Kuwait: Defending a regime, fabricating a threat

This is an edited extract from Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World

by Mark Curtis

The 1991 Gulf War against Iraq was not the first time Britain had conducted a military intervention in support of Kuwait; Britain also intervened in Kuwait thirty years before. Then, Britain was desperate to protect its oil business interests, and to solidify its relations with the Kuwaiti regime. The formerly secret files suggest that British planners engaged in a giant conspiracy – by deliberately fabricating an Iraqi threat to Kuwait to get the Kuwaiti regime to ‘ask’ Britain for ‘protection’.

Business interests were extensive. Kuwait was then the world’s third most important oil-producing country, with around one quarter of the world’s known reserves. British Petroleum (BP) had a 50 per cent interest in the Kuwait Oil Company while Shell, in which the British government had a 40 per cent interest, had been granted a Kuwait concession in January 1961.

Britain was also the largest state investor in Kuwaiti oil, which provided around 40 per cent of Britain’s oil supplies. Furthermore, Kuwait’s sterling reserves accounted for about one third of total British sterling reserves and by 1961 Kuwait had invested £300 million in British banks, providing a very significant lever over the British economy.

British planners recognised the ‘vital importance of Kuwait to our Middle East oil interests’ and ‘the advantages to this country, both in supplies and in the balance of payments, which flow from the operations of the British companies in an independent, affluent and friendly Kuwait and from Kuwait’s readiness to accept and hold sterling’.

Indeed, according to 1958 US documents, the UK’s ‘financial stability would be seriously threatened’ if Kuwaiti and Gulf oil were not available to Britain ‘on reasonable terms’, if Britain were ‘deprived of the large investments made by that area in the UK’ and if sterling were ‘deprived of the support provided by Persian Gulf oil’.

On 20 June 1961, Kuwait achieved nominal independence from Britain but with agreement that Britain would come to Kuwait’s defence if the latter requested it. That the Kuwaitis agreed to this defence commitment after independence was a success for the British government. A year earlier, under pressure from growing Arab nationalist sentiment throughout the Middle East, the Emir had indicated a desire to end completely British protection of Kuwait. During the indepen­dence negotiations, leading Kuwaiti figures had also supported ending British guarantees after independence.

In fact, after the 1958 coup in Iraq – in which a repressive British-backed monarchical regime was overthrown by Arab nationalist forces – Britain ‘advised’ the Kuwaiti Emir to ‘request’ military assistance, but the ‘offer’ was rejected. With independence, therefore, Britain had secured a formal protec­tion agreement but its real solidity was questionable.

British fears were expressed in secret files two months before independence:

‘It is clear that, as the international personality of Kuwait grows, she will wish in various ways to show that she is no longer dependent upon us. But we must continue to use the opportunities which our protective role will afford to ensure so far as we can that Kuwait does not materially upset the existing financial arrangements or cease to be a good holder of sterling’.

Events then proceeded as follows. On 25 June, five days after the announcement of Kuwait’s independence, Iraqi leader Abdul Karim Qasim publicly claimed Kuwait as part of Iraq. Five days after this, at 8 am on 30 June, the Emir, after receiving information that Iraq might invade Kuwait, formally requested British military intervention. At midday Britain acceded to the ‘request’ and on the morning of 1 July British forces landed, eventually numbering around 7,000.

But the alleged Iraqi threat to Kuwait never materialised, as the files show.

On 26 June – one day after Iraq had claimed Kuwait – the Foreign Office noted that ‘Qasim’s decision appears to have been taken on the spur of the moment’ and ‘on present indicators it seems on the whole unlikely that Qasim will resort to military action’. The following day the British embassy in Washington reported that the US State Department viewed Qasim’s claim as a ‘postural move’ only – ‘They do not (repeat not) believe that he intends further action’. David Lees, the Commander of the British air force in the Middle East in 1961, later wrote that the British government ‘did not contemplate aggression by Iraq very seriously’.

On 28 June, the British embassy in Kuwait discounted ‘the possibility of an Iraqi engineered internal coup in Kuwait’. Equally, the consulate in Basra near the Kuwait border noted that ‘no (repeat no) reliable informant has seen or heard any unusual troop movements’.

But then, also on 28 June, Britain’s ambassador in Baghdad, who had not previously reported any unusual troop movements or war preparations, cabled London: ‘My most recent informa­tion reveals Qasim’s intentions to build up in Basra a striking force suitable for an attack on Kuwait.’

