Amidst the ancient kingdoms of Arabia, Kuwait is a comparative newcomer. Its history dates from 1710, when a group of Arabian immigrants pitched their tents and built a fort on the marshy headland that would later become Kuwait City. Their strategic location helped ensure continuing growth; by 1760 the settlement had become a walled city, with a fleet of 800 ships and camel caravans which travelled regularly to Baghdad and Damascus. All this development took place under the watchful eye of the Al-Sabah clan, who by 1756 had become the rulers of the principality.
As leaders of a small state surrounded by large neighbors, the Al-Sabahs had to be skilled at political maneuvering. In the 19th century Kuwait became a dependency of the Ottoman Empire, but one which had considerable sovereignty over its own affairs and which recognized Ottoman rule in name only. By the beginning of the 20th century the Ottoman Empire's claims were growing more pressing, and Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah looked to another foreign power, Great Britain. Wary of the close alliance between the Ottoman Empire and the Germans, England joined with Kuwait to ward off the Ottoman threat. Under that agreement Kuwait went from being an Ottoman Dependency to being a British Protectorate. The Al-Sabah clan retained control over the country's domestic affairs, while the British took responsibility for the country's security and foreign relations. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the British granted sovereignty to the Arabs who had fought with them against the World War I Turkish-German alliance. The regions of Baghdad, Mosul and Al-Basrah became today's Iraq. Mindful of the need to protect their shipping lanes to India, however, the British kept the Kuwait region and its natural deep water port as a Protectorate.
This did not sit well with the newly founded Kingdom of Iraq, which considered Kuwait to be part of the Al-Basrah region and which also wanted Kuwait's deep-water port and easy access to the Persian Gulf. However, there was little they could do against the British Army. In exchange for recognition by the League of Nations, in 1932 the Iraqi government recognized the current border between Kuwait and Iraq. This continued to be a major source of contention within Iraq, particularly when vast oil reserves were discovered in the area. When the British left Kuwait in 1961, Iraq once again reasserted its claim to Kuwait. The Iraqi Army mobilized at the borders, preparing to invade, but were stopped when the British sent troops back into the region. After this relations between the two countries improved, particularly when Kuwait funded Iraq's military buildup during the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988.
Yet this support would spark still another conflict, when Kuwait demanded repayment of the $10 billion or so it had loaned to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. Iraqi strongman Sadaam Hussein declared that Kuwait was flooding the world markets with oil to "bankrupt" Iraq, and that its oilfields near the Kuwait-Iraq border were stealing Iraqi oil. On August 2, 1990 the Iraqi Army invaded Kuwait. Soon thereafter Sadaam Hussein declared Kuwait to be a province of Iraq, and ordered all embassies in Kuwait to move their headquarters to Baghdad. Unfortunately for Hussein, he had underestimated world opinion. Within weeks the UN had condemned the Iraqi action; in January 1991 "Operation Desert Storm" began. The Iraqi Army, one of the largest in the region, was no match for the massive force deployed to free Kuwait; by the end of February the fighting had stopped, Kuwait was free, and the Iraqi Army was in ruins with nearly 100,000 soldiers dead.
Today, while Kuwait has mostly recovered from the Gulf War, there are still lingering aftereffects. Before the War more than half the population was comprised of foreign workers, mostly Arabs from neighboring states. Many of the Palestinians working in Kuwait supported Hussein and Iraq during the invasion; after Kuwait regained its sovereignty, there were widespread human rights abuses against Palestinian guest workers and most were deported from the country. To prevent widespread collusion of this sort from happening again, Kuwaiti law currently mandates that the population of foreign workers must be smaller than the native-born Kuwaiti population. There has also been a movement toward greater democracy in Kuwait, although it is still a tenuous one. Only 13% of Kuwait's population (those who are Moslem and Kuwaiti-born, or who have been naturalized citizens for over 20 years) can vote, although Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah has decreed that eligible women will be allowed to vote in the 2003 Kuwait elections.