Family's 200-Year Grip on Government Broken


For more than 200 years, a single family has dominated the government of Kuwait, the tiny Arab sheikdom at the head of the Persian Gulf.

That unbroken hegemony reflects the political flexibility of the family, the Sabahs, one of the longest-ruling of all the Arab dynasties. Legend even says that it was precisely their superior diplomatic skills that earned the original Sabah settlers the right--in bargaining with other families--to control the government.

It also reflects the tenacity of a family that eventually built one small port city into an oil kingdom with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

From its beginning, Kuwait was built on commerce--a foundation that was only strengthened when rich deposits of oil were discovered after World War I.

Before the era of oil, the region hardly seemed a prize. Flat, empty desert land, it is so dry that today residents are forced to depend on purified seawater. But when three families of the Bani Utub tribe arrived in the region in the mid-18th Century, it was already a crossroads for traders from Syria, Iraq and Persia. Seagoing European nations also called at the port of Kuwait. The families decided to take advantage of the trading opportunities.

The original three families founded an unusual state, based on a division of labor among them. In a pact, they agreed to give one family control of commerce and the second seafaring trades.

The Sabahs, considered to be the most diplomatic of the families, were granted administration of the state--power they held in unbroken succession until Thursday, when Iraqi troops overran the country and sent the emir fleeing to Saudi Arabia.

This division of labor worked well for many years. The Sabahs, dependent on the merchant families for income, were careful not to alienate them. They also had good relations with the nomads.

But all of that began to change with the discovery of oil in the early 1930s. Oil exports provided the ruling family with an independent--and seemingly unlimited--source of income. The Sabahs found that they no longer needed to court the merchants and the desert nomads, and began appointing family members to jobs throughout the government.

As they turned inward, the Sabahs also made themselves more dependent on the outside world.

Because of its geographical vulnerability, Kuwaiti foreign policy has always tended to play competing powers against each other, including the Soviet Union and the United States.

Domestically, the country has experienced increased tension between different parts of Kuwaiti society. The oil boom attracted thousands of new immigrants, who now make up 60% of the population despite the fact that they have no legal rights under the Kuwaiti constitution. Reflecting the country's conservative brand of Sunni Islam, women also are not allowed to vote.

Since last December, a pro-democracy movement has been pressing the Sabahs for change. Dissidents won a compromise this spring when the family allowed elections for a new National Council, a body that began meeting this summer.

Nonetheless, for all their faults and despite rising demands for change, the Sabahs retained surprising popularity.

"If the emir were to return tomorrow," predicted Jill Crystal, a specialist in Kuwaiti politics, "he would have no trouble regaining control over the country."

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