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Arabian Tragedy, or Noir?

The first page of the preface to Farah Al-Nakib’s Kuwait Transformed: A History of Oil and Urban Life (Stanford University Press, 2016) begins with the author sitting in a community garden in Kuwait. She is chatting with one Maryam, who is explaining the garden’s origins by recalling that some years ago she wondered to herself that something was missing in this city she lived in.

In stark contrast to the preface’s rather bucolic and ponderous mood, the book’s introduction begins very differently. It recounts shocking violence in that same city. A murder: the stabbing of a Kuwaiti-Lebanese (my term) dentist with a meat cleaver in the parking lot of Kuwait’s largest shopping mall in late 2012. Turn the page. Another murder. And several more before you finish the paragraph.

Al-Nakib, who teaches history at the American University of Kuwait, uses these violent acts and a reading of the media discourse and popular commentary around them to frame her book with the questions: How did these shopping malls, places of leisure, become crime scenes? What happened to this city? As al-Nakib seeks to recount the history of urban development, or rather what she calls? de-urbanization, numerous accounts of murder or disappearance, and more generally of loss – physical, social, and psychological – run through the text. Early on the culprit, or let’s just say the most likely suspect, is identified: Oil and the forms of state building and urban transformation oil wealth enabled. 

This suspect has been observed in other studies of political and economic change in the Gulf states, sometimes under the alias of “petromodernity.”[1] The term has been used to identify cases when ample flows of oil receipts have allowed Arab governments to promote development and modernization efforts in which Arab rulers have rapidly sought to craft their own versions of “modern” institutions found elsewhere. These productions tend to follow seemingly “international,” rather than local, designs and architectural forms and be staffed by foreign labor.

So reading through Kuwait Transformed I often asked myself: Is this story of a killing a tragedy or noir? The victim is beautifully portrayed. Kuwait in her youth came from dirt poor origins (just like the now ruling al-Sabah family) but then made something of herself. She eventually had a rich patron in the British Empire that kept her safe, but the city was effectively built by merchants, traders, and seamen of diverse origins. It was an exciting port city that contained a diversity of urban spaces, functionally connected between seafront, market area, and residential quarters.  Al Nakib makes the case that in the years before oil Kuwait sustained a truly cosmopolitan, urban community. It was a society where people from different places, forged hybrid identities and intermingled with people of diverse backgrounds and classes. This, drawing on urban social theory, is at the heart of what is urban cosmopolitanism. Al Nakib cites the Lebanese-American writer Amin Rihani who visited Kuwait in 1922. After a trip to Najd, Rihani wrote that “There is smoking, there is whiskey, there is a patency of women” (73).  He also observed that “Kuwait is a city that makes you forget Riyadh. It is the Paris of Arabia.” (73). In this pre-oil urban space, everyone was from somewhere else, everyone was an immigrant: there were pearl divers from Africa, shipbuilders were Bahrana, Kuwaiti Jews who had come from Iraq, traders from Iran …   

So the mystery soon shifts from the shopping mall murders to explaining the disappearance of this cosmopolitan city and what role oil wealth played. Was this killing a tragedy or is this story about something even darker? By a tragedy, I mean an unfortunate or unhappy outcome that resulted from human failings or processes that no one actor could control, leading to a climax that could not be prevented and where there is no winner. Too often the story of oil wealth is framed as tragedy; people refer to the so-called “oil curse.” Getting too rich to fast, the small town victim was unable to handle so-called modern life, or – in this case - the Kuwaiti bedu were never able to become truly modern. On the other hand, noir refers to a much darker story. It is “a genre of crime film or fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity.”[2] In noir, self-destructive tendencies are endemic and shocking violence commonplace. There is little expectation that resolving the mystery or unmasking the perpetrator of a crime will lead to a better, changed world.    

I read al-Nakib’s account of oil-era modernization as one that clearly presents the case for a killing that is not an accidental tragedy. The question then becomes is it negligent manslaughter or murder. Al Nakib, a historian, is a wonderfully clever detective who knows her city and its streets well. She searches archives and memoirs, make excellent use of the social theory from David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre, Ash and Amin, and others. Some of her key expert witnesses are the urban planners such as Palestinian American architect and town planner Saba George Shiber.

The case of explaining Kuwait’s transformation boils down to the failures of modernist state planning in an exclusivist, authoritarian context. Other suspects are capitalism and oil wealth, the merchants, but it seems the core issue is really about power, ordering, and the limits of modernism…more Timothy Mitchell or James Scott than Mike Davis or David Harvey (but all offer critical clues).

Reading her honest portrayal of Kuwait’s modernist dreams, I was distracted again by the idea of the tragic. With the advent of oil wealth, Kuwait sought to realize the dream of Arab modernity, just like Nasser might have wanted to do with the building of the Aswan High Dam.  Kuwait’s modernization sought to build a welfare state and accelerated modernization drawing from Le Corbusier but more so the British Garden City model. It attracted the cutting edge architects of the era to craft a stunning built landscape and skyline, including the most remarkable Kuwait Towers that function as symbol of the city and its modernist aspirations while supplying the city water from a massive desert-defining desalination plant.

We can also consider how much this de-urbanization was an unintended consequence, the aftermath of development, as the city center was de-populated when people moved to the newly fashioned suburbs. Many of the wealthier families were able to call on creative architects to design villas with unique designs and features. These represented, al-Nakib notes, how urban Kuwaitis fully embraced the quest for modernity as they were in search of a new identity.

