Considering the fact that Palestinian displacement from Kuwait (and subsequently many of the Arab Gulf states including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE), was approximately equivalent to the number of Palestinians forcibly displaced from the Occupied Palestinian Territory during the 1967 war – roughly 400,000 people – this lack of research attention is remarkable. Furthermore, the enormity of the repercussions that this period ushered into Palestinian politics – from the weakening of the PLO, to the eventual signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 – makes this experience crucial to the understanding of contemporary Palestinian politics. This article is an attempt to fill in some of these gaps and explore some of the bitter hidden wounds marking this story.
History of Palestinians in Kuwait
Palestinians began moving to Kuwait in three main stages. The first began in the late 1940s after Palestinian dispersion from their homeland during the Nakba coincided with the formal announcement of the discovery of Kuwaiti oil (1946). At the time, Kuwait was a British protectorate that had been carved out from the province of Basra in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Some historians argue that the severing of Kuwait from Iraq by the British was meant to deprive the larger neighboring state of Iraq from a deep water port, essentially keeping it land-locked and hence easier to control.
The fledgling state of Kuwait at the time was little more than a backwater, walled old city with a fishing port along established trading routes. It had no parliament, no newspaper, no budget, and was run by the Al Sabah monarchy ever since the British forced the Iraqi Prime Minister to recognize the state in 1932, virtually at gunpoint.
The United Kingdom had big plans for Kuwait. Despite the UK’s retreats in the wake of the Second World War, Kuwait was sitting on what would be affirmed to be 10 percent of the world’s oil resources, including what was then the largest oil field in the world (the Burgan field). Furthermore, extraction of Kuwaiti oil was almost effortless (costing less than under $US1 a barrel), in stark contrast with the North Sea resources that Great Britain needed to rely upon for its oil and heating needs. Maintaining influence in the strategic Gulf region was a means for the UK to maintain influence on a world stage, including vis-à-vis its imperial competitors. Where its direct colonial reach was ending, its neo-colonial reach was just beginning to extend.
Palestinians, together with other laborers from Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, India, and Pakistan came to play a formative role in the development of Kuwait. That two thirds of all Palestinians had become refugees meant that this work force was particularly itinerant and economically dependent. Great opportunities existed for educated Palestinians to play key roles as engineers, doctors, teachers and civil servants in the state’s fledgling bureaucracy after the state officially received independence from Great Britain in 1961.
By 1965, Palestinians composed almost 17 percent of the population of Kuwait (78,000 of about 468,000). The Palestinian population was also primarily male at this stage (four to one, male to female) with most Palestinian income remitted to families residing in Jordan (including the West Bank) Lebanon, and Gaza.
It is also worth noting here that the residential living quarters of young Palestinian workers in Kuwait was often segregated along national lines. The use of segregated housing for laborers had initially been employed by U.S. mining companies in the southwest states, as a technique to avert black-white worker alliances, and their potential for strikes. The tactic was later adopted by the U.S. oil giant Aramco in Saudi Arabia during its own internal disputes with labor, and quickly spread across the Arabian Gulf region. The significance of mentioning this here lies in establishing the fact that the close living quarters amongst Palestinians and the underdeveloped nature of Kuwait in the mid-1950s made it fertile ground for the regrouping and rebirth of a modern Palestinian national movement after the Nakba. Palestinians were socialized together in Kuwait in an environment where they were newly created refugees, proletarianized, and exploited by their Kuwaiti masters, yet were nonetheless able to lead a stable and sometimes prosperous existence. Moreover they were witness to the tumultuous Arab world of the 1950s and 1960s, and its ongoing struggles with political ideologies – from Arab nationalism in its Nasserite and Baathist variations, to Arab communism and Islamism.
The question of Palestine lay at the heart of many of these struggles, making the early experience of Palestinians in Kuwait the crucible period where the post-Nakba, modern Palestinian national movement, led by Fateh, would come about. The only other equivalent expression of Palestinian nationalism came from Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria who would form the nucleus of the Palestinian left in coming years. As for Kuwait, the list of Palestinian engineers, teachers and functionaries who made their way through the state would include a “who’s who” of the founders of the post-1967 PLO – including Yasser Arafat, Khalil Al Wazir (Abu Jihad), Hani El Hassan and Salah Khalaf (Abu Eyad).
