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



Kuwait, the former sleepy village, has awakened with the coming of oil and is stretching its strong new limbs.
—Paul Edward Case, National Geographic, 1952*

On a busy Friday night in late December 2012, twenty-six-year-old Jaber Youssef argued with four young men1 over a parking space at The Avenues, Kuwait’s largest shopping mall. The men followed Youssef, a Lebanese national with a Kuwaiti mother, from the parking lot into the mall. One of the men purchased a meat cleaver from a store while his friends continued to trail Youssef. The four men then attacked the young dentist, stabbing him multiple times in front of hundreds of people. No witness intervened to stop the attack, nor did anyone follow the killers when they fled. Youssef bled out onto the mall floor as bystanders took photographs that were circulated through social media. His friends called an ambulance, but the paramedics took too long to reach the scene. Most entrances into The Avenues are within the underground parking garage. The mall contains a few street-front entrances but these can be reached only by the same narrow access road that leads into the garage, a road that is always gridlocked on busy weekend nights. Youssef’s friends finally took him to the hospital in their own car, and he died in the emergency room at 1:00 A.M.

The public was shocked and outraged by the crime. Blame was thrown in every direction: at the mall for the lack of security, at the parents of the stabbers for raising them as “reckless youth,”2 at the paramedics for not getting there in time to save the victim, at the Minister of Interior for not condemning the crime quickly enough, and at the “lack of moral values that has become prevalent in Kuwait.”3 The latter statement was seemingly confirmed the following week. Mohammed al-Falah, a college student visiting home from the United States, was running along the paved seafront corniche in Salmiya, Kuwait’s main commercial district. He stopped to ask a group of men on motorcycles not to ride on the pavement where people walked and children played. In response, the men stabbed him, though he survived. Less than a year later, in October 2013, a twenty-four-year-old man, Jamal al-Anezi, was fatally stabbed on a busy Friday night after a fight at Marina Mall, which is connected by a pedestrian bridge to the same seaside corniche where al-Falah was stabbed. Once again the crime was watched and photographed by many bystanders. The Ministry of Interior responded to the crime by announcing a new, stringent system for security control and surveillance in shopping malls across the country.4 These measures did not prevent the occurrence of another fight (allegedly caused by one young man staring at the other) at 360 Mall in August 2015, which resulted in the fatal stabbing of a sixteen-year-old Kuwaiti male and the severe injury of his adversary.5

Though public discourse after these incidents focused on the apparent rise of violent crimes among disaffected youth in Kuwait, neither stabbings nor youth violence were new to Kuwait. Rather, what was new about these crimes was their open and public nature, which exposed another sociological phenomenon. All of the incidents occurred on busy weekends in the midst of hundreds of witnesses who chose not to intervene. This passive noninterference was not necessarily due to fear of being drawn into the violence. A few weeks after the Marina Mall murder, a man hemorrhaged to death from natural causes in the middle of a market. Though his wife screamed for help for several minutes, none of the people watching came to his assistance. Rather, a man standing very close by filmed the entire scene, including when the bleeding man began to lose consciousness, and uploaded it to YouTube. (The video has since been removed.)

The sociological explanations behind both public violent crimes and passive responses to them are undoubtedly complex and multifaceted, and neither phenomenon is unique to Kuwait. Indeed, the mall stabbings recall the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York, in 1964, when thirty-eight neighbors allegedly witnessed her late-night attack from their windows and did nothing. The New York Times focused the story on the witnesses more than on the crime itself, prompting questions about urban apathy and giving rise to the “bystander effect” theory: that the more people there are witnessing an emergency situation, the lower are the chances of one of those people intervening. The editor of the Times, A. M. Rosenthal, described the witnesses’ alleged apathy and indifference to their neighbor as a “matter of psychological survival” in the big city, the implication being that the high volume of people living in the city fostered impersonal social actions and interactions and in turn encouraged people to “walk away” from “person-to-person responsibility.”6 Decades later the exaggerated accusations that the Times hurled at Genovese’s witnesses were refuted: only four or five neighbors actually saw anything, at least one did call the police after the first attack, and though more may have heard Genovese’s screams, at 3:15 A.M. they did not know exactly what was going on or what they should do to help. These revelations challenged Rosenthal’s ideas on a “metropolitan brand of apathy” (as did the largely unpublicized fact that Winston Moseley, the killer, was captured days later in another Queens neighborhood after residents saw him burglarizing a neighbor’s house and called the police).7 The disputed story of the “thirty-eight witnesses” has also led to new social science research that is reconsidering the effects of groups on helping behavior; some scholars in particular have challenged the presentation of Genovese’s neighbors as a “group” rather than as a collection of individuals.8 The case of Youssef’s stabbing and the other Kuwaiti episodes described earlier in which groups of hundreds of bystanders did in fact watch without intervening could provide interesting material for such research on bystanders.

