The evacuation of Indians from Kuwait

Last week, 20 years of US military activity in Afghanistan came to an end.

Its final chapter was the dramatic airlift of more than 120,000 US-affiliated personnel from the Taliban-encircled Kabul Airport.

In a defiant speech, President Joe Biden said: “We completed one of the biggest airlifts in history.” 120,000 evacuees was, according to Biden, “more than double what most experts thought possible.”

Biden’s words were scrutinised around the world, but they struck a particular cord on the Indian subcontinent. Many Indians were quick to point out that their country had managed to pull off a larger, and often overlooked, airlift in the Middle East 30 years earlier.

Instead of the Taliban, the Indians involved were fleeing from Saddam Hussein and his Republican Guard. Hussein’s men had just conquered Kuwait, leaving the tens of thousands of Indians that lived there in a perilous position.

As the west geared up for Operation Desert Storm, 170,000 Indian expats were evacuated from Kuwait to India via Iraq and Jordan. The operation remains the largest civilian airlift in history.

The Indians of Kuwait

The historical connection between India and the Gulf goes back centuries. Indeed, trade between the ancient civilisations of the Indus Valley and the Arab peninsula was established more than five thousand years ago.

At the height of the British Empire, Britain’s possessions in the Gulf were administered directly by the Bombay Presidency. The Indian rupee was legal tender in Kuwait until the early 1960s.

With this trade has come various waves of migration. 

A boom in the pearling industry at the turn of the 20th century lead to an influx of entrepreneurial Indians looking to make a quick rupee. 

Then, in the 1960s, came oil. As the world’s attention shifted towards the barrels of black gold pouring out of the Arabian Peninsula, Indian workers poured into the newly independent petrostates along the Gulf. 

Most of these came from the state of Kerala, while a significant percentage were the returning descendants of Arabs who had previously emigrated to the subcontinent.

In the subsequent decades the Indian diaspora embedded itself into Kuwaiti society. By the 1990s they numbered more than 500,000. 

Why did Iraq invade?

Between 1980 and 1988 Saddam Hussein had led Iraq in a costly and largely ineffective war with Iran. 

By the time the war came to an end, Iraq’s finances were in a  “perilous state”, according to India’s former Gulf Secretary K.P. Fabian:

“[Iraq] had received large sums of money from its neighbours, including Kuwait. Hussein assumed that Iraq fought for the Arabs, and the money he was loaned was not expected to be returned. Kuwait had a different view. Hussein tried to maximise his revenue by selling crude at as high a price as possible. Kuwait increased its production and thwarted this move…This infuriated Saddam.”

In the short term, Hussein saw invasion and incorporation of oil-rich Kuwait as the cure for Iraq’s financial ills. There were, however, deeper historical forces behind Iraq’s desire to incorporate its neighbour.

Saddam Hussein rallies his troops ahead of the invasion of Kuwait

The independent Sheikhdom of Kuwait had become a British Protectorate in 1899, primarily in order to stave off invasion from the neighbouring Ottomans, who controlled most of what we now know as Iraq. 

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War saw the British take mandate over the newly independent Kingdom of Iraq. The Iraqis revolted against British rule, and the UK’s role in administering the Kingdom ended in 1932. 

Many Iraqis saw Kuwait’s independence as unnatural, and believed it was only separated from Iraq due to historical foreign meddling. Calls for unity quickly grew. Kuwait’s rulers resisted, even when the British left the country in 1961. 

These tensions simmered in the subsequent decades, before finally boiling over with Iraq’s invasion in August 1990.

The evacuation 

While Iraq’s desire to incorporate Kuwait was hardly a secret, the international community was surprised by the speed and unilateral nature of Hussein’s invasion.

The invasion began on the 2nd of August 1990 and was over within two days. Kuwaiti armed forces were comprehensively overrun and pushed back into Saudi Arabia and Bahrain; Hussein declared Kuwait the 19th province of Iraq. Iraq’s new province was home to more than 170,000 Indians. 

India was in a bind. On the one hand, condemning Hussein’s actions could endanger the thousands of Indian citizens stranded as a result of the invasion. On the other hand, India’s developing economy was heavily dependent on the steady flow of oil from nations on the Arabian peninsula who were furious with the Iraqi invasion. 

The Indian Foreign Minister, I.K. Gujral, risked the ire of India’s oil rich partners when he met with Hussein shortly after the invasion. Gujral was, however, able to secure permission from Hussein for the evacuation of Indians from Kuwait.

He quickly set about reassuring an “angry and hostile” crowd of Indian expats, according to K.P. Fabian: 

“At the place where the Indian community had assembled, there was no stage or podium or even a raised platform. So [minister] Gujral stepped onto a chair and climbed onto the bonnet of a jeep!.. We explained that necessary steps were being taken and evacuation would commence very soon.” 

Refugees arrive at the Iraq-Jordan border, August 1990

Plans to use military aircraft were stifled when air-space clearance was refused. The decision was made to use civilian aircraft instead, but again this approach was hindered when both the UN and the Kuwait government-in-exile failed to grant Air India the permission it needed to assist. 

The Indian government was eventually permitted to use planes supplied to them under the UN banner. With neither Kuwait or Iraq safe for flying, the Indian expats were bussed through Iraq to Amman, Jordan – a 945 mile journey. The effort was overseen by Kuwaiti-based Indians including Mathunny Mathews and Harbhajan Singh Vedi.

Just under 170,000 Indians were airlifted to Bombay on 488 flights over a period of 63 days. The remarkable operation remains the largest airlift in history, despite Biden’s comments suggesting otherwise. The evacuation was dramatised in the highly-rated Hindi film Airlift (2016). 

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