An abandoned Iraqi Soviet-made T-62 tank sits in the Kuwaiti desert as an oil well at Al Ahmadi oil field is burning in the background, on April 2, 1991. Image Credit: AFP

Kuwaiti politician and long-time opposition leader Ahmed Al Khatib once recalled riding with the late Emir Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Al Sabah during the ruler’s tour of the capital city. It was 1956, and the country was roiling with angry anti-Britain demonstrations to protest the tripartite aggression on Egypt.

The UK, France and Israel attacked Egypt after President Jamal Abdul Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. Kuwait, during those times, was a stronghold of the Arab nationalist movement. Nasser of course was the undisputed champion of that movement.

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Al Khatib, a close confidante of the Emir, remembers as they drove around the city, pictures of Nasser were pasted on numerous cars on the roads. Sheikh Abdullah was “a bit annoyed” with the scene. “Who is the ruler of Kuwait? Is it me or Nasser?” he asked his friend.

Kuwait, which gained independence from Britain in 1961, was for decades a beacon of Arab nationalism. Its government, parliament and press championed pan-Arab issues, especially the Palestinian cause. Fatah, the leading Palestinian movement, the nucleus of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), was established in Kuwait in 1959 by Yasser Arafat, with the support of Kuwaiti merchants including members of the ruling family. Arafat worked at the time as a municipal engineer in Kuwait.

Kuwait was practically an incubator of all pan-Arab initiatives. Its government and people were at the forefront of all Arab causes, particularly the Palestinian liberation movement. Tragically, on this day in 1990, it all ended.


Kuwait, which began exporting oil shortly after the end of the Scond World War, used parts of the oil revenues to support financially and fund development projects in some of the struggling Arab countries. The current Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed, who served as foreign minister for 40 years before he became ruler in 2006, was the de facto diplomatic representative of the Arab world on the international stage. A skilled diplomat, he was also the chief negotiator of inter-Arab conflicts, such as the Lebanese civil war, the unification of Yemen and most famously the Black September 1970 war between the Palestinian factions and the Jordanian armed forces.

Leading Arab cultural and literature weeklies and monthlies were published in Kuwait and shipped across the Arab world, such as the famed Al Arabi magazine, World of Knowledge, World Theatre. These publications attracted most accomplished Arab authors, poets, playwrights and journalists.

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Kuwait was practically an incubator of all pan-Arab initiatives. Its government and people were at the forefront of all Arab causes, particularly the Palestinian liberation movement. Tragically, on this day in 1990, it all ended.

On the 2nd of August of that year, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain’s powerful army invaded neighbouring Kuwait, an aggression without a precedent in modern Arab history. Since that fateful Thursday morning 30 years ago, Kuwait and the Arab world have never been the same.

Saddam didn’t just invade his smaller neighbour; he ripped apart the heart of Arabism and divided the region in a way that even colonial powers from the 1920-1960s couldn’t do.

The rise of Kuwaiti nationalism

While the wounds of the invasion might have been healed three decades on, and the relations between Kuwait and post-Saddam Iraq have been improving steadily, mainly due to the efforts of Sheikh Sabah, the impact of the Saddam aggression cannot be overstated.

Kuwait today is an inward-looking nation. Kuwaiti nationalism replaced Arab nationalism. The country grew closer to the West in the past three decades. It has signed strategic defence pacts with the five permanent members of the United Nation’s Security Council.

Kuwaitis can easily justify the crossover. They feel that they have been stabbed in the back by Arab brethren, especially those who were for decades at the receiving end of Kuwait’s financial and political support.

How Kuwait’s ties with Palestinians soured

When the invasion took place, some Arab countries unfortunately failed to condemn it or were willing to stand up to it. While leading Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Syria, were quick to rally Arab and international support for Kuwait and helped in building the global coalition that liberated the country in March 1991, some Arab governments seemed to have been tacitly supporting Saddam. Tragically, one of those who seemed to be reluctant to condemn the aggression was Yasser Arafat. The Palestinian leader later claimed that he was merely trying to negotiate a peaceful solution to the crisis with Saddam and prevent an all-out war in the region. However, several pro-Saddam demonstrations took place in the occupied territories, as well as in Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Sudan and Libya.

Before the invasion, nearly 400,000 Palestinians lived in Kuwait. Because of Arafat’s stance during the invasion, the majority of became persona non grata after the liberation. Only a fraction of that number lives in Kuwait today. Kuwait’s ties with these countries have of course been mended since. But the bitter feeling of betrayal and abandonment remains deep in the Kuwaiti subconscious, which explains the abandoning of the county’s pan-Arab cultural and political identity.

Image Credit: Gulf News

The bloody conflicts raging across the Arab world today are the seeds planted by Saddam when he decided to invade Kuwait.


The loss of Kuwait’s active diplomacy signalled an Arab division that was rarely seen before the invasion. Other small states have probably learned the painful Kuwaiti lesson. Instead of relying on other Arab countries, which may one day turn against them like Saddam did in 1990, smaller Arab countries began looking at international powers as a more credible ally.

The Arab division also meant that the regional central issue, the occupation of Palestine, has been relegated in the list of national priorities in almost all Arab countries. That naturally allowed Israel to usurp more Palestinian land and impose unprecedented oppressive measure against the Palestinians.

The invasion damage is irreparable. It is hard to imagine a return of the pre-1990 Kuwait or region for that matter. One dares to say that the bloody conflicts raging across the Arab world today are the seeds planted by Saddam when he decided to invade Kuwait.

The loss of pan-Arab flavour in Kuwait

The late Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem, if he is to tour Kuwait City today, may feel sad that there are no more pictures of Nasser on cars and buildings. The founders of modern Kuwait never imagined it without its unique and once- admired pan-Arab flavour.

Kuwait was quick in rebuilding its cities and the environmental and marine ecosystems destroyed by Saddam’s army. But its leading Arab role has yet to be rebuilt.