WASHINGTON — "He who stands too close to the blacksmith gets burned by the sparks," Kuwait's foreign minister once said of his country's location between warring Iran and Iraq. Kuwait lived by oil, a most flammable substance. This month, Saddam Hussein set a fire that burned independent Kuwait to the ground.
Kuwait was a most unusual country, more state of mind--or finance--than nation-state. Lacking a national tradition, its citizens were bound together largely by a combination of their traditional way of life and the new riches they shared. Lacking any means to defend itself against powerful neighbors Iran and Iraq, Kuwait tried to pursue a systematic policy of appeasement.
The Al Sabah family ruled the desert that became Kuwait when the United States was still a British colony. To escape from its neighbors' domination, the rulers accepted a British protectorate themselves in 1899. Although Baghdad recognized the border in 1932, the 1960s and again in 1976, it periodically claimed Kuwait for itself, coveting Kuwait's oil wealth and 120 miles of Persian Gulf shoreline.
Shortly after London granted independence in 1961, Iraqi threats forced British troops to return for a few months. Then, in an interesting precedent, the British were replaced by an Arab League force from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, which stayed two years until the danger dissipated. Every time Kuwait seemed vulnerable--when the British terminated their security guarantee in 1971, in 1973 and again in 1976 when the emir dissolved Parliament--Iraq reiterated its claim.
When Iraq's threat receded, Islamic Iran began to press its own claim, trying to subvert the 20% of Kuwaiti citizens who shared Tehran's denomination of Shiite Islam. Most of the Iran-Iraq War, particularly between 1982 and 1988, was fought a few miles from Kuwait's frontier. Angered by Kuwait's support for Iraq, Iran sponsored dozens of acts of sabotage and terrorism in the first half of the 1980s, including a 1985 assassination attempt on the emir.
Kuwait sold oil on Iraq's behalf, gave tens of billions of dollars in loans that were actually gifts and used its ports to transship Iraqi war supplies. When Iran escalated attacks on Kuwaiti ships, the government asked to re-register tankers under the U.S. flag so they could be convoyed by U.S. warships. The United States agreed and lived up to its promise.
Ironically, Kuwait had always been the most outspokenly anti-American of all the gulf Arab regimes. Part of Kuwait's appeasement was to buy off potential attacks or subversion by subsidizing Iraq, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The other component was rhetorical extremism. Kuwait was not moderate; it simply did not do very much except talk and donate money.
Thus, Kuwait's U.N. ambassador could speak of a "cabal which controls and manipulates and exploits the rest of humanity by controlling the money and wealth of the world. . . . It is a well-known fact that the Zionists are the richest people in the world and control much of its destiny." In July, 1985, Kuwait National Assembly speaker Ahmad al Sa'dun demanded Kuwait cease aid to the PLO and Jordan for being too moderate in considering negotiations with Israel.
At the same time, however, despite some regional defense efforts--the Gulf Cooperation Council pact of those unable to protect themselves; the trade of aid for Egyptian advisers in 1986--Kuwait's survival depended ultimately on Western support. Yet Kuwaitis correctly believed that they could bad-mouth the West and enjoy its help. Thus, for example, they threatened to go to the Soviets to obtain American reflagging, then gave the U.S. fleet only limited help in protecting them.
Understandably obsessed with their vulnerability, Kuwait based its internal politics on three principles: limit citizenship, keep power away from radical nationalists and get as much money as possible out of the country.
The emir, Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah, continued paternalist tribal traditions. The royal family's hundreds of members held the key offices; its 700,000 citizens, those descended from families living there before the mid-1920s, received an average annual income higher than that of Americans. A typical Kuwaiti scheme was the 75-member consultative assembly (one-third appointed by the emir), elected in June for a two-year term. There were also 1.2 million non-citizens in Kuwait, more than 300,000 of them Palestinians, who made a great deal of money but had no political standing.