Since August 5, 1990, we have seen the most extensive and rapid US military mobilization since the end of World War II. As of early October, more than 200,000 US troops in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region are drawing combat pay. President Bush declares this deployment was necessary to defend Saudi Arabia, but the size and composition of the US forces clearly pose a threat of offensive military action against Iraq.
Why is the United States on the edge of war, a war which will be catastrophic for the people of the region and for the US as well? The Bush administration asserts that the issues are straightforward: aggression and self-determination. But the scale and timing of the US military intervention have submerged the important issue of Iraqi aggression and Kuwaiti sovereignty within the larger issue of Arab self-determination against Washington’s efforts to impose its hegemony over the Gulf region and the Arab world.
What is at stake, in the view of many people in the Middle East, are four intersecting issues: 1) the legitimacy of the existing political and economic order in the region, which the US is striving to maintain and which Iraq appears to be challenging; 2) the control of the region’s resources, especially oil, and the distribution of their proceeds; 3) the resolution of long-standing grievances, particularly the conflict between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states; and 4) rivalry among Arab states for dominance.
Iraq, Kuwait and the Legacy of Colonialism
Baghdad claims that Kuwait is part of Iraq. Does this claim have any basis in fact? Is Kuwait an artificial construction of British imperialism? After World War I, which saw the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the European powers drew up most of the borders in the Middle East to suit their own competing political and commercial interests, only loosely basing them on existing Ottoman administrative divisions. This is true of Iraq as well, particularly Britain’s addition of the oil-rich and heavily Kurdish-populated province of Mosul to Iraq in 1926. Yet none of those who assert Iraq’s claim to Kuwait advocate that Mosul become part of ’Turkey or Syria, or an independent Kurdistan.
What is now southern Iraq and Kuwait had been under the nominal sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire based in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). Kuwait town was part of the province of Basra, but Ottoman authorities exercised little or no real authority throughout the province. Britain took advantage of this Ottoman weakness to extend its political and commercial influence throughout the Persian Gulf region, including Iran.
Kuwait had been much like other essentially tribal enclaves that characterized the shores of the Persian Gulf. Out of the constant migrations in search of water and trading locations, mainly from the Najd region of what is today the north central part of Saudi Arabia, a group of tribes had settled the town of Kuwait in the early 1700s. By the end of that century, the Sabahs had emerged as the leading family. The continuity of Sabah rule over two centuries distinguishes Kuwait from other such settlements where political authority was more fluid.
European intrusion had been a feature of the Gulf during this period, mainly a consequence of Britain’s colonization of India. In 1899, the leading Sabah sheikh, Mubarak, agreed not to cede, lease or sell territory to any other power without British consent, in return for 15,000 rupees. The British were motivated by growing commercial and political rivalry from Germany and Russia; the Sabahs were interested in using British power to counterbalance the Ottomans on the one hand and the aggressive expansion of the Al Saud in the Arabian Peninsula on the other.
Kuwait’s status as a British protectorate continued after Baghdad and Basra provinces became the League of Nations mandate territory of Iraq in the early 1920s, under British control, and Ibn Saud consolidated his family’s control of most of the Arabian Peninsula. In 1922, Britain’s proconsul in the Gulf, Sir Percy Cox, unilaterally set the boundaries between Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, placing some territory claimed by the Al Saud within Iraq and adding to Saudi territory a sizable piece of what Kuwaitis considered their territory. Sir Percy’s borders deliberately limited Iraq’s access to the Gulf.
Iraq became formally independent in 1932, but British influence remained dominant until the nationalist revolution of July 1958. In the late 1930s, the Iraqi monarchy launched an unsuccessful campaign to “restore” Kuwait to Iraqi rule. When Kuwait became formally independent in June 1961, Iraq’s nationalist leader ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim renewed the Iraqi claim in a curious way, by appointing the sheikh of Kuwait as governor of the province of Basra. Britain responded by dispatching troops based in Kenya which were soon replaced by an Arab League peacekeeping force. In 1963, Iraq again attended meetings of the Arab League and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which it had boycotted for seating Kuwait, and in October of that year Baghdad recognized Kuwaiti independence.
