- Kuwait Transformed: A History of Oil and Urban Life by Farah Al-Nakib
Books focusing on Kuwait are relatively few and far between. Kuwait lacks the scale and punch of Saudi Arabia, the glamour and glitz of the United Arab Emirates, and the curious ambitions and power of Qatar. This is a shame for those with an interest in the small Gulf state, for its idiosyncrasies are worthy of more attention.
But Kuwaitophiles are in luck for Farah Al-Nakib has written an immensely readable and impressive book. This project is animated, it seems, by a highly motivated desire to uncover the roots of “Kuwait’s present-day social malaise — the growing intolerance towards outsiders, the volatile tensions between social groups, the inertia of the average citizen, the lack of concern for the public good” (p. 14). Many of these issues have long been attributed to the externalities of oil wealth. On this point, Al-Nakib agrees. But throughout the book she provides a more nuanced causal mechanism. She sees the urbanization of Kuwait as not just correlated to but as a key cause of the “social malaise.”
The book takes a chronological approach. It starts off in the 18th century but swiftly moves on toward the 20th century and the build-up of Kuwait as a town and then as a city. A series of fascinating maps and charts illuminate the history. The development of Kuwait City as told through aerial shots of the expanding sections and ring roads are particularly effective.
The essence of pre-oil Kuwait that Al-Nakib wants to get across was its openness. To be a successful port city with competition nearby mandated a relatively tolerant approach. A wider cultural tolerance is evidenced in the way the town attracted exiled minorities from Iraq. There were also Jewish and Persian schools in Kuwait in the early 20th century (p. 74), while two Jewish families were among Kuwait’s richest merchants (p. 28). Al-Nakib unearths the delightful quote that Kuwait was “the Paris of Arabia” (p. 73), something that chimes with the equally quixotic quote from Jacob Goldberg, who described Kuwait City as the “‘Marseilles’ of the Persian Gulf.’”1
Al-Nakib attempts to overturn some ingrained clichés. She makes decent headway seeking to unpick the “connection between gender segregation and the pre-oil urban form” (p. 63). But in extending these arguments, and more generally forming a narrative as to how Kuwaitis felt a “sense of togetherness” (p. 76) in the first quarter of the 20th century, the evidence can be slightly overplayed. Compared to the puritanism and marauding raids by the Ikhwan, the Saudi Wahhabi force, yes, I am sure that Kuwait looked tolerant and open; but that is not much of a yardstick. And the fact that “most Kuwaitis who were members of the pre-oil urban community recall the close interdependence of neighbors positively … [and how they] lived as though they were one family” (p. 81) is interesting, but to my mind anachronistic and based on questionable evidence. [End Page 158]
But without doubt the roots of the different worlds between pre and post-oil Kuwait are well explored. Al-Nakib engages in a forensic examination of the oil-fueled growth of the state. She is brutally effective at illuminating the deficiencies of urban planning in Kuwait (Chapters 4–6). The roots of the problems, Al-Nakib persuasively argues, are oil and the distribution of wealth by the ruling family. It is, in effect, a continual case study of the law of unintended consequences, whereby attempts that can be relatively well-meaning to build, for example, a new housing complex, get continually stymied as the elite and the merchant class greedily strive to extract one more dinar out of the state.
The result of the widespread move from the coast and the traditional city center to the suburbs is, for Al-Nakib, one of the central dislocating factors that affected “traditional” Kuwaiti society (Chapter 5). It...