Kuwait’s 2,000 years of history encompasses nomadic tribes, periods of settlement, times of peace and even longer periods of conflict, invasion and war. Now one of the world’s wealthiest countries due to oil, trade has sustained its population and its culture based on Islamic roots.
The first recorded colonization of Kuwait took place in the 3rd century BC with the arrival of Greeks to the island of Failaki, then named Ikaros and previously inhabited by a sun-worshipping civilization. Modern-day visitors can explore the ruins of the Greek temple and other buildings. By 127 BC the Seleucid Empire was in disarray and the city of Charax was a major trading port in Characene, roughly within the borders of Kuwait today.
Subsequently, the region’s self-sufficient desert lifestyle shifted to the coastal harbors for their trading potential. The discovery of pearl banks along the Persian Gulf was economically important for Kuwait, as was the trade of Arab horses, dates, spices, coffee, and wood. New social and political arrangements suitable for a settled economy were created by a succession of ruling tribal leaders such as the Al-Khalifa, Al-Roumi, Al-Jalahma and Al-Sabah.
By the 18th century, the region was ruled by Al-Sabahs following an agreement between the sheikhs dividing the control of commerce, government and military affairs. Many of the nomadic desert people abandoning their grazing ways for pearling, trade and shipbuilding. By the late 18th and into the early 19th century, Al-Sabahs’ power enabled the ruler to designate his son his successor, as well as established foreign diplomatic relations in Kuwait, notably with the British East India Company.
The wealthy pearl merchants could still block Al-Sabah projects and their status quo was maintained until the discovery of oil in the region. Cultural integration with the Persian Gulf’s other emirates formed a powerful trade and tribal network. Family rivalries and Ottoman incursions in the Gulf resulted in chaos in the late 19th century, with the Iraqi governor’s successful demands for Ottoman rule in Kuwait resulting in Al-Sabah being demoted to provincial governor.
By 1899, the British Empire controlled Kuwait’s foreign policy and in 1913, agreed Kuwait was a province of the Ottomans. After WWI, Kuwait was declared an independent sheikhdom under British protection. In 1938, Kuwait’s massive oil reserves were discovered, revolutionizing the country’s economy and independence was declared in 1961, causing Iraq to violently reassert its claims.
By 1963, British military intervention persuaded the Iraqis to capitulate, although periodic border attacks continued for several decades. The Iran/Iraq War saw Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, disposing of the monarchy and the fleeing of 50 percent of the population, ending in the USA’s liberation of the country. Destruction of oil infrastructure cost over US $5 billion to repair.
Kuwaiti culture is based on the desert tradition of hospitality and guests are treated with respect, warmth and good manners. Bedouin and Arab culture requires the serving of tea and coffee (often accompanied by nuts and sweets) to those who enter any office and some stores, and to refuse is considered a denial of the host’s generosity. Family ties are extremely important, with the man the undisputed head, and social separation between male and female family members is common.
Food is an important part of Kuwaiti culture, and is served in large amounts especially to visitors, again demonstrating the host’s generosity. The Diwaniya, a separate room in homes and businesses are reserved for male guests, which play an important part in social life as it’s a place for relaxation and discussion between the boys. Dressing respectfully is important, especially for women, with the typical vacation wear definitely not acceptable, especially when visiting the Grand Mosque and religious buildings, the souqs and when dining out.
Although Kuwait is basically a tolerant, semi-Islamic, society, the religion is very important to its peoples and its rules are followed. If you’re visiting during Ramadan, the month of fasting between sun-up and sundown, it’s polite not to be seen eating or drinking until after dark, at which time you’ll see restaurants crowded out with Kuwaitis making up for their daytime deprivation amid much laughter and fun.