After 1967, a second and third wave of Palestinians made their way to Kuwait, swelling the community to 148,000 in 1970, and 204,000 by 1975. This time Palestinians brought their families, partly out of the fear of leaving them behind in the unstable conditions created by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or the precarious situation of Palestinians in Jordan after the 1970 crackdown on the PLO.
The growth of the Palestinian community in Kuwait throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, brought with it increasing contradictions. On the one hand, the community became increasingly prosperous and influential both in the state itself, as well as beyond it. By this time the PLO had been catapulted to the top of the world stage, particularly in Arab societies where it was admired for its willingness to resist Israel in the wake of the humiliating 1967 defeat. Kuwait acted as the PLO’s main financial backer by providing direct government funding, and allowing the PLO to levy a five percent tax on Palestinian income that the government allowed it to collect. Palestinian presence in Kuwait further contributed to the state’s cultural and artistic influence in the Arab world, with Palestinians playing leading roles in Kuwaiti newspapers, literary journals, and its vibrant cultural sector.
On the other hand, the PLO was feared by Arab governments as a potentially destabilizing force. The PLO’s political agenda was so immersed in contemporary questions to do with the Arab world’s liberation from Western imperialism and its local surrogates that it was only natural that the ruling families of authoritarian Arab states viewed the PLO’s presence suspiciously. Many an Arab country had indeed been created and/or maintained by Western powers, Kuwait included (Despite Kuwait’s official independence in 1961, the United Kingdom retained a military base there for “training purposes” up until the Iraqi invasion in 1990). Furthermore, Palestinian left factions had at different stages called for overthrowing “the reactionary Arab regimes,” and allied themselves with local leftist groupings against their repressive governments. Breakaway factions of the Palestinian left had even attacked or threatened Gulf oil interests adding suspicions to the mix.
In this context, the Kuwaiti government attempted to keep a tight grip on PLO activities, which also mirrored its own repressive activities against democratic life in Kuwait. In 1976, Kuwait’s rulers shut down the independent Palestinian school system that had been allowed to operate since 1968. In the same year, they shut down the Kuwaiti parliament for six years, and began to increasingly censor the press and the activities of Kuwaiti student movements.
But the main way in which Kuwait kept a grip on Palestinian activity was to ensure that the most conservative elements of the PLO were empowered at the expense of the “radicals.” Fateh was the natural benefactor of this arrangement. Ever since Fateh’s 1968 take-over of the PLO from its former role as surrogate of Egyptian president Nasser, the movement repeatedly emphasized its “non interventionist” approach in internal Arab affairs, and was decidedly against giving the movement any ideological colorations. In this respect, Fateh worked closely with the Kuwaiti government to keep tabs on and undermine influence of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the 1970s, as well as Palestinian Islamists in the 1980s.
The late 1970s and 1980s witnessed a decisive shift to the right in Arab politics. The Lebanese civil war had erupted in 1975, and the Palestinian-Lebanese Left alliance was decisively and ruthlessly crushed in the siege of Beirut’s Tal Al-Za’tar refugee camp. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat abandoned his predecessor’s pan-Arabist agenda, entering peace talks with Israel in 1979, steering his state toward becoming a Western vassal. This entailed both cutting a deal with Israel to gain back the Sinai Peninsula, and transforming the Egyptian economy into a neo-liberal avant-garde in the region.
Other developments added to Gulf Arab consternation about the stability of their regimes. 1979 witnessed the successful Iranian revolution, which quickly turned into the victory of the Islamist wing within it. Not long after, the Iran-Iraq war would break out, with the Arab Gulf countries encouraging Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to take advantage of Iran’s post revolution disarray to make territorial gains, and push back Iranian revolutionary ideological influence. By 1982 the PLO would also be dislodged from Lebanon, and its leadership structures displaced to Tunisia, gravely impacting its ability to leverage any military challenge to Israel, and emptying out its slogan that “armed struggle” would liberate Palestine.
