Shaykh 'Abdullah al-Salim al-Sabah (1895-1965) ruled Kuwait for 15 years (1950-1965), a period of spectacular development and change, both human and material. His crowning achievement came when Kuwait attained independence from Great Britain in 1961.
Shaykh 'Abdullah al-Salim al-Sabah succeeded his cousin Shaykh Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah as the Amir of Kuwait on February 25, 1950. Long before his accession to the throne, Shaykh 'Abdullah had been supportive of the political reform movement that emerged during the period between world wars; in fact, he was an early favorite of the reformers. Before the advent of the oil boom, leading merchant notables constituted the primary source of the Arab shaykhdom's prosperity, contributing the largest share of the government's revenues. In 1921 these notables had successfully challenged the autocratic rule of the Sabah family, demanding the establishment of a consultative council (al-Majlis al-Istishari) and participation on the issue of succession.
As a result, a council was established, but it lasted only two months; rivalry and infighting crippled it and resulted in its voluntary dissolution. The ruler remained sole authority. Propelled by the deteriorating economic situation of the 1930s, the merchants once again rose up, demanding parliamentary government. In 1938 they formed a secret society—al-Harakah al-Wataniyyah (The National Bloc)—that demanded the restoration of the 1921 council. The ruler, Shaykh Ahmad al-Jabir, eventually consented in order to avoid confrontation; a second council was established in 1939, headed as before by Shaykh 'Abdullah.
During the next 11 years, 'Abdullah played a leading role on the domestic political scene, handling administrative and financial responsibilities with facility. After ascending to the throne in 1950, he began presiding over the swiftest and most complete transformation of the country in its history. A spectacular development program made impressive gains in the fields of education, health, and other social services. Hundreds of schools were built to meet the demands of increasing numbers of students; the government recruited large numbers of highly qualified teachers from more advanced Arab countries such as Egypt and Palestine. A full range of health services was provided for Kuwaitis and expatriates alike; Kuwaiti citizens were entitled to free housing and guaranteed employment. Similarly, Shakyh 'Abdullah laid the infrastructural foundations for the tremendous material progress in modern Kuwait.
Once cognizant of the full extent of its tremendous wealth, Kuwait offered help to the less fortunate Arab countries, both for humanitarian reasons and as part of its quest for recognition and Arab solidarity. The Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED) was established by Shakyh 'Abdullah immediately after independence in 1961. The disbursement of large sums of development aid remained a respected tradition and a major plank in Kuwait's foreign policy, both in Africa and the Arab world.
During the first decade of 'Abdullah's reign, Kuwait was still a British protectorate; the British political agent was solely responsible for foreign affairs. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, in a time of growing Arab nationalism, certain political events took place in the Arab East that left their impact on Kuwaitis as well as on British imperialists. The rise of the Kuwaiti intelligentsia, influenced by Nasserism and by the Iraqi revolution of 1958 and the subsequent overthrow of the pro-British Hashemite dynasty there, induced Shakyh 'Abdullah in 1961 to terminate the 1889 "Exclusive Agreement" with Great Britain. Britain in turn was becoming more and more aware of the need for decolonization, especially after the 1956 Suez War fiasco. Kuwait was declared a sovereign and independent Arab state in June 1961. Within a month the new state joined the Arab League.
Shakyh 'Abdullah promulgated Kuwait's first constitution on November 11, 1961, and the first elections to the new 50-member National Assembly were held on January 23, 1963. Kuwait joined the United Nations that same year. The constitution guaranteed freedom of the individual and the press; discrimination on the grounds of race, social origin, or religion was forbidden by law. Islam was designated the official state religion; however, other religious practices were permitted as long as they did not violate public order or morality. All male citizens 20 years and older could run for public office—not as candidates of political parties but on independent platforms. While political parties were prohibited, trade unions were allowed.
The constitution designated Kuwait a hereditary emirate and limited succession to the descendents of Shaykh Mubarak (ruler of Kuwait, 1896-1915). The ruler, or Amir, was declared immune and his person inviolable. Government was divided into three branches: executive, legislative, and judiciary. However, the Amir, as head of state, and a council of ministers appointed by him held executive power, while legislative power was shared by the Amir and the National Assembly. Technically all legislation had to pass by a two-thirds vote of the assembly; but in actuality its legislative powers were eclipsed by the more powerful Amir, whose cabinet constituted one-third of the assembly. While the cabinet ministers were held accountable to the assembly, the prime minister (always the crown prince, by tradition) was not. In other words, ministers could be subjected to a vote of confidence, but the prime minister could not. Thus, Shakyh 'Abdullah and the Sabah family retained firm control of the government.
The tremendous social and political changes that occurred during Shakyh 'Abdullah's reign led to the transformation of Kuwait from a benevolent, autocratic government to a representative one. It thereby became a model for other Gulf states yet to embark on modernization. Today, Shakyh 'Abdullah is remembered as the wise, prudent, and benevolent pater familias who introduced democracy and development to that small city-state.
Although Shakyh 'Abdullah al-Salim al-Sabah is listed in International Who's Who, there is no authoritative biography of him in English; his reign is briefly treated, however, in a small number of books, the most important of which is H. R. P. Dickson's Kuwait and Her Neighbours (London, 1956). The author was a long-time British political agent in the Gulf. Other sources include: Zahra Freeth and H. V. F. Winstone, Kuwait: Prospect and Reality (1972); Ahmad Mustafa Abu Hakima, The Modern History of Kuwait (London, 1983); and Jacqueline S. Ismail, Kuwait: Social Change in Historical Perspective (1982). For inter-Arab politics in the late 1950s and early 1960s see Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970 (1971). □