Foreign Relations

Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

As the Iraqi invasion demonstrated, Kuwait's large oil revenues and inherently small defense capabilities gave it tremendous vulnerability. Historically, until the Iraqi invasion, Kuwaiti leaders had always dealt with that vulnerability through diplomacy, trying to find allies that would protect them while maintaining as much independence as possible from those allies by playing them off against each other. Historically, the most important ally was Britain. Kuwait's relationship with Britain came about at the bidding of the early Kuwaiti leader Shaykh Mubarak in an effort to deter a still more troublesome actor, the Ottoman Empire. As one consequence of the 1899 treaty, which gave Kuwait a better status than was the case in British treaties with other possessions, the British presence remained somewhat distant, and British officials meddled less frequently in local politics.

The relationship with Britain continued beyond independence on June 19, 1961, and the new agreement between independent Kuwait and Britain promised continued British protection as necessary. That protection proved necessary when Iraq, six days after Kuwait's independence, declared Kuwait a part of Iraq and sent troops toward the amirate in support of that claim. Because Kuwait's army was too small to defend the state, British troops arrived, followed soon after by forces from the League of Arab States (Arab League), in the face of which Iraqi forces withdrew.

As Britain increasingly withdrew from the gulf in the 1970s and 1980s, Kuwait was forced to look for other sources of support. Although Kuwaiti leaders tried to maintain a degree of neutrality between the superpowers--Kuwait had an early and sustained economic, military, and diplomatic relationship with the Soviet Union--in the end it was obliged to turn to the United States for support. The Iran-Iraq War was the decisive factor in consolidating closer ties with the United States. Although at the outset of the war Kuwait was an outspoken critic of United States military presence in the gulf, during the war this position changed. When Kuwaiti ships became the target of Iranian attacks, Kuwait's security situation deteriorated, and Kuwait approached the Soviet Union and the United States with requests to reflag and thus protect its beleaguered tankers. As soon as the Soviet Union responded positively to the request, the United States followed. The ground was thus laid for subsequent United States support.

Persian Gulf War

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress