The Kuwaiti Chiefdom’s Path Between Territorial Expansion in the Desert and Development of the City and its Economy (1914 – 1921)

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The Kuwaiti Chiefdom’s Path Between Territorial Expansion in the Desert and Development of the City and its Economy (1914 – 1921)
Eran Segal
The Kuwaiti Chiefdom has no rich history with turbulence, coup d’etats, or foreign rule like most Middle Eastern states. In the 18th century, a number of families known by the name `Utub (one of them was Al Sabah, who gradually assumed political functions) emigrated from northern Najd, due to a prolonged drought, and settled in the natural bay in the northwest of the Persian Gulf, basing their livelihood on pearl-diving and the transit trade. Kuwait grew to become a major transit trade center, mostly between Arabian tribes and India, and strove to maintain good foreign relations in order to secure regular trade. Having roots in the midst of the desert, but economic sustenance connected with the sea created an interwoven texture of society. Moreover, in the wake of the geo-political changes following World War I and encounters with the West, conflict between the different traditions produced an inherent tension in the state-formation process.

The Chiefdom (or Chieftaincy) is a concept used to examine supra-tribal structures in Arabia, centered on the mutual relations between nomads, semi-nomads, urban dwellers, and a ruler from a leading family. The Chiefdom has no strong central authority, clearly defined territorial boundaries, or mutual social cohesion. Therefore, its survival capability is low and the level of ‘Stateness,’ as referred to by J.P. Nettl, is low in comparison to that of the institutional state. The tribes played a major role in the evolution of the Chiefdom. According to the Tunisian historian, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), the level of tribal solidarity (`Asabiya) determines its survival ability. That is, it is destined to a deterministic cycle, culminating in territorial expansion initiated by the tribes and ending with disintegration of solidarity, unless religious zeal is preserved.

Following this model, the present thesis tries to examine the state-formation process of the Kuwaiti Chiefdom during the years 1914-1921, when it moved between territorial expansion in the desert, while strengthening relations with the tribes as a military force, and development of the city and its economy, using the tribes as the prime source for manpower.

The focus in state-formation process is on elevating the ‘Stateness’ level through centralization and institutionalization, and on creating cohesion around a mutual raison d’etre. In so doing, the traditional balance of power between the ruler and the major powers in society changes, inevitably in favor of the ruler. In the small Kuwaiti society (i.e., between 50,000 to 80,000 people during this period), the major power bases were situated in the city: namely, the merchants and the clerics (`Ulama). The merchants, especially the big pearl merchants (tawwash, plural tawawish), constituted the main element because of the importance of trade and pearl-diving. Due to the means needed for operation and the high fluctuation in the pearl market, advanced financing was needed, thus creating a credit/debt system that enslaved most of the employees in the field, which accounted for most of the town dwellers according to some estimates. The `Ulama also played an important function due to the key role of Islam in the society and the influence of mosques on local 'public opinion'.

Mubarak (r. 1896-1915) was the only ruler in the history of Kuwait that seized power. When the Ottomans tried to maneuver him and his opponents, Mubarak approached the British, who were striving to ensure their dominance in the Persian Gulf on account of growing Russian and German interference. On January 23, 1899, they reached a ‘protection agreement,’ which corresponds with R.E. Robinson and J.A. Gallagher’s ‘Informal Empire’ model – meaning that they preferred avoiding direct control as long as their interests were secured. The British umbrella enabled Mubarak to expand his influence over the tribes and the desert while confronting the Rashidis of Ha`il, who were at their height of power after conquering Riyad. Mubarak also nurtured in his court the young Abd al-Aziz Al Sa`ud (Ibn Sa`ud), who founded the third Sa`udi state in 1902. By the time relations cooled and the tension peaked after al-Hassa was seized by Ibn Sa`ud in May 1913 and as the `Ujman question was escalating, Mubarak was showing his preference for concentrating on the city while leaving the desert arena to Ibn Sa’ud.

Mubarak used the British support to create a more centralized regime, primarily through levying heavy taxes. By the end of his reign, his rule had become quite an autocracy, breaching the balance of power and probably abolishing, de facto, all tribal consultation mechanisms among Al Sabah and the community leaders. This tension raised opposition in parallel to the infiltration of reformist and salafi (salaf – Islam ancestors) ideas from the teachings of Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935), editor of the ‘Al-Mannar’ journal published in Cairo. Rida also paid a visit to Kuwait in May 1912, calling for the introduction of modernized means (but not Westernization), while emphasizing education and forming associations for raising funds and circulating ideas. Those ideas, known as nahda (resurgence), had a sizable impact on the small society and kindled strife between reform (Islah) supporters and the more traditional groups. Sources show that the division was also geographical, with the reform supporters in the west of the city and the traditionalists that opposed foreign influence, most prominently the big pearl merchants, in the east.