Iraq did not revive its claim to all of Kuwait until the invasion of August 1990. But Iraq never agreed to finalize any border demarcation that did not give it access to two uninhabited islands off Kuwait, Bubiyan and Warba, which restricted Iraqi access to the Gulf. In the early 1970s, Baghdad embarked on a major expansion of its oil production and export capacity and wanted to build up the port of Umm Qasr as an alternative to the Shatt al-‘Arab exit to the Gulf which it shared with its major adversary, Iran. Iraq’s claims on the islands led to some brief border skirmishes in the spring of 1973.
Iraq demanded to lease the two islands during the course of the war with Iran. Kuwait rejected the request, but did allow Iraq to set up artillery observation posts on Warba during critical battles in 1986 and 1988. Kuwait provided Iraq considerable economic assistance in the course of the war, and Kuwait itself functioned as Iraq’s major port once Basra was shut down by the fighting.
Following the ceasefire with Iran of August 1988, Iraq once again stepped up efforts to improve port facilities at Umm Qasr. In the period leading up to the invasion of August 1990, Iraq’s insistence on gaining a more secure outlet to the Gulf became tied up with a larger set of economic grievances against Kuwait — repayment of wartime debt, pumping from the Rumayla oil field that extends beneath their common border, and Kuwait’s excess oil production leading to weak international prices and falling revenues.
Oil and the Legacy of Imperialism
Iraq’s claim to all of Kuwait was not the reason Baghdad invaded in August 1990. Rather, it served as a justification after the fact. What gives the Iraqi argument currency in the Arab world is less the merits of this territorial claim than the powerful sense that the political and economic order prevailing in the region as a whole has been constructed and maintained primarily for the benefit of the Western powers. Behind this perception is oil. Many of the political arrangements that characterize the region-borders, ruling families, economic structures and more — exist and persist because of the stake that oil has represented for Western industrialized countries.
The discovery of oil in the Persian Gulf region predates World War II, but only in the 1950s did the region emerge as a major producer. The seven giant American and European oil companies (the “Seven Sisters”), which dominated the oil industry in the US and the rest of the world, had gained exclusive control of Middle East oil through a system of interlocking concessions. The appeal of Middle East oil for the companies lay in its very low production costs-between 5 and 15 cents a barrel. The world market price (around $2.25 per barrel in the mid-1950s), then set by these same companies on the basis of production costs in the US and elsewhere (upwards of $2 per barrel at the time), made for bonanza profits in the Middle East.
The emergence of the Middle East as a major oil producing region coincided with two critical political transitions: the rise of nationalist movements and the end of direct European colonial control, and the eclipse of British and French power in the region by the United States.
Nationalist challenges to foreign control included the oil industries. When Iran’s parliament nationalized British Petroleum’s interests in 1951, the Western embargo of Iranian oil played a key role in setting the stage for the 1953 CIA-led coup that restored the shah to power. Britain and the US and their oil companies used Iraqi and Kuwaiti production to replace Iranian supplies. A decade later, when Iraq was leading the nationalist challenge to Western control, the companies used Iran and Kuwait to supply their markets, punishing Iraq by keeping its production, and hence revenues, low. Kuwait’s role was the same in both instances: Between 1953 and the mid-1960s, Kuwait, with a population of around half a million, was the largest single oil producing state in the Middle East.
The agenda of economic nationalism set first by Iran and later by Iraq, Libya, Algeria and other countries has redefined the oil industry over the last 20 years. Despite these changes, Iraq’s complaints in 1990 about Kuwaiti overproduction sound all too plausible in a region where people have an acute memory of the manipulative role of the Western companies and governments, usually with the eager compliance of the local beneficiary regime.
Politics and Society: Kuwait
Oil restructured politics and society in all the producing countries. Before oil, Kuwait’s economy had been based on trade and pearl diving. A small merchant elite controlled the labor force and revenues, structurally linked with but independent of the ruling family. The major social cleavages were between the wealthy and the less privileged, the majority Sunnis and minority Shi’a, and the sedentary population of the towns and predominantly nomadic tribal families.
