Ten years ago no one knew anything about Kuwait. Even
to us numismatists it was just "the country with the boat on
the coins." And we all knew it produced oil, at least those
of us who knew it existed. How things have changed!
Actually, aside from the oil there's not a whole lot
there. It is really out of the way, far off the old trade
routes. Observe that it is inconveniently located way up at
the bottom of the Persian Gulf (don't call it that there!)
The big Iraqi city of Basra is not far, and if you could get
everything you needed in Basra why go the extra trip to
Kuwait? If it wasn't for the oil no one would ever go
there, and that is what happened for millennia. West and
south from Kuwait is utter desert,across which no business
was done. Only the Bedouin could do anything with it. So
Kuwait was really "back of beyond" for most of human
What kinds of ancient artifacts does one find in
Kuwait? Nothing much. Whatever Kuwaitis there were
witnessed the rise and fall of all of the great kingdoms of
Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, but were touched hardly
at all. There are no ruins of ancient settlements, no
Babylonian cylinder seals, no Greek or Roman coins, no
There actually was an autonomous political unit "down
there" for a time. After the kingdom of the Seleukid Greeks
of Syria was weakened from its ongoing confict with Rome a
number of border regions broke away. Among them was the
land around the delta of the combined Tigris and Euphrates
rivers, "Submesopotamia" if you will. The principal city at
the time was known to the Greeks as Charax-Spasina. The
river debouches at the head of the Persian Gulf, and over
west of Charax city, where the land curves around to the
south, was that place, Kuwait.
Anyone out for a romantic outing in the desert, or who
fished the Gulf headwaters, might have been carrying
Characene money, but most all of it must have stayed where
it was made, in Charax city itself. After all, there was
nothing to buy in Kuwait.
After not more than 15-20 years the ephemeral
independence of the Characene kings was ended by the
Parthian conquest. Charax became a vassal state, and
remained so within the remarkably stable Parthian realm for
about 350 years.
The Characene coin series consists of a continually
debasing and barbarizing set of tetradrachms. They are not
the least bit common. I've had one in my entire coin
career. Got it from Steve Album maybe 10 years ago. It
in low grade, not pretty. Since then I've been trying to
find more, alas, to no avail. There is a guy who buys them
all, evidently. He says he's going to write a book, which
is something I'd really like to see one of these days.
So between 120 BCE - 277 CE people in Kuwait would have
been using Characene coins if there were any people there.
After that the region was incorporated into the more
centralized Sasanian Empire. The delta region became the
province of Myshan. Sasanian coins are known with mintnames
Myshan and Charax. Both names are rare.
All of Mesopotamia, including Myshan, was taken by the
Arabs in the 7th century. They founded the new city of
Basra, from whose mint emanated 100 years later large
quantities of handsome dirhams, examples of which are
readily available at reasonable prices today.
One of my references mentions a trading station set up
in the 16th century by the Portuguese at what is now Kuwait
City. I have no details, but I can imagine. Basra at the
time was sewn up tight by the established commercial
interests; Arab, Persian, Indian, whatever. The Portuguese
were always complaining about how the locals wouldn't give
them a chance. It's easy to see them going a few miles down
the coast when the locals shut them out of Basra, setting up
shop under the broiling skies of Kuwait harbor.
The city would have grown up around them, eventually
generating a local government of sorts. And in time there
would have developed enough of an economy to attract the
attention of the local power brokers, one of whom eventually
beat out the others to become the Amir.
During the 18th century the Portuguese lost out to the
English in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. In 1793
the English closed their offices in Persian Basra and moved
them over to Kuwait, where they remained through the 19th
century, a time in which the nominal suzerains were the
There is one known coin of the Ottoman period, a copper
of AH1304 (1887 CE). Supposedly three or four examples are
known. Conceivably others, and other types may come to
light. I myself have discovered a couple of previously
unpublished 19th century Ottoman coins. If I can find them
you can too.
When the Turks began to make their presence felt in the
1890s the Amir began to get concerned. In 1898 he asked for
British "protection," and an agreement was in place by the
start of the next year. Basically, the Amir let the British
handle all external relations and received in exchange
money, military hardware, and internal autonomy. British
motives at the time centered around blocking the extension
of the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway into the Persian Gulf.
Kuwait remained within the British sphere for 61 years.
It's coinage, incidentally, was that of British India.
In the first decade of the 20th century an insurgent
Abd al-Aziz Ibn al-Saud laid claim to all of Arabia,
including Kuwait, but he was blocked there by the British.
With the onset of World War I Britain declared Kuwait
independent of the Ottoman Empire, and in 1915, Ibn Saud was
induced to drop his claim. The Saudi sultan came back three
more times over the next three decades, and Kuwait had to be
bailed out each time. The British were happy to do this,
for they had discovered oil there in 1938.
Production began after the end of World War II, and it
was quickly realized that Kuwait had one of the largest
concentrations of oil in the Middle East. The country
became extremely rich.
The Amir decided he would be independent, and in 1961
he cancelled the treaty of protection. Iraq immediately
claimed Kuwait and massed troops on the border. The Amir
requested, and speedily received a reinforcement of British
troops. Iraq never renounced its claim, however, and
there's the legalistic underpinning of the recent Iraqi
With independence came coinage, the universal symbol of
sovereignty. These are the well known "boat" coins, common
as types, difficult as to most dates. The 1961 and 1962
coins were obtained in quantity by dealers back then, and
though the stocks have been long since dispersed, there are
plenty of those coins around in uncirculated. Proofs, on
the other hand, are rather scarce. The later dates were
emphatically not imported. Dealers don't have them, the
Kuwaiti government has better things to do than package coin
sets, so the collectors of the world are dependent on the
pocket change of returning oil functionaries. Pickings are
About the commemoratives, every now and then you'll see
one or another of them, always priced at or abouve catalog,
never more than one at a time, usually gone when you finally
decide you'll take it despite its cost. The last one I was
fishing for was the Hijra silver coin of 1981. This was
back in 1990. The coin was in Singapore. We were
negotiating by mail. Price was $60.00, full catalog. I
wanted a discount, and asked for it. He wrote back that in
view of the troubles that had just begun there was
"pressure" on the coin and the price was now $80.00. I
walked away, pride intact, but I also haven't had another
chance to acquire that piece since then.