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History And Economy Of Kuwait

Updated on April 24, 2017
SakinaNasir53 profile image

Sakina has been living in Kuwait for 14 years. She loves researching its history and culture, and she enjoys visiting local museums.


Kuwait is an Arab country at the tip of the Persian Gulf, situated in Western Asia. It shares its borders with Iraq and Saudi Arabia. While there is evidence of habitation going back to 8,000 BC, modern Kuwait was founded by the Bedouins.

A Brief History Of Kuwait

The bedouins came across the Arabian Peninsula and settled in what is Kuwait City today. It is not possible to fix an exact date for the establishment of Kuwait City, but most researchers agree that the town facing the sea was built around in 1716. It is not yet known why this location was chosen.

There was little drinkable water. Perhaps, the Bedouins gave up hope. For some unknown reason, the people of the tribe looked upon the waters of the Persian Gulf, noted the natural harbor and gave up their wandering ways. Although they remained strongly attracted to the desert by virtue of their past (for they were descended from desert nomads), they saw the possibilities of wealth in the sea. Thus, the settlers, ancestors of modern-day Kuwaitis, abandoned nomadism and became sailors and traders.

The Persian Gulf (called the Arabian Gulf by present-day Gulf countries) was rich in fish and pearls. In addition, there were ports from which Kuwaitis could export goods. Their nomadic culture swiftly changed to one shaped by pearl-diving, seafaring international traders, and travelers.The settlers faced their new town towards the sea. They built their mud homes so close together that they looked like apartments. Their noisy bazaars were centers for community socialization.

Later after the discovery of oil, a modern infrastructure rose from the arid desert as roads, ports, factories, power generating stations, and desalination plants came into being. The boom continued as new mosques, clinics, hospitals, schools, markets, supermarkets, houses and villas were built. The population increased as thousands of foreign technicians, advisers and workers arrived to service the huge development schemes. Many Kuwaitis, members of a privileged minority, found themselves in new roles as importers, contractors, landlords, and government officials. Government's role in the economy and administration naturally increased under the impact of the new wealth and development.

Bedouin means "desert dwellers" in the Arabic language.

Unbearable Living Conditions In Old Kuwait

Kuwait is a country devoid of trees (except palms). Water availability was limited as the salty sea water isn't drinkable. There weren't any machines at that time, so no potable water could be produced by purifying sea water. The blazing sun and scorching heat quickly became the Bedouins' worst enemy, especially at that time when resources were limited.


The Camel- A Friend Of The Bedouins

  • The camel made life possible in this empty desert land.
  • The nomadic Bedouin tribes that roamed around depended solely upon the creature for their livelihood.
  • Camels provided food, milk, transport and clothing.
  • The dung of the camel supplied fuel for their fires. The camel could survive on prickly bushes and little amounts of water.
  • When drought and famine occurred in the early 1700's, it became difficult for the camel to survive.
  • Therefore, the Bedouin tribes that roamed the area scattered into various directions in search of water and plants.

The name Kuwait is derived from the Arabic word "Al-Kout" meaning fort.

A Short Video Depicting Kuwait's History

Economy Of Old Kuwait

1. Commercial Exchange

Safat square represented the center of land commercial exchange and a daily intersection of the city and Bedouins, as goods were brought from the sea port, shipped from India, Eastern Asia, and Africa. On the other hand, the Bedouins brought their goods like milk products, leather, animal ghee, desert grass and other things which weren't available in the city.

Safat square representing commercial exchange.
Safat square representing commercial exchange. | Source

2. Pearl Diving

The sea was the primary source of livelihood for the Bedouins because the desert environment was very poor. Pearl diving was one of the main occupations of Kuwaiti people in the early days before oil was discovered.

It consisted of many dangers, obstacles and health issues that encountered divers during their quest for pearl hunting. Divers depended on following the stars in the sky and compass to know pathways. Kuwaiti divers showed determination, confidence, and desire during their diving sessions. They had extensive knowledge in sailing, fishing, and navigation.

They used various instruments like the compass (an instrument used for determining directions) and "Kamal" (an instrument used to determine horizontal and vertical lines in the sea).

Pearl diving is an act of hunting oysters in the sea to recover pearls.

