Kuwait is one of the smallest countries in the modern day Middle East, but due to an abundance of oil it remains a highly sought after trading partner, as well as pulling in interest from its neighbours, specifially Iraq, whose Saddam Hussein led invasion of Kuwait in 1990 brought the small but prosperous nation to the world's attention.
The area of the Middle East now known as Kuwait has been occupied for thousands of years, but it is only relatively recently that it was founded as a country. The traditionally accepted date of foundation is 1710, when the city of Kuwait was established by members of the Utab clan from what is now Saudi Arabia. One family, the al-Sabahs, quickly established themselves as rulers and in 1756, Sheikh Sabah Bin Jaber was established as the first formal ruler (Amir) of the area. The sheikdom was still officially under Ottoman rule, but the setting up of its own rulers meant that the country was seen as becoming more and more independent.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the British were establishing a presence in the Middle East, to secure trade routes and lines of communication with India, then part of the the British Empire. To do this, the British tried to form relationships with local rulers anxious to become completely seperate from the Ottoman empire. In 1899, Kuwait signed an agreement with Great Britain which left it effectively as a British protectorate - the amirs of the al-Sabah family continued to rule the country, but foreign affairs were handled by the British, who guaranteed security from the Ottomans and the Germans who were interested in the area because they were trying to extend the important Berlin - Baghdad trade route.
The Discovery of Oil
Since its foundation, most of the economy of Kuwait had been based around the sea - specifically fishing, pearling and boat building as well as long distance trade. This all changed massively when, in 1938, the Burgan oil field was discovered. It wasn't really until the end of the Second World War that oil was exported from Kuwait in large quantities, but when it started, Kuwait very quickly became an enormously rich country - the first of the countries in the area to do so. It has been said that the British and US owned Gulf Oil Corporation, who initiated large scale oil extraction in the area, were guilty of exploiting the area for their own good, but wealth transformed the country, allowing large scale economic development for the first time. It was in the next decade or so that the real infrastructure of Kuwait was set up, as well as the foundation of welfare services.
It was in 1961 that the British protectorate came to an end, when the rulers of the country announced its independence. It was also this year that Kuwait joined the Arab League - a move strongly objected to by Iraq, who claimed that Kuwait was historically part of its terrority. Iraq eventually gave up on its claims and a Kuwaiti constitution was put together, followed by the election of a national assembly.
The Iran-Iraq War
Iran and Iraq had been historical rivals and relationships between the neighbouring states were deteriorating quickly in the late 70s. Full scale war broke out in September 1980 when Iraqi forces swept into the province of Khuzestan, Iran's richest oil-producing area. The states in the Persian Gulf were not originally affected by the outbreak, but in early 1981 Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE formed the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) in order to look after their interests and possibly defend themselves. Kuwait, fearful of the radical new leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, helped Iraq in the conflict by opening up trade routes as well as giving them massive loans (around 6 billion US Dollars). Kuwait started to build up its military forces and cooperation with the GCC in response to Iranian bombings and eventually turned to the United States, Russia and Britain for naval protection and about half of the Kuwaiti fleet were either reflagged as American or given US escorts, there to protect the flow of oil.
The Iraqi Invasion
Despite the losses in the Iraq-Iran war, Iraq was still the dominant presence in the Middle East. The Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, began to revive old territorial claims over Kuwait and on the second of August 1990, much to the world's surprise, Kuwait was invaded by approximately 120,000 Iraqi troops, who very quickly took control of the country and destroyed their meagre military forces. Kuwait was quickly annexed by Iraq - a move that was recognized by very few countries around the world. It was just over six months before Kuwait was liberated - a coalition of 28 countries including the US and Britain mounted an attack on Iraqi-occupied Kuwait and had swift victories. Most of the infrastructure of the country was destroyed, food scarce and hundreds of oil wells left burning.
After the Gulf War, Kuwait entered into a ten year defence cooperation agreement with the United States which gave the US port access and military storage space but did not provide for the stationing of US military forces in Kuwait. The country is still feeling the aftermath of the Gulf War and with the current Middle East situation looking shaky at best, and UN forces currently deployed in Kuwait, the future is unclear.
Kuwait’s Constitution states that the religion of the state is Islam and much of the legal system has very strong traces of influence from the Sharia. The population is predominantly made up of Sunni Islam followers, who constitute 60% of the total. Shi'i Islam makes up a further 30%, with Christianity (almost exclusively made up of expatriate workers) fills in the final 10%. Only Muslims can become Kuwaiti citizens, but the Christians are fully accepted and freedom of speech is absolute in Kuwait.
The hereditary Emir (still descended from the al-Shabar family) is still the sole ruler of the state of Kuwait, despite the presence of a government. The national assembly is made up of 50 members, but these are not fully democratically elected - less than 20% of Kuwaiti inhabitants have the right to vote (specifically - "Voting in Kuwait is currently restricted to men who resided in Kuwait before 1920, their male descendants and the descendants of naturalized citizens"). The actual power in Kuwait is unclear as the assembly can be (and has been) very easily dissolved by the emir, who would then be left as sole ruler.
Kuwait has historically been fairly neutral to international developments, not wanting to become involved with the big powers if possible. Obviously, at certain points, this has proved impossible and during the Gulf War strong ties with the US were made.
An important movement in modern day Kuwait is that of womens suffrage. In May 1999, the Emir gave women the right to vote, but this was repealed in November 1999 by the National Assembly. Aside from voting, women in Kuwait have many of the rights of men and there are many prominent women in the country today.