However, in these cases, unlike in the Genovese case, it was not the inaction of the witnesses that received the most public attention (indeed, their passive response triggered no community soul-searching in Kuwait as occurred in New York in 1964). Rather, what stunned people most was that three of the crimes—those that received the most coverage in conventional and social media—occurred in shopping malls. According to the local English newspaper the Arab Times, the residents of Kuwait consider the country’s “various malls to be havens of recreation and relaxation. This unprecedented disruption has upset Kuwait’s otherwise relatively peaceful existence, cutting a little too close to the bone, for those who relish the quiet comfort of this small desert land.”9 Malls are paradoxical places in terms of the types of social feelings and behaviors they embody. People are often lulled into a false sense of security inside them. As private, enclosed, guarded, and (in the Arab Gulf) often gilded places, they give “the public good reason for feeling safer there than on downtown streets. Malls have better lighting, a steadier flow of people, and fewer hiding places and escape routes for muggers.”10 In its architectural design and in the names of its shopping areas, The Avenues offers its visitors an artificial experience of shopping in a city without actually having to be in a city. Its multiple sectors include the Grand Avenue (designed to look like a British High Street or American Main Street), the SoKu (“South of Kuwait,” which mimics New York’s SoHo district), and the Souk (which replicates Kuwait’s own city streets). The mall thus sanitizes the idea of the city by reconstructing it as a clean and orderly place protected by roaming security guards.

But despite its idealized representation, if The Avenues really was a city district it would be what Jane Jacobs—urban writer, activist, and critic of “rational” city planning—would label an unsuccessful one. “The bedrock attribute of a successful city district,” she argues, “is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street” amid a large number of strangers.11 In well-functioning city districts, throughout the day and night different people are doing different things simultaneously: going to work, running errands, meeting clients, sleeping on park benches, taking the kids to school, loitering, running, walking the dog, shopping, having dinner, and so on. Though this diversity makes city streets seem more dangerous and unpredictable than the seemingly protected and contained mall, it is precisely this diversity, Jacobs argues, that generates safety. The more diverse interactions and public contacts people have on a street (no matter how ostensibly marginal those encounters might be), the more feelings of mutual trust can emerge among the people who use that street. Trust in this context can be defined as “an almost unconscious assumption of general street support when the chips are down—when a citizen has to choose, for instance, whether he will take responsibility, or abdicate it, in combating barbarism or protecting strangers.”12 Though in the city most encounters between strangers are trivial and fleeting, people are silently yet constantly negotiating various public spaces—sidewalks, parks, benches, bus stops—with one another. The sum of these repeated casual contacts “is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need.”13 Unsuccessful city districts are ones where that sense of public trust is lacking and where there is no diversity in activities and encounters. When the need to constantly negotiate difference is removed—as it is in a mall, where everyone is doing the same thing—one’s engagement with the public, and inherent concern for the public good, erodes. Malls, like deserted city streets, are therefore prime venues for antisocial behavior, be they acts of violence or acts of passive noninterference.

Since the late 1990s, malls have become the quintessential urban form in Kuwait and across the Arab Gulf states. Malls in the Gulf states, like malls elsewhere in the world, contribute to the privatization of cities as places governed by consumption from which diverse social groups are implicitly (by income level) or explicitly excluded. (In Qatar, for instance, security guards bar south Asian laborers from entering malls.) In her fascinating study on the daily lives of young urban women in Saudi Arabia, Amélie le Renard convincingly argues, however, that malls can also be accessible places for groups excluded from other parts of the city. For her female interlocutors, who have limited access to most public spaces in the highly segregated city of Riyadh, malls provide a sense of freedom and privacy.14 But the purpose in highlighting the ubiquity of shopping malls in Kuwait and the Gulf today is not to engage in debates about accessibility and exclusion but rather to emphasize a prominent yet problematic feature of Gulf urbanism today: the absence of diversity in urban space and everyday life experiences, and the impact that this absence has on the functioning of society.

