Al Sabah, Mubarak

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Ruler of Kuwait, 18961915.

Mubarak Al Sabah, often called "Mubarak the Great," has been called the most forceful ruler of Kuwait. He is the only ruler in Kuwait's history to achieve his position as the result of a coup; he killed one of his brothers, Muhammad, the ruler at the time, and one of his sons killed another of Mubarak's brothers, Jarrah, who was Muhammad's close adviser. Apologists excuse these actions by pointing to Muhammad's pro-Turkish proclivities. Critics agree that Mubarak prevented the absorption of Kuwait into the Ottoman Empire but note that he did this not by keeping Kuwait independent but by making it a British client. The result of Mubarak's several secret treaties with Britain was to relinquish Kuwait's autonomy in foreign policy. This amounted to a larger concession of sovereignty than had been made to the Ottomans by Mubarak's predecessor. More important for the political development of Kuwait in the twentieth century, however, was Mubarak's use of British economic and military resources to attenuate the power of local notables, a process that was continued by his successors, who relied on oil revenues to insulate themselves from popular checks on their power.

Kuwait's economy thrived during Mubarak's reign. His domestic power, however, rested on his close relationship to the bedouin tribes rather than to the urban merchants. Even after he became ruler, Mubarak spent time camping with the bedouins in the desert. Unlike the tradition established by most previous amirs of Kuwait, however, Mubarak publicly enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. His income from taxes, British payments and annuities, and family investments (including date gardens located in Iraq) enabled Mubarak to live well and to employ armed guards to protect himself from his subjects. Resentment of his high taxes and military levies provoked several leading pearl merchants to leave Kuwait for Bahrain in 1910. A delegation from the ruler that carried Mubarak's promise to rescind the burdensome taxes encouraged only some to return.

Mubarak's military campaigns against the alRashid shaykhs of the Jabal Shammar were aimed at allies of the exiled relatives of Muhammad and Jarrah. In September 1902, British warships were sent against a force commanded by two of Mubarak's nephews who were seeking revenge for their fathers' deaths. But Mubarak's military adventures were also problematic for the British, who wanted to maintain their alliance with the Ottomans. Nevertheless, they continued to support him, and in 1905 the Turks abandoned their efforts to incorporate Kuwait into the vilayet of Basra.

Mubarak had confidence in the British as Kuwait's ultimate protectors against the Turks. But British rapprochement with the Sublime Porte prior to the outbreak of World War I produced the AngloTurkish Convention of 1913. This declared Kuwait to be a kaza (autonomous province) of the Ottoman Empire and recognized Turkey's right to have a political representative in Kuwait. Mubarak was shocked by what he saw as a betrayal of his interests. The convention, however, never went into effect. On 3 November 1914, it was repudiated, and two centuries of diplomatic ties between Kuwait and the Ottomans were broken. One year later, Mubarak died. True to their promise to a leader who had become a staunch ally, the British planned to honor another of their pledges to Mubarak: that they would ensure that the next ruler of Kuwait would be his designated heir rather than a descendant of the brothers he had killed in 1896. In the event, no external intervention was necessary. Subsequent rulers of Kuwait have also been direct descendants of Mubarak.

see also jabal shammar; kuwait.


Rush, Alan De Lacy. Al-Sabah: History and Genealogy of Kuwait's Ruling Family, 17521986. London and Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Ithaca Press, 1987.

Rush, Alan De Lacy, ed. Records of Kuwait, 18991961, Vol. 1: Internal Affairs, 18991921. London, 1989.

Tétreault, Mary Ann. "Autonomy, Necessity, and the Small State: Ruling Kuwait in the Twentieth Century." International Organization 45 (Autumn 1991).

Mary Ann TÉtreault