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A. Is There Such a Thing as Kuwait?

The first oil minister of Saudi Arabia once made the following comment (in Blandford, 1976):

It's useless to be a Kuwaiti or a Saudi. It's a piece of a thing [cf. money], it's not a thing in itself. This is what oil has done. This change is not normal. Rags to riches can happen to individuals, not to nations. These artificial creations like Kuwait, drawn on a map by other powers, they will never accomplish anything. They will always spend, never produce. We just open the tap, let out the oil and change it into dollars. They talk about oil-producing countries. That is a joke. (p. 233)

In other words, the Oil Minister effectively denied the very idea of Kuwait. He believed it existed in about the same sense as most African countries, a place defined on the map and having no cultural continuity or identity.

A particular class of Kuwaitis takes umbrage at the suggestion that Kuwait owes its existence to the demands of the oil industry and the British Empire. In studying Al-Dharra Madressor, their attitude merits some consideration simply because their class so thoroughly dominates the school. Whereas some historical accounts would consider Kuwait as simply an artificial oil state, the Asil, "heritage Kuwaitis," maintain that their country dates from at least the 17th Century and possibly earlier and can claim a cultural heritage that has nothing to do with either oil or empire (Blandford, 1976; Crystal, 1989). As historian Jill Crystal (1999) notes:

Kuwait is unusual among its neighbors in that it has a well-established national identity and a long history as a nation, dating back to the 18th century....Oil and the recent transformation associated with it have forced Kuwait to draw this line more clearly. (p. 3)

Ironically, an examination of Kuwait's history shows that, in fact, both of these viewpoints have some merit. 95% of the current population of Kuwait, indeed, did not arrive until after the discovery of oil and owe their residence to oil and the British protectorate. The remaining 5%, who regard themselves as the "real Kuwaitis," however, came long ago and form the core of this study. This chapter will tell the story of Kuwait while emphasizing the role of this group.

B. The Settlement of Kuwait And Its Distinct Culture

The Bani Utub, whose families form the Asil ("heritage" or "original") Kuwaitis, migrated from Saudi Arabia in the early 17th Century (Crystal, 1992, p.5). To put this into proper perspective, think of the Saudi Arabia of Lawrence of Arabia, scattered tribes of camel herders and shepherds constantly on the move and part of a pattern of raiding, caravan travel, and ever-shifting tribal alliances (Ismael, 1982). The Bani Utub settled with at least the tacit acknowledgment of the powerful Bani Thakeb [which means literally "the sons of Thakeb"] tribal group also based in eastern Saudi Arabia (Crystal, 1992; Ismael, 1982). Kuwaitis consider themselves "Najdis," the term for those who live in eastern and central Saudi Arabia (Tetreault, 1993).

the desert, one essential of Kuwait.

When these original settlers reached Kuwait, they found nothing there (Osman, 1992; Metz, 1994). Only a few Bedouin tribes lived in the general vicinity. Upon arrival, the settlers quickly shifted from camel and goat-herding to activities revolving around the sea. They engaged in the "carrying trade," transporting goods across the Indian Ocean, and, later, pearl diving (Bulluch, 1984; Abu-Hakim, 1972). The area around Kuwait City offered a good harbor but very limited local resources, perhaps the reason the newcomers found no one living in the area. As a result, residents relied on dhows coming from Iraq to deliver food and, more importantly, water (Crystal, 1992).

the sea, the other essential.

A second group of immigrants took a detour to Iran and lived in Iran for some time before returning. Though they continued to speak Arabic, their years in Iran converted them to or consolidated their adherence to the Shia form of Islam. Some, today, still speak Iranian (i.e., Farsi) in their homes, though seldom in public. Ghabra characterizes (1997) them as:

[The Kuwaiti Shia] are an urban group that migrated to Kuwait in stages from the Arabian Peninsula and from Iran...Some Shiite families play pivotal roles in the private sector and have a good deal of financial clout...[and they are] known for their work ethic. (p. 368)

The Shia came from four different places even if, like the other Kuwaitis, most found their ultimate origins in Saudi Arabia, not Iran. Some came from Bahrain, others took the journey to Iran and came back, others came directly from Iran, and still others originally lived in Saudi Arabia’s Hasa province (Crystal, 1992), at that time predominantly Shia. Even if most ultimately claimed Saudi origin, they often kept business ties with Iran, which made sense since their religious orientation inevitably led them to look to Iran [and Iraq] for pilgrimages (Crystal, 1992):

Yusif Behbehani, for example, a member of one of the more prominent of such Kuwaiti Persian Shia families, operated a business in the 1930s ferrying Iranian corpses to Iraq, via Kuwait, for burial on holy ground [i.e., near the site of the Shia martyrs in Iraq]. (p. 40)

