Kuwait’s lost treasures: how stolen riches remain central to rift with Iraq
Hundreds of artefacts were plundered during Gulf war, and project to repatriate them is ongoing
Martin Chulov in Kuwait
guardian.co.uk, Monday 21 June 2010 22.09 BST
The Kuwait National Museum is still trying to trace 487 priceless artefacts looted after Saddam Hussein’s invasion. Photograph: Lonely Planet Images/Alamy
In a spacious but frugal office in Kuwait, a glossy catalogue lists the dozens of reasons why Kuwait and Iraq are still at daggers drawn after all these years.
Sheikha Hussa Salem al-Sabah thumbs through the pages of the booklet, pointing out the most egregious cases – page upon page of priceless treasures looted by Saddam Hussein’s invading army 20 years ago and still missing: a dazzling 234-carat emerald the size of a paperweight; a slightly smaller gem inscribed with exquisite Arabic calligraphy; Mughal-era ruby beads.
“The Iraqis still don’t understand the damage they did to us, not just financially, but for our souls,” says the daughter-in-law of Kuwait’s emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, who maintains the dynasty’s heirlooms. “It was emotionally wrenching and still is.”
Though many of the priceless treasures have been returned to the collection in the bitter decades since, up to 57 remain missing – perhaps lost for ever. At the National Museum across town, they report that the whereabouts of another 487 treasures remain unknown.
Many of the pieces, Kuwaitis believe, now form the core of private collections in post-Saddam Iraq and around the Arab world. To the victims of the 1990 invasion they remain the central reason of a failure to close the unfinished business of the first Gulf war – just as the second one is beginning to wind down.
In the seven years since Saddam was ousted, Iraq has been obliged to settle United Nations-prescribed debts of $43bn (£29bn), and compensations to private families totalling several hundred million dollars more, before being welcomed as a fully-fledged member of the so-called community of nations.
It is a burden that has proven difficult to bear for a brittle state still ravaged by war and chaos and deeply resentful of the fact that Kuwait was not invaded in the name of the current regime in Iraq.
To Iraq’s wealthy southern neighbour though, neither 20 years nor the time after Saddam has diminished the desire to reclaim what was lost.
With a higher per capita income than most other Gulf petro-states, Kuwaitis remain sensitive to the claim that their residual hostility is all about getting even richer. “This is about principle,” says Sheikha Hussa. “It remains a huge dilemma for us. The people here have a say in everything we do and the parliament does also. This is part of Kuwait’s rights and we will continue to press them.”
At the National Museum, which was ravaged by marauders who seemed to know what they were looking for as they packed items into cushioned crates before driving them to Baghdad,a plethora of irreplaceable pieces remain missing. The lost artefacts mainly date from the Moghul dynasty and include around 20 gold bracelets, necklaces and ankle rings, pottery, arrow heads and Korans.
Staff handed over a list of loot and mentioned a theory often discussed in Kuwait that much of what was stolen remains in a warehouse north of Baghdad, where it is being used as leverage in any eventual settlement between the two countries.
Three months of inquiries by the Guardian with officials in Iraq’s government, military and police seem to rule out that there is such a central repository of loot in Iraq.
“Anything that was stolen was taken to Saddam’s palaces and the offices of his high officials,” said one Kuwaiti MP. “There were antique cars stolen by Uday [Hussein, Saddam’s psychopath son] that were sold in Europe at auction, paintings and heirlooms. But after the American invasion it was a free-for-all. Everything was stolen again then and there was no control over who took it, or where it went.”
Between the first and second Gulf wars, there were attempts by Saddam’s regime to put things right, with Kuwaiti officials under UN supervision being invited to the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad to reclaim some stolen Kuwaiti pieces that had been on display there.
The private art world also turned up the occasional treasure. In 1996, a jewel-encrusted Moghul dagger, which had been on the cover of a Sotheby’s catalogue, was taken off the market and returned to the Dar-al-Athar collection. Financial compensation has been paid, according to Sheikha Hussa. Butthe far more important repatriation of priceless pieces has been rare.
Two years ago, parts of a giant archive of Kuwait’s history, known as the Prince’s Archive, were returned from Baghdad after being kept in the home of a civil servant who had little idea of the value of his souvenirs. Recently, a well-known Iraqi actor and her husband made contact with an Iraqi now living in Kuwait in an attempt to sell another part of the collection.
Iraq hopes that a steady repayment of the billions owed – $23bn has been handed over so far – will boost its credentials. It also appears to be hoping that a steady repayment of the debt will stop Kuwait from pressing claims through international courts for the seizure of Iraqi assets.
Twice in recent months the state-owned Kuwait Airways has moved to seize an Iraqi Airways plane that had landed in London as part of a new passenger route from Baghdad. That action has led Iraq to suspend the route only weeks after it was opened. Baghdad also says it is now looking at ways to privatise the airline.
Iraq’s monthly repayments are pegged by the United Nations at 5% of its oil revenue. “Last month they paid $520m as part of the United Nations Compensation Commission obligations,” said the chairman of a Kuwaiti public authority established to process compensation claims from Iraq’s invasion. “They have been co-operating with us in meetings lately. But it takes time, it will need another generation to forget. There are also the remains of fallen soldiers and POWs yet to be returned.”
In Baghdad, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Ayad al-Sammaraie, said things were now moving quicker than at any other time since 1990. He said: “Both countries are willing to sort things. But there is a remaining bitterness. Resolving this is complicated and needs a realistic perspective. Our fishermen are worried at repeated interceptions by the Kuwaitis in the Gulf.
“Our farmers in the south are worried about border claims. And we are concerned about having good relations again.”
Asked about the ancient treasures that in some ways hold the key to goodwill, he said: “There was no [sovereign] Iraq from 2003 for three years and we had no ability to look for them. But really, Iraq is sincere and willing to return them.”
An 18th-century emerald centrepiece from the Indian Mughal or Deccan eras, the 73.2 carat stone is diamond-engraved with the Throne Verse from chapter 2, verse 255 of the Qur’an.
With a blade of Jawhar steel, the late 16th-century Indian dagger is overlaid with gold and set with rubies, turquoise and emeralds.
A huge emerald
A priceless 234-carat emerald that is the size of a paperweight was one of the biggest prizes for Saddam’s looters.
A plate from the Indian Mughal period in the first quarter of the 17th century and is set with rubies and emeralds. It appeared with the dagger above in Sotheby’s London catalogue in 1996 and was returned to the Dar-al-Athar museum collection.