In this context, Kuwait took increasing steps at the “Kuwaitization” of its economy attempting to reduce the control and influence on non-Kuwaitis in professional and civil services. While these measures created lush benefits and privileges for Kuwaitis in terms of employment, salary and retirement benefits, they conversely worsened matters for many Palestinians. With it, the community’s sense of what Kuwait had come to represent as a bastion of security and support quickly eroded.
One final factor to consider is the rising population of Palestinians in respect to that of the Kuwaiti population. By 1989, the Palestinian population was estimated at upwards of 400,000 people (perhaps 450,000), while that of Kuwaitis stood at roughly 550,000 - a trend that elements of the Kuwaiti establishment were keen to reverse.
In sum, on the eve of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a combination of ideological, political, demographic and class factors contributed to a perceived conflict of interest between the Palestinians in Kuwait, and the Kuwaiti regime. Relatively speaking, the status and prosperity of Palestinians in Kuwait was stable. But beneath the surface, subtle yet important rifts existed, and shifts in perception were also taking place – developments, which, with the onset of coming conflict, would be exposed with devastating consequences.
The Iraqi invasion
The oft-cited historical narrative to emerge regarding the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait is that the Palestinian community there, together with the PLO, sided with the Iraqi invaders. This historical miscalculation resulted in Palestinians being perceived as collaborators with the Iraqi occupiers, leading to their eventual dislodgment from Kuwait after its liberation. But this narrow reading of history is inaccurate, deceptive and hypocritical. Moreover it is largely a narrative that blames one of the main victims of the war, while obfuscating what the war was about in real terms.
The Palestinian community in Kuwait was not a monolith, nor was its response to the Iraqi invasion monolithic. On the one hand, many Palestinians did have a pre-existent sympathy towards Iraq irrespective of the question of its conflict with Kuwait. Iraq is remembered in Palestinian popular consciousness as one of the Arab states to have fought against Zionist armies in 1948 and 1967, doing so valiantly, unlike other states such as Jordan which made secret arrangements with Zionist forces before 1948 to divide Palestine between itself and the future Israel. Iraq was also the only warring Arab state that did not sign an armistice agreement in the wake of the Nakba, leaving it in a state of open war with Israel. Iraq was also the state sanctuary and sponsor of an assortment of Palestinian political groups and refugee communities, and who were treated relatively well in comparison to other Arab host regimes. Moreover the reigning Baathist ideology of the state, in power since the late 1960s, placed Palestine – at least nominally – on the forefront of its agenda. This had particular signification for Palestinians at the time who had witnessed the gradual retreat of Arab solidarity with their cause, especially after the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David accords were signed in 1979. Indeed, Palestinians perceived the lack of a strong, united Arab front behind the activities and great sacrifices of the first Intifada as a cause of the inability to translate the popular uprising into real political gains. In this context Saddam Hussein’s backing of the first Intifada, and his declared willingness to confront Israel militarily in the run up to the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait raised his political capital at a moment when Palestinians were feeling particularly vulnerable.
On the other hand, the Palestinian community in Kuwait was just as surprised by unfolding events as everyone else. It witnessed a lightning fast transformation of affairs, with Iraq successfully taking over Kuwait within a day and with little apparent resistance. There was wide-scale looting of property, and Iraq quickly annexed Kuwait as its “nineteenth province.” Iraq also quickly imposed a repressive regime with residents expected to comply with an array of newly imposed Iraqi regulations to consolidate its rule, including showing up for work and replacing Kuwaiti license plates with Iraqi ones. Consequences for noncompliance included heavy fines, lost pensions, jail or worse.
In this light, the Palestinian community was in disarray. Most sensed early on that the occupation was going to be a disaster, but they lacked the organization to translate this sentiment into a clear political position. Furthermore, it is important to recall that there were also internal differences within the Palestinian community, based upon a series of factors including the length of time spent there, class and political affinities. The Palestinian community in Kuwait at the time was the largest of its kind outside of Jordan. While it was the richest diaspora community, with ‘the most to lose’ in this sense, there was also an underclass of Palestinians who were poorer, who had been in Kuwait for shorter periods of time, and who were closer to the political ideas prevalent in the OPT, which were decidedly more pro-Iraqi than the older Palestinian communities in Kuwait.
