Kuwait was settled about 1700 by people from the interior of Arabia. The ruling dynasty was established in 1756, when the settlers chose a member of the Sabah clan to be their sheikh. Kuwait was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire and the sheikh represented the Kuwaitis in dealings with the Ottomans. The sheikhdom prospered as a trading, fishing, and pearling center.

In the 1790's the British helped Kuwait repel attacks by the Wahhabis, a fanatical Muslim sect from the interior of Arabia, and during the first half of the 19th century cleared the Persian Gulf of pirates. In 1799 Kuwait signed a treaty making the sheikhdom a protectorate of Great Britain.

In 1961 Kuwait became fully independent as an emirate, the ruler assuming the title amir. In 1969 the country settled a boundary dispute with Saudi Arabia. The Kuwait Oil Company, formerly an Anglo-American corporation, was nationalized in 1975.

Kuwait was officially neutral in the war that broke out between Iraq and Iran in 1980. Nonetheless, Iran considered Kuwait a friend of Iraq and attacked Kuwaiti shipping. During 1987, the U.S. Navy escorted the country's tankers through the Persian Gulf and cleared minefields there. The war ended in 1988.

In 1990, Iraq, which desired the oil wealth of Kuwait, invaded, overthrew the government, and annexed the country. In 1991, in the Persian Gulf War, a coalition of forces led by the United States defeated Iraq and restored the amir to his throne. Limited democratic reforms were made in the 1990's. In 1999, the assembly considered a decree by the amir granting women the right to vote, but, after intense national debate, rejected it.