Sabah, Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-

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Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah

Born June 29, 1926

Kuwait City, Kuwait

Ruler of Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War

"I came here to tell you of the horrors and suffering we are enduring both inside and outside our occupied homeland.... Now, the fate of a people, of a nation, is in your hands."

Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah in a speech before the UN Security Council.

The small but wealthy Middle Eastern nation of Kuwait was the main focus of the Persian Gulf War when Iraq invaded its neighbor to the south in August 1990. The emir (ruler) of Kuwait at this time was Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah. Jabir and his royal family barely escaped the country as the Iraqi military forces approached. In exile in Saudi Arabia, the emir made numerous appeals to the world community to help liberate his country from Iraq's brutal occupation. In January 1991 the U.S.-led coalition made up of thirty-five countries went to war to force the Iraqi army to withdraw from Kuwait.

Born into the ruling Sabah family

Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah was born on June 29, 1926, in Kuwait City, the capital of the Middle Eastern nation of Kuwait. He was born into the powerful Sabah family, which had ruled the area along the Persian Gulf that eventually became Kuwait since the 1800s. In the late 1800s Kuwait became part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were non-Arab Turks who controlled much of the Middle East at that time. Under Ottoman rule, Kuwait was added to the Basra province, which later became part of modern Iraq.

In 1899 the Sabah family gained Kuwait's independence from Ottoman rule by negotiating a treaty to become a protectorate (dependent political unit) of Great Britain. Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Great Britain gained control over even greater areas of former Ottoman territory. In 1921 British authorities formed new countries in the areas under their control. They established the modern borders of Kuwait, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia at this time. They also installed leaders in these new countries that would be loyal to Great Britain and support British interests. The leader chosen for Kuwait was Jabir's father, Sheikh Ahmad al-Jabir.

Jabir was born five years later. As the third son of the ruler of Kuwait, he enjoyed a privileged upbringing. He was educated at Kuwait's first school, Mubarakiya School, and by private tutors. He also was exposed to politics and groomed to become emir of Kuwait someday. Jabir began his career in 1949 as the head of public security in the Ahmadi oil-producing region of Kuwait. In 1959 he became the head of the finance department in Kuwait's national government. In this position he helped establish budgets for all government departments. In 1960 he was involved in the international negotiations that led to the formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), of which Kuwait became a member.

In 1961 Kuwait gained its full independence from Great Britain. As the government was reorganized, the finance department was elevated to a ministry, which made it cabinet-level, and Jabir gained the title of minister for finance and economy. Over the next few years he earned a reputation as a competent administrator. In 1963 Jabir was named deputy prime minister, and two years later he became prime minister. In 1966 he was designated crown prince, which meant that he was next in line to become the emir of Kuwait. Jabir gradually gained responsibility over the next decade as his predecessor, Emir Sabah al-Salim, suffered from poor health.

Becomes emir of Kuwait

Upon the death of his predecessor, Jabir became the thirteenth emir of Kuwait on December 31, 1977. He thus took control of one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Although Kuwait had a small land area, it contained the third-largest underground oil reserves of any nation. It also had a relatively small population, so its oil wealth provided the Kuwaiti people with a generous average income.

Jabir faced the first challenge of his rule in 1979, when Shiite Muslim fundamentalists (people who strictly adhere to the basic principles of the Islam religion) overthrew the government of the neighboring country of Iran. Although the Sabah family and the majority of Kuwaiti citizens were Sunni Muslims who were concerned about Shiites taking over Iran, about 30 percent of Kuwait's population was Shiite and supported the Iranian revolution.

In 1980 Iran and Iraq became involved in a bitter, eight-year war. Like many other Arab nations, Kuwait provided financial assistance to Iraq during its war against non-Arab Iran. Jabir's decision to support Iraq created anger and hostility among Kuwait's Shiite population, which launched a series of terrorist attacks within Kuwait. One of these attacks was an assassination attempt against Jabir in 1985. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), Kuwait worried that the conflict might threaten shipping in the Persian Gulf. Jabir asked the United States to help protect commercial traffic in the Gulf. The U.S. government responded by sending American warships to the Gulf and flying American flags over Kuwaiti oil tankers. Jabir's decision to seek U.S. assistance also was unpopular with some Kuwaitis.