One could also suggest that the breakdown of old family and communal bonds was just part of the transition from tradition to modernity, and family units moved into suburban villas gaining plots of land in a lottery and relocating to climate controlled suburban housing.

But as I read on, I detected more clues. Behind this shiny, modernist story, there appeared a darker side to oil modernization that is too often taken for granted and explained away by both participants and scholars of petromodernity. The real culprit in al Nakib’s story appears to be a relative of the one investigated by Bob Vitalis in his book, America’s Kingdom, in which he shows how ARAMCO brought Jim Crow racial segregation to Saudi Arabia, a system that would come to be accepted by other expats as part of the culture and the cost of doing business in the kingdom.[3]

Al Nakib traces how the plans for oil-led modernization were developed in the early years of oil wealth, before even the 1973 boom. She shows how planning and residential development was designed to increase social, ethnic, and racial segregation and hierarchal ordering. It sought to pacify society, create isolated homogenous communities. It spatialized political order and racial hierarchy. In the process citizenship was narrowly construed. Hybridization was effectively banned. 

Through this process the need and capacity to encounter difference and intermingling were negated.

So if the failures of high modernism, such as modernist planning efforts in US cities, might be commonly viewed as tragedy (though even this might be contested), insofar as many well-meaning efforts with lofty democratic goals ultimately killed cities (especially their racially segregated urban cores), my reading of al Nakib’s history of is the process of urban transformation in Kuwait was in fact murder. It was the intentional killing of the cosmopolitan city for the sake of the institutionalization of state and royal family power and control. It robbed Kuwaitis of their urban public spaces and their historic institutions that shared burdens and risks. It eliminated their experiences of physically walking and encountering the city and of what Henri Lefebvre (and David Harvey) term “the right to the city.” For example, al-Nakib writes: “Whereas in the 1940s it was not uncommon for Kuwaitis to take taxis, by the early 1950s citizens found it socially ‘demeaning’ to use such forms of public transportation.” (181). Moreover, in the process the Kuwaiti state sought to forge an exclusive non-hybrid identity as well as exclusive citizenship that dispossessed the vast majority of the city’s population that had grown-up with oil-fed modernization. It is this very anti-urban and anti-democratic idea that is the dark side of the story of this city’s transformation and transformation found in much of the Gulf and also in Beirut (the city I live in).

The book ends, however, as neither tragedy or noir; rather, it ends with a new beginning. As a resident (and clearly a lover) of this dark, noir world, al Nakib returns to the scene of the community garden where she recounts this and other cases of Kuwaitis, citizens and non-citizens, who seek to reclaim the right to the city. She notes that while many Kuwaiti citizens view the city center area as empty or a ghost town, any visitor can notice it has lively spaces populated by non-citizens and new shops and businesses. These are the elements that can serve as the building blocks of cosmopolitism and diversity.

One other sign of hope particularly interested me as scholar of tourism. In an essay, Marjorie Kelly writes about why there is seemly no tourism in Kuwait. She explains how there is no interest amongst most Kuwaitis (and the government) in making the city accommodate leisure visitors and their tourist gaze.[4] Many cities across both the developed and developing world have refashioned their urban spaces and heritage sites to attract visitors in order to gain economic resources. Oil wealth has historically insulated Kuwait from such forces of neoliberalism, while its version of petromodernity has prevented the forms of mobility and accessible urban spaces required for tourism development. Al Nakib, however, uncovers a different pathway. She discusses the community group Madeenah (“city”) that seeks to reclaim the right to the city for Kuwaitis “by curating public walking tours of different segments of the city that are led by Madeenah’s team or by various guides—architects, artists, residents—who share their own understandings and experiences of the spaces traversed and explored on the tour” (219).

Lastly, and most poetically, al-Nakib described the development of the Secret Garden project, where she begins the preface over a cup of hand-brewed coffee. She reports that, “the Secret Garden is a public space in its truest form: ‘a vibrant, open public forum, full of lived moments and “enchanting” encounters.’” Al-Nakib concludes: “The garden project is perhaps Kuwait’s only current example of unplanned, cooperative urbanism; no single group controls the garden, and all have equal rights of access to the space. It is the kind of unplanned and unzoned place that, by encouraging functional diversity and social exploration, could be the antidote to the orderly city planning that eroded Kuwait’s primordial quality of urbanity” (217).

And so, Kuwait Transformed ends as neither tragedy nor noir, but with a love letter to the idea of what the city can be. 

[The author delivered these remarks in his capacity as discussant at the book launch of Kuwait Transformed, held at the American University of Beirut, in October 2016.]

[1] Waleed Hazbun, “Afterword: Beyond Petromodernity: Excavating pathways for Khaleeji Tourism Studies,” in Marcus L. Stephenson and Ala Al-Hamarneh, eds. International Tourism and the Gulf Cooperation Council States: Developments, Challenges and Opportunities (London: Routledge, 2017); See also Omar AlShehabi, “Histories of Migration to the Gulf,” in Abdulhadi Khalaf, Omar AlShehabi, Adam Hanieh, eds. Transit States: Labour, Migration and Citizenship in the Gulf (London:  Pluto Press, 2015),  10-17.

[2] See,

[3] Robert Vitalis, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2007).

[4] Marjorie Kelly, “(No) Tourism in Kuwait: Why Kuwaitis are Ambivalent about Developing Tourism,” in Marcus L. Stephenson and Ala Al-Hamarneh, eds. International Tourism and the Gulf Cooperation Council States: Developments, Challenges and Opportunities (London: Routledge, 2017). 

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