Map of Kuwait
Map of Kuwait. (Grolier Interactive Inc.)


State of Kuwait is the official name of the country.

Location: Southwest Asia.

Area: 6,880 sq mi (17,818 km2).

Population: 2,000,000 (estimate).

Capital and Largest City: Kuwait (including metropolitan area).

Major Language(s): Arabic (official).

Major Religious Group(s): Muslim.

Government: Constitutional monarchy. Head of state emir. Head of government—prime minister (appointed by the emir). Legislature National Assembly.

Chief Products:
—wheat, vegetables, livestock (camels, sheep, goats).

Manufactured—refined petroleum, petrochemicals, concrete and bricks, prefabricated houses, processed foods.

Mineral—petroleum, natural gas.

Monetary Unit: Kuwaiti dinar (1 dinar = 1,000 fils).

Kuwait is a small nation situated on the Arabian Peninsula in Southwest Asia. Before the discovery of oil in the 1930’s made it one of the world’s wealthiest countries, Kuwait was a poor, little-known Arab state. Its people had traditionally earned their livelihood from boat building, pearl diving, fishing, and raising livestock. Oil transformed Kuwait, enabling it to finance a broad range of social welfare programs for its citizens. The country’s wealth made it a tempting prize to its more powerful neighbor Iraq, which invaded Kuwait in 1990, setting off the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The People

Ethnic Groups, Religion, Language. The Kuwaitis are Muslims. Arabic is the language of the country, although English is widely spoken. Traditionally, less than half the population were Kuwaiti citizens. The rest were immigrant workers and their descendants. Palestinian Arabs long made up the largest group of foreign workers. Others came from various parts of the Middle East. Thousands of Europeans and Americans were also employed by the oil companies. Kuwait has since adopted a policy of relying less o foreigners. Palestinians were hardest hit because of support for Iraq during the war by Palestinian leaders abroad.

Way of Life. Before the oil boom, most of the people lived in the old walled town of Kuwait, in mud and brick houses packed into winding alleyways. The people outside the town were Bedouin nomads, herders of camels, goats, and sheep. This way of life was changed abruptly, in the years following World War II (1939-45), when Kuwait began to export oil in large quantities. Most of the old town of Kuwait was replaced by Kuwait city—a modern capital with wide boulevards, a variety of shops, banks, luxury hotels, and the most up-to-date urban services.

The Welfare State. Kuwait combined certain features of a free enterprise economy with those of a welfare state. Welfare projects include low-income housing, free medical care and hospitalization, free education, and free lunch and transportation for schoolchildren. The government also constructed retail stores to provide the unemployed with work.

Power stations provided street lighting and electricity for most homes. Water-distillation plants purified seawater so that it could be used for drinking. Until these distillation plants were built, Kuwait had to import most of its water.

In order to oversee the many different services, Kuwait had an exceptionally large proportion of government employees in relation to the population.

Education. Public education is free. One year of kindergarten is followed by twelve years of primary, intermediate, and secondary schooling. Secondary-school graduates can go on to technical institutions and colleges. The University of Kuwait was established in 1966. Some students are sent to colleges and universities abroad at state expense. The system also includes a program of adult education.

The Land

Kuwait is located on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, at the northwestern tip of the Persian Gulf. Kuwait’s neighbors are Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The boundaries with Saudi Arabia were established in 1922. Because the two countries could not agree on which of them should rule the desert area just south of Kuwait on the Saudi Arabian border, they made the region into a neutral zone shared by both. The importance of this territory increased greatly when oil was discovered there. The zone has since been partitioned between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but they continue to share the revenue from its oil.

Nearly all of the country is flat, sandy desert, with a few small hills. Here and there a few oases (watered, fertile areas) provide shelter and subsistence for the Bedouin nomads and their flocks and herds. Rainfall is scanty, falling mostly between October and April.

The climate of Kuwait is one of the hottest in the world, often reaching temperatures of 125°F (52°C) in the summer. During the winter months, temperatures are much cooler.

The Economy

Agriculture. Kuwait has little agriculture, and most food must be imported. A few farmers earn a livelihood by growing vegetables and cereal grains, such as wheat, in the oases. From their livestock the Bedouin obtain meat, milk, skins, and goat and camel hair for their clothing and tents.

Oil. Since the discovery of oil, Kuwait’s economy has been dependent upon that industry. In 1934 the government of Kuwait granted the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (British Petroleum Company) and the American-owned Gulf Oil Company the rights to prospect for oil within Kuwait. The two firms formed the Kuwait Oil Company. In 1938 the Burgan oil field, located south of Kuwait city, was discovered. It is considered the richest single oil field in the world. Other fields have since been discovered. The Kuwait Oil Company was nationalized in 1975.

Kuwait’s crude oil reserves are among the largest in the world. Oil accounted for nearly 90 percent of its earnings. Revenue from oil increased at such a rapid rate that the per capita (per person) annual income grew from $35 before World II to over $20,000 before the 1990 Iraqi invasion. The country’s wealth was so great that other Arab countries depended on Kuwait as a source of funds for their own economic development. The government has also invested much of its oil income abroad.

