Kuwait Transformed
A History of Oil and Urban Life
Farah Al-Nakib


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

The Introduction sets up the main problem the book seeks to address: that Kuwaiti society today is in a state of crisis. Violence is becoming a common response to social conflict, not only among disaffected youth (as demonstrated by a series of very public mall stabbings), but also between sectarian groups. Kuwaiti society today is also highly segregated, privatized, and insulated. The Introduction presents these present-day social realities as unintended outcomes of oil modernization. It provides an overview of the universal strategies of modernist city planning—the main goal of which was to transform the existing social order—and discusses how these were deployed in Kuwait after the discovery of oil in 1946. The chapter argues that many of the social problems Kuwait grapples with today are linked directly to the transformation of the city after 1950, and in fact first began to emerge as early as the 1960s.

1 Pre-Oil Urbanism
chapter abstract

This chapter analyzes the socio-spatial growth of Kuwait Town from the time of its settlement in the early eighteenth century until the discovery of oil in 1938. It traces the growth of the town's population alongside the expansion of its port economy during this period, and explains Kuwait's establishment as a city-state that incorporated villages and tribes in the town's vicinity. The dynamics of urban governance and welfare before oil are viewed through the lens of the division of labor between the town merchants and al-Sabah rulers, a relationship that began to shift in favor of the latter after the signing of the oil concession in 1934. The chapter also explains the process of uncontrolled urban growth and development in Kuwait before the advent of city planning, and during the early days of the Municipality in the 1930s.

2 Port City Life
chapter abstract

This chapter analyzes how, in the days before state-led planning, Kuwait Town's urban landscape evolved to meet the everyday needs and activities of the people who inhabited it. It shows how the realities of climate, the maritime economy, and the absence of a strong central state combined to create an urban landscape and experience based on the spatial and behavioral integration of private (domestic) life, civic (social) life, and public (economic and political) life. The chapter analyzes the everyday functioning of the town's three main morphological sectors—the seafront, the markets, and the residential quarters—each of which encompassed a mix of economic, social, and political activities. The chapter also challenges the prevailing scholarly assumption that the pre-oil urban landscape was designed to enhance domestic privacy by demonstrating that, in fact, the lines between public and private spaces, and public and private life, in the town were blurred.

3 A Cosmopolitan Community
chapter abstract

This chapter analyzes the ways in which the urban landscape and the patterns and practices of everyday life described in the previous chapters shaped the nature of Kuwaiti urban society and social relations before oil. It argues that the town's port identity produced a hybrid population of immigrants that was open and accepting of cultural difference. Despite their sociocultural diversity, the townspeople developed strong feelings of community that were primarily shaped by their everyday experiences with one another rather than by a constructed idea of cultural solidarity. The chapter examines the networks and mechanisms of mutual support that ensured the townspeople's individual and collective survival under conditions of economic scarcity (such as firjan [residential neighborhoods], which were socially and culturally mixed). It argues that the ongoing need for diverse daily interactions between social groups helped diffuse conflict and created strong social ties that cut across ethnic, religious, or class divisions.

4 Oil-Era Modernization
chapter abstract

This chapter analyzes the demographic and spatial transformation of Kuwait after the launch of the oil industry in 1946, when it embarked on a two-pronged modernization program that entailed the planning and construction of a modern city, alongside the development of a massive welfare system. The government hired a British firm to produce a new city plan, which introduced Kuwait to two key tenets of modernist planning: suburbanization and functional zoning. The chapter explores how the rush to implement this plan inadvertently created two obstacles to urban development that persisted throughout the oil era: an ineffective state-planning machinery and skyrocketing land values. By examining how successive master plans failed to produce a functional city to replace the demolished pre-oil town, the chapter argues that after 1950 urban development catered primarily to the goals of the state and capitalist elite at the expense of satisfying everyday social needs.

5 The Move to the Suburbs
chapter abstract

This chapter examines the wholesale construction of residential suburbs beyond the town wall after 1950. It discusses the substantial architectural and design changes engendered by the shift from tightly knit courtyard houses to single-family villas in spacious new neighborhoods, in which everyday private (domestic) life became severed from social and political life. The chapter also demonstrates how state housing policies segregated the population into discrete residential zones. While state-subsidized schemes relocated the townspeople to lavish suburbs close to the city center, the sedentarizing Bedouin were moved into more understated houses in "outlying areas." Non-Kuwaitis, who constituted the majority of the population by the 1960s but fell outside the scope of state welfare, were restricted to the rental market in high-density commercial areas. Exorbitant land values precluded the construction of new residential areas inside the city center, increasingly occupied by migrant laborers in high-occupancy informal housing.

6 The Privatization of Urban Life
chapter abstract

Building on discussion from Chapter 5, this chapter examines the effects of oil urbanization on everyday social and political life in Kuwait, which (like residential life) were relegated to discrete functional zones outside the city center. The chapter revisits the public spaces discussed in Chapter 2—the seafront and markets—in its analysis of the increased economic and cultural privatization of urban space throughout the first four decades of oil. It also analyzes how Arab nationalist demonstrations and rallies inside the city center in the mid-1950s provoked the government into depoliticizing the city center. By the 1960s, most spaces giving form to the urban public sphere such as diwawin (male gathering spaces) and civil society organizations were relegated to the suburban periphery. In addition to fragmenting a once integrated everyday life, suburbanization, functional zoning, and the eradication of public space also contributed to the deterioration of the city center.

7 The De-Urbanization of Society
chapter abstract

Like Chapter 3, this chapter analyzes the impact of oil urbanization on social behaviors and relations. It argues that the demographic upheavals brought about by oil—mass immigration coupled with economic abundance—triggered strict nationality laws that legally excluded newcomers from access to Kuwaiti welfare privileges. As a result, Kuwaitis' sense of their social relatedness became based more on an idea of their sameness (a united "us" in distinction to a common outside "them") than on their concrete relations with one another. Suburban segregation and functional zoning eliminated the need for people to encounter and negotiate difference in their daily lives, while lavish welfare benefits made Kuwaitis entirely reliant on the state for their moral and material wellbeing. Using diverse examples to illustrate these changes, this chapter argues that Kuwaiti society began to lose the cosmopolitanism, mutuality, and cohesion that characterized its urbanity for two hundreds years before oil.

8 The Right to the City
chapter abstract

This concluding chapter begins with an analysis of Henri Lefebvre's ideas on the "right to the city," which entails a right to centrality as well as a right to a vibrant, dynamic, and diverse urban life. The chapter revisits several of the present-day social crises introduced at the start of the book and relates them to the erosion of urban life and rights to the city in Kuwait by suburbanization and functional zoning. The chapter (and book) concludes by arguing that new social forces in Kuwait today—political protestors, civil society actors, entrepreneurs, and everyday city residents—are (largely unconsciously) demanding a restoration of a right to the city along Lefebvrian lines. By re-inhabiting the city in diverse ways, these groups propose an urban alternative for Kuwait, one that can potentially salvage the open, tolerant, and cooperative social relations that shaped Kuwait's urbanity before the advent of oil.