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Bahrain Table of Contents





Kuwaiti soldiers in formation during a dignitary's visit to their outpost during Operation Desert Shield
Courtesy United States Air Force


Kuwaiti M-84 main battle tank lays a smoke screen in a demonstration during Operation Desert Shield.
Courtesy United States Air Force

From 1899 until 1961, Kuwait remained, in effect, a British protectorate. A succession of amirs of the Al Sabah ruled the country, but the handling of its foreign affairs was a British prerogative, and Britain guaranteed the security of the amirate. Kuwaiti forces consisted of the amir's royal guard plus a small domestic police force or constabulary under the British administration. During the 1920s and 1930s, British protection became particularly important in deterring Saudi encroachment and later in blocking Iraqi territorial claims. By independence on June 19, 1961, the British had converted the 600-man constabulary into a combined arms brigade of 2,500 men trained by a British military mission. Small air and naval forces were also established in 1961 under British tutelage.

With its small size and enormous oil wealth, Kuwait occupies an uneasy position at the head of the gulf. One of its powerful neighbors, Iran, only forty kilometers away, had proclaimed its aim of exporting its Islamic revolution; the other powerful neighbor, Iraq, had repeatedly challenged Kuwait's legitimacy (see Territorial Disputes , this ch.). Fearful of the radical leadership in Iran, Kuwait aided Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War by permitting the transshipment of goods across its territory and by loans of about US$6 billion. Kuwait responded to terrorist bombings and other violence inspired by Iran by intensifying its military cooperation with the GCC and by building up its own forces. Although formally neutral and reluctant to become involved with the great powers except as a last resort, Kuwait turned to the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain for naval protection of its tanker fleet after twenty-one ships were attacked in the gulf in the six months preceding April 1987.

Iraq's surprise attack and occupation of Kuwait caused the virtual disintegration of the Kuwaiti armed forces. Large numbers of personnel were killed, captured, or dispersed, and most Kuwaiti equipment was destroyed or taken over by the Iraqi armed forces. The minister of defense said that 90 percent of military installations had suffered major damage. By early 1992, most army barracks were again usable, and the naval base was in operation but needed rebuilding. The air force flew temporarily from the civilian airport near the city of Kuwait while the air bases were being reconstructed in 1992. Kuwait expected to spend about US$9 billion--six times the prewar defense budget--in 1992 to replace destroyed equipment and installations.

In a sharp departure from previous policy, Kuwait entered into a ten-year defense cooperation agreement with the United States in September 1991. The agreement included United States port access, military equipment storage, and joint training and exercises. The agreement did not provide for the stationing of United States service personnel in Kuwait; 1,500 personnel remaining after the gulf war were scheduled to leave within a few months. Similar but less extensive ten-year cooperation agreements were subsequently concluded with Britain and France.

Data as of January 1993