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British 1900-15 Kuwait Arms Trade Embargo

To What Extent was the British Arms Trade Embargo in Kuwait Effective during Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabah’s Rule


In 1899, Sheikh Mubarak al-Sabah (ruler of Kuwait from 1896-1915) entered into a secret treaty with Great Britain. Under this treaty, Kuwait would not cede, lease or sell any of its territory to any foreign power without British consent in return for British protection.

Consequently, on May 24, 1900, the British entered into an agreement with Sheikh Mubarak to prohibit arms trafficking in Kuwait. Overseeing this agreement was the British representative in Kuwait—disguised as a merchant—Ali bin Ghloum Ridha. By July that year, Ridha sent a letter to the British resident in the Gulf confirming Sheikh Mubarak’s compliance with the prohibition. Ridha’s letter claimed that he accompanied four of Mubarak’s men to inspect ships docking at Kuwait and that they confiscated any weapons they found.[1] This prohibition affected many of the Kuwaiti merchants who were making great profits by importing weapons from Muscat, Oman and distributing them throughout the Arabian Peninsula.

However, it is evident that Sheikh Mubarak was selectively cooperative on enforcing the prohibition, using it to control the arms trade. For instance, on August 3, 1903, Mubarak sent a message to the British informing them of a confiscated shipment of rifles intended to reach ‘Abdul-‘Aziz al-Rashid in Najd[2]—a rival of Sheikh Mubarak. But only a year later on April 13, 1904, French arms dealer Antoine Goguyer arrived in Kuwait.[3] Goguyer—who spoke Arabic and dressed as a local posing as Abdullah al-Maghrabi—was hosted by Sheikh Mubarak until the two had worked out an arms deal.[4] Goguyer smuggled his first shipment of 2,000 rifles as early as April 29.[5] On another account that year, a ship belonging to Mohammed Sadiq Ma‘rafi delivering an arms shipment to several merchants was tracked from Muscat by a British ship. Upon docking, the ship owner quickly went to Sheikh Mubarak who ordered the customs manager to expedite unloading the cargo and to deliver it to his palace.[6] It was reported that Sheikh Mubarak was receiving six dollars in fees per rifle amounting to an estimated $50,000 per year.[7]

This bypassing of the arms prohibition continued for years. In October 1907, Sheikh Mubarak sent around 4,000 rifles to his close friend and ally Sheikh Khaz‘al of Muhamara (east of Basra) to help him suppress a rebellion in his domain.[8] An excerpt (see below) from the British resident’s diary entry on Kuwait from May 26 to June 22 gives another example of how these evasions took place.


On June 13, 1910, a ship owned by Shahin al-Ghanim* containing a shipment of 3,000 rifles belonging to Abdullah al-Atiqi** and others arrived at Kuwait City Harbor from Muscat, Oman. The following morning, the ship was moved to Shuwaikh Harbor. This episode took place during Sheikh Mubarak’s absence and the British political resident was unable to intervene. Upon the Sheikh’s return, the British resident asked him about the shipment and the ruler simply denied the validity of any arms being on board.

Previously, the British had tried to negotiate with the ruler for the leasing of Shuwaikh Harbor—a deal he evaded.[9] This example—whereby the shipment was moved from Kuwait City Harbor to Shuwaikh Harbor—suggests that the ruler avoided this deal to be able to use Shuwaikh Harbor as a back-up in order to circumvent British inspection.

Hence the picture that emerges is that the arms embargo was used by the ruler as a mechanism to exert stricter control on arms trafficking which under the prohibition required his consent and facilitation. Owing to the British embargo, the ruler not only made considerable financial gains from arms import fees, but also used the prohibition to prevent weapons from reaching his rivals.

An official memo from the Ottoman archives dated May 1910 noted that along with Muscat, Kuwait was the most important avenue through which arms were being trafficked into the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq.[10] The fact that Kuwait had appeared to the Ottomans as an important hub for arms trafficking is significant considering that the city was, in theory, under a British arms embargo.



* Abdullah-bin-Atiji mentioned in the British document is Abdullah bin Mohammad bin Abdulla bin Saif al-Ateeqi (Atiji is the Kuwaiti dialect for Ateeqi or Atiqi). He belongs to Al-Saif branch of the family, the oldest in Kuwait. He inherited a vast wealth from his ancestors, and developed it by investing in the trade business—the arms trade being a part of it. He was also a very charitable person of his time, as noted by many local documents. The following excerpt from the month of July 1912 shows that he ended his business relations with the Muscat-based arms dealer Ibrahim El-Baz that month.

 ** Shahin-bin-Ghanim mentioned in the British document is Shaheen bin Muhammad Al Ghanim, who is an ancestor of many branches of the Al Ghanim family from the Utoob tribe. Shaheen was reported to have five sons.[11] Three of his sons (Khalifa, Mohammed and Jasem) followed his footsteps and also became Nokhitha. The Buggalow reported above is one of the ships that were owned by Shaheen al-Ghanim which was most likely called Ambar Taweel or Salamati in the official document.During its trip from India to Kuwait, the ship regularly stopped in Muscat and it was reported that the Nokhitha captaining it was his son Khalifa (Ḥijjī 234).[12] Shaheen also owned many other ships like the alboom named Alwashar which was captained by his other son Mohammed and a third ship called Boom Jassim bin Shaheen. Shaheen also owned Amara, a seaside warehouse, where his ships would be serviced.[13]

Dec. 28, 2012

By Yousif Imad Alatiqi 


[1] Abdullah Y. al-Ghunaim, Akhbār Al-Kuwayt: RasāʼilʻAlī IbnGhalūmRiḍā, Al-wakīlAl-ikhbārī Li-Barīṭāniyā Fī Al-Kuwayt, 1899-1904 (Kuwait: MarkazAl-BuḥūthWa-al-DirāsātAl-Kuwaytīyah, 2007), 30.

[2] Ibid.,31.

[3] Ibid., 32

[4] Ayman F. Sayed, Al-Kuwayt Fī ‘AhdAlsheikh Mubarak al-Sabah, Mukhtarat Min al-Arsheef al-faransy (Kuwait: MarkazAl-BuḥūthWa-al-DirāsātAl-Kuwaytīyah, 2011), 18.

[5] Al-Ghunaim, Akhbār Al-Kuwayt, 32.

[6] Faṭma M. al-Furaiḥi, TijāratAl-silāḥ Fī Al-Khalīj Al-ʻArabī, 1297-1333H./1879-1914M.(Riyad: Dārat Al-Malik ʻAbdAl-ʻAzīz, 2004. 88-89.

[7] Ibid., 89.

[8] Ibid.,92.

[9] B. J. Slot, Mubarak Al-Sabah: Founder of Modern Kuwait, 1896-1915. ([Arabic Version]Kuwait: MarkazAl-BuḥūthWa-al-DirāsātAl-Kuwaytīyah, 2008) 398.

[10] Suhail Saban, "Tijārat al-Silaḥ Fī al-Jazeera al-‘arabiyaWaal-Khaleej Min Waqi‘i Watha’iq al-Arsheef Al-Othmani." Majjalat Maktabatal-Malik Fahadal-Waṭanīya 10, no.2 (2005), 279.

[11] Carter 41.

[12] Yaʻqūb Y. al-Ḥajji, Nuwākhdhat Al-safar Al-shirāʻī Fī Al-Kuwayt (Kuwait: Markaz Al-BuḥūthWa-al-Dirāsāt Al-Kuwaytīyah, 2004), 234.

[13] Ibid. 236-240.