Different instruments Kuwaiti divers used while pearl hunting
Different instruments Kuwaiti divers used while pearl hunting | Source

Difficulties Faced By Pearl Divers

  • Running out of breath underneath the sea.
  • Coming out of water in a coma situation, known as "sanna".
  • Forcing mates to pull them out of the sea, to get rest.
  • Rupturing of eardrums due to strong pressure of the water, leading to severe pain and blood coming out of the ears due to unavailability of necessary medical equipment
  • Skin infections due to staying for a long time in the water, accompanied by cramps, sores, and rashes.
  • They were endangered by sharks, which attacked and caused them severe injuries, leaving them handicapped for life.
  • Death in severe cases, if the pearl diver was already unconscious in the seabed.

In the year 1765, there were over 800 working ships in Kuwait. These ships were of different names and they served different purposes.

3. Ship Sailing

Since the mid 17th century, Kuwaitis used many kinds of ships called dhows for different purposes. "Al-Boom" was one of the most famous ships used in Kuwait in the past.

There were many kinds of "Al-Boom" used by Kuwaitis at that time. One of these kinds was used for pearl hunting. Another kind was used for sweet water delivery. Others were used for shipping stones for buildings. The bigger one was for long distance sailing, while a smaller one for short distance sailing.

Kuwaiti men working in the ship, mending broken parts and making nets for fishing.
Kuwaiti men working in the ship, mending broken parts and making nets for fishing. | Source

Identity Documents

Civil Identity Card

  • A civil identity card or a civil ID card, is a requirement for any expatriate or resident, regardless of the type of residence he owns. Civil identity cards are issued by the Public Authority for Civil Information or P.A.C.I.

  • The civil identity card information includes the civil ID number, full name, date of birth, local address, blood type, sponsor’s name, type of visa and card expiration date.

  • Civil ID number is unique for each resident. It remains the same even if the owner changes sponsors or returns to Kuwait after a long stay outside the country.

  • In olden times, the civil id was just a paper, now it is in the form of a card.

Sailor Identity

The Kuwaitis working in the ships had a paper showing their identity as a sailor.

Top left corner showing the then identity card, bottom right corner showing the sailor identity and the rest are important records and documents.
Top left corner showing the then identity card, bottom right corner showing the sailor identity and the rest are important records and documents. | Source

Summary of Occupations In Old Kuwait

Commercial Exchange
Safat Square
Pearl Diving
Infections, sharks, breathing problems and death (in some cases)
Ship Sailing
Building ships was laborsome

Summary of different occupations pursued by Kuwaiti men in olden times.

Different Types Of Shops Found In Old Kuwait

1. Matjar Alttarikh

In Kuwait, there wouldn't be found a home that didn't contain dates. This fruit is the staple fruit of the Arabian people, especially those of the Gulf and desert regions. In many of these places, it is the only fruit that grows easily. The date tree is so hearty, that it can survive the heat of the summer, and still gets ready to produce its beautiful fruit.

In those times, a Bedouin called "Tammar" sold many kinds of dates in his shop which was called "Matjar Alttarikh" or dates shop. Other kinds were imported from Iraq or Iran. They were stored in a pot made of palm leaves.

Bedouin man selling dates for livelihood.
Bedouin man selling dates for livelihood. | Source

2. Albiqala

Albiqala or a grocery shop was spread among the districts and different markets. They sold different kinds of goods and household requirements, known by the names of the owner. Some of them even brought homemade products to increase profits. At present, these kinds of shops can be found in Kuwait City. I have personally seen these shops selling fresh products.

Shopkeeper selling grocery items in old Kuwait
Shopkeeper selling grocery items in old Kuwait | Source

3. Matjar Alttawabul

Matjar Alttawabul is a spice shop, where a man sold spices and was represented as a pharmacist in those times. He was usually familiar with the names of herbs, plants, and medicine for each disease. He also knew how to make tonics. In those hard times, some people ground spices themselves while others were obtained from foreign traders.

Spice dealer selling spices, herbs, etc in olden times.
Spice dealer selling spices, herbs, etc in olden times. | Source

4. Alrrijal Eaba'at Matjar

Alrijjal eaba'at matjar or a men's cloak shop, was a place where a weaver wove cloaks worn by Kuwaiti men. It was a daunting task as the majority of the work was done by hand.

