Saturday, August 12, 2017

Drawing The Iraq-Saudi-Kuwait Border In The Sand

A common belief about the Middle East was that it was carved up by England and France during World War I with the 1916 Sykes-Picot Treaty. The reality is much more complicated. One example is the creation of the Iraq-Saudi-Kuwait border. That was literally a straight line drawn by the British, but was only a rough demarcation, which took decades to define.

Ibn Saud of Najid with Sir Percy Cox British High Commissioner for Iraq during the Mandate period (Cricistan)

In November 1922, Sir Percy Cox the British High Commissioner for Iraq called a meeting in the Saudi desert to decide the borders between Iraq, Kuwait and Najid located in what would become central Saudi Arabia. All three were under England’s influence, which gave Cox the authority to convene such a meeting. Kuwait was represented by Major J.C. More the United Kingdom’s agent there, Iraq’s Communications Minister Sabih Beg was present, and Ibn Saud ruler of Najid. Iraq was a mandate run by Cox, so he couldn’t both represent it and mediate the gathering leading to Beg’s appointment. Kuwait was a protectorate of England, which was why More was there. Najid was the only independent country at the time, and Saud its king

Kingdom of Najd would become the basis for Saudi Arabia, which was declared in 1925 (GeoCurrents)

After five days of talks things were going nowhere. The countries were deeply divided, and made huge demands on the land. One example of the disputes between them was that Beg laid claim to the Arabian desert all the way to Riyadh, which would have taken much of eastern Najid. Ibn Saud on the other hand, wanted territory up to the Euphrates in southern Iraq. On the sixth day, Cox told the parties he was frustrated with the lack of progress. He held a private meeting with Ibn Saud. Cox criticized Saud for his demands, and said he would make the borders himself to end the negotiations. Ibn Saud was taken aback and apologized to the High Commissioner saying he would go along with whatever he wanted. Cox obviously thought this would be easier than it was. All the parties were taking advantage of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and laying their eyes on a wide breadth of territory, which they believed was up for grabs.

At the next meeting, Cox took matters into his own hands. He took out a pencil and drew a line from the Persian Gulf to Transjordan. That gave Iraq part of northern Najid. In compensation, two-thirds of Kuwait was given to Najid. He added the Kuwait-Najid and Iraq-Najid Neutral Zones, which would remain undeclared regions. Needless to say, no one was happy. This was an actual occasion when a European imperial power made a straight-line border dividing three countries.

Iraq-Saudi and Kuwait-Saudi neutral zones created by Sir Cox, which would later be divided up between the nations (NY Times)

Ibn Saud and Ibn Sabah later met with Cox to voice their complaints. Saud said if Cox wanted to take part of his country and give it to Iraq he should have taken it all. Saud began to cry and Cox had to console him. Cox told Saud he had given him most of Kuwait as consolation. Ibn Sabah then met with the Commissioner asking how he could give away his country without asking him. Cox said that Saud was more powerful and would have seized the land by force eventually. Taken aback, Sabah asked if in the future he became more powerful could he seize land from Najid. Cox said yes, and the British wouldn’t stop him. That went a small way to assuage Sabah. The two rulers had aligned themselves with England to ensure their hold over their emerging countries in opposition to the Ottomans. The price they had to pay was for Cox to later determine what areas they would rule.

The 1922 agreement was far from definitive. In 1923 Major More would try to mark the Iraq-Kuwait border by putting up signs by landmarks such as a palm grove. In the 1940s, the British tried to find where these were, but because the environment had changed they were never found. That led to subsequent treaties in 1923 and 1925 between Iraq and Najid and then Saudi Arabia to try to be more precise about the frontier, and then talks in 1974 and 1975. In July 1975 for instance, the two finally agreed to divide the neutral zone between them in half. Cox’s decision was just the first step then, in a long process of creating future relations between the three countries.

Conventional wisdom is that European imperial powers created the modern Middle East after World War I. This is in part true. Iraq was put together from three Ottoman provinces by the British. However, the lines in the sand were anything but definitive, and there were arguments, disputes, negotiations, and treaties lasting for decades to demarcate the borders between the new nations. Sir Cox tried to create the Iraq-Saudi border in 1922, but it wasn’t until 1975 that it was finally settled. Iraq and Kuwait didn’t come to an agreement until after the 1991 Gulf War, which was in part justified by Saddam Hussein who claimed Kuwait as part of Iraq. These examples showed that while it was the Europeans who set the precedent for these countries to come into being, it was also the individual governments that formalized the border and made the region what it is today.


Draper, Theodore, “The Gulf War Reconsidered,” New York Review of Books, 1/16/92

Hassan, Hamadi, the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait, Religion, Identity and Otherness in the Analysis of War and Conflict, London, Sterling: Pluto Press, 1999

Khadduri, Majid, Socialist Iraq: A study in Iraqi politics since 1968, Washington D.C.: Middle East Institute, 1978

Stansfield, Gareth, Iraq: People, History, Politics, Malden: Polity Press, 2007

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