Furthermore, the PLO did not espouse a clear political position. Fateh had been running the institution in an undemocratic fashion for so long, that a serious and representative debate on what stance to take on the invasion was not possible. Fateh’s non-ideological approach had consistently led it in opportunistic tactical directions, its response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait demonstrating the peak of this shortsightedness. Within two days of the 2 August 1990 invasion, Arafat was pictured with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad “discussing developments.” By the 10 August 1990 Arab League Summit, the PLO would vote with the pro-Iraq camp (together with Libya and Iraq) against a resolution calling for Arab troops to head to the Gulf to push back the Iraqi invasion, and the endorsement of Saudi King Fahd’s invitation of Western forces to deploy throughout his Kingdom. While some PLO leaders such as Khalid and Hani al-Hasan and Jawid al-Ghusayn condemned the foreign intervention others like Faruq Qaddumi, Yasir Abed Rabbo and Abul Abbas, appeared on Iraqi television expressing solidarity with Iraq.
Arafat’s support for the “Iraqi position” (which in truth was a position for non-military interventionism) was not about the PLO sponsoring Saddam in so far as it was an attempt to create leverage out of the crisis towards ending the Israeli occupation. Indeed, the lightening condemnation of the Iraqi occupation and immediate military campaign to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait, at a time when the Israeli occupation of the OPT had been ongoing for twenty-four years, and when not one of the litany of UN sponsored resolutions on Palestinian rights was being observed or implemented, was nothing short of hypocritical.
But Arafat’s tactical maneuvers failed miserably. Western powers were not interested in any “linkage” or ending any Israeli occupation. They were interested in oil, and Palestinians had none. The U.S. hence preferred to “solve” the crisis on its own assembling an international coalition that included many an Arab state, totally crushing a united Arab stance. Iraq was to be bombed back to the stone age to teach a lesson to current and future allies, and sanctions were to be placed on the ‘rebellious’ regime which eventually would kill and displace millions of Iraqis. As for the Palestinians, they could now be made to pay part of the bill, because as the imperial logic to the region goes, Palestinians must continually be subjugated to keep Arab morale low, Arab resistance disorganized, and Israel a regional powerhouse at the Arabs’ expense.
The failure of the Palestinian leadership, and the deeper geo-strategic dynamics at play (remember the Soviet Union was collapsing as well) left Palestinians in Kuwait rudderless, with suspicious enemies all around (both Iraqi and Kuwaiti). As such, Palestinians could be found both openly collaborating with the Iraqi army, and engaging in direct resistance against this occupying army, while the great majority attempted to steer well clear of either pole.
The history of Palestinian resistance to the Iraqi invasion is one that has been largely repressed. For example Fateh and PLO offices in the Kuwaiti district of Hawali organized a demonstration on 5 August to protest the invasion, and four underground leaflets were issued criticizing the Iraqi occupation throughout the fall, before the larger war broke out. There are also cases of Palestinians who engaged in the underground armed resistance, participating in military cells, and ferrying Kuwaitis and supplies around to a network of safe houses. There is even the case of Rafiq Qiblawi, a central Fateh leader in Kuwait, who was assassinated by the Iraqi military for his encouragement of Palestinians not to engage in the “popular army” that the occupation was establishing.
On the other hand, because of local Palestinian dissension to Iraqi attempts to puppeteer their cause, the Iraqi administration sent a small group of 400 members of the Arab Liberation Front – an Iraqi government sponsored Palestinian faction – to put a Palestinian face to the Iraqi occupation and intimidate local Palestinians. To many Kuwaitis, this indeed looked like treason.