  • Men's cloak is a gown worn by the men on top of the white robe.
  • These are of different kinds for summer and winter, depending upon the threads used by the worker in it's weaving.
  • The threads are either made from a camel or goat's hair or sheep's wool.
  • This cloak is either made of one or more pieces, with the costs varying according to the quality of threads and adornments.
  • This gown shows prestige and is worn during special occasions like marriage or formal visits. It is not considered daily wear.

Men's cloak shop in Kuwait.
Men's cloak shop in Kuwait. | Source

5. Al Sadu

Al Sadu is a form of weaving which is considered as one of the most traditional crafts known by the Bedouin women, who crafted tents, storage bags and animal trappings. They had used the hair of camels and wool of sheep in this process. This shop can be still seen in Kuwait City.

Al Sadu is a form of weaving, considered as one of the oldest forms of traditional crafts known by Bedouin women
Al Sadu is a form of weaving, considered as one of the oldest forms of traditional crafts known by Bedouin women | Source

6. Mukhbaz

The men in the mukhbaz or bakery primarily made Khubz, the traditional flatbread prepared from wheat. It was baked in a hot furnace where burning coals supplied the heat.

  • The Khubz is a flatbread eaten by Arabs all over the world. It is their staple diet.
  • In the olden times, it was cooked by men. There weren't any ovens or machines at that time.
  • Nowadays, machines are available for making it as shown in the video included.
  • But the traditional way of making can be still seen in local Arabic restaurants here in Kuwait. Nowadays, along with khubz, different types of fatayers (stuffed breads) are baked as well.

Khubz (name of  the traditional flatbread in Kuwait) was made by Kuwaiti men in bakeries.
Khubz (name of the traditional flatbread in Kuwait) was made by Kuwaiti men in bakeries. | Source

Summary of Shops In Old Kuwait

Shop Name (Arabic)
Meaning (in English)
Products Sold
Matjar Alttarikh
Dates Shop
Different Kinds of Dates
Goods and Household Requirements
Matjar Alttawabul
Spice Shop
Different Kinds of Spices
Alrrijal Eaba'at Matjar
Men's Cloak Shop
Men's Cloaks for Special Occasions
Al Sadu
Tent, Storage Bags and Animal Trappings
Khubz (Tradional Flatbread of Kuwait)

How Is Khubz Made?


Some key dates in Kuwait's history:

2000-1000 BC - Greeks colonize the island of Failaki then named Ikaros. It becomes an important trading post on the route from Mesopotamia to India.

1700's - Nomadic tribes from central Arabia settle in the bay of Kuwait City, among them the Al-Sabah family whose descendants now rule Kuwait.

1899 - British protectorate: Britain assumes control of foreign and defense policy amid fears of an expanding Ottoman Empire.

1930's - Oil: The discovery of massive oil reserves revolutionizes the country's economy.

1961- Kuwait gains independence from Britain.

1963 - British military intervention forces Iraq to abandon its territorial claims and recognize Kuwait's independence. Kuwait becomes the first Arab country in the Gulf to establish an elected parliament.

1990-91 - Gulf War: Iraqi invasion leads to a US-led military campaign to liberate Kuwait.

2003 - Political reform: Emir issues a landmark decree separating the post of prime minister from the crown prince.

2005 - Kuwaiti women win the right to vote and run in parliamentary elections.

2012 - Unprecedented protests call for government reforms.

The country Kuwait has seen its best now due to the struggles endured before. The hard work, blood, and sweat of Kuwaiti ancestors paid off. Due to the discovery of oil, Kuwait's fate changed magically. Poverty-stricken in the past, now Kuwait is a country nestling at the top of the Gulf. Flanked by powerful neighbors Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, its strategic location and massive oil reserves make it one of the world's richest countries per capita. With different traditions and an interesting culture, mouth-watering cuisine filled with exquisite dishes, visiting Kuwait is worth the effort. Living here is another great story altogether. Personally, I feel that this small nation has a big heart and many things to offer.

Have you ever visited Kuwait?

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© 2016 Sakina Nasir


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