On 2 August 1990, four divisions of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Republican Guard along with the entirety of the Iraqi Special Forces invaded the Emirate of Kuwait.
The reasons for the invasion were many. Between 1980 and 1988, Iraq and Iran fought the devastating and costly Iran-Iraq War, in which neither side could claim victory, but both did. Despite Iraq actually starting the war, it felt that it was defending the Sunni Arabic States against Shia Persian domination. Iraq racked up significant debt to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States; debt that Iraq could not pay back because its economy was wrecked after the war. Moreover, Saddam accused the Gulf States of keeping the price of oil artificially low (Saddam wanted $25 a barrel when it was $7 a barrel) in order to prevent the rise of Iraq, a relatively secular socialist rival to the religious Sunni Wahhabist state of Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Saddam felt that if it wasn’t for British meddling in 1913, Kuwait would have been part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq when it was formed in 1920 out of the British protectorate of Mesopotamia. Ottoman Mesopotamia consisted of four provinces: Mosul, Baghdad, Basra and Kuwait, the first three of which became Iraq. Finally, despite all of this Saddam had little intention of actually invading, he was just posturing for debt forgiveness and concessions. That is until the American ambassador to Iraq, Amb. Abigail Glaspie, told Saddam that America had “no opinion on Arab vs Arab conflict” and did not wish to go to war with Iraq. Saddam took this as a green light by America to invade Kuwait.
Although Kuwait had a modern military of three brigades with a respectably sized air force, the very experienced Iraqi Republican Guard surprised and overwhelmed Kuwait’s small army. Kuwait City, all of its oil fields, all of its military bases, and the Emir’s Palace were occupied by the next day. 400,000 Kuwaitis and 120,000 foreign nationals (mostly Indians) fled the country to Saudi Arabia.
As Saddam Hussein consolidated his hold on Kuwait, Saudi Arabia requested UN assistance because it believed it was Saddam’s next target. On 3 August, the UN Security Council passed a near unanimous resolution condemning the invasion, which surprisingly included France and the Soviet Union, Iraq’s traditional benefactors, and the vote was abstained only by Yemen.
The resolution shocked Saddam Hussein, who didn’t think anyone would care.