The Modernist Project

Kuwait Transformed analyzes the intricate relationship between the urban landscape, the patterns and practices of everyday life, and social behaviors and relations in Kuwait, and traces the historical transformation of these three interrelated realms in the shift from the pre-oil era to the oil era. In the two centuries between its founding in 1716 and the launch of its oil industry in 1946, Kuwait developed into an independent and prosperous port with an ever-growing population engaged primarily in trading, shipping, and pearling, as elsewhere along the Gulf coast (see Chapter 1). The advent of oil and the accession to power of Abdullah al-Salem in 1950 triggered a massive state-led modernization project over the next four decades (see Chapter 4) that transformed Kuwait—city, state, and society alike—in irreversible ways. The first step in this transformation was the state’s commissioning of a master plan in 1951, with the aim of making Kuwait City “the best planned and most socially progressive city in the Middle East.”15 By connecting urban planning with social progress, the Kuwaiti ruler echoed the city-planning discourse of the high modernist avant-garde led by Le Corbusier and the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). The premise of modernist city planning in the decades after World War I was social transformation. Rather than seeing transformations in urban form and organization as by-products of changing social conditions, CIAM’s development inversion saw modernist architecture and planning as “the means to create new forms of collective association, personal habit, and daily life.”16 That is, urban form and organization were instruments of social change.17 Furthermore, as James Scott explains, modernist planning ideology required a powerful state with unrestrained power to achieve these designs, as well as a prostrate civil society that lacked the capacity to resist the new plans. Abdullah al-Salem was the ideal modernist ruler “with grandiose and utopian plans” for his society coupled with unlimited oil revenues, while their sudden affluence made “the populace more receptive to a new dispensation” (thereby obviating all resistance).18

Though the Kuwait City that oil built was not designed on quite the monumental scale on which CIAM cities such as Brasília and Chandigarh were designed, from 1950 onward centralized planning became a key state strategy of social control and served as a bulwark against the substantial economic, political, and social upheavals brought about by oil. Oil disrupted every aspect of life in Kuwait, and total state-led planning as advocated by Abdullah al-Salem could help weed out future threats to state stability and control. Urban planning in particular would make the city and, by extension, the future knowable. The purpose of city planning from the days of Baron Haussmann’s redesign of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century was to minimize the chances for unpredictable and uncontrollable actions (such as social insurrections) in the city.19 Urban plans—with all the maps, statistics, and projected goals that went into their making—made it possible to think about the city (of today and tomorrow) as a unified, orderly whole rather than as a collection of disjointed, disorderly parts.

As Kuwait’s oil revenues went directly into the hands of the ruler, the government claimed it was responsible for society’s well-being in order “to make up for years of suffering in the pre-oil phase.”20 More accurately, the massive state-led modernization project—which included both the transformation of the city as well as the creation of a cradle-to-grave welfare system—minimized the risk of public protest against the substantial increase in political power and autonomy that oil brought the Al Sabah rulers and their burgeoning state. With the country’s overnight shift from scarcity to affluence, “a new era, a new life” could be constructed from scratch,21 one that made people forget the pre-oil past (a time when the rulers played a minimal role in public welfare and governance) and look toward a brighter future—under the patriarchal leadership of Abdullah al-Salem. Like most modernist projects, building this future required total decontextualization, or what James Holston calls a “strategy of defamiliarization.”22 This process began with the systematic demolition of the pre-oil port town—giving the state the “blank piece of paper” that, according to Le Corbusier, was essential to achieve “total efficiency and total rationalization”—and the construction of a brand new cityscape in its place.23

Kuwait experienced the shift from a maritime town to a sprawling city with remarkable speed. British anthropologist Peter Lienhardt visited Kuwait in 1953 to study “a society in flux.” When he arrived at the city gates, “the commotion of digging and building gave one the feeling that the whole city of Kuwait was a vast construction site.”24 Zahra Freeth grew up in Kuwait in the late 1920s and early 1930s as the daughter of a British political agent. After a visit in 1970 she wrote, “The town of my childhood had gone. . . . it had been destroyed as effectively, if not as brutally, as by an earthquake.”25 In only two decades, Kuwait had seemingly “hurtled out of medieval simplicity into twentieth-century complexity.”26 In 1983, Stephen Gardiner, an architect and a writer for the Observer, made a similar observation:

There was no breathing space between ancient and modern, rags and riches; from a tiny place in the sand on the edge of the Gulf . . . Kuwait hurtled like a missile into the high technology of the mid-twentieth century. And over the next thirty years, the new city of Kuwait—optimistic, imaginative, confident and utterly modern—was conceived, planned, built, replanned and rebuilt. The unique creation of oil, the story of this city is astonishing.27

Though the city’s physical transformation was indeed substantial, this linear rags-to-riches narrative (constantly reiterated by the Kuwaiti state) conceals the tensions, paradoxes, and problems that characterized Kuwait’s oil-driven modernization in the shift from scarcity to affluence. The complex social, political, and spatial realities behind this facade form the subject matter of this book.