On 29 June the Foreign Office changed its tune. It noted that ‘there are now indications, still somewhat tenuous but pointing unmistakeably at preparations by Qasim to reinforce his troops near Basra with a tank regiment’. ‘The latest information shows Qasim to be making preparations which would enable him to make a very early military attack.’

The ambassador in Baghdad did not state the source of the ‘most recent information’. And how could the Foreign Office’s ‘indications, still somewhat tenuous’, point ‘unmistakeably’ to war preparations? The key is that the information purporting to indicate an Iraqi threat came exclusively from the British embassy in Baghdad. Its assessment was based on alleging the movement of a tank regiment from Baghdad to Basra, near the border with Kuwait. However, the PRO files also contain reports from the British consulate in Basra, which give a different assessment.

Earlier on the same day that the Foreign Office reported the movement of this tank regiment, the consulate in Basra stated that ‘in the last 48 hours there have been no (repeat no) further clear indications of intended aggressive action’. Security patrols were normal and Iraqi civilian aircraft were continuing to fly to Kuwait. Furthermore, even on 1 July – that is, after the Kuwaiti request for intervention and the British decision to intervene – the Basra consulate reported that ‘evidence so far available in Basra area does not (repeat not) indicate that an attack on Kuwait has been under preparation’.

In fact, eleven days after the British intervention a Ministry of Defence report stated that it was ‘unlikely’ that any tanks had been moved to Basra between 29 June and 4 July. On the contrary, Qasim had ordered a reduction of military activities to a minimum, precisely to avoid any misinterpretation of Iraqi intentions.

Belief in an Iraqi threat might simply be put down to an intelligence failure, but this appears infeasible. At the time, RAF photo-reconnaissance squadrons based in Bahrain could provide detailed analysis of troop movements. British assess­ments of Iraqi troop movements in the Basra area had taken place on an almost regular basis before. Moreover, there is evidence that the instructions given to commanders leading the British inter­vention were not geared to responding to any real Iraqi aggression. Also, the size of Britain’s initial intervention force was unlikely to have been able to defend Kuwait from any Iraqi attack.

The evidence suggests that the Emir was simply duped into ‘requesting’ intervention by the British. His information on the supposed threat came almost exclusively from British sources. London was certainly eager to intervene. The Foreign Office noted on 29 June that ‘we are taking a number of preparatory measures to place ourselves at the highest state of readiness in case it becomes necessary for us to introduce forces, at the Ruler’s request, into Kuwait’. It also instructed the embassy in Kuwait to inform the Emir of preparations against an Iraqi attack and that ‘in order to enable our forces to move quickly enough if and when the danger appears imminent we need to have a formal request from the government of Kuwait’.

‘The moment has come’ for the Emir to request our assistance, the Foreign Secretary stated. ‘We think the ruler should make this request forthwith’, the Foreign Office informed the Kuwait embassy. By the morning of 30 June, the Foreign Office declared that it needed the request ‘as soon as possible’. Finally, it was Lord Home who asked the Emir to make a formal request for British assistance.

Britain’s ‘political agent’ (i.e. ambassador) in the Gulf, John Richmond, was not impressed with London’s instruction that he ‘encourage’ the Emir to request assistance. He thought the intelligence reports were ‘too shallow and unclear’ and took no account of the fact that ‘the Iraqis might verbally threaten Kuwait but they will not invade’. Richmond was rebuked by his bosses in London and told to ‘keep quiet’, while the Foreign Office and MI6 thought that military action would ‘enhance Britain’s position in the region’.

Former Defence Secretary Denis Healey provides the official version of the intervention in his autobiography, saying simply that: ‘in 1961 our intervention in Kuwait had saved oil facilities vital to the West from falling into the hands of General Kassim, the half-crazed military dictator of Iraq – with no loss of life’.

In reality, the files strongly suggest that Britain knew there was no Iraqi threat but had already decided to move troops into the area. The threat was deliberately fabricated to achieve this end. Intervention could reassure friendly Middle Eastern regimes that were key to maintaining the British position in the world’s most important region. The Prime Minister’s foreign policy adviser said that letting go of Kuwait would mean that ‘the other oil sheikhdoms (which are getting richer) will not rely on us any longer’. Most important, the intervention reaffirmed the Kuwaiti regime’s reliance on British protection, preserving the close relationship vital to London due to its commercial interests in the country.