Sheikh Mubarak bin Sabah Al-Sabah, KCSI, KCIE (1837 - November 28, 1915) (Arabic: الشيخ مبارك بن صباح الصباح) "the Great" was the ruler of Kuwait from May 18, 1896 until his death on November 28, 1915. Mubarak ascended the throne upon the controversial death of his half-brother, Muhammad bin Sabah. Mubarak was the seventh ruler of the Al-Sabah dynasty. Mubarak was also the father of two important rulers of Kuwait that succeeded him, Jaber and Salim, from which the Al-Jaber and Al-Salim in the Al-Sabah family branches originated from respectively.
Sheikh Mubarak is probably most famous for signing the Anglo-Kuwaiti Treaty with Great Britain on November 23, 1899, pledging himself and his successors not to receive foreign agents or representatives or to cede or sell territory without the approval of the British government, with this agreement, and the guarantee it represented in Kuwait and the Al-Sabah family, he is regarded as the founder of modern day Kuwait.
Mubarak was born into Kuwaiti’s powerful al-Sabah family in 1837 son of Sheikh Subah Al-Sabah (r. 1859-1866). Once he was older Mubarak served primarily as a military leader in many tribal operations, including several Ottoman campaigns; most notably: 1871, 1892, and 1894 campaigns into Hasa, Qatar, and southern Iraq. For his long service Mubarak received the title istabl-i amire payesi, “(Rank of) The Grand Equerry of his Imperial Majesty” in August 1879 for a campaign into Qatif and southern Iraq. He was considered for more Ottoman honors as reward for his services in the Qatar campaign, though the value of his contributions are disputed. Although Mubarak was widely known for his ties with the British after his ascension to sheikhdom in 1896, he did have interactions with the British as early as 1863 when he met Sir Lewis Pelly, British political resident of Persia who went on many diplomatic missions around the region, and in 1883 when he was sent on a Ottoman diplomatic mission to Bahrain.
On May 8, 1896 Mubarak’s half-brothers, Muhammad and Jarrah, died under disputed circumstances enabling Mubarak’s assumption of the Kuwaiti throne. Most scholars believe that Mubarak assassinated his half-brothers, but the details of the assassination vary widely. Jill Crystal posits that Mubarak, with his sons Jabir and Salim and loyal supporters assassinated, his half-brothers in secret during the night. Frederick Anscombe also states that Mubarak “and his men” (not specified whether his sons were in on the plot) killed his brothers in the early hours of the day. There are several possible theories as to why Mubarak may have assassinated his half-brothers. One theory is that Mubarak resented being constantly sent away on tribal expeditions out into the desert. A second related theory is that Muhammad did not adequately fund Mubarak’s expeditions. The third theory is that Muhammad was a weak and “indolent” leader whose unpopularity in Kuwait necessitated his removal. The most plausible theory is that Mubarak felt he did not receive his rightful share of the family wealth and property, causing contention and a strong desire to seize it. Mubarak simply wanted power.
However, B.J. Slot, who is not even convinced that Mubarak was the assassin, asserts that “the widely divergent stories and interpretations… make it impossible to reach a firm conclusion about what happened in Kuwait in 1896.” Slot notes that on a local level there was a lack of support for people who claimed that Mubarak assassinated his half-brothers and that if he had indeed done it revenge would have been taken on him. Yet news of Mubarak’s supposed assassination plot spread throughout the Ottoman Empire and abroad, which proved a serious obstacle in establishing his legitimacy as a ruler.
Mubarak acted quickly to bribe the Ottoman bureaucracy through lavish gift giving in order to gain support for his appointment as kaymakam [sub governor] of Kuwait like his previous brothers. This is further illustrated through a memorandum by Captain J.F. Whyte, a British agent stationed in Basra: “Sheikh Mubarak has, since his usurpation, been employing his late brother’s wealth to secure his recognition as Sheikh and his appointment as Kaimakam of Koweit by the Sublime Porte.” Mubarak constantly avowed his loyalty to Istanbul, but a bitter debate raged among the ruling Ottoman Council on what course of action to take with Mubarak and his apparent fratricide. The debates were fueled by a lack of information and confusing accounts surrounding Mubarak, partly because of Mubarak’s own manipulation and spread of disinformation. Some Ottoman officers considered military action in Kuwait as a solution to the problem, especially Hamdi Pasha the Wali of Basra, who purposed an intervention from Basra into Kuwait.