Another issue that fostered distrust between Palestinians and Kuwaitis during the occupation related to the issue of work boycotts. The Kuwaiti government in exile had called for a boycott in most nonessential government jobs. While such a boycott might have seemed reasonable, the reality was that it affected different communities differently. Kuwaitis were wealthier to begin with and had access to funds from the government in exile. Of the Palestinians who remained in Kuwait, it is estimated that 70 percent observed the boycott, including all those involved in the private sector. But the financial straits of poorer Palestinians made it difficult to observe the boycott in the long run. The occupation dragged on for more than five months, and the Iraqi occupation authorities threatened jail and fines to those who observed it. Fear of losing savings and pensions, and the need to compensate for lost income of family members employed in the private sector meant many poorer Palestinians were not in a position to observe the boycott like their wealthier compatriots, or Kuwaitis. Furthermore, Palestinians were also subject to deportation by the Iraqi occupation, or alternatively, had no option to leave the country because they required return visas to return to their host countries if they were refugees from Lebanon or Egypt (about a quarter of the Palestinian population in Kuwait).
By the time Iraqi forces were eventually pushed out of Kuwait in late February 1991, those with the interests – both Kuwaiti and international – to dislodge Palestinians from Kuwait and strike a blow against this ‘camp’ within the Arab world, had what they needed. Palestinians became the scapegoat for a war they were caught in the middle of, and paid a brutal price only secondary to the price paid by the Iraqi people who tried to survive beneath U.S. bombs.
The months of March to June 1991 were witness to a sustained Kuwaiti campaign to expel the Palestinian population using methods that combined bureaucratic means and terror. The discourse of “cleansing” was even employed by the Kuwaiti monarch to justify the forced displacement. The great majority of Palestinian civil servants were simply fired or not rehired; Palestinian children were expelled from public schools; educational subsidies were terminated; and heavy financial burdens were placed on Palestinians who wished to remain (such as new health fees and demands by Kuwaiti landlords to pay back rent for the war period). For those who didn’t get the message, there was always the threat of arbitrary arrest, torture, rape, and murder, all of which were regularly practiced in Kuwaiti police stations and impromptu interrogation centers. It later came to be known that part of this campaign of terror was actually instigated by particular internal elements within the Kuwait ruling family who were displeased with their post-war marginalization, and sought to use the scapegoating of the Palestinians, to whip up their nationalist credentials.
Of 400,000 – 450,000 Palestinians who had lived in Kuwait before the invasion, about 360,000 Palestinians ended up in Jordan of which 300,000 remained. 2,200 went to the U.S., while 21,000 immigrated to Canada, Australia, and other Western states. Most of the rest returned to the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Estimates for the number of Palestinians killed during the expulsion are lacking, however a veteran Palestinian medical doctor employed in Mubarak Hospital in Kuwait City for sixteen years, would later write an account of the expulsion. He estimated that about 4,000 people were killed and 16,000 tortured in Kuwaiti detention and interrogation centers. Most of these were Palestinians, Iraqis, Yemenis, and Sudanese.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent “war of liberation” is often depicted in Western narratives as the war to which all subsequent wars should be judged in terms of efficiency, organization, morality and overall success. The Western coalition suffered almost no casualties (around 190 combat related deaths, and 379 deaths from friendly fire or accidents). Between 20,000 and 35,000 Iraqis were killed, both civilian and military – and this before the subsequent sanctions regime was placed on Iraq, continuing the war by other means. The war was financed primarily by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, not Western tax payers. The US was able to reap huge economic and geostrategic boons from the way the war ended; rarely has the age-old adage “to the victor go the spoils” been so apt. The US used the war to greatly expand its presence and sphere of influence within the Arabian Gulf, essentially transforming it into a US channel, which happened to be the very same channel where 60 percent of world oil and gas resources must travel. US strategic positioning would later serve as the basis for future attacks and later invasions of Iraq, and may indeed serve as a similar base of positioning for wars further afield. US corporations also reaped enormous profits from Kuwaiti reconstruction, while Kuwait was essentially transformed into a fully subservient state with practically no sovereignty over its own strategic affairs. Moreover the rule of the monarchy was reinstated, as an affront to the Kuwaiti resistance and democracy movement and, in so doing, affirming one US Congressman’s description of Kuwait as “a family owned oil company with a seat in the UN.”