Oil revenues freed the ruling family from its historic alliance with the merchant elite. The wealthy trading families were the main beneficiaries of various schemes to redistribute revenues, but in the process surrendered a major political role. The power of the ruling family increased substantially, while the major social cleavage became that between those possessing Kuwaiti citizenship and the growing majority of “guest” residents. Kuwait drew on other Arabs — especially Palestinians — and people from Asia and the Indian subcontinent not only as physical laborers but to perform essential technical and professional jobs such as doctors, teachers, lawyers and engineers.
Non-citizens comprised about half the population at the time of independence in 1961. Citizenship was restricted to families resident in Kuwait since 1920, and only 50 persons per year could be eligible for naturalization. Non-citizens could be, and frequently were, deported when economic demand slackened or political crises threatened. By the 1980s, non-citizens accounted for about two thirds of the population and about 80 percent of the work force.
While medical and some educational benefits were extended to non-citizens in the mid-1960s, the social and economic gap between Kuwaitis and others remained profound. Only citizens were eligible to participate in the various revenue distribution schemes. The circumstances of non-citizens, even those who had become prosperous and had spent most of their lives in Kuwait, were precarious. Non-citizens — two thirds of the population — could not own property; 51 percent of any company had to be Kuwaiti-owned. Wages and income for non-citizens were a fraction of those of Kuwaitis.
Non-citizens had no political rights, though Kuwaitis enjoyed few themselves. Voting was restricted to male citizens over 21 — about 3.5 percent of the population — and the last parliament, elected in 1985, was dissolved a year later. The 1980s saw a reversal of an earlier trend to open up the political system — cabinet and other high posts, for instance — to Kuwaitis not related to the Sabah family. In the spring of 1990, Kuwaiti opposition forces held militant demonstrations demanding elections and reconstitution of the parliament.
Politics and Society: Iraq
Iraq, a land about the size of California, is the Arab society perhaps most traumatized by the transformations wrought by oil. Its political revolution in 1958 prefigured in some respects the revolution in Iran 20 years later.
Iraq in the first half of this century was very largely a rural society. Nearly one quarter of the population are Kurds; some two thirds of the Arabs are Shi‘i Muslims, and one third Sunnis. Land and wealth were extremely concentrated, and development projects and government expenditures financed by oil revenues benefited the wealthy few. The disruption of Iraqi society was expressed most graphically in the tremendous movement of impoverished peasants from the countryside to urban shantytowns, where they comprised the shock troops for the nationalist and Communist forces competing to overthrow the British-installed monarchy.
The decade after the 1958 revolution was characterized by great instability. Different groupings contended for state power. There was a shift in the distribution of income from large landowners and merchants to the salaried middle class and, to a lesser degree, wage earners and small farmers. When the Baath seized power in July 1968 (there had been a brief and disastrous Baath regime from February to November 1963), it embodied a relatively homogeneous faction of the lower middle class which, broadly speaking, were the primary beneficiaries of the 1958 revolution — sons of small shopkeepers, petty officials and graduates of teacher training schools, the law school and the military academies.
As in Kuwait, oil revenues financed the growth of the state. Because of Iraq’s considerably larger population, and many social, ethnic and sectarian cleavages, the repressive as well as the distributive organs of the state were most highly developed. The Ministry of Interior alone, with its security and intelligence functions, employed almost as many persons –137,000 — as all large private and public manufacturing firms combined.
Saddam Hussein, a master of putschist politics, is the only survivor among those who seized power in 1968. Vice president until 1979, he took over the top post when Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr resigned that year. All other political forces besides the Baath, notably the Communist Party, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the (Shi‘i) Da‘wa Party have been crushed, and political rivals within the Baath have been eliminated. Much of the cohesiveness of Saddam’s regime owes to the fact that most key members come from the region of Tikrit, Saddam’s home town northwest of Baghdad, and many are kin.
From One Invasion to the Next
Saddam’s previous foreign aggression was the invasion of Iran in September 1980. More carefully calculated than the 1990 move against Kuwait, this was intended to overthrow the new Islamic Republic in Tehran and establish Iraq’s position as the paramount power in the Gulf. This invasion had the tacit support of the United States.
