Kuwait Transformed: A History of Oil and Urban Life

Kuwait Transformed: A History of Oil and Urban Life

by Farah Al-Nakib

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As the first Gulf city to experience oil urbanization, Kuwait City's transformation in the mid-twentieth century inaugurated a now-familiar regional narrative: a small traditional town of mudbrick courtyard houses and plentiful foot traffic transformed into a modern city with marble-fronted buildings, vast suburbs, and wide highways.

In Kuwait Transformed , Farah Al-Nakib connects the city's past and present, from its settlement in 1716 to the twenty-first century, through the bridge of oil discovery. She traces the relationships between the urban landscape, patterns and practices of everyday life, and social behaviors and relations in Kuwait. The history that emerges reveals how decades of urban planning, suburbanization, and privatization have eroded an open, tolerant society and given rise to the insularity, xenophobia, and divisiveness that characterize Kuwaiti social relations today. The book makes a call for a restoration of the city that modern planning eliminated. But this is not simply a case of nostalgia for a lost landscape, lifestyle, or community. It is a claim for a "right to the city"—the right of all inhabitants to shape and use the spaces of their city to meet their own needs and desires.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804798525
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 04/13/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 542,746
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Farah Al-Nakib is Assistant Professor of History and Director of the Center for Gulf Studies at the American University of Kuwait.

Read an Excerpt

Kuwait Transformed

A History of Oil and Urban Life

By Farah Al-Nakib


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9857-0


Pre-Oil Urbanism

The Settlement of Kuwait

Kuwait was established in 1716 as a predominantly urban society. During the "tribal outbreak" of the eighteenth century, tribes from central and southern Arabia migrated toward the northeast coast of the peninsula to escape severe drought and famine. One group of families who migrated together, known collectively as the Bani 'Utub, came from the Najd-based Anizah tribal confederation and had been settled cultivators prior to their migration to the coast. When they reached the head of the Persian Gulf around 1716, they found a spacious bay with a nearby freshwater supply. There was no existing town or significant community settled in the area; aside from a few fishermen's huts, the only physical structure of significance was a fort (kut) of the Bani Khalid tribe, which had seized control of eastern Arabia from the Ottomans in the 1660s. The 'Utub set up their new settlement on a small hill known as Tell Bhaiteh, which faced the Bani Khalid's kut (for which Kuwait is a diminutive meaning "small fort").

Within less than a hundred years this cluster of families grew into "a thriving commercial settlement" whose residents engaged in fishing, pearling, shipping, shipbuilding, and trade. Kuwait's auspicious location in the northwest corner of the Gulf and its enviable natural properties fostered its growth into a vibrant port and regional entrepôt. The area around the town was "of the most barren and inhospitable description, without a tree or shrub visible as far as the eye can reach, except a few bushes which mark the wells, of which the water is particularly salty and bad." The place would have been uninhabitable without its large natural harbor, "capable of containing the navy of Great Britain," which allowed the townspeople to import everything they needed. Kuwaiti merchants imported grain and wheat from Basra, Iraq; piece goods, rice, sugar, spices, and teak for shipbuilding from India; mangrove poles for house-building from east Africa; coffee from the Red Sea region; tobacco and dried fruits from Iran; and fresh water from the Shatt al-Arab river in southern Iraq. Because of the importance of trade, Kuwait Town was established as a free port and no customs duties were levied on sea imports until the beginning of the twentieth century. Its strategic position between the Gulf and the deserts of northeastern Arabia made it an important gateway between the sea and the hinterland. The town grew into a chief center of the transit trade linking the transnational Indian Ocean maritime network with the caravan trade extending inland as far as Damascus. The town's proximity to the Shatt al-Arab also gave Kuwaitis access to the fertile river channels of Iraq, and dates from this region became the principal export cargo of Kuwait's long-distance traders.

According to local tradition, for the first forty years the settlers had no leader but paid tribute to the shaykh, or chief, of the Bani Khalid. When their population increased due to the town's economic prosperity, the heads of the main families decided that a leader must be chosen to settle all problems and disputes and to protect the town from external attack. Many leading 'Utbi families turned down the job because governing the town would interfere with their maritime trades. The Al Sabah, however — "the poorest of the important families" — agreed to provide a ruler for the town "both for the honor of it and because the opportunity costs for them were very low." Therefore, in 1752 Sabah I was selected for this position.