Industry. Kuwait’s industry is based on oil. It includes oil refining, the processing of oil products, and the production of natural gas. Manufactures include sand-and-lime bricks, concrete, prefabricated houses, and processed foods. Furniture making, fishing, and shipbuilding are traditional industries.

Kuwait’s economy has only recently begun to recover from the effects of the Iraqi invasion and the 1991 Persian Gulf War.


Kuwait city is the largest city, the capital, and the chief port of Kuwait. It has changed dramatically from its days as a mud-walled fishing village and center of the pearling trade. Graceful sailing ships called dhows once dotted its waters. Today Kuwait city has broad avenues and high-rise buildings. It is the commercial, financial, and industrial heart of the country. Many Kuwaitis fled the city when the country was invaded. Those who remained suffered under the Iraqi occupation.

Other important urban areas include Mena al Ahmadi, an oil port; the port of Shuwaykh; and the new city of Ahmadi, built by the Kuwait Oil Company.


Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy. Its ruler is the emir, who belongs to the Sabah family that has ruled Kuwait since 1756. The emir is chosen for life by other members of the family. He exercises power through a prime minister and a council of ministers. Traditionally, the office of prime minister has gone to the crown prince, the intended successor of the emir.

In 1962, Kuwait adopted its first constitution. It provides for an elected legislature, the National Assembly. Its members serve 4-year terms. Only male citizens over the age of 21 who are able to read and write and whose parents have lived in Kuwait since 1920 are allowed to vote and take part in political life. This includes only a small fraction of the total population. But all people living in the country may benefit from the wide range of social services offered by the government.


Early History. In the mid-1700’s, Arab tribes from the central desert of the Arabian Peninsula migrated to the more hospitable shore of the Persian Gulf. In 1756 they chose the Sabahs to be the ruling family of what is now the nation of Kuwait.

The region was nominally part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, but the Sabah family was allowed much self-government in local matters. During the 1700’s and early 1800’s Kuwait was important as a port for all of central Arabia. But attacks on the town of Kuwait by raiding Arab tribes and by Persian Gulf pirates led to its economic decline.

British Influence. Britain became especially interested in Kuwait because the Persian Gulf was a vital waterway on the route to British-controlled India. By the end of the 1800’s, Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabah feared that the Ottoman Turks would occupy his country. In 1899 he signed a treaty with Britain, in return for British protection.

In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, the British recognized Kuwait’s independence from Turkey but continued to exercise protection over the country. After the war—under the pro-British rule of Sheikh Ahmad, a nephew of Salem—the country began to flourish. Concessions were signed with the oil companies, and immigrant workers swelled the population. The oil boom and its accompanying prosperity began in 1945, when oil operations, halted during World War II (1939-45), were resumed.

Independence. When Ahmad died in 1950, Sheikh Abdullah al-Salim al-Sabah came to power. Under Abdullah the country made great economic progress. The increasing oil wealth was used to develop Kuwait as a modern nation and to provide the people with a share of the country’s riches.

Kuwait gained full independence from Britain on June 19, 1961. Abdullah died in 1965 and was succeeded as emir by Sheikh Sabah al-Salim al-Sabah. After his death in 1977, rule in Kuwait passed to Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Sabah.

To protect Kuwaiti oil shipments during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, the U.S. government reflagged (flew the U.S. flag on) a number of Kuwaiti oil tankers and provided them with a naval escort in the Persian Gulf.

The Persian Gulf War. In spite of its support of Iraq during the war, Kuwait was invaded by its much larger neighbor in 1990. Iraq had claimed Kuwait as part of its territory under Turkish rule. Using the pretext of disputed oil fields and disagreements over oil production quotas, Iraq quickly overran Kuwait, as the emir fled to Saudi Arabia. The aggression was condemned by the United Nations Security Council and by many governments. The United States dispatched military forces to Saudi Arabia and imposed a naval blockade on Iraq. When Iraq refused to withdraw from Kuwait, the United Nations authorized the use of military force by a coalition (alliance) of nations led by the United States. The coalition included troops from several Arab countries. Massive air attacks against Iraq began in January 1991. In February allied armies launched a ground offensive. After some 100 hours of combat, Iraq was driven from Kuwait.

The Aftermath. During its occupation, Iraq had looted hospital equipment, libraries, government records, museums, industrial machinery, private automobiles, and other property from Kuwait. Hundreds of civilians had been killed, tortured, and imprisoned.

Thousands of Kuwaitis had been taken prisoner to Iraq. Others fled to neighboring countries, returning after the fighting ended. Many non-Kuwaiti citizens also fled. The country itself was nearly destroyed during the occupation and the war that followed, and retreating Iraqi troops set fire to most of Kuwait’s oil wells. By 1994 oil production had returned to prewar levels, but the costs of the war and rebuilding the economy were high.

After the war, Kuwaitis demanded democratic reforms. Elections for the National Assembly, suspended in 1986, resumed in 1992. And many more people were allowed to participate in the 1996 elections, although women were still denied the right to vote.

Don Peretz
State University of New York at Binghamton
Author, The Middle East Today