The Modernist Paradox

The rapid transformation of Kuwait’s urban landscape gave rise to a radically different lifestyle (see Chapters 2, 5, and 6). The townspeople moved from crowded, traditional courtyard houses in close-knit neighborhood clusters into large single-family villas in spacious American-style suburbs. Their formerly complex and diverse everyday lives in functionally mixed and integrated urban spaces became fragmented into discrete functional zones and privatized spheres of behavior. The ways in which these spatial and lifestyle changes impacted and transformed Kuwaiti society (see Chapters 3 and 7) are rarely addressed in either popular or scholarly discourse. The idea of using the urban form as an instrument to transform the existing social order was carried out by a complex process riddled with paradoxes and unintended outcomes everywhere that this modernist agenda was deployed. The universal goal of modernist planning was to use architecture to build a more egalitarian society and create a more orderly social life. In Brasília, Brazil (the classic example of this utopian plan), the former was to be achieved through superquadra apartment blocks, designed to be uniform in height, facade, and facilities. Residents of all social classes would, it was thought, live harmoniously under equal living conditions in order to eliminate the social stratification common in other Brazilian cities. One way in which urban order would be established was by replacing street corners and intersections (which in other Brazilian cities were always crowded with pedestrians and public activities) with traffic circles to improve circulation and remove people from the street. This elimination of the corridor street—the typical city street edged with continuous facades of shops and residences—killed the hustle and bustle of public street life. Commerce was relocated to designated sectors between the superquadra. Many Brasilienses (Brasilia’s residents) rejected these new systems. Higher-class residents moved out of the superquadra and built more ostentatious houses for themselves elsewhere, inscribing onto Brasília’s landscape the stratification of Brazilian society that the modernist plan sought to negate. At the same time, instead of using their commercial unit’s planned front garden entrance, shop owners converted their rear service entrance into the unit’s storefront, thereby putting their shop back into contact with the street and reproducing the market street life with which they were familiar. As Holston describes in his seminal study on this archetypal modernist city, Brasilienses thus “reasserted social processes and cultural values that the architectural design intended to deny.”28

In Kuwait, by contrast, Kuwaitis of all stripes embraced the changes they were experiencing and rarely reasserted the social and cultural values of old Kuwait that the new city denied. Perhaps oil wealth made the acceptance of such substantial lifestyle changes more palatable for Kuwaitis than for societies undergoing similar modernist projects elsewhere. People in Kuwait knew that they were experiencing something remarkable, and they approached this change with pragmatism, openness, and excitement. Only four years after the first barrels of oil were exported, an article published in the March 1950 issue of al-Bi‘tha, a monthly journal written and published by Kuwaiti students in Egypt, claimed that the Kuwaiti people were “thirsty for reform, capable of development, and adjusting to change.”29 In 1964, Abdullah al-Salem’s chief economic advisor, Fakhri Shehab, praised Kuwaitis’ willingness to experiment with new ideas and adopt new institutions and practices without being handicapped by rigid traditions or conventions.30 Even Freeth, one of the fiercest critics of Kuwait’s rapid modernization, admitted that “its people had embraced the opportunities of wealth with hard practical sense and an exuberant self-confidence.”31 As one of her Kuwaiti friends told her, “It is the new Kuwait and not the old which is worthy of admiration.”32

So, in accordance with the ultimate modernist goal, Kuwaiti society was ready and willing to be transformed. Over the next four decades the existing social order, like the city, changed dramatically. It was not just that the Kuwaiti people absorbed new lifestyles, such as American-style suburban consumerism; as a port, Kuwait had a long history of borrowing from the Indian Ocean cultures with which its merchants and mariners were in regular contact before oil (though the sources of influence were now more Arab and Western). The social changes engendered by the new urban landscape were much more subtle and complex than the obvious changes to the patterns and practices of everyday life that the new city embodied, and were not necessarily those that either Abdullah al-Salem (as the symbolic agent of Kuwait’s modernization, in state rhetoric) or Kuwait’s city planners intended. The ruler’s “avowed aim” was “to make Kuwait the happiest state in the Middle East.”33 State-funded welfare (education, health care, housing, employment) coupled with urban development (infrastructure, wide streets, luxurious houses, modern buildings) would relieve Kuwaiti society of the hardships of the past and create a more egalitarian, thriving, and content citizenry. Though Kuwaitis’ reactions to change were different from those of Brasilienses, the paradox of Kuwait’s two-pronged development, like that of Brasília, “is not that its radical premises failed to produce something new, but rather, that what they did produce contradicted what was intended.”34

In 1960 the government hired Palestinian-American architect and town planner Saba George Shiber as chief architect in the Ministry of Public Works. When he arrived that May, a decade into the implementation of the master plan, Shiber was shocked by what he saw. He believed that Kuwait was an unfortunate victim of modern planning, and he described the impact of oil on its urban and social landscapes as “meteoric, radical, ruthless.”35 Pre-oil Kuwait Town,36 he said, was “the expression of a culture”: an “organic city” in which every street, space, and form grew over time to respond to specific everyday needs.37 The planners who designed the new city lacked depth and imagination. Rather than using Kuwait’s historic urban pattern as an inspiration for the evolving structure and texture of the new city, they simply satiated their own “almost childish happiness and preoccupation with superhighways, round-abouts and the haphazard, inorganic procedure in the choice of sites for major urban functions.”38 To make matters worse, building in the city center over the decade since the plan was conceived had been “piecemeal and spasmodic,” which Shiber attributed to “the meteoric rush into construction which often precluded thorough design” alongside “the rush to make quick-profits irrespective of the consequences bequeathed to the city.”39 The outcome of all this effort was a chaotic, rapidly obsolescing landscape, and a poorly functioning planning apparatus that never quite managed to repair itself (see Chapter 4).

Compounding the unintended consequences to the city was the impact that oil-fueled modernization had on Kuwaiti society and social relations (see Chapter 7). In 1964, Shehab provided one of the first assessments of the fundamental problems of “super-affluence” lying behind Kuwait’s “spectacular physical change.” Kuwait’s modernization introduced sharp distinctions between citizens—who benefited almost exclusively from the country’s welfare system—and foreign-born residents. The government’s desire to carry out numerous “ambitious projects” immediately and all at once throughout the first decade of oil created a high demand for work that Kuwaitis were either untrained or unwilling (due to their newfound affluence) to do.40 This situation led to an influx of skilled and unskilled workers, initially from Arab countries and then increasingly from south and southeast Asia. The country’s first census in 1957 revealed that the number of foreign-born residents was rapidly growing, almost outnumbering the indigenous population (which in 1965 became a reality). A new nationality law was passed in 1959 that made access to Kuwaiti citizenship extremely restrictive. Naturalization by virtue of birth or long-term residence in Kuwait became very difficult (and normally occurred only in exchange for “great services” to the country as decreed by the Minister of Interior), while the total number of naturalizations was limited to fifty per year.41 By limiting Kuwaiti nationals to families who had been in the country since 1920, the nationality law served as another means, in addition to urban planning, of making the future more predictable. Keeping the option (as provided in the original 1948 nationality law) for Arabs or Muslims to become citizens if they were born in Kuwait or had lived there for ten years would make it more difficult to know what the future population of the country might look like. The new law was passed just as Kuwait’s contentious Arab nationalist movement—which ideologically threatened the existence of Arab monarchies—reached its peak. By 1959, Kuwait’s nationalists had become a thorn in Abdullah al-Salem’s side. Although many Kuwaitis were influenced by Arab nationalism while studying abroad in Beirut or Cairo, Arabs living in Kuwait—who made up the majority of the country’s expatriate population at the time—were also perceived (particularly teachers) to be a source of this new ideology in the country.42 The 1959 law effectively precluded these potentially troublesome individuals from one day becoming citizens themselves. Restrictive access to Kuwaiti citizenship thus limited the possibility of future conflicts or instability for the state.

Over the ensuing decades, rigid legal distinctions between expatriates and citizens “permanently estranged and embittered” the former and made the latter a more insular and, over time, intolerant society.43 This outcome contrasted sharply with the cosmopolitan port city culture that characterized Kuwaiti society before oil. Foreign travelers to Kuwait in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries regularly described the town as a friendly and accommodating place whose residents were “tolerant to others and not overly rigid to themselves.”44 A century later, in 2005, an American expatriate living in Kuwait polemically described “every Kuwaiti” whom he and his foreign coworkers met as “a rude and conceited xenophobe.”45 A 2013 readers’ poll in Condé Naste Traveler magazine ranked Kuwait the world’s fifth “unfriendliest city,” and the following year, in the Expat Insider survey report published by InterNations, Kuwait ranked as the worst place (among sixty-one countries) for an expatriate to live. This apparent shift from an open, friendly, and cosmopolitan society to an insular, hostile, and parochial society is one of the key social transformations that this book unpacks.

The most obvious way in which the new city altered (intentionally or unintentionally) the existing social order was by transforming Kuwaitis from a community described in the mid-eighteenth century as “closely united, and free from feuds and factions” into a highly segregated and factional society.46 The creation of new suburbs and the state-led distribution of the population within them led to intense levels of social segregation along class and sectarian lines. The former townspeople were relocated to lavish suburbs bordering the city center, the sedentarizing Bedouin were relegated to large housing projects in so-called “outlying” districts, and non-Kuwaitis were sequestered to crowded commercial areas (including the city center itself) in rented apartments due to their inability to own land in Kuwait. In 1982, social geographer Abdulrasool al-Moosa found that differential housing standards and services within these districts imposed “severe social barriers inside the Kuwaiti community.” He concluded that such extreme social segregation was “dangerous and ominous for the future well-being of the state. Steps must be taken immediately to arrest further deterioration of the value system and social cohesion between groups.”47

