Rulers and Merchants in Pre-oil Kuwait: The Significance of Palm Dates

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This article argues that one of the keys to understanding the power of Kuwait's ruling Sabah family in the twentieth century lies in its economic strength. From the 1830s onwards, the Sabah family gradually purchased or took control of extensive date plantations in southern Iraq, and thus were able to build up an independent economic power base. The commerce in dates grew throughout the nineteenth century, and reached its peak at the start of the twentieth century. At the same time, the state formation following the First World War reduced the opportunities of the merchants, who were the elite in Kuwaiti society. As a result, while the economic domination of the Sabah family was entirely attributed by researchers to the oil wealth in the second half of the twentieth century, they, unlike the merchants, were relatively unaffected by the economic crisis of the 1920s and 1930s. Their wealth had depended on a basic staple commodity, while the merchants' source of income had been mainly pearling, a luxury during times of economic hardship. The profitability of dates, the demand for which was constantly on the increase, was the source of wealth that the Sabah family and the ruler fought fiercely to sustain up to the 1950s, even when this ran counter to the interests of Kuwait.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)167-182
Number of pages16
JournalBritish Journal of Middle Eastern Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • History
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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