Traditionally, the Shia maintained themselves in separate businesses from the Sunni, a tradition continued today in which the Shia dominate the oil trade (Crystal, 1992):

[The Shia-Sunni division] was economic....[The] water carriage trade, for example, was exclusively in Shia hands. It was social: the communities did not intermarry, and they organized social services such as schools separately. It was political:....Shias could only make their case to the Sheik indirectly thorough his secretary, Mullah Salih [himself Sunni, but an informal spokesperson to the Sheik for the interests of the Shia]. (p. 40)

While most Sunni families turned to the sea, the Al-Sabah family maintained itself through servicing the caravan trade (Ismael, 1982) that passed through northern Saudi Arabia. Since the activities of the sea merchants often took them away from Kuwait for long periods of time, they elected the Al-Sabah to handle local affairs since the Al-Sabah need not travel to deal with the Bedouin (Aarto, Eisenhoeffer, & Termeulen, 1991). As a result, the Al-Sabah developed close ties to the Bedouin, whose alliances the family needed to maintain its desert trading relationships (Crystal, 1992; Ismael, 1982). Abu-Hakima (1972) emphasizes the original primacy of three most important Najdi families, the "Al-Sabah, Al-Khalifah, and Jalahimah clans...all claim to be descended from Jamilah, a branch of the Great Anazah tribe, now inhabiting northern Arabia" (p. 32). The importance of this particular set of family names will become more apparent in later sections. Here, however, note that all descend from a common, perhaps mythical, ancestor.

Over the next two hundred years some important changes took place in Saudi Arabia. First, the religious leader Wahhab returned from Iran with a message to the Saudis to return to a stricter, more Puritanical form of Islam supposedly practiced by their forefathers. The great-grandfather of King Ibn Saud (from whom one gets the name "Saudi Arabia") became the leader's ally, and together they conquered much of Saudi Arabia (Lacey, 1981). The parents of Ibn Saud lost many of those conquests only to have Ibn Saud retake them in the period between 1905 and 1920 (Lacey, 1981). In these two hundred years, the original tribal confederacy linked to the Bani Utub faded away (Crystal, 1992; Ismael, 1982).

Thus, the Kuwaitis eventually bordered a much more religiously conservative Saudi Arabia than the one their forefathers left. Though they shared regional origins with the Saudis, culturally the Kuwaitis adhered to a less puritanical, more relaxed form of Islam. Further, the seagoing journeys of the Kuwaitis exposed them to different experiences and values than that of their desert-hardened neighbors. Religiously, then, the Asil could not return to the country of their origin any more than the Puritans could have returned to Restoration England.

Their more powerful neighbors to the north, Iran and Iraq, also had their differences with Kuwait. Iran, a Shia country, spoke a different language and practiced a different form of Islam than the majority of the Asil. To the Sunni, the Kuwaiti Shia always remained somewhat suspect, even among the business elite (Crystal, 1989; Ghabra, 1997).

Iraq, unlike Iran, remained an integral part of the Ottoman Empire until that empire’s disintegration in 1920. The Ottomans’ nominal sovereignty over the Gulf, ironically, provided the Iraqis with their later claim to Kuwait as the Ottomans considered Kuwait as part of the province of Iraq. Significantly, the late Ottoman process of modernization affected Iraq, especially the "Young Turk" rebellion. Ideas such as liberalism and democracy slowly filtered into Kuwait from Iraq (Salih, 1992) but did not find much acceptance.

The origins of Kuwait, then, show certain links with the three main powers in the area: Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Most of the Asil eventually trace their origin back to Saudi Arabia, and yet they did not and do not have much sympathy for the more austere Wahhabi Islam of their former country. The dominant social classes often traded and inter-married with the Iraqis, by far the richer people then, yet the Kuwaitis’ heritage and culture differentiated them from the Iraqis who lacked their ties to the desert and sea. Finally, one Kuwaiti sub-group had cultural ties with Iran through Shiism, yet their Arab nationality differentiated them from the Iranians.

As a result, this group, the Asil, Shia and Sunni, thought of themselves, then, as "Kuwaitis," not Saudis, Iraqis, or Iranians. Further, they considered themselves Kuwaitis when being a Kuwaiti meant claiming allegiance to a poor, even pathetically poor, country. This bears mention because, in the Kuwait of today, most Kuwaitis claim citizenship for reasons other than long loyalty, and the Asil, in their turn, do not consider these late-comers "real Kuwaitis;" hence the use of the term "Asil," which differentiates the latter-day Kuwaitis from the original ones.

C. The Emergence of the Emirate and the British Protectorate

Almost always, Kuwaiti history revolves around families. Sometimes it involves situations between families. At other times it concerns family members, but always it returns to families.