Saddam’s army quickly bogged down, though, and by March 1982 was on the defensive. The threat of an Iranian victory produced an unusual alliance of regional and international powers who shared the goal of preventing Iraq’s collapse. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia provided massive financing; France and the Soviet Union were the largest of scores of arms suppliers; Egypt and Jordan provided weapons and military advisers. The United States provided credits, some “non-military” aircraft, and considerable political support. Kuwait’s request for US protection against Iranian attacks on its oil tankers provided the entree for US naval intervention in the Persian Gulf in 1987-1988. Washington led the effort in the UN Security Council to produce a ceasefire resolution tailored to Iraq’s needs.
Eight years of war with Iran left Saddam Hussein’s regime with an enormous military establishment, extensive debts and an unquenched ambition to lead the Arab world. When Iraq agreed to a ceasefire in August 1988, Saddam argued that he was the only Arab leader to win a war against a non-Arab power since the early Muslim dynasties.
Saddam views the Persian Gulf as Iraq’s “natural” sphere of influence. Since the ceasefire with Iran, though, Iraq has signaled a clear intent to play a role in the wider Arab world. Baghdad aided far-off Mauritania in its conflict with Senegal, and assisted the merger of North and South Yemen. Saddam’s excursions of solidarity were not hampered by any requirements of ideological consistency: Baghdad provided arms to the isolated Islamist junta in Sudan and Gen. Michel Aoun’s Maronite Christian rebellion in Lebanon.
Among the most important Iraqi alliances to take shape in this period was with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Jordan. The PLO had been feeling physically and politically insecure in Tunis since the Israeli air raid in October 1985 and the assassination of Abu Jihad in April 1988, and had moved substantial sections of its administrative and military operations to Baghdad. This also reduced the PLO’s diplomatic dependence on Egypt, and rendered moot any improvement in PLO-Syrian relations.
Iraqi leaders articulated a perspective that attracted the beleaguered Palestinians. Iraq argued that so long as the Arabs remained economically and militarily weak, they would not be able to dislodge Israel from the Occupied Territories and establish a Palestinian state. An Arab approach to peace, Iraq maintained, must be coupled with a pan-Arab military and material build-up. Oil revenues must be invested in the Arab world rather than abroad; wealthy Arab governments must aid poor ones, and special pan-Arab funds should be set up to help the Palestinian intifada.
This was the thrust behind Saddam’s speech on April 1, 1990. In that speech he declared, first, that Iraq would retaliate with chemical weapons to any Israeli nuclear attack, and second, that “if aggression is committed against an Arab and that Arab seeks our assistance from afar, we won’t fail to come to his assistance.” In the subsequent international clamor over Saddam’s speech, two additional elements were lost: his reminder that Israel, not Iraq, had introduced nuclear and chemical weapons into the region; and his proposal for establishing a nuclear, chemical and biological weapons-free zone in all of the Middle East.
Saddam’s speech was welcomed by Palestinians and Jordanians. Palestinians had watched their peace initiative being frittered away when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir blocked even preliminary Israeli-Palestinian meetings. The PLO-US dialogue, initiated in December 1988, lacked substance. Saddam seemed to offer the tough backing essential for negotiations.
To Jordanians, Ariel Sharon’s slogan “Jordan is Palestine” implied the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan and the forcible transformation of King Hussein’s regime. The influx of Soviet Jews to Israel made this threat all the more imminent. Jordanians also worried about the vulnerability of their long border with Israel. Most of Jordan’s economic resources are located in a ten-mile-wide strip along that border: the irrigated agriculture in the Jordan Valley, the minerals of the Dead Sea and ‘Aqaba port. Iraq was attractive as a strategic rear, able to respond if Israel attacked.
The shrill tone of Saddam’s April 1 speech, replete with talk of foreign conspiracies against Iraq, came on the heels of Iraq’s execution of Iranian-born British journalist Farhad Barzoft on charges of spying. Soon afterward, British authorities intercepted alleged parts for nuclear devices en route to Baghdad. Saddam spoke of being encircled by Western enemies operating to prevent Iraq from achieving strategic parity with Israel. Talk of conspiracies helped arouse popular Arab support.