Following Rashid Rida’s visit, the ‘Mubarakiyya,’ the first local school in Arabia excluding the kuttab that followed only the Qur`an, and the ‘Charity Association,’ were founded. The latter established a clinic and organized lectures related to the reforms. A catalyst to the nahda was the Arabian Mission (of the Dutch Reformed Church in America), which started regular activities in Kuwait in 1911, particularly in medical and educational domains. The exposure to modern ways and ideas sharpened the controversy and was mixed with the growing opposition to Mubarak.

World War I caused far-reaching geo-political changes in the region, where the British remained the only superpower. This new situation brought into question the strategic importance of Kuwait. With the outbreak of war, a vague promise was given to Mubarak for a quasi-protectorate. The war also prevented the ratification of the Anglo-Ottoman convention (July 1913), which inter alia demarcated the border of the direct control of Mubarak (red line) and the territory over which he had influence (green line). The unquestionable support of Mubarak prevented any immediate threat to Kuwait, but also created total dependence on the British and stimulated opposition from within. This resistance culminated in an attempt to question the authority of Mubarak when he tried enlisting assistance for his friend, Shaykh Khaz`al of Muhammarah, who was also siding with the British. Mubarak expelled those thought to be agitators – the reformists coming to Kuwait: Shaykh Hafiz Wahba, the Mubarakiyya school teacher, and Shaykh Muhammad Amin al-Shanqity, who gave lectures as part of the ‘Charity Association’ activities. This step oppressed the nahda activity and exacerbated the internal struggle, most acutely following Mubarak’s death.

The reign of his elder son, Jabir (1915-1917), although brief with no special occurrences, was a change from that of Mubarak, and even more so from that of his brother Salim, who reigned after him. It seems that Jabir tried to get along with all elements within and without Kuwaiti society, but particularly strove to associate himself with the merchants, thereby abandoning the desert arena. Contrary to the expectations of certain sectors in the community, he did not support the nahda’s initiatives. In foreign relations, he maneuvered to maintain good relations with all sides, though his reign was in the shadow of the war and the ascendancy of Ibn Sa`ud.

Jabir’s weakness enabled Salim, who was in charge of the tribes, to initiate a policy that focused on attempts to expand in the desert through strengthening bonds with the tribes. This policy culminated during his reign (1917-1921). Salim, spending seventeen years in the desert away from the developing city, became zealous and associated with the traditionalists that opposed the recent trends. Upon his return to the town, he gathered his supporters, particularly those from the desert arena, and practically replaced the government while introducing far-reaching administrative and economic reforms. This enabled him to increase centralization and to mold a new ideology to the Kuwaiti Chiefdom, but also escalated opposition from the reform supporters. As his city-opponents grew in number, Salim looked for more support in the tribes and thus inevitably created a contest for influence with Ibn Sa`ud. This brought Salim closer to the Rashidis, Ibn Sa`ud enemies supported by the Ottomans, thus distancing him from the British.

The confrontation with the British was the first since the ‘protection agreement,’ especially when they had total hegemony in the area. It presented Kuwait with a serious danger to its existence as its economic cooperation with the Ottomans and allies became obvious. The growing reports on the transfer of merchandise to the Ottomans, constituting smuggling according to the British, led to the imposition of a blockade on the Kuwaiti port. Salim denounced it as an Ibn Sa`ud plot, but actually cooperated with the very profitable trade for his own benefit as well as that of the merchants and the tribes. On February 1918 British soldiers were situated in Kuwait, and in April a confrontation almost developed with the tribes coming to Kuwait. Nevertheless, smuggling continued and more drastic steps were considered, even the occupation of Kuwait. The scale of smuggling was lowered in August, and the end of the war finally prevented further activity.

A pivotal front in the Salim – Ibn Sa`ud confrontation during the war was the `Ujman question. Following the al-Hassa occupation, Ibn Sa`ud strove to discipline the tribe that enjoyed autonomy under the Ottomans. The tribe rebelled and approached the Kuwaitis, which provided them with protection. During Jabir’s reign, relations remained strained despite British mediation initiatives and the `Ujman’s partial evacuation from Kuwait. The conflict intensified further during the reign of Salim, when he invited the `Ujman to Kuwaiti territories and Ibn Sa`ud then retaliated by attempting to tax the `Awazim tribe that was under Kuwaiti protection. Eventually, Ibn Sa`ud succeeded in removing the `Ujman from Salim’s protection and recruiting the desert tribes to join the Ikhwan, a Wahhabi revivalist movement that he had founded. Most of the tribes submitted to his power after the war. Salim, who was busy confronting the British on the blockade problem, could not attain tribal support because in joining the Ikhwan, they had lost their reason for hostility toward Ibn Sa`ud. Thus, Salim was forced to withdraw on the matter, but not yet on control over the desert.