The most worrying division that al-Moosa identified was between the former townspeople (hadar in present-day social discourse, meaning “sedentary urbanites”) and the Bedouin (badu) who began settling permanently in Kuwait after the advent of oil. Because no tangible steps were ever taken to fix the problems that al-Moosa identified in 1982, today tensions between hadar and badu have indeed become volatile. In the lead-up to the February 2012 parliamentary elections, members of the Mutair tribe burned down the campaign tent of notoriously anti-tribal candidate Mohammed al-Juwaihel because he made insulting remarks about their tribe and tribal candidates in his campaign speeches.48 Al-Juwaihel had been beaten unconscious at a political rally the previous year for similar reasons.49 The day after they burned down the campaign tent, members of the same tribe stormed the headquarters of al-Watan television station for airing an interview with candidate Nabil al-Fadl, a close ally of al-Juwaihel who similarly spoke publicly against Kuwait’s Bedouin population. Twenty people were injured as protestors clashed with riot police and caused some damage to the station’s furniture and equipment.50 A month later, members of the Awazem tribe stormed Scope TV headquarters in protest against an interview with Shi‘i parliamentarian Hussein al-Qallaf, whom they accused of defaming the tribe’s leader.51 Such episodes of violence led to stringent efforts on the part of the state—such as screening social media sites and threatening legal action against individuals “who incite divisions in the society”—to protect “national cohesion,” which al-Moosa had warned three decades previously was rapidly deteriorating.52

Kuwait’s Urban Crisis

In 1964 Shehab described Kuwait as a “land of superlatives.” It was then the largest oil producer in the Middle East, and the fourth largest in the world. It boasted the world’s largest oil port, and the largest oil reserves.53 Its new seawater distillation plant, which was able to turn out millions of gallons of desalinated water a day, was also one of the largest in the world.54 Today the “superlative” attribute is more commonly ascribed to Dubai, a city whose image over the past two decades has overshadowed that of its regional predecessor.55 Nonetheless, Kuwait today remains a land of superlatives of a different nature: it ranks first in the world in number of deaths and injuries from traffic accidents, highest in number of obese people (42.8 percent of the population in 2014),56 and highest in level of water consumption (500 liters per capita, more than double the international average),57 and it has one of the world’s highest per capita rates of waste generation. These negative side effects of affluence reveal a growing self-indulgence and privatization among many members of Kuwaiti society, for whom concern for the public good (be it the safety of the city’s streets or the protection of the country’s environment) is subordinated to individual prerogatives. Shehab first warned about this emerging trend in 1964. He believed that the “most serious social danger” resulting from oil wealth was that the lavish welfare state was forcing competition out of national life and producing an idle and unproductive citizenry.

Young people have lost their perspective, their urge to acquire knowledge, their acceptance of discipline. As a result, the drive, diligence and risk-taking that characterized the old Kuwaiti are no more. At both ends of the social scale the new citizen is content to enjoy a life of leisure and inertia, and is unwilling that this happy state of affairs should be disturbed. Protected, pampered, lavishly provided for and accountable to no one, he lives in a world of make-believe.58

This sentiment very closely echoes those of Saudi author Abdullah al-Ghadhami (as discussed by Pascal Menoret in his seminal study on joyriding, youth culture, and urban development in Riyadh), who believes that his country’s oil boom also “transformed independent and proud hard-workers into lazy and arrogant retainers.”59 Because the accumulation of Kuwait’s national wealth required no public effort or participation, Shehab believed that most Kuwaitis had lost their sense of duty to serve the common good.60 This was a major change from the pre-oil period, when economic scarcity had necessitated a significant level of communal cooperation, sharing, and support between members of society to ensure their individual and collective survival (see Chapter 3). With oil-driven modernization, Kuwaitis became more insulated and privatized (see Chapters 5 and 6). This rapidly eroding concern for the public good, already observable a decade into oil, may partially explain the passive response to the mall stabbings described early in this chapter. It may also, of course, explain the violence. In Menoret’s ethnographic narrative of Riyadh’s oil urbanization (similar to Kuwait’s in many ways), a young Saudi man rants that one of the consequences of the oil boom was the transformation of Saudis “into aggressive troublemakers.”61

