The Kuwaiti weather was by no means stormy on the early morning of August 2, 1990. However, the passengers of British Airways Flight 149 that had left London the previous evening on their way to Kuala-Lumpur with a stopover in Kuwait City were flying directly into the eye of a storm. Saddam Hussein’s armored divisions had been gathering in the desert just north of the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border, ready to strike with the force of lightning.
Flight 149 landed in Kuwait City only two hours after Iraqi forces had started the invasion of their small southern neighbor. There was no window of time to escape because the Kuwaiti army had unraveled too quickly. The 367 passengers and 18 crew members of Flight 149 — most of whom had Kuwait as a layover in their trips to Malaysia and other countries — were grimly welcomed by bombs upon their arrival and soon fell prisoners to the triumphant Iraqi troops.
The 367 passengers and 18 crew members of Flight 149 were grimly welcomed by bombs upon their arrival in Kuwait City.
In his debut book, “Flight 149: A Hostage Crisis, A Secret Special Forces Unit, and the Origins of the War in the Gulf,” Stephen Davis explains how the passengers were turned into hostages amid the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, and their struggles to adapt to the traumatic circumstances. Davis is an award-winning journalist with abundant experience, having worked as News Editor and Foreign Editor of The Independent on Sunday as well as a documentary filmmaker for the BBC.
“Flight 149” is the result of Davis’ three-decade quest to disentangle cobwebs of governmental cover-ups, corporate lies, and forced silences. His book is a thrilling demonstration of what impressive investigative journalism looks like. To divulge the main findings of the research carried out by Davis around the world, including hundreds of interviews, would risk spoiling the last chapters of the book—which are nothing short of engrossing. It will suffice to say that the fate of Flight 149 had much to do with a British secret mission and that British Airways’ reputation is severely questioned. Most importantly, the author provides new evidence to answer what is probably the most important and intriguing question: Why did the plane land in Kuwait despite the ongoing invasion?
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The majority of Flight 149 hostages were Westerners, mainly from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Saddam Hussein’s interest in holding them captive lay in their potential use as human shields, in anticipation of an international military campaign to liberate Kuwait. Non-Westerners were largely allowed to leave during the first days.
The unfortunate passengers joined a larger group of Western expats trapped in Kuwait, bringing the total to 2,000. Some of them were hiding from the Iraqis in deserted apartments. Others were forced to move at gunpoint by the occupying troops to hotels in Kuwait and Iraq or transported to strategic locations such as dams and refineries.
For five long months, the passengers and crew of Flight 149 were subjected to mock executions, rape, and deprivation of food.
For five long months, the passengers and crew of Flight 149 were subjected to mock executions, rape, and deprivation of food and medicines. Pushed to their limits by the brutal circumstances, the hostages showed selfless camaraderie but also engaged in practices that would not seem out of place in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” For example, when some hostages were relocated to bungalows that had belonged to the British military contractor firm IBI, the Iraqis let the prisoners themselves arrange the accommodation. A man who had previously lived there went directly to a house he knew to be well-provided with food. Others were left with nothing.
As unsettling as the hostages’ experiences were, the ordeal of Kuwaitis throughout the occupation must not be obscured. The activities of the Kuwaiti resistance to the Iraqi occupiers have too often been relegated to a sidenote in the histories of the conflict, more focused on the details of the US-led Operation Desert Storm.[i] “Flight 149” accounts for the Kuwaiti resistance efforts to fight against the Iraqi annexation as well as their key role in hiding Westerners and helping them leave the country through the Saudi-Kuwaiti border.
Whereas Kuwaitis would live through the entire war that ultimately put an end to Iraq’s annexation of the oil-rich Emirate, all Western hostages were freed in December 1990, two months before the Iraqis were expelled.
Despite such achievements in portraying the tragedies faced by both the Westerners and Kuwaitis, it is somewhat disappointing that Davis devotes only a single paragraph to the reasons that motivated Saddam Hussein to liberate the would-be human shields before the end of the war, especially when a military clash was already on the horizon. The author writes that “we will never know” why Saddam took that unexpected decision.[ii]
While this is most likely the case, it is worth adding that the Iraqi ruler gave a speech on the topic and cited appeals by other Arab leaders, US Senate Democrats, and the European Parliament as decisive factors.[iii] It has also been argued that Saddam Hussein feared Washington would pursue regime change in Iraq if there were many casualties among the hostages in the course of the war.[iv]
It is difficult to understand why the Kuwait hostage crisis was mostly overlooked by the media and the UK and US governments.
In his riveting account of events, Davis skillfully brings to life the ordeal of more than 2,000 foreigners who were held captive by the Iraqi army, a decade after the Iranian hostage crisis (1979-1981). It was no doubt a heart-wrenching nightmare for the victims, that surprisingly received far less media attention than the situation in Iran, nor did it undermine the chances of re-election for a US President, as had happened to Jimmy Carter. In hindsight, it is difficult to understand why the Kuwait hostage crisis was mostly overlooked by the media and the UK and US governments themselves. One might argue that vilifying Saddam even further would have made it complicated to justify why the forthcoming US-led Gulf War only aimed at forcing Iraqi troops from Kuwait, not at regime change in Baghdad. Furthermore, the hostages were retained in many different locations and moved constantly, and thus the crisis did not have the televisibility of the Iran hostage crisis.
Perhaps more importantly, speaking about the hostages would inevitably have led to inquiries on why they were in Kuwait in such a difficult moment in the first place. The search for an answer to these questions is the core of Davis’ work, as it offers the general public an excellent opportunity to know more about the fate of British Airways Flight 149 passengers and their tribulations as Saddam Hussein’s hostages, in the run-up to the US-led Gulf War.
[i] Sassoon, Joseph, and Alissa Walter. “The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait: New historical perspectives.” The Middle East Journal 71, no. 4 (2017): 609.
[ii] Davis, Stephen. “Flight 149: A Hostage Crisis, A Secret Special Forces Unit, and the Origins of the War in the Gulf”. New York: Public Affairs, 2021: p. 202.
[iii] Priest, Dana. “Saddam Orders the Release of All Hostages.” The Washington Post, December 7, 1990.
[iv] Murdoch, Cristopher P. “The Persian Gulf Hostages: A Case Study in Terrorism, Diplomacy, and Strategy”. MA Thesis. Washington D.C.: Department of the Navy, 1995: p. 63. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/citations/ADA298595.