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After 31 Years, What Has the Gulf Learned from the Kuwait Invasion?

August 2, 2021 marked thirty-one years since the beginning of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Mercifully, half of all Kuwaitis living today had not been born to witness those days, and they are regarded by much of the population as ancient history. In Iraq, however, much has been written surrounding those ominous days, and in the years since, more information has been uncovered on the conditions of Iraq’s occupation. Some information, however, has been shown to be inaccurate and fabricated, looming over the truth. So what about the factual events witnessed by people in the past? While many authors have written on how they regarded the occupation at the time, fewer have examined the long-term consequences of the occupation on Kuwaiti society.

The Final Nail in the Pan-Arab Coffin

First, it must be said that Kuwait’s society is no longer the same as it was during Iraq’s occupation. Before the occupation, Kuwait acted as a refined workplace for Arabs originating from all parts of the Middle East.  Kuwaiti public and government officials supported and trended towards Arab solidarity, despite all obstacles harming inter-Arab relations. The Kuwaiti press was a free platform for Arab ideas, the parliament was supportive of pan-Arab issues, and there were three development institutions – the Gulf and South Authority body, the Kuwait Fund, and the Arab Fund – that were directed towards the public good of the Arab world and devoid of any political project that could interfere with their ability to serve the public’s interests.

When Iraq occupied Kuwait in 1990, this dream came to an end. That August, the people of Kuwait suffered two shocks which came to shape their thinking: first, the mistreatment of Kuwaitis by Iraqis, their fellow Arabs; and second, the support of various Arab governments for Iraq’s occupation, even though these governments held friendly relations with Kuwait prior to the Iraqi invasion. The Arabs’ support for Iraq’s illegal actions caused extraordinary difficulties in Kuwait’s relationships with these countries after the American-led liberation in 1991, although the divisions mostly healed over time.

The effects of this change are seen in Yemen. Prior to the onset of the civil war, the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh supported the occupation. Consequently, only after four years did Kuwait’s Development Office in Sana’a return to active work in education, medical treatment, and road construction, as was done with all the countries that Kuwaiti policy defined as “countries of the opposite,” including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). This lesson implies the importance of Arab cohesion, and its necessity for regional interaction despite difficulties and negligence by leaders.

The solution is first to organize this Arab-Arab relationship in a rational and non-emotional manner, as the lack of such has led to disasters in the Arab world when there are opportunities for common interests. Such interests should also be maximized towards the common good, while differences must be resolved and understood.

Implications for the Region

Second, the brutal rule by Iraq’s government under Saddam Hussein, which involves bullying other countries, acting arrogantly towards Iraq’s neighbors, and ignoring principles of good governance, led to fatal consequences. All of these characteristics were present under Iraq’s Ba’athist rule, while Kuwait, opting for a peaceful international system, was for decades subject to harassment, and eventually invasion, by Iraq’s Ba’athist regime. This should not be a surprise, as Iraq’s regime has operated as a totalitarian state, oppressing many segments of the Iraqi people while often resorting to rule with an iron fist to spread fear and force changes as deemed necessary for Saddam. Until today, Saddam’s actions and rule style have affected Iraq’s ability to govern. Moreover, the unrealistic estimation of what Iraq and its army were actually capable of doing then produced pseudo power in the minds of Saddam and his army officers, leading them to confront the United States head-on – and eventually resulting in a deep crisis that Iraq continues to suffer from, from which no one knows how to resolve.

On the other hand, Saddam also exploited tribal power and values, and used inspirational but ideologically bankrupt slogans to strengthen his rule, ignoring the fact that international relations in the world today are regulated by modern laws that are completely different from the Gulf’s traditional tribal values. The display of power throughout the region made the Iraqi Ba’ath regime both frightening towards, and scared of, other states in the region, while also being distrusted throughout the Middle East. Saddam’s actions further complicated intra-Gulf relations, to the extent that they are still affected by his actions today. All of this created a  low regard for human life, but at the same time, it ultimately sentenced the Iraqi regime to death, regardless of how many slogans it rallied to pose as the protector or liberator of the nation.

Third, the most important lesson from the occupation has been the importance of solidarity and mutual defense agreement between the GCC states. The Kuwaitis have received an extended hand of support from Saudi Arabia for official and public assistance, as well as from Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman – each of which welcomed Kuwaiti refugees in 1990 and 1991. This does not come as a surprise to those who know the depth of the historical relationship between these countries, but it has given the restored Kuwaiti government a clear desire to preserve and develop these bonds. Others, however, have however tried their best to undermine these relations, under various pretexts in trying to amplify and take advantage of different interpretations.

Fourth, and finally, all of these lessons are relevant three decades later. While Saddam Hussein is long gone, there are still countries in the region that continue to bully others. A clear example is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which intervenes politically and militarily in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, while talking about its right to dominate the region – once again with the arrogance of power and ideology that Saddam propagated. However, Tehran is now repeating the same mistake that Saddam made three decades ago. Iran’s rulers should consider the fact that the Iraqi dictator’s bluster, while threatening to the smaller Arab states, ultimately led to the impoverishment and destruction of Iraq. While it suffers from an economic crisis and increasing domestic unrest related to fiscal problems and mismanagement at home, Iran’s IRGC hand extends to faraway places, mostly in the Arab world using nationalistic and anti-Western slogans to justify its involvement. The states of the Gulf are justifiably worried of encroaching Iranian influence; in that sense, at least, the memories of 1990 are still fresh.

Dr. Mohammad Al-Rumaihi is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kuwait. He has been an Editor-in-Chief for prominent newspapers and magazines in Kuwait and other Arab Gulf states and was Secretary-General of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature 1998-2002.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Defense & Security
Country: GCC

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Dr. Rumaihi is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kuwait. He holds a Ph.D. from Durham University and has published more than 20 books about the social and political changes in the Arab Gulf states. He has been an Editor-in-Chief for prominent newspapers and magazines in Kuwait and other Arab Gulf states and was Secretary-General of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature 1998-2002.


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