The Ottomans were very hesitant to name Mubarak as kaymakam, but he was given the title on December 1897 in large part due to a controversy that exploded. The resolution passed due to a controversy and conspiracy that involved Mubarak and Basra’s government regarding Mubarak’s rival, Yusuf al-Ibrahim, who may have taken British-financed bribes. The controversy further destabilized relations in the region to dangerous levels. Because of the tension and instability of the situation the Ottoman Council decided that naming Mubarak kaymakam would be a better alternative to potentially bloody military action. Another reason was that military intervention may have further destabilized the region and destroyed any support that the Ottomans had with the Kuwaiti people. Finally, the Ottomans also had growing anxiety over possible encroachment by the Great Powers, most notably Britain and Russia into the region due to the construction of the Baghdad Railway. They thought that bestowing the title could dissuade any foreign powers from interfering with Kuwait.
See Anglo-Kuwaiti Agreement of 1899
The long Ottoman indecisiveness in naming Mubarak kaymakam, as well as feelings of vulnerability helped pave the way for Mubarak to pursue British ties. On January 18, 1899 Mubarak signed a secret agreement with Major M.J. Meade, British political resident in Bulshire, that guarded Kuwait against any outside foreign aggression. It also required Mubarak and his successors not to receive foreign agents or representatives or to cede or sell territory without the approval of the British government. Meade was eager to establish Kuwait as an official British protectorate with the intention of extending British influence further into the Gulf and protecting its own trade as well as controlling the potential terminus for a purposed railway from Port Said and the prevention of a possible Ottoman or Russian takeover of Kuwait. However, neither Mubarak nor other British officials wanted to make Kuwait a protectorate. As a private letter from Sir Arthur Godley, Permanent Under-Secretary of India, wrote to Lord Curzon “…we don’t want Koweit, but we don’t want anyone else to have it.” Mubarak’s British protection made him free to secure and strengthen his own power without fear of any outside interference from the Ottomans, surrounding tribes, or the Russians.
Mubarak, comforted by British protection felt free to pursue his own policies and mounted an invasion into Najd (Central Arabia) with an army comprised of Kuwaiti townspeople, Saudi loyalists, and Bedouins from every important eastern Arabian tribe. The objective was to claim the southern portion of the Rashidi dominions in hopes that Mubarak’s dream of becoming the new, undisputed Arabian leader would be realized. The campaign was moderately successful until the Battle of Sarif on March 17, 1901 where most of Mubarak’s force was destroyed, including the deaths of his brother and two nephews. This marked not only the end of Mubarak’s dream but also put him on the verge of losing control of Kuwait. However, B.J. Slot challenges Anscombe’s claim that Mubarak had a dream of being the Arab leader of the Arabian Peninsula; rather, Slot contends, it was a maneuver to contain and balance the power in the region that resulted from an alliance between the Rashidi Amir in Ha'il, Mubarak’s enemy Yusuf Al-Ibrahim, and the Baghdad Military Command.
Mubarak’s major defeat at Sarif severely threatened his rule. He requested on May 28, 1901 for British protectorate status (the British were still debating the meaning of the 1899 Agreement, and it was a secret anyway), but it was denied due to the international tensions surrounding Kuwait. The Ottomans tried to capitalize on Mubarak’s major defeat by deliberating a military solution to gain direct control of Kuwait. The Ottomans slowly realized that the growing British presence around Kuwait was a sign of Mubarak’s secret dealing with the British. The Ottomans attempted to firmly reestablish their control and influence by opening up customs and harbormaster posts. Through these posts the Ottomans tried to forcefully compel Mubarak to accept the new Ottoman presence, therefore showing real loyalty to the Ottomans. However, the British publically reinforced Kuwait as they began solidifying the meaning of the 1899 Agreement. This showdown caused a crisis between the Ottomans and the British over Kuwait’s status as a state.
After the Perseus-Zuhaf encounter, where an Ottoman and British warship had a stand-off with each other, Mubarak, the British, and the Ottomans agreed to sign the Status Quo Agreement in September 1901. This agreement maintained that neither the Ottomans nor the British could place troops within Kuwait and that the Ottomans still had jurisdiction over Kuwait. The agreement averted the crisis, but Ottoman control was only nominal with Mubarak to freely pursue his own agendas in the years after.
Mubarak carried on different activities that helped Kuwait gain more power and sovereignty apart from the Ottomans. Mubarak allowed exclusive rights for Britain to set up a post office in Kuwait in 1904 and in 1905-06 it was being considered that Kuwait should fly its own flag instead of the Ottoman standard. However, neither the post office nor the flag would happen until World War I. Mubarak as well, in October 1907 sold the rights for any terminus railroad sites to the British. In exchange Mubarak received £4000 per year and a promise that Britain would recognize Kuwait’s autonomy and the Sheikh’s power over it.
Mubarak also engaged in affairs concerning the neighboring areas around him, which caused consternation on both the Ottoman and the British sides. Mubarak supported and smuggled British guns to local Arabian leaders. In 1904-1906, while the Ottoman military occupied the important sub-region of al-Qasim in central Najd, Mubarak supported the Ottoman’s opponent Ibn Sa’ud giving him strong “strong moral and material” support. In 1905 Mubarak also served as a mediator between the Saudis and the Ottomans, while simultaneously shaping Saudi strategy during the negotiations. A sign that the Ottoman attitude toward Mubarak was changing occurred in 1911 when in a draft message to Mubarak he was addressed not as “Kaymakam of Kuwait” but rather “Ruler of Kuwait and Chief of its Tribes.” This change in attitude, which included other pressures and troubles for the Ottoman Empire including the British lobbying on Kuwait’s behalf, led to the Anglo-Ottoman Convention of 1913, which recognized Kuwait as an autonomous kaza of the Ottoman Empire.
By the time World War I began Mubarak closely sided with the British against the Ottomans, and the 1913 Convention was rendered null. In support of the war effort Mubarak sent a force to Umm Qasr, Safwan, Bubiyan, and Basra to expel the Ottomans in November 1914. In exchange the British government recognized Kuwait as an “independent government under British protection.” There is no report on the exact size and nature of Mubarak’s attack, though Ottoman forces did retreat from those positions weeks later. Mubarak soon removed the Ottoman symbol that was on the Kuwaiti flag and replaced it with “Kuwait” written in Arabic script. Mubarak’s participation and previous exploits in obstructing the completion of the Baghdad railway helped the British safeguard the Persian Gulf from preventing Ottoman and German reinforcements.
During the later years of Mubarak’s life he wrestled with bouts of illness. Mubarak finally died on November 28, 1915 due to an attack of malaria aggravated by his bad heart.
After Mubarak’s death his son Jaber II Al-Sabah ascended to the throne without any problems and when Jaber died his brother Salim Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah took over. Since then to the present day all of Kuwait’s rulers have been direct descendants of Mubarak through his two sons. Mubarak’s skillful diplomacy and manipulation of the Ottomans and British strengthened his powerbase ensuring Kuwait’s eventual independence. Mubarak’s interference in tribal affairs and the example he made of himself destabilized the region in that it eventually broke the Ottoman hold over the Gulf. Other rulers in the Gulf were inspired or influenced by Mubarak to take similar actions, many allying strongly with the British. Mubarak established not only the foundations of modern Kuwait but was a key person in the establishment of the modern Persian Gulf.
Mubarak Al-SabahBorn: 1837 Died: 28 November 1915
|Sheikh of Kuwait
Jaber II Al-Sabah