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Kuwait's Modern Spectacle: Oil Wealth and the Making of a New Capital City, 1950-90


This article examines the making of modern Kuwait City between 1950 and 1980 by complicating the popular "rags to riches" paradigm that permeates both official state discourse and much of the literature on Kuwait's urban development. It argues that the "modern" city that replaced the demolished pre-oil town during the first three decades of oil urbanization was more of a spectacle than a lived reality. Although the state exerted much effort and expense between 1951 and 1971 in planning for the development of a capital city to celebrate Kuwait's newfound prosperity and progress, certain unexpected consequences of rapid oil wealth significantly hindered the production of the rational and usable city the state was hoping for. As such, state development projects from the early 1960s onward focused more on how the city looked than on how it actually worked, creating an urban spectacle that gave a distinct impression that Kuwait was a rapidly modernizing city despite the fact that, behind the scenes, it was stagnating. Al-Nakib's article examines particular development projects produced between 1950 and the Iraqi invasion of 1990 that contributed to this spectacle of modernity and have led to the misguided though common assumption that oil modernization in Kuwait was a linear, smooth, successful, and virtually overnight leap from ancient to modern, chaos to order.

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