The super-welfare system certainly fostered an atmosphere in which personal privilege superseded public well-being. However, this book links Kuwait’s present-day social malaise—the growing intolerance toward outsiders, the volatile tensions between social groups, the inertia of the average citizen, the lack of concern for the public good—to the country’s rapid oil urbanization that began in 1950. I argue that the transformation of urban space and everyday life brought about by oil-fueled modernization had a de-urbanizing effect on Kuwaiti society. Kuwait today is 99 percent urbanized, meaning that it no longer contains a pastoral population (in truth, the vast majority of the population is suburban). But in the context of this book, urban does not entail simply living in a city’s metropolitan area. Urbanity here is defined as a particular kind of lifestyle and social quality. Henri Lefebvre describes urban life as a lived opportunity for “meetings, the confrontation of differences, reciprocal knowledge and acknowledgement (including ideological and political confrontation), ways of living, ‘patterns’ which coexist in the city.”62 Modernist planning approaches that focus on functional zoning, suburbanization, and the reordering of cityscapes to eliminate unexpected confrontations and encounters are therefore “violently anti-urban. . . . One could call it a de-urbanizing and de-urbanized urbanization to emphasize the paradox.”63

Early in this chapter I referred to Jane Jacobs’s (perhaps idealistic) ideas on a well-functioning city. She admits that many of the urban policies she advocates in her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities are mainly applicable to big cities, which Kuwait is not.64 Kuwait before oil was a port town of modest size, though its social and cultural complexity made it more “urban” than “village.”65 After oil the town was remade into the new “city center” while the desert beyond the old town’s wall was built up into a sprawling suburbia. Kuwait City is therefore now a small city with a relatively large suburban metropolitan area. Nonetheless, one element that Jacobs emphasizes is necessary for cities everywhere to “sustain their own civilization” is “diversity” (of functions, people, buildings, lifestyles). Diversity makes cities safer and people more accepting of strangers; it generates economic growth and vitality; and it makes for a more dynamic and interesting everyday experience. City planners tend to focus on a city’s various uses one by one, and then put these different parts together into a broad picture: the master plan. By nature, however, cities consist of multiple combinations of uses, and it is this diversity that distinguishes urban life from other forms of social organization or experience.66

In Kuwait’s case, diversity was a key aspect of what Greek architect Georges Candilis, who worked in Kuwait in the late 1960s, called the city’s “primordial quality of urbanity” before oil. This urbanity entailed a close association of the different “functions of city life”—habitation, commerce, worship, and administration—which corresponded to the spatial integration of houses, markets, mosques, streets, and squares. The functional and spatial diversity of pre-oil Kuwait Town created its particular “quality of urbanity.” The mix of domestic, economic, social, and political activities within the town’s main morphological sectors—the residential areas (firjan), market (suq), and seafront (sahel)—stimulated a vibrant everyday life in which the townspeople were constantly surrounded by diverse people and activities, and engaged in a steady “exchange of ideas and goods.”67 In this port and market town, Kuwaitis were accustomed to coming into regular contact with different cultures and lifestyles. The realities of economic scarcity, coupled with the absence of a bureaucratic state, contributed to the complexity of urban life by necessitating the creation of formal and informal networks of cooperation and mutual support among the townspeople.

After 1950, affluence, suburbanization, functional zoning, the privatization of public space, and the lack of people’s participation in the making of their spatial surroundings all contributed to the erosion of Kuwait’s historic diversity. The country’s demographic diversity remained and in fact increased, but interactions between people of different backgrounds became restricted under new conditions of social exclusion and spatial segregation. In 1968, Candilis lamented that Kuwait had “lost the qualities of the traditional urbanism of the past” due to the “brutal dislocations in the conditions of life” that were provoked by the oil boom.68 It is this loss, I argue, that ultimately led to the social crises the country faces today. However, the damage is not irreparable. Kuwait’s eroded urbanity may be salvaged through a restoration of what Lefebvre calls a “right to the city,” which entails not only spatial centrality (de-suburbanization) but also the right to participate in a vibrant urban life. Kuwait today is witnessing a demand for just such a restored right to the city by various social forces—political protestors, entrepreneurs, civil society actors, and regular residents—who are seeking (largely unconsciously) the kind of urban life that oil-era modernization began to erase sixty-five years ago (see Chapter 8). Collectively, these groups point to a possible urban alternative for Kuwait that could potentially solve some of the social problems described in this chapter.

