort, but a practical evaluation would have to conclude that the environment has too little heat and/or too much gravity.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with Kuwait, but… well… let's just move on.

Back On Topic (I Promise)

The important similarity that made the ski-resort analogy seem viable when I thought it up, is that both Kuwait City and the Sentinel Mountains have unfortunate geographies that end up introducing proscriptive transportation challenges.

The value of a port city lies not just its water access, but in its utility as a hub that connects sea lanes and overland shipping routes. In Kuwait's case, its favorable marine access is paired with decidedly unfavorable land access. North of Kuwait city are the marshes and swamplands of the combined Tigris and Euphrates river deltas. To the west and south are miles of empty desert.

As the founders of Las Vegas, Nevada would learn several hundred years later, if you want to convince people to trek across the desert, you have to put up some casinos. Throw in some hookers and you'll get Fall Comdex every year.

Bottom line, your destination city must offer something that people want — something valuable. Such value was discovered in Kuwait, causing its star to rise, somewhat. Can you guess what that would be?


Good guess, but no. It was pearls. There are rich oyster beds off the shores of Kuwait; these provided the region with a new and lucrative export. Driven by new-found class, Kuwait city and the surrounding region became a recognized state in 1756.

What happened in 1756?

Glad you asked.

Infighting in the ruling Beni Khalid family had begun in 1722, weakening their hold on fringe territories, such as Kuwait. During that time, the Al Sabah tribe's influence over their new home grew. In 1756, the Beni Khalid were further weakened by battles with the Wahhabi insurgency. The Al Sabah leaders declared suzerainty over Kuwait and chose a patriarch.

The British established a presence in the emirate, in the guise of the East India Company, in 1775. Actually, the Brits were based in desirable port city, Um Q'sar, but an office was founded in Kuwait to service a mail route to Aleppo.

There was some trepidation about the British presence, as the Brits were known for making themselves a little too comfortable in other people's countries. In 1775, however, the British were distracted by a much bigger problem, on a much bigger continent. About 200 years later, this problem would be more mobile, and it would come to the Middle East on its own, and Arabs would experience it for themselves.

Officially, most of the Arabian peninsula had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire since the 16th century. So naturally, after claiming Kuwait, the new rulers found themselves mollifying the Ottoman authorities. The fact that Kuwait had been conquered so easily illustrates that Imperial authority in the region was more nominal than actual at the time.

In 1871, over 100 years after Kuwait declared itself a country, the Al Sabah monarch finally got sick of the whiny Turks and agreed to accept the title qaimaqam (provincial governor) of Kuwait. Acquiescing to Ottoman rule had no practical impact on the affairs of the Sheikdom.

Until 1896.

What happ—

Put a sock in it.

In 1896, the reigning patriarch, Muhammad Al Sabah, was assassinated by a bad guy from 1930's era issue of Amazing Stories — Mubarak the Great. Actually Mubarak was Muhammad's brother which should have made the whole incident the kind of banal episode in the context of a monarchy, I wouldn't bother mentioning. Basically, it was such an event. What was different was that Mubarak the Great had an agenda that pretty seriously disrupted the status quo vis-a-vie this "sovereignty thing" and that pissed off the Empire.

I think calling yourself "The Great" is kind of a dead giveaway that you aren't pursuing a position of government authority just for the pension benefits.

Still lacking the local military strength needed to oust the Kuwaiti regime, Ottoman agents put their efforts into supporting Mubarak the Great's overthrow by Flash Gordon — sorry, I meant to say: by factions loyal to the slain Muhammad Al Sabah. When this proved ineffective, the Ottomans stepped up the military threat. The region had been increasingly militarized due to a fresh round of Wahhabist misbehavior.

Facing pressure from one empire, Mubarak the Great turned to another empire for protection. In 1899, the Shaykh signed an agreement with the British to make Kuwait a British protectorate.

The agreement kept the Emirate stable for many years, especially against a Wahhabist onslaught in 1914, although there was a small issue in 1938.

The international economic malaise that followed the 1929 crash of the American stock market, was doubly hard on Kuwait. Kuwait had already been suffering a decline it its economy due to the growing presence of Japanese cultured pearls in the world pearl market. In 1938, the Kuwaiti people formed a democratic assembly and voted to join Iraq as their 19th province. But while the Kuwaiti people had discovered democracy, the Al Sabah's and their British patrons had discovered something else that gave them reason to violently put down the insurrection.

If you ever wondered where Saddam Hussein got the crazy idea that Kuwait should be the 19th Province of Iraq, now you know. It was the democratic decision of the Kuwaiti people. And to quote President George Herbert Walker Bush, that "shall not stand."


Of course.

Since 1938, the royal family has occasionally resurrected the assembly when it needed a veneer of democracy, or when it needed to rally support from the general population. The idea that Kuwait sustains any legitimate tradition of democracy is basically a joke.

But let's get back to Iraq.

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