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



“I kept thinking that there was something missing,” said Maryam al-Nusif over a morning cup of hand-brewed coffee at a picnic table in the Secret Garden. Maryam was talking to me about the origins of the community gardening project she kick-started in 2014 with some friends, family, and neighbors in a derelict park in Salmiya, Kuwait’s main commercial district. The garden, in which we were sitting, is around the corner from her house. “We live in villas with high walls where we can’t even see the street. We have no connection to the pavement right outside our front doors. We like to complain about potholes and filth on our streets, but then we get into our private cars and it doesn’t really affect us. So we don’t do anything about it. There has to be something missing.” By her own admission, Maryam has not been able to articulate fully what exactly this absence is; it is something she feels intuitively as a Kuwaiti. It is what stimulated her to create the Secret Garden, a seemingly inconsequential yet potentially transformative social space that encourages people in Kuwait, particularly children, to feel more connected to their natural, urban, and social surroundings. As a Kuwaiti, I too feel that “something missing”; it is what stimulated me to write this book.

In his essay “The Return of the Flâneur,” Walter Benjamin asserts that most narrative descriptions of cities have been written by outsiders—allured by “the exotic and the picturesque”—rather than by natives of those cities. “To depict a city as a native,” he says, “calls for other, deeper motives—the motives of the person who journeys into the past, rather than to foreign parts. The account of a city given by a native will always have something in common with memoirs; it is no accident that the writer has spent his childhood there.”1 From the start of this project in 2005, I have been deeply conscious of my “native” motives in researching and writing about urban space, everyday life, and the social order in Kuwait. As Benjamin suggests, so much of my own life and memory—and the lives and memories of my parents, who are of the generation that came of age in the first decades of the oil era in Kuwait—shaped the ideas that I explore in this book. Most of the arguments I make in the following chapters began as instincts, things I felt intuitively through my own everyday experiences, observations, interactions, and frustrations. As I began to investigate these ideas through academic research, those instincts that could stand up to rigorous scholarly analysis became my main avenues of exploration. But for me this book has always been more than an objective, academic inquiry into Kuwait’s urban social history. It has also been a deeply subjective attempt to make sense of the society of which I am a part (what C. Wright Mills labels one’s “sociological imagination”),2 and a recognition of the importance of the spaces and places that have shaped my life and memories in ways that I have always been acutely conscious of (what David Harvey calls the “geographical imagination”).3 And so this is something of a memoir. Even though I have not personally lived through most of the eras discussed in this book, my own life—my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood—haunts its pages, just as Michel de Certeau would say it haunts the city itself.4

Being Kuwaiti might give me some latitude to be critical—perhaps even somewhat idealistic—in my analyses of Kuwait’s city, state, and society, and of the ways they have changed (including within my own lifetime). However, this book is neither an indictment nor an exoneration of Kuwait’s socio-spatial development. It is, rather, an attempt at an explanation, a way of understanding the people, spaces, and places that constitute this city. While recognizing that my personal perspective as a Kuwaiti who grew up and currently lives in the city about which I am writing may result in some inherent biases, I believe that my subjectivity is more of an asset than a hindrance to my scholarly work. Kuwait, like the rest of the Arab Gulf states, is not an easy place to know without living here long-term and becoming part of the everyday life and culture. All Gulf states put up rigid barriers between “insiders” and “outsiders” that require much time and effort to penetrate before reaching a comprehensive picture of local realities. Living in Kuwait gives me insider knowledge on the subtle nuances, intricate practices, and everyday experiences of urban life that cannot be accessed solely through archival research or participant observation. At the same time, overlaying my own personal familiarity with the city with extensive archival research, oral histories with people who lived through the pre-oil and early oil periods, and urban social theory has made me think about Kuwait in jarringly new ways. Once I started on this project I began to take long walks and drives through the city and suburbs, constantly alternating the lenses through which I viewed my surrounding landscape: from a pre-oil townswoman to a foreign urban planner to a suburban citizen to a male migrant worker and so on. Experiencing the city from these multiple perspectives forced me to defamiliarize my surroundings, which admittedly made it challenging to simultaneously carry on living my own everyday life in the same city I was scrutinizing. Without a doubt, writing about Kuwait City as a native has been, in Benjamin’s words, a “vertiginous experience”!5


1. Benjamin, Selected Writings, 262.

2. Quoted in Harvey, Social Justice, 23.

3. Harvey, Social Justice, 24.

4. De Certeau, Everyday Life, 108.

5. Benjamin, Selected Writings, 262.