The Al-Sabah became the rulers of Kuwait largely through a process of elimination. The other families wanted to turn to the sea; the Al-Sabah worked the caravan trade (Aarto, Eisenhoeffer, & Termeulen, 1991). For a while, the Al-Khalifa (now rulers of Bahrain) and the Al-Jalahima (former rulers of Qatar) lived in Kuwait and apparently shared power to some degree with the Al-Sabah (Crystal, 1992). Their departure in the 1760s (Ismael, 1982) left the Al-Sabah in control partly because no one else wanted the job. This fact deserves mention because the Asil today often wish to remind the Al-Sabah that the ruling family’s origins do not distinguish them from that of the other Asil.

However, one could never really consider Kuwait a monarchy in the absolute sense (Crystal, 1992). First, with their sense of history, the other prominent families constantly reminded the Al-Sabah that they had no particular reason to brag about their position or origins (Crystal, 1989; Salih, 1992). Moreover, the Al-Sabah had a pathetically small income, made smaller with the end of the caravan trade. They came to rely on customs duties supplied by the merchants and on family lands in Iraq on which they farmed dates (Salih, 1992) to make governmental ends meet. This dependence on the merchants for their income made the Al-Sabah receptive to the merchants’ ideas as to how to rule the Emirate (Crystal, 1996; Tetreault, 1991).

Typically, the Al-Sabah rulers traveled around Kuwait City, a place of never more than 10,000 souls, with a few of their tribal bodyguard, the Kudam (Salih, 1993, p. 67), in attendance. On important matters, the rulers consulted the prominent merchants in a kind of oligarchy. The Al-Sabah had relatively little to fear in terms of invasion since none of their neighbors saw Kuwait as justifying an invasion.

The British came to Kuwait not due to its inherent worth but its location. It served as a useful spot to rest ships to and from passage to its far more important Indian Empire. As it turned out, Kuwait became an accidental and unwelcome addition to the list of countries Great Britain needed to maintain control in India (Ismael, 1982) since Kuwait absorbed rather than created wealth.

What galvanized the British was "Mubarak the Great," the only emir so-named in Kuwaiti history. In 1912, Mubarak rose to power in a manner particularly unique in peaceful Kuwait: he killed both of his brothers, including the then Emir. After dispatching his brothers in front of their wives, he emerged from the palace with bloody sword in hand and dared anyone to oppose him (Tetreault, 1991).

Mubarak's policies deserve note on two scores. First, he brought in the British. He did this to prevent the Ottoman Turks, the rulers of Iraq, from extending their nominal sovereignty over Kuwait. At the time, the Turks proposed building a railway from Baghdad to Kuwait City. This would have made sleepy Kuwait an important port city, a rival to Iraqi Basra. Probably almost everyone would have benefited, not least due to the more stable supply of water. Instead, Mubarak chose to ally with a reluctant Britain, which did not want Turkey's ally, Germany, acquiring influence through construction of the railway. In other words, Mubarak chose to secure Kuwait's political independence by simply keeping it poor. As Tetreault (1991) concludes, cliency with Britain, "placed a severe limitation on Kuwait's sovereignty, but it preserved the existence of Kuwait...[and] also halted or even reversed its domestic political development" (p. 588).

Second, Mubarak took steps to undermine the Basra-Iraqi merchants, "recent" (1780s) arrivals from Iraq (Aarto, Eisenhoeffer, & Termeulen, 1992). These great merchants had gradually become the dominant presence in the Kuwaiti economy, pushing the older Bani Utub families into the less lucrative positions in the carrying trade. Mubarak simply taxed the Iraqis so much that they withdrew from Kuwait (Aarto, Eisenhoeffer, & Termeulen, 1992):

Mubarak managed to break the economic power of these merchants by arbitrarily levying taxes on their commercial activities. He used this capital to buy off the support of the so-called Utub traders. The Utub traders were small, pro-British merchants who derived their income from the transit in primary commodities...for the domestic market and other markets on the Arabian Peninsula. (p. 207)

While undoubtedly this enriched the Emir for a time, the real purpose seemed linked to restoration of the fortunes of the local merchants, the Bani Utub (Ismael, 1982). While Crystal disagrees that Mubarak intentionally did this (Crystal, 1992, p. 13), she cannot argue as to the result: the Iraqis left, the Utub merchants triumphed, and the Al-Sabah and Asil retained their social dominance through their new cliency with Great Britain. Another point argues in favor of Ismael’s interpretation. When the Asil pearl-merchants threatened, in their turn, to leave for Bahrain, he gave in to their demands and lowered taxes (Crystal, 1989), an interesting contrast to his behavior towards the Iraqis.