In 1760 Sabah I built a wall around his small settlement, signaling the moment when Kuwait became an independent, viable, and self-sufficient town. Over the next two centuries Kuwait developed from a small coastal settlement enclosed within a dilapidated boundary wall into a city-state with territorial boundaries that, when finally locked in place in 1922, extended well beyond the town's limits to incorporate expanses of desert. The coastline enclosed within the 1760 wall was approximately six hundred meters long, with an inland depth of around three hundred meters. This small area was unable to accommodate the substantial demographic growth that occurred at the turn of the century, so a second wall was built in 1811 that reflected the extent of the town's achieved and anticipated spatial expansion. The new wall had a semi-circular shape similar to the first wall, but the length of the town's shoreline from one end of the new wall to the other was now approximately sixteen hundred meters, and the town had expanded an additional four hundred meters inland. Kuwait experienced a period of unprecedented economic and demographic growth from the 1890s until around 1920 due to a pearling and trading boom throughout the region. This growth may explain why sometime after 1887, when J. R. Povah made the last recorded reference to its existence, the second wall was removed and urban expansion became unbounded. Kuwait Town's population grew substantially during this period. The demand for buildings to accommodate new immigrants increased, leading to a peak in the house-building industry. The British Political Agent reported in 1916 that "building operations are in evidence in all quarters of the town, which is rapidly extending." By the time the third wall went up in 1920, it was much longer than the earlier walls and encompassed a significantly larger area. The urban coastline within the new wall had reached 5,600 meters. The total area inside the second wall before it was demolished, after nearly 170 years of settlement, was .724 square kilometers; the area incorporated within the third wall was 7.5 square kilometers — a spatial increase of more than 900 percent within only thirty to forty additional years of settlement (Figure 1).

In 1899 Mubarak I signed a protection agreement with Great Britain, although Kuwait still had tenuous ties with the Ottoman Empire. Mubarak pledged not to receive the representative of any other power, nor to cede any portion of his territory to any foreign government or subject without the previous consent of the British government. This treaty and those signed with other Gulf rulers "protected the position of local dynasties" because they were signed directly in the names of individual rulers and their successors. Unlike in other parts of the Gulf, the British rarely interfered in Kuwait's internal affairs. But they did largely take control over Kuwait's external affairs, including establishing its boundaries. In 1913 the British and Ottoman Empires met to settle, among other existing disputes in the region, "the status and limits" of Kuwait. They identified the undisputed territory of the Al Sabah as having Kuwait Town at its center and including all areas inside a radius of forty miles in all directions. The tribes in this area were considered loyal to Mubarak because he was able to extract from them the zakat (alms collected from a fixed portion of one's wealth to help those in need), a key factor in determining the extent of a ruler's jurisdiction in the desert. In exchange, the tribes received access to the suq, or town market, and nearby water wells, as well as the ruler's protection along the caravan trade routes. Mubarak was further authorized to collect zakat from tribes outside this undisputed territory that were within a radius of 140 miles from the town's center. The agreement was never ratified, however, due to the outbreak of World War I.

Kuwait's borders were formally established in 1922, as a result of a boundary dispute between Mubarak's son Salem (r. 1917–21) and Ibn Sa'ud, the ruler of Najd. The conflict between the rulers led to a bloody battle between Kuwait and Ibn Sa'ud's militant Ikhwan tribes in Jahra — an agricultural village twenty miles west of Kuwait Town under Al Sabah jurisdiction — in October 1920. It was in this context that Salem ordered the building of a new wall, the town's third, to protect against attack. Though the sur (boundary wall) was never assailed, it was Kuwait Town's first true fortification. Unlike its predecessors — which had been "more for show than protection" in that they were less than a foot thick, quite low, and dilapidated — the new wall was a real protective barrier. As American missionary doctor Stanley Mylrea put it, "For more than three miles stretched the great wall completely shutting off the city from the landward side. ... Kuwait was now a 'fenced city.'" The path of the new sur forever marked the extent of Kuwait's urban limits, even after the wall was torn down with the advent of oil (Figure 2). The conflicts with Ibn Sa'ud also led to the fixing of Kuwait's permanent boundary with Najd at the 'Uqair Convention of 1922, during which the boundaries between Kuwait, Iraq, and Najd were defined. In this agreement, which was brokered by the British, Kuwait maintained the area within the forty-mile radius that was delineated in the 1913 Anglo-Turkish agreement but lost most of the area beyond that radius to Najd.

Occupying the space between Kuwait's new urban and national boundary lines were the Bedouin camel- and sheep-herding tribes of the hinterland, and a few small agricultural and fishing villages under Al Sabah jurisdiction. Though generally self-sufficient, the tribes and villagers were dependent on the town market to sell their produce and buy supplies. The two largest villages (Zor on Failaka Island and Jahra) were governed by a representative on behalf of the Al Sabah. The rest had no recognized headman, and the Al Sabah ruler dealt with them "through the first inhabitant whose presence he [could] secure." The only revenue the ruler collected from the tribes and villagers was the Islamic zakat and a 2 percent tax on goods taken out of Kuwait Town. By 1922 Kuwait's city-state status was well established.

Demographic Growth

Kuwaiti society before oil could thus be divided into three distinct categories: urban-mercantile (the townspeople), sedentary-pastoral (the agricultural and fishing villages), and nomadic- and semi-nomadic pastoral (the Bedouin). Members of the latter group continuously settled in the town or villages, thereby adopting new social and economic lifestyles and reflecting the porosity of these social categories. Many of the townspeople and practically all of the villagers (such as the Awazem, who settled in Dimnah, or presentday Salmiya) therefore shared lineage with the desert tribes. As A. R. Lindt observed in 1939, because of their shared origins coupled with the close interaction and interdependence of Kuwait's urban and pastoral populations, "there is not that deep cleft between town-dwellers and nomads which is so great an obstacle to a national unity in other Arab countries." In 1904, John G. Lorimer estimated the fixed population of what he called the "Kuwait principality" to be approximately fifty thousand people: thirty-five thousand inside the town, two thousand in the villages, and thirteen thousand Bedouin.

The town's population increased between the mid-eighteenth and midtwentieth centuries as much by immigration as by natural growth, and this increase paralleled the town's steady economic expansion. Kuwait's first period of commercial prosperity came during the Persian occupation of Basra, where the British East India Company's factory was located, beginning in 1777. Kuwait's neutral position during the regional conflict kept the town and its desert trade routes safe from molestation. The Company therefore chose Kuwait as a safe and suitable place to divert its desert mail and trade between India, the Middle East, and Europe for the duration of the two-year occupation. The experience revealed the small town's strategic importance as a major caravan trading post, and the shipping potential of its large harbor, which provided satisfactory anchorage for the Company's cruisers. Though the Company's trade was rerouted back through Basra after the cessation of the conflict in 1779, Kuwait's role as an entrepôt grew substantially. In 1790, Company officials Samuel Manesty and Harford Jones wrote that Kuwait was "a sea port of occasional commercial importance," with its degree of importance depending on "the prosperity or distress" of Basra. By 1829 the town had grown into a "port of some importance" in its own right, and by the middle of the nineteenth century Kuwait boasted "a singular instance of commercial prosperity" that rivaled the other coastal settlements of the Gulf littoral. Kuwait's prosperity from the late eighteenth century onward encouraged the immigration of many families from Najd, Zubara, Zubair, and Iran. By the early nineteenth century the town's population had reached ten thousand, and the original 'Utbi settlers, who numbered in the hundreds, were far outnumbered by the thousands of newcomers. By the mid-nineteenth century the population doubled to around twenty thousand. This continuous immigration was key to Kuwait's sustained economic growth and expansion: the more inhabitants there were, the larger was the labor force, and the more Kuwaiti vessels could participate in trading, shipping, and pearling.

The town experienced a period of unprecedented demographic growth from the 1890s until around 1920 due to an economic boom stemming from two factors. One was a general increase in trade stimulated by the arrival of British steamers in the Gulf, the suppression of piracy in the region, and the opening up of Kuwaiti merchant agencies in India and other places around the Indian Ocean. The second factor was the pearling boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that was experienced around the Gulf region, largely the result of global demand for the luxury commodity coupled with particularly plentiful harvests in the local pearl fisheries. The peak of prosperity came between 1910 and 1912, when Kuwait saw a remarkable increase both in the standard (and cost) of living and in wages. The rise in pearling had a "trickle-down effect" on all other maritime and commercial sectors. The dhow-building industry boomed, providing increased employment opportunities and higher wages for the builders of these Arabian sailing vessels. The increased personal income that pearling brought to merchants and mariners was usually spent purchasing goods in the suq, thereby stimulating the trading sector as well as local craft industries. Kuwait Town's population grew substantially during this period as newcomers were attracted by bourgeoning opportunities in construction, commerce, and of course pearl diving, which mainly drew in young Bedouin from the surrounding hinterland. Whereas in 1904 the town's population was thirty-five thousand, by 1913 it had grown to fifty thousand.

Though urban society before oil was not stratified into sharp socioeconomic tiers three broad social strata can be distinguished on the basis of occupation and distribution of wealth. The members of each stratum were of diverse backgrounds, occupations, and, to an extent, income levels. However, as Abraham Marcus identifies in his analysis of similar patterns of social differentiation in the urban society of premodern Aleppo, "the members of each class shared a set of comparable social circumstances and opportunities that distinguished them from others outside their level." The highest social stratum, which was also the smallest, consisted of the notable merchant families. Though most of the town's 'Utub were part of this wealthy class, inclusion in the merchant elite was not restricted to members of any single religious or ethnic group. Very rich and influential Shi'i families, such as the Ma'rafi and the Behbehani, stood as important pillars of the mercantile oligarchy, and the capital of at least two Jewish merchants matched that of the 'Utbi elite. The merchants' elite status stemmed primarily from their control of the town's pearling, shipping, and trading industries. Some local notable families, such as the Al Sager and the Al Naqib, also owned large date plantations along the Shatt al-Arab that supplied the outbound cargo of the Kuwaiti deep-sea fleet heading to India and east Africa.

The majority of the town's population consisted of laborers. Most laborers were sailors and pearl divers who worked on board the merchants' trading and pearling ships and spent most of their lives in poverty and debt due to the profit-sharing and credit-based systems of the maritime industries. Others were port workers, coolies, porters, water carriers, and construction workers. On the whole, this social stratum depended highly on the town's merchant elite — who were their employers, creditors, and benefactors — for their everyday survival (elaborated further in Chapter 3).


Excerpted from Kuwait Transformed by Farah Al-Nakib. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

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.

1Pre-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.

2Port 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.

3A 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.

4Oil-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.

5The 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.

6The 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.

7The 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.

8The 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.

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