In 1986 the Sabah family became involved in a financial scandal. The Kuwaiti stock market suffered a disastrous fall and lost much of its value. Afterward, some people claimed that the Sabah family used public funds to pay its private debts. Facing vocal opposition in the national assembly, Jabir dissolved the elected body, suspended the nation's constitution, and placed restrictions on the media. These actions angered many Kuwaiti citizens, who effectively lost their right to participate in the country's government.

Tension grows between Kuwait and Iraq

When the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (see entry) found his economy in terrible shape. He had borrowed billions of dollars from Kuwait and other Arab countries to finance the war, and he desperately needed money to rebuild Iraq. Arguing that Iraq had fought the war to protect the interests of all Arab nations, Hussein asked his neighbors to forgive his debts (not require repayment of the loans). Several Arab countries agreed to this request, but Kuwait refused.

Iraq and Kuwait had been involved in disputes over territory since the British established the border between the two countries in 1921. Because Kuwait had been part of the Basra province when the region was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, many Iraqis believed that Kuwait should have been part of Iraq. They felt that the British government had taken away land that lawfully belonged to them. The Iraqi interest in Kuwait was increased by the fact that Kuwait possessed a Persian Gulf coastline that stretched 120 miles (193 kilometers), while Iraq had only a very small point of access to the Gulf. These disputes had caused Iraq to threaten to take over Kuwait on several occasions over the years.

The tension between the two countries escalated quickly in 1990. Hussein accused Kuwait of pumping more oil than was allowed under Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) agreements. He claimed that Kuwait's actions caused worldwide oil prices to fall and harmed the Iraqi economy further. Hussein also accused Kuwait of stealing oil from the Iraqi side of oil fields that straddled the border between the two countries. In July 1990 thousands of Iraqi troops massed along the Kuwaiti border. World leaders tried frantically to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the conflict, but these efforts failed.

Iraq invades Kuwait

On August 2, 1990, to the shock of many people in the Middle East and around the world, Iraq launched a military invasion of Kuwait. The emir learned about the invasion a short time before the Iraqi troops reached Kuwait City. He and many other members of the ruling family managed to escape the country by boat. They fled to Saudi Arabia, where they spent the next eight months in relative safety.

Countries around the world condemned the invasion and demanded that Hussein immediately withdraw his troops from Kuwait. Many of these countries then began sending military forces to the Persian Gulf region as part of a U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. In the meantime, the Iraqi armed forces that occupied Kuwait treated its residents terribly. Iraqi soldiers randomly took civilians off the streets of Kuwait City and held them for questioning. Many witnesses reported that the Iraqi forces set up "torture centers" to intimidate and extract information from the Kuwaiti people. The Iraqi troops also did a great deal of physical damage to Kuwaiti homes and businesses during the occupation. In the face of such terror and destruction, more than 1.5 million people fled the region during the months leading up to the Persian Gulf War.

In September 1990 Jabir made a speech before the United Nations Security Council. He made a strong appeal for the countries of the world to help liberate Kuwait from Iraq's brutal occupation. "I came here to tell you of the horrors and suffering we are enduring both inside and outside our occupied homeland, and to put before you our case. Now, the fate of a people, of a nation, is in your hands," he stated. "We trust that you will not waver in deciding on the measures needed to compel the invading aggressors to restore the legitimate authority and to put an end to their barbaric acts."

In November 1990 the Security Council established a deadline of January 15, 1991, for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face war. When Hussein failed to meet the deadline, the U.S.-led coalition launched a series of air strikes against military targets in Iraq. The air war went on for nearly six weeks and caused major damage to Iraq's military capability. On February 24 the coalition launched a dramatic ground assault to force the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. It met with little resistance from Hussein's army, which had been devastated by the air strikes. The Persian Gulf War ended on February 27, when coalition forces succeeded in liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.

Emir struggles to rebuild his country

Jabir returned to Kuwait on March 14. He found that his country had suffered terrible destruction during the Iraqi occupation and the Persian Gulf War. Most Kuwaiti citizens found themselves without electricity or phone service, for example, and food and other necessities were in short supply. Unexploded land mines littered the beaches and highways, while the wreckage of Iraqi tanks was scattered across the desert. In addition to the damage caused by coalition bombing campaigns, Kuwait had to repair or replace hundreds of homes and office buildings that had been destroyed or vandalized by the Iraqi occupying forces. Some experts estimated that it would cost at least $50 billion to repair Kuwait's roads, cities, and oil facilities.