Thus, Mubarak the Great guaranteed the survival of Kuwait as an independent entity but at a price: impoverishment. While, of course, this secured the place of his own family and allowed him to claim some helpful British subsidies (Tetreault, 1991), it also insured the survival of the Asil. Hence, this shows, as will recur throughout this study, the preference of family over society or even country. More charitably, one could describe this as choosing to view society as only including certain families, a view as popular today as then. There remains a certain irony, however, in that Kuwaitis celebrate Mubarak's rule and yet criticize the Bedouin soldiers who, rather than staying to fight a doomed battle against the Iraqi invaders, ran away in order to secure the survival of their own families.

D. Life in the Pearl Boat Culture and Traditional Kuwait

In order to understand the Kuwait of today, one must consider the Kuwait of near-yesterday, as recently as 60 years ago, when Kuwait earned its income through pearl-diving and petty transport. Kuwaitis often wax poetic about life in the pearl boat culture. More to the point, sociologists study this culture for clues about modern Kuwaiti culture.

Considerable debate between scholars concerns whether studying this elder society has any relevance for modern Kuwait. After all, Kuwait now boasts a population of two million (Metz, 1994) and a modern consumer culture with all of its ills and benefits. However, this "modernity" masks a population in many respects unchanged, and, of those two million, surprisingly few actually "count." These important few descend from pearl-diving captains and their bankers. Hence, this study requires some analysis of pearl-boating life.

First, the merchant elite owned the ships. These elite generally consisted of those descended from the Asil. During the pearling season, their boats went to the pearling fields off the coast of Bahrain. In the off-season, they carried goods to and from India, the "carrying trade" previously mentioned. In a poor society, the elite lived relatively well. They lived in mud-hardened, multi-story houses that included quarters for their businesses, their family, their servants, and their descendants.

the dhow, essential for the Pearl season.

During the periods of their absence, their wives often ran the businesses. This contributed to the relatively high degree of independence accepted, and even expected, of Asil women (Longva, 1997, p. 45) who, like all Moslem women, could inherit and keep their own income and property. Asil families did business with other Asil families and intermarried with them to keep wealth within the families in typical Arab, tribal fashion as well as to cement business relationships (Al-Thakeb 1982; 1985). The tribe here, however, consisted of the Asil.

Occasionally, a merchant would return with an Indian or even African wife (Blandford, 1976), but Islam allows multiple wives. The former contributed to the fact that even today many Kuwaiti boys try to marry a girl with a bit of Indian blood; the latter contributes to the fact that many Kuwaitis, especially the Al-Sabahs, have very dark skin. One family at Al-Dharra Madressor even has a substantial amount of Chinese blood. Race did not, and does not, count as much as family.

Below the great merchants came the ships’ captains. Typically, these men came from Kuwaiti families as well, though not of the same prominence. Their relationship to the merchants usually consisted of one of debt-bondage (Sapsted, 1980; Ismael, 1982). The captain borrowed money to use, refit, and outfit the ship and repaid after the voyage (Ismael, 1982). Very quickly these debts became lifelong obligations so that ship captains perpetually did business with the same important Asil merchants.

Below the captains came the sailors. These constituted a shifting lot. Some came from Iran, others from Iraq or Bahrain. More often, they came from Shia families. Whereas the captain owed money to the merchant, the sailors owed money to the captain (Crystal, 1992). The sailors lived fairly miserable lives. They played hard and died young (Frazier, 1969). One might consider the Arab ones "Kuwaiti," but in fact, they came and went as fortunes shifted in the industry and might well regard themselves as Iraqi, Saudi, or Bahraini.

Finally, the various Bedouin tribes lived outside the city. They moved around in order to feed their flocks and in tune with the rising or falling fortunes of tribal alliances. While all spoke Arabic, their wanderings might lead them in and out of Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. If one asked them their "country," they would undoubtedly cite their tribe, as many still do today, and express surprise that others might term them "Kuwaiti." The nearer tribes might owe personal loyalty to the Emir, but others might know nothing of him.

traditional men's dress shows obvious desert origins.

The Kuwait's until quite recently were best described as small, tough, and racially diverse

Foreigners came and went (Maghoub, 1973). Kuwait had, after all, relatively little to offer. This explains why so few foreign language accounts even describe traditional Kuwait. In fact, few accounts even mention the existence of Kuwait.

Several characteristics, then, describe traditional Kuwait, before the advent of the oil industry: poor, religious, isolated, hierarchical, family-oriented, and distinct.

traditional men's dance.

Kuwait probably constituted one of the poorest places on earth even as late as 1935. Citizens lived in mud-brick houses. Sanitation consisted of squatting down by the harbor. While a few local farms grew food, