A look at Kuwait

February 27, 1991|By New York Times News Service


Since the sheikdom of Kuwait was founded in 1756, it has been ruled, sometimes under British guardianship, by the Sabah family, who were chosen by its first Arab settlers. At the time of the invasion by Iraq on Aug. 2, the emir of Kuwait was Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who was head of state, leading a Cabinet with 10 appointed ministers and four elected ones. The constitution, framed in 1962, allowed the vote to literate, native-born Kuwaiti males over 21 years of age whose families had resided in Kuwait since 1920. Under that constitution, the ruler promulgated laws, and the 50-member assembly had some lesser legislative powers. In 1986, however, the emir dissolved the assembly and announced suspension of certain articles in the constitution, saying he would rule by decree.


Kuwait became part of Turkey's Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, later becoming a semi-autonomous monarchy. In 1899, fearing further Turkish control, Kuwait became a British protectorate, with London responsible for its foreign affairs. After the allied victory in World War I, the Ottoman Empire was broken up, and Kuwait remained a self-governing British protectorate until 1961. On June 19 of that year, Britain granted Kuwait full independence and, six days later, Baghdad claimed Kuwait as an integral part of Iraq. A few weeks later, British troops landed in Kuwait to forestall any Iraqi invasion and, on July 20, the Arab League admitted the sheikdom to membership, recognizing its independence and rejecting Iraq's claim. Kuwait was a major financial backer of Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran. When the Iraq-Iran war ended, Iraq renewed its claims to Kuwait.


Bounded on the west and north by Iraq, on the east by the Persian Gulf and to the south by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, with an area of 6,880 square miles (about 1,000 square miles smaller than Massachusetts), is largely desert except for fertile patches in the southeastern and coastal areas. Among the most important of several offshore islands, many of which are uninhabited, are Bubiyan and Warba -- barren mud flats that control the entrance to Iraq's chief ports, Umm Qasr and Basra -- and Failaka, 8 miles long by 2 miles wide, near the entrance of Kuwait Bay, a center for fishing and pearl diving.


The 862,200 Kuwaitis, according to a 1974 tabulation, are predominately Arab, and Arabic is the universal language. Before the Iraqi invasion, more than 1 million foreign residents were the mainstay of government, technical and other services. Islam is the religion of 95 percent of the people. The majority are Sunnis; there is also a Shiite minority. Unlike most Arab societies, Kuwait has been notable for having a largely classless society, a circumstance that has been attributed to an absence of agriculture and of hierarchies based on land ownership, as well as to the influence of tribal relations. These tribal ties served to minimize the importance of the nation's unequal distribution of wealth. The government offers its citizens a wide array of free social services.


Before the invasion, more than 90 percent of the government's income came from oil. The country produced about 2.4 million barrels a day despite a production quota set by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries at 1.5 million barrels a day. This overproduction was considered a significant factor in depressing world oil prices and infuriated Iraq, which was suffering from huge war debts. Kuwait's refineries, among the most advanced in the world, have suffered more than $40 billion in damage during the war, according to an estimate made before the start of the allied ground offensive.

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