The call—both in these present-day movements and in this book—for a return to, and restoration of, the city that modern planning eliminated is not a simple case of nostalgia for a lost city, lifestyle, or urban community that no longer exists.69 Nostalgia for Kuwait’s lost past has certainly been part and parcel of its development all along. As early as the 1950s, Kuwaitis began to look back nostalgically at the pre-oil period as an easier time; in 1956 Freeth’s friends complained that new activities such as commuting to work by car from the suburbs had “complicated a once simple way of life.”70 As Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift claim, all too often critiques of modern urban life “tell a story of an authentic city held together by face-to-face interaction whose coherence is now gone. . . . In the great accounts of history, the modern city is more loss than gain.”71 However, though on the surface pre-oil Kuwait Town (perhaps because it was more spatially compact) may have seemed much simpler and more coherent than it became after 1950, this book reveals that oil-era modernization in fact purified what was, before 1950, a more complex, dynamic, and multifaceted urban life. But though the pre-oil city may emerge in better light than the city that oil produced, this book is not a lament for a bygone era. Although the underlying premise here is indeed that something has been lost in Kuwait over the past sixty years since the launch of oil urbanization, this book is not a nostalgic call to go back to the pre-oil city (the simplified approach that heritage industries across the Gulf see as the antidote to the dislocating newness of the present-day city). Rather than serving as a guide for how cities should be built today, the conditions of city life before the era of affluence and modern city planning provide a more critical perspective on what is missing today. This absence might in turn provide a new perspective on the problems with which the country is currently grappling.72


* The epigraph to this chapter is from Case, “Boom Time,” 802.

1. Though original reports on the crime stated that at least one of the men (the killer) was bidun (“without,” meaning without citizenship, or a stateless person), later reports did not specify whether he was a Kuwaiti national or bidun but stated only that he was apprehended in a residential camp where bidun live.

2. Al-Sultan, “Naher Tabib.”

3. Arab Times, “Lebanese Doctor.”

4. Kuwait News Agency, “Interior Ministry.”

5. Nayef, “Mall Stabbing.”

6. Gallo, No One Helped, 78–79.

7. Gallo, No One Helped, 77, 79.

8. Gallo, No One Helped, 163–64.

9. Arab Times, “Lebanese Doctor.”

10. Frieden and Sagalyn, Downtown, Inc., 234.

11. Jacobs, Death and Life, 30

12. Jacobs, Death and Life, 56.

13. Jacobs, Death and Life, 56.

14. Le Renard, Young Women, 48–49.

15. Minoprio, Spencely, and Macfarlane, “Town Planning,” 272.

16. Holston, Modernist City, 31.

17. Holston, Modernist City, 3–4.

18. Scott, Seeing Like a State, 88, 5.

19. Scott, Seeing Like a State, 61.

20. Al-Barges, Twenty-Five, 32.

21. Gardiner, Kuwait, 21.

22. Holston, Modernist City.

23. Quoted in Scott, Seeing Like a State, 117.

24. Lienhardt, Disorientations, 29.

25. Freeth, New Look, 13.

26. Freeth, New Look, 17.

27. Gardiner, Kuwait, 14.

28. Holston, Modernist City, 25, 105, 138–39.

29. Hussain, “al-Nahda al-Murtaqibah,” 79.

30. Shehab, “Kuwait.”

31. Freeth, New Look, 190–91.

32. Freeth, Kuwait, 83.

33. Banks, “Notes on a Visit,” 50.

34. Holston, Modernist City, 23.

35. Shiber, Kuwait Urbanization, 75.

36. In English-language sources before oil, the term Kuwait Town was commonly used. This term is used throughout the book for the space that was the precursor to Kuwait City, a phrase that became more common after 1950.

37. Shiber, Kuwait Urbanization, 76.

38. Shiber, Kuwait Urbanization, 118.

39. Shiber, Kuwait Urbanization, 117.

40. Shehab, “Kuwait.”

41. Ffrench and Hill, Kuwait, 21.

42. Crystal, Oil and Politics, 81.

43. Shehab, “Kuwait.”

44. Dowding, Koweit, 19.

45. Cornn, “Ma Salaama.”

46. Kemball, “Memoranda,” 109.

47. Al-Moosa, “Kuwait,” 56.

48. Izzak and Sharaa, “Enraged Tribesmen.”

49. Calderwood, “Fifty Years.”

50. National, “Police Clash.”

51. Arab Times, “Awazem Storm.”

52. Toumi, “Minister Seeks.”

53. Shehab, “Kuwait.”

54. Case, “Boom Time,” 786.

55. See Kanna, Superlative City.

56. Starling, “World’s Most Obese.”

57. Toumi, “Kuwait Has World’s Highest.”

58. Shehab, “Kuwait.”

59. Menoret, Joyriding, 120.

60. Shehab, “Kuwait.”

61. Menoret, Joyriding, 105.

62. Lefebvre, Writings, 75.

63. Lefebvre, Writings, 77–78.

64. Jacobs, Death and Life, 140.

65. Sennett, Uses of Disorder, 57.

66. Jacobs, Death and Life, 143–44.

67. Candilis, “Kuwait,” 1–3.

68. Candilis, “Kuwait,” 1, 2.

69. Amin and Thrift, Cities, 4.

70. Freeth, New Look, 93.

71. Amin and Thrift, Cities, 32.

72. Sennett, Uses of Disorder, 50–51.