The main issue in the two years following the war was the conflict over desert control between Salim and Ibn Sa`ud, which was becoming increasingly aggravated. Consolidation of internal authority encouraged Salim to take external initiatives, namely securing his rule in the desert, which was further encouraged by the supposition that the British would support him. This culminated in the attempt to build a fortress in Balbul, an important anchorage for pearl-diving, which is situated at the edge of the green line, according to the Anglo-Ottoman convention. Salim had in mind that he would determine, de facto, the border with Najd and thus also prevent ‘Ikhwanization’ of the tribes, but the pressure exerted by Ibn Sa`ud on the British stultified the project. Nevertheless, Salim demonstrated full power inside his domain. He acted against the leaders of the `Awazim, exhibited apparent hostility toward the reform supporters, and strove to be seen as the merchants’ patron on the problems of taxing the Faw Peninsula Gardens after the British occupied Iraq and of bringing al-Zubair manpower in the pearl season after the flow of incoming workers had stopped during the war.

The dispute between Salim and Ibn Sa`ud escalated to a direct military confrontation in 1920, this time by way of Ibn Sa`ud initiative. He ordered establishing a hijra (Ikhwan`s settlement) in Jarriyya, located at an important desert juncture northwest of Balbul, and also prevented the trade of the tribes with Kuwait. Salim dispatched forces to the location, which he considered to be his own, and soon a confrontation broke (May 17 or 18) out, ending with a Kuwaiti defeat. The British remained outside and Salim decided to build a wall around the city while approaching Ibn Sa`ud enemies – the Rashidis, the `Ujman, and probably the Sharif Husayn – because it was clear that by the end of the summer, the confrontation would be renewed. The Kuwaitis, who were not keen on fighting, also suffered from economic deterioration soon after the post-war recovery, and by the end of the year Salim had gradually lost whatever remaining support he had. The feeble mediating attempts of the British failed, and the Ikhwan forces led by Faisal al-Dawish besieged al-Jahrah on October 10, 1920. The ensuing battle is known in Kuwaiti historiography as heroic mainly because the Ikhwan forces retreated after failing to occupy the Red Fort (al-Qaser al-Ahmar), where the Kuwaitis were fortified. It seems that the Ikhwan probably meant to attack the city, but retreated in light of the threat by the British, who feared implications of a possible occupation of Kuwait. At this stage Salim lost all support, and the city dwellers forced him to ask for British help and started proposing ideas for limiting his authority, mainly through establishing a council.

Salim’s death and the accession of Jabir’s son, Ahmad (1921-1950), was a turning point in Kuwait history. Ahmad belonged to the generation emerging in light of exposure to the West and modern innovations, thus influenced by reformist ideas. He led the Hajj caravan when the war was ending and was invited by the British to meet King George V. Ahmad was held in great esteem in the Kuwaiti community, and his accession was accepted with great relief because it evidently heralded the removal of Ikhwan’s threat.

The undermined internal balance of power since Mubarak’s reign led the community leaders to take action. At the time of Salim’s death, when Ahmad met Ibn Sa`ud to try to mediate between him and his uncle, the community leaders took the opportunity to claim the establishment of a council (Majlis) before a new ruler was approved, and Ahmad was forced to respond. Details on the short-lived council, which was the first in Arabia, are obscured in the available sources, but close examination of its twelve members revealed diversified interests characterizing the internal social conflict. The council reflected the geographical-ideological-economic divisions, and a majority was created for the nahda’s opponents from the east of the city against the supporters from the west associated with Ahmad. Probably, the attempt to appoint Ahmad al-Faresy, a traditionalist leader and the closest ally of Salim, to qadi position, which supposed to held great authority, failed the council. Engagement in the council in and of itself points to the ideological change among the Kuwaiti people.

A number of developments after 1921 demonstrated the ideological shift that Kuwait had undergone. First, a solution to the border problem between Kuwait and Najd was completed in the `Uqayr conference (December 1922), where Kuwait was not in fact represented. Contrary to the current research claim that it was British coercion, it seems that Ahmad’s reign reflected a position opposing expansion in the desert; thus, the border issue was not featured among his top priorities. Second, a number of local projects were initiated in the nahda’s spirit. These included the founding of another school, the ‘Ahmadiyya,’ which was more advanced than the ‘Mubarakiyya’ controlled by the traditionalists. The first public library was inaugurated, in which the ‘Charity Association’ books were made available after they had been concealed during Salim’s reign. A ‘literature club’ for circulating ideas and thoughts and for hosting important reformists, such as Shaykh Muhammad Amin al-Shanqity, was organized, and also for the first time student delegations were sent to acquire higher education in the Arab world.

Examining the sequence of events undergone by the Kuwaiti Chiefdom during 1914-1921 reveals that this period was pivotal in the state-formation process. The political-economic changes corresponding with an internal struggle served to create a real threat to the Chiefdom’s existence and generated a turning point in regard to the nature of its ideological raison d’etre. Kuwaiti rulers, backed by different groups in the society, needed to decide between two options. The first was expansion of the Chiefdom, based on Ibn Khaldun’s conception of allocating resources to relations with the tribes and creating a traditional way of life in order to confront the ‘Ikhwanization’ process and Ibn Sa`ud. The second option based on modernization and development of the city culture, while ignoring the desert tribes apart from securing the caravans. Following the de facto failure, though very courageous, of the former approach, Kuwaiti society fully adopted the latter approach, which has guided it ever since.

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