Saddam appeared at the peak of his popularity at the emergency Arab summit conference convened in Baghdad in late May 1990, where he called for a united front against aggression, the pooling of resources and the need to match rhetoric with deeds. His own rhetoric stressed heightened Arab coordination and accelerated aid to the intifada and to Jordan.
But rather than a united front led by Baghdad, signs emerged that other Arab governments would challenge Saddam’s claim to leadership. Even in the Gulf region itself, Iraq felt its influence slipping. The small emirates of the Gulf Cooperation Council were moving to normalize relations with Iran with unseemly haste. Kuwait, for example, resumed direct air flights to Iran and signed agreements on shipping and joint investment. Iraq complained that Kuwait had dragged its feet on initialing Iraqi-Kuwaiti joint projects and would not allow flights to Iraq to cross its air space, thus preventing Basra from functioning as an international airport. Iraq feared that the Gulf states were cultivating Iran as a counterweight, so that they could remain outside Iraq’s sphere of influence. Overproduction of oil by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates provided further evidence of that deliberate distancing.
Saddam was particularly concerned that Syria no longer appeared isolated in the Arab world. After the Gulf war ended, Saudi Arabia and Egypt renewed efforts to draw Syria back into the Arab fold. Baghdad and Damascus represented rival wings of the Baath Party, but also had objective differences. Syria had sided with Iran during its war with Iraq; Baghdad was determined to thwart any resolution of the Lebanese civil war, such as the Saudi-sponsored Ta’if Accord, that left Syria as the power broker in that country; and they adopted divergent positions on the role of the PLO in peace negotiations. For the first time in years, Damascus hinted that it was prepared for serious negotiations over the Golan Heights. Such negotiations would further isolate the PLO and weaken any potential Iraqi-led Arab front. The Syrian-Egyptian reconciliation in December 1989 shocked Baghdad. A new axis seemed to be emerging, one that provided a counterweight to Iraq.
Egypt was Saddam’s key concern. But Mubarak was also on the defensive: His efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian settlement had not achieved results. Saddam’s critique of attempting to negotiate with Israel in the absence of strategic credibility must have stung the Egyptian officials. At the Baghdad summit, Mubarak joined Saddam in acclaiming the importance of pan-Arab solidarity in order to achieve a comprehensive peace. But he also implicitly chastised the Iraqi president. Arab leaders must know how to address the outside world, Mubarak said, “the Arab message…should be humane, logical, realistic…and free of exaggeration and intimidation…. The fate of peoples cannot be determined through one-upmanship and self-deception.”
Mubarak also distanced himself in tangible ways from Iraq. Once Egypt was readmitted to the Arab League in May 1989, he won support for returning the League’s headquarters to Cairo. Mubarak restored relations with Syria and with Libya, and he suggested creating a Red Sea security zone. In a short time, Egypt had regained its regional weight and dimmed Saddam’s vision of uncontested leadership.
When the Iraqi-Kuwaiti crisis mounted in late July, the lines of the subsequent schism were already evident. An Egyptian-Syrian-Saudi axis was emerging as a counterweight to Baghdad; the Gulf states were trying to reestablish an Iraq-Iran equilibrium; and even Libya was edging toward Egypt. In contrast, Jordan and the PLO were embracing Iraq, and newly united Yemen welcomed Baghdad’s Arab nationalist assertions and its criticism of the wealthy Gulf regimes.
Saddam began to see himself encircled not only by international forces but also by regional powers. In January 1990, Turkey halted and afterward severely restricted the flow of water past the new Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates River into Syria and Iraq. By July, Saddam said publicly that a third of Iraq’s population was directly affected by the water shortage. Saddam placed the Turkish actions in the context of his hypothesized international conspiracy against Iraq, since Turkey is a member of NATO, has diplomatic relations with Israel and has even offered to sell water to Israel. Imperialist powers in league with Israel, he asserted, were using Turkey to block Iraqi economic development and prevent its emergence as the leading regional power.
With Iran, Egypt and Turkey each three times Iraq’s size in population and stronger industrially, Saddam’s strategic strength appeared to elude him — while his ambition remained intact. Iraq’s internal economic situation, furthermore, was precarious, with clear implications for Saddam’s ability to match word and deed. In late 1989 the government announced industrialization plans and a debt repayment schedule based on the expectation of raising the $18 per barrel price OPEC had just set. Instead, oil prices dropped precipitously in early 1990. At an extraordinary meeting of OPEC ministers in Geneva on May 1, the Iraqi oil minister called on members to adhere to the agreed production quotas.
Soon after, Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz warned other oil producers of unspecified “consequences” of flooding the oil market. And at a closed session of the Baghdad May summit, Saddam declared that deliberate efforts to lower the price constitute war by economic means and warned: “We have reached a point where we can no longer withstand pressure.”
The oil market remained in disarray. Iraq’s vice president visited Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE in late June. But the UAE delayed agreeing to observe the OPEC quota until July 12 and Kuwait held off until Tariq Aziz sent a harshly worded letter to the Arab League on July 15, 1990, accusing Kuwait of “systematically, deliberately” harming Iraq and undertaking economic “aggression [that] is not less effective than military aggression.” Every $1 drop in the price of a barrel of oil, Aziz said, caused a $1 billion drop in Iraq’s annual revenues, and Kuwait’s actions had triggered an acute financial crisis in Baghdad. He also complained of Kuwait’s refusal to cancel the tens of billions of dollars of debts that Iraq had accrued during the war with Iran. Kuwait, he charged, had violated the pan-Arab principle that “everyone should benefit from the wealth” of the Arab nation.
Despite last-minute efforts to accommodate Iraq’s demands, Saddam continued to denounce “certain rulers of the Gulf states” who have “thrust their poisoned dagger in our back.” In that speech on July 17, he again linked the actions of Kuwait and the UAE to an international conspiracy. He concluded that the “premeditated” damage to Iraq’s economy was encouraged by Washington.
Claims and Fears
There is a striking contrast between Saddam’s claims of invulnerability and his sense of encirclement; his belief in Iraq’s centrality to pan-Arab security and identity and his fear of being undermined by regional rivals; and his aspirations for economic power and the reality of limited resources. Those contrasts fed Saddam’s focus on Kuwait: the richest of the oil sheikhdoms, flaunting its wealth, resisting his embrace, and flirting with outside powers. Saddam appears to have thought that he could quickly absorb Kuwait and present a fait accompli to the world. Kuwaiti oil would significantly enhance his resources and improve his international financial leverage. Kuwaiti territory would expand his access to the Gulf and extend his international military reach. His regional authority would be consolidated and his global leverage increased Saddam miscalculated drastically.
The Iraqi military force that invaded Kuwait in August 1990 had been built by the coalition of regional and international powers now aligned against Iraq. It does not seem probable that Iraq intended to pose a fundamental challenge to the prevailing order, and thus did not anticipate the alliance against it. The US had given him no reason to think it would oppose such a move. What the alliance against Iraq must confront, however, is something more awesome than Saddam’s military power — namely, the extent of popular support which his aggression has tapped in the Arab world.
That support is less an endorsement of Saddam Hussein and his regime than an enthusiasm for any serious challenge to a political order widely regarded as illegitimate. The fact that the challenge to the prevailing order has come from a populist despot rather than from the forces of the left makes the political equation more difficult for progressives in the West to assess. Iraq has squandered its resources and hundreds of thousands of lives by war and repression. Iraq under Saddam has done much to subvert and harm the Palestinian cause.
For many Arabs, though, ambivalence about Saddam Hussein takes a clear second place to unambiguous hostility to a state system that permits a handful of ruling families to monopolize the region’s resources while millions of Arabs live impoverished. Alongside this class question, there is the irresolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict, and the transparent hypocrisy of the United States in its very selective opposition to aggression. Saddam’s challenge has appropriated its political strength from the Palestinian and broader Arab resentment against the apparent collusion of the US, the West and most of the Arab regimes to maintain a political and economic status quo which, for millions, has become intolerable.
Sources: Jill Crystal, Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar; Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements in Iraq; Peter Sluglett, Britain in Iraq, 1914-1932; Stuart A. Cohen, British Policy in Mesopotamia, 1903-1914.