The Palestinian score card from the war was equally miserable. Palestinians lost their most prosperous and stable host state since the 1948 Nakba. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced for the first, second, third or fourth time. Assets, property, jobs, and incomes were lost overnight, as were school years, medical records, birth certificates and personal possessions, as well as the all-important remittance payments to Palestinian families in Palestine and the bordering host states. PLO finances and accompanying services quickly dried up, exposing a bloated inefficient bureaucracy prone to corruption. The PLO leadership became personae non grata in many countries (including many previously welcoming Arab countries), squandering the good will built throughout the first Intifada and earlier years of struggle. It began to desperately search for a lifeline as regional and international allies shunned it. Eventually Israel and the US threw it a bone called Oslo, which it was only too anxious to devour. When pieces of the bone got stuck in its throat, there was hardly anyone to come to its aid.
This is the story in a nutshell of Palestinian dispersion from Kuwait. There is still so much more to explore of this experience if only there is the courage to shine light upon these shadows – shadows which still lurk in the hearts of its refugees, and which mark our present, and will mark our future. While there can be no denying the mistakes both on the level of leadership and individuals, the price Palestinians were forced to pay had little to do with their alleged crime. The real crime was that they were a stateless people, trying to make ends meet at a time when US imperialism made a well calculated gambit to definitively penetrate the region in its effort to consolidate a new unipolar world beneath its control. In this gambit, the US ‘won’ – tricking Iraq into invading Kuwait (after having its ambassador tell the Iraqi regime it held no position to internal Arab conflicts only a week before). Once Iraq invaded Kuwait on that fateful August day, everything was scripted with no substantial force able to raise a finger in protest. US hegemony throughout the region has remained high ever since, with Palestinians paying a devastating as the superpower continues its support for further Israeli colonization of Palestinian land, and the dispossession of Palestinians from their homeland. If anything, the entire experience shows how the Palestinian cause remains unacceptable on the road to continued US domination throughout region. Acknowledgement of this factor – and what is needed to resist this in terms of organization, politics and allies – remains outstanding and necessary for any Palestinian liberation movement’s ability to make real gains in the future.
*Toufic Haddad is a Palestinian American writer and activist born and raised in Kuwait.
 See for example Schmidt, Donald E The Folly of War: American Foreign Policy 1898-2005, Chapter 12 “The Persian Gulf War, Punishment of Aggression”, particularly pages 297-299
 “Palestinians in Kuwait” Ann M. Lesch, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Summer, 1991), pp. 42-54
 See Vitakis, Robert America's Kingdom Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, Stanford University Press, 2006, p. 27-120
 Lesch, p. 43
 Ibid. p. 44
 Ibid p.44.
 El-Najjar, Hassan A., The Gulf War: Overreaction & Excessiveness, Amazone Press, 2001, Chapter 10
 See for example Pipes, Daniel “The Hell of Israel is better than the Paradise of Arafat” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005.
 “The PLO in Kuwait” Shafeeq Ghabra, Green Left, May 8, 1991
 Op Cite Lesch, p. 46
 Ghabra. Ghabra mentions the sending in 400 additional members of the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF) headed by Muhamad Abbas.
 Op cite., El-Najjar
 El Najjar’s chapter describes repeated incidents of torture and mistreatment of Palestinians in detail.
 El Najjar cites Muhammed Khairi Lubbadah’s 1991 book Hakadha Adhabuna Fi Al-Kuwait (This is how they Tortured us in Kuwait). Amman: Al-Maktaba Al-Wataniya.
 Wikipedia “Gulf War”
 Robert Fisk, The Great War For Civilisation; The Conquest of the Middle East (Fourth Estate, 2005), p.853.
 Schoenman, Ralph Iraq and Kuwait: A History Suppressed, Veritas Press, Vallejo CA 1992, p. 18-19. Schoenman refers to the words of US congress Representative Barnes asking Les Aspin, chairperson of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, August 11, 1990. Barnes attributes the description of Kuwait as from the New York Times.
 Ibid p.25. Schoenman refers to the well documented case of the July 25 1990 visit by US Ambassador April Glaspie to Iraq in which she told Saddam Hussein: “We have no opinion on… conflicts like your border disagreement with Kuwait.”