The Kuwaiti Resistance

Immediately after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, some Kuwaiti citizens formed a secret resistance movement to fight against the Iraqi occupation. The Kuwaiti resistance took a number of different forms. Some people resisted the Iraqis through civil disobedience. They displayed anti-Iraqi signs and graffiti, for example, or stayed away from work even when the Iraqi forces ordered them to return to their jobs. Other resistance members helped maintain the morale of their fellow citizens by securing food, water, medical supplies, and other necessities.

Another area of Kuwaiti resistance involved sabotaging Iraqi efforts to destroy the country's oil-production facilities. The Iraqi forces set explosive devices to blow up all of Kuwait's one thousand oil wells. But the resistance was able to disarm some of the devices and save three hundred wells from destruction. The Kuwaiti resistance also featured some military operations. Resistance fighters acquired guns and ammunition from police and Kuwaiti military sources and used them against the Iraqi forces. One of the best-known resistance attacks involved a car bomb that went off outside the Kuwait International Hotel, where a number of high-ranking Iraqi military leaders were meeting. Kuwaiti resistance members also collected information about Iraqi troop strength and movements and gave it to coalition leaders.

Women played a key role in the Kuwaiti resistance. Since they were less likely to be suspected and searched than men, they often carried weapons and documents through Iraqi checkpoints. The most famous female resistance leader was Asrar al-Qabandi, a thirty-one-year-old Kuwaiti who had studied in the United States. In the first days of the Iraqi occupation, she helped members of Kuwait's ruling family, including fifteen Sabah children, to leave the country safely. She also forged driver's licenses with fake nationalities to protect American and British citizens living in Kuwait. Qabandi was captured by Iraqi secret police in November 1990. She suffered daily torture as the Iraqis tried to get information from her. In mid-January, as the war to liberate Kuwait began, the Iraqis killed Qabandi. The pieces of her dismembered body were placed in a plastic bag and dumped outside her family's abandoned home.

The Iraqis were initially surprised by the resistance they encountered from Kuwaiti citizens. The Iraqi soldiers who invaded Kuwait had been led to believe that they were liberating Kuwait from the Sabah family's rule. The resistance had its greatest effect during the first six weeks of the Iraqi occupation. After that, the capture of several key resistance leaders and the brutal response from the Iraqi troops reduced its effectiveness. In fact, some people claimed that the resistance only made the Iraqi occupying forces behave more violently toward Kuwaiti citizens. About three hundred Kuwaitis died during the invasion and occupation, and around six thousand others were arrested by the Iraqis. As of 2003, more than six hundred Kuwaitis remained missing and were believed to be held as prisoners of war in Iraq.

Sources: Levins, John M. "The Kuwaiti Resistance." Middle East Quarterly, March 1995. Available online at (accessed on March 27, 2004); Levins, John M. "The Secret War of Asrar Qabandi." Arab Times, January 13–14, 1994; "The Plight of Kuwait's POWs." Kuwait Information Office. Available online at kuwaits_pows.html (accessed on March 27, 2004).

Perhaps the most pressing concern was the damage the fleeing Iraqi troops had done to Kuwait's oil-production facilities. Hussein's forces had set fire to six hundred of Kuwait's one thousand oil wells during the war. These enormous blazes created thick, toxic, black smoke that dimmed the sun across the Middle East. Putting out the fires was very difficult, dangerous, and expensive. In fact, the process of capping the burning wells took several months and cost up to $10 million per well. The last fire was finally extinguished in November 1991. By this time, the fires had destroyed an estimated ten billion barrels of valuable oil, reducing Kuwait's total oil reserves by between 10 and 15 percent.

Kuwait also struggled to repair its government and society after the war ended. The citizens who remained in Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation and the war, and especially those who joined the resistance movement against the Iraqis, were shaped by the violence they experienced. They felt a great deal of bitterness toward the emir and other leaders who fled the country and spent those months in relative safety.

Some members of the resistance openly criticized the emir and demanded a greater say in the government. They angrily pointed out, for example, that only around 10 percent of Kuwait's population had been allowed to vote before the war. The fight for greater democracy (a form of government in which the people direct the country's activities through elected representatives) in Kuwait eventually died down as people focused on the task of rebuilding the country. But in 1992 Jabir did follow through on a wartime promise to reestablish Kuwait's elected national assembly.

Where to Learn More

"Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.

"Jabir III, Amir of Kuwait." Current Leaders of Nations, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 2003.

Sabah, Jabir al-Ahmad al-. "A Gulf War Retrospective: The 1990 Amiri Address to the UN." Kuwait Information Office. Available online at (accessed on March 27, 2004).