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New Texts Out Now: Farah Al-Nakib, Kuwait Transformed: A History of Oil and Urban Life

Farah Al-Nakib, Kuwait Transformed: A History of Oil and Urban Life (Stanford University Press, 2016).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Farah Al-Nakib (FA): This book is the culmination of nearly ten years of research on Kuwait’s urban social history, which I began working on in 2006 for my doctoral dissertation. But in many ways, I have been thinking about the kinds of urban and social transformations that I address in this book for much longer, ever since I was a teenager. Kuwait in the 1990s, when I was in high school, was dramatically different from the Kuwait in which I’d spent my childhood in the 1980s.  The Iraqi invasion of 1990 seemed the most obvious culprit; our lives were now neatly bifurcated between “before the invasion” and “after the invasion.” And the changes I was noticing were poignant. I watched as Kuwait became rapidly more religiously conservative. People seemed less open and tolerant than before, and the country—even my own American high school—was becoming more segregated along class and national lines. Young people—people I knew—were increasingly resorting to violence to solve their conflicts. And by the time I was ready to leave to the United States for college in 1997, franchise restaurant chains like TGIFriday’s and shopping malls were starting to pop up everywhere, drastically changing not only the landscape but also the way people spent their nights and weekends. I now know that the changes I was trying to make sense of around me in Kuwait in the 1990s were, in many ways, outcomes of a process of urban and social transformation that began decades earlier, well before the invasion. It is that transformation that I deal with in this book.

Writing about Kuwait from an academic perspective has always been a very personal process. So much of what I write about Kuwait’s history and society stems from my own personal observations and experiences as a Kuwaiti. Although it started off as my PhD research, as I worked on it this book became much more than an objective, academic study of Kuwait’s urban social history. It was also a deeply subjective attempt to make sense of the changes that I have witnessed within my own lifetime to both the society of which I am a part, and to the city in which I live. Of course, this is an academic book that I hope contributes to the scholarly literature on urban social history and critical urban theory. But I also wrote this book as a way of addressing some of the social, political, and urban crises I believe we are facing in Kuwait today: crises such as the systemic alienation and abuse of foreigners, sectarian tensions between social groups, rising youth violence, clashes between the government and opposition forces, the unsustainably high use of electricity and water resources, the ruthless privatization of public space, severe traffic congestion, among many others. My book provides an in-depth historical analysis of Kuwait’s urban and social transformations from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries as a way of critically examining the evolution of some of these issues over time.

After going through two radical transformative experiences over the past century (the advent of oil and the Iraqi occupation of 1990-91), Kuwait has developed a tendency to erase the past, ignore the future, and focus solely on the present. Although there is a (perhaps paradoxical) trend emerging in Kuwait, as across the Gulf, to fetishize the pre-oil past and invent a national historical identity in museums and sites of national heritage, there is little critical analysis of the past as a way to better make sense of the present. One of the quotes I live by as a historian comes from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “The past is consumed in the present, and the present is living only because it brings forth the future.” We cannot understand the critical state we are in today without going back in time and retracing our steps to the present, and only by doing so can we start to conceive of a more suitable and sustainable way out of the crises I identify at the start of the book. 

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

FA: This book 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 to oil eras. The sudden and dramatic impact of oil wealth from 1946 onward led to the mass demolition of the historic port town, established in 1716, and its reformation into a sprawling modern city. My central argument is that rapid and substantial changes to the urban landscape fundamentally altered the nature of Kuwaiti urban society. I analyze how decades of urban planning, suburbanization, functional zoning, and the privatization of public space and everyday life—combined with strict citizenship laws and the advent of the welfare state—eroded the open, tolerant, and cooperative nature of pre-oil society and gave rise to the insularity, xenophobia, and divisiveness that characterize social relations in Kuwait today.   

A growing body of remarkable literature on Gulf cities and urbanism has been coming out in recent years, such as the work of Pascal Menoret, Ahmed Kanna, and Amélie Le Renard, among others, as well as special issues of journals like Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East and Arabian Humanities). Yet, with the exception of Nelida Fuccaro’s pioneering work on Manama, Bahrain, few studies bridge the gap between the pre-oil and oil eras. My book combines a wide array of old and new primary sources to construct a complex historical narrative of the city and everyday life in Kuwait that reconnects these two periods in an ongoing process of city formation. I begin my study of Kuwait City at the time of its settlement in 1716 through two hundreds years of city growth before oil and end in the present day, with the focus of analysis being the first decades of oil from 1950-1990. This long historical perspective is necessary to challenge the uncritical, simplified, and linear “rags-to-riches” narrative that permeates both scholarly and popular writing about Gulf cities today (exemplified in this recent article on Dubai in Foreign Policy). 

The book also seeks to dispel the myth of the “exceptionalism” of Gulf cities that prevails in academic discourse, building off Fuccaro’s seminal work in this regard. The seemingly extraordinary experiences of oil have marginalized the Gulf from existing research agendas in fields like Middle East, Indian Ocean, or post-colonial studies, and the region often gets studied in isolation. Furthermore, the experiences of the Gulf have largely been excluded from broader studies of urban modernity despite the fact that the region is one of the most highly urbanized in the world and underwent a modernization process unprecedented in speed and scale. Both of these facts—though contributing to the impression of its exceptionalism—actually make the Gulf a key region for analyzing and understanding universal processes of urban modernity. The aim of my work is to de-marginalize (and de-ghettoize) the Gulf within the field of urban studies and to introduce Kuwait’s experiences both before and after oil as relevant and relatable to global processes and urban challenges. 

I therefore situate Kuwait’s urban history within a broader global context by drawing on literature of other world cities—from Beirut and Paris to Latin American and post-war north American cities—to demonstrate that while the speed and scale of Kuwait’s oil urbanization may have been unique, its actual urban experiences were not entirely so. From 1950 onward, the primary strategy driving state development was the production of a modern city to serve as the symbol of Kuwait’s newfound prosperity and progress. Whether or not oil urbanization successfully fulfilled this quest for a particular interpretation of “modernity” is infinitely debatable; but, as Marshall Berman writes, “what matters is the process, not the result” (2010, 50). And indeed, the process of oil urbanization was, in many ways, unmistakably modern. The inherent contradictions between the ideals and outcomes of modern planning; the process of creative destruction that constantly seeks to eliminate the old to create the new; the commodification and negation of the social spaces of everyday life and the concomitant shift from use value to exchange value; the valorization of private life over public belonging: these are all relatively universal experiences of urban modernity as described by Berman, Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, and others, that characterize Kuwait’s transformation from the pre-oil to oil eras.  Much of this book is underpinned, both directly and indirectly, by Lefebvre’s work and approach to the city, everyday life, and the production of urban space, in particular, by his ideas on the right to the city. I also draw on the writings of Jane Jacobs, Richard Sennett, Ash Amin, and Nigel Thrift in my analyses of the impact that modern urban planning has had on Kuwaiti society and social relations.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

FA: Most obviously, I hope that students and scholars in a variety of fields—Middle East studies as well as urban studies, urban sociology, and history more generally—will read this book. Again, my goal is to de-marginalize the Gulf Arab states within the scholarly literature. I hope that bringing the work of the urban theorists mentioned above to bear on Kuwait and the Gulf—and, conversely, bringing the experiences of Kuwait and the Gulf to bear on broader theories of space, place, and urbanism—can help dispel the myth of Gulf exceptionalism and open doors for deeper comparative analyses. This will, I hope, make my book relevant to audiences beyond Middle East or Gulf studies.

But I also wrote this book to be accessible to non-academic audiences. Although it is focused specifically on Kuwait, my book deals with changes, challenges, and urban experiences that many other cities and city dwellers encounter in their everyday lives. I hope it resonates with people who live in and write or think about cities elsewhere in the Arab world and beyond.  But ultimately my primary audience in this book is the people who live in Kuwait and can hopefully identify personally with many of the ideas that I explore and unpack in its pages, and relate them to the realities of their own daily lives. I want the book to give people in Kuwait (and elsewhere in the Gulf) new ways of thinking about our city, the patterns and practices of our everyday lives, and the ways in which we interact with each other as members of Kuwait’s urban community. I hope that, armed with this information and alternative perspective, people in Kuwait might start to demand something better than what the past sixty-five years of oil urbanization have wrought on both our city and our society, and to work toward building a more democratic, fulfilling, and enriching urban life.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

FA: As I mentioned above, this book is the culmination of the research on Kuwait that I have been doing over the past ten years. In the scholarly articles and chapters that I published before the book, I dealt with similar urban and social issues that I write about in Kuwait Transformed but from different perspectives or with different goals. In some of my previous publications, the city itself was the focal point of analysis (e.g. an article in the aforementioned special issue of CSSAAME on urban modernity and the making of a state capital), while in others the city was the lens through which I analyzed deeper sociological and political issues in Kuwait (e.g. an IJMES article on present-day tensions between hadar and badu in Kuwait, which I examine in relation to state housing policies). So, in most of my work thus far, I have been writing about the city and urban life in Kuwait and, by extension, the Gulf.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

FA: Right now I am working on a project on the governance, management, and use of public space in Kuwait, through a comparative approach with the city of Washington, DC.  I just completed a six-month Carnegie Centennial Fellowship on this at American University in DC as part of a Carnegie-funded project on urban governance in the Arab world headed by Diane Singerman.  Rather than a strictly academic project, the objective of my fellowship was to focus my research towards influencing urban policy in Kuwait.  Now that I am back in Kuwait I hope to work closely with a growing group of urban activists who have started to engage with state institutions to influence or change various urban policies in Kuwait.

In my scholarly work, I am also going back to a project that I had started working on alongside my PhD and book research but put aside for a while—on history, memory, and forgetting in relation to oil, urban modernity, and the built environment in Kuwait. I have presented work on these issues at various international conferences and in public lectures in Kuwait, but I am now putting the different pieces together into one coherent narrative. This project is connected in some ways to my work on the city, so it is not entirely unrelated to Kuwait Transformed, but it focuses more on historical and cultural memory and processes of forgetting rather than on specific sociological or urban issues.

At the same time, I am starting on a totally new project on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. My research focuses on the domestic socio-political dynamics and long-term effects of the invasion on Kuwaiti society and social relations. Just as in Kuwait Transformed the city is the referent for understanding social change in the shift from the pre-oil to oil eras, so in this project the invasion is the lens through which I examine sociological transformations in Kuwait before and after 1990. In that sense, it is a continuation of the work I have been doing all along—of writing a comprehensive social history of Kuwait. But whereas in the period before 1990 oil modernization constituted the major turning point in Kuwait’s history, in my own lifetime that point of rupture was the invasion. I am currently involved in one edited book project on the invasion, along with another project that is taking the form of a narrative non-fiction based on a single individual’s experiences as a prisoner of war in Kuwait and Baghdad during and after the occupation.

Excerpt from Kuwait Transformed: A History of Oil and Urban Life

From the Introduction:

On a busy Friday night in late December 2012, twenty-six-year-old Jaber Youssef argued with four young men 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,” 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.” 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. 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.

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.

… [W]hat 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.” 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.” 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 sec- tors 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. 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.” 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.” 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. 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. 


[Excerpted from Farah Al-Nakib, Kuwait Transformed: A History of Oil and Urban Life, by permission of the publisher, Stanford University Press ©2016 No other use is permitted without the prior permission of the publisher. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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