The Jews of Kuwait: Presence, Status, and Emigration

Published: January 15, 2015

(The following is a summary of a paper on the history of the Jews of Kuwait, published in Al-Mesbar’s 93rd monthly book, Sectarian and Ethnic Diversity in the Gulf States. For an executive summary of the book, click here.)

The little-known history of Jews who inhabited the small Gulf emirate of Kuwait is the subject of an Al-Mesbar Center paper by young Kuwaiti scholar Yusuf Al-Mutairi, who is also author of a new book on the history of the Jews of the Gulf. Most members of the community were not ethnically Kuwaiti but rather emigres from Iraq or Iran. They came to Kuwait in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, primarily for economic opportunity. The times in which they lived in Kuwait were also a function of conditions in their countries of origin; some would return after the causes for their departure had subsided. Given this flux, it is difficult to determine the precise numbers of Kuwait’s Jews. It is clear, however, that the population reached its highest point in the years between the two World Wars.

The Jewish population was known to have specialized in various trades and professions, notably textiles and finance. They also held sway in the manufacture and sale of alcohol. They were also absent from other trades, such as pearl diving and maritime commerce.

The Jews of Kuwait maintained good relationships with authorities in the country, remained there for decades, and embraced many aspects of Kuwaiti culture, even taking Kuwaiti names. Nonetheless, they were never regarded as Kuwaiti citizens; in the decades prior to the “Nationality Act” of 1959, they were treated in the category of British nationals.

It is worth noting that the Arab-Israeli conflict had little impact on the Jewish presence in Kuwait, largely because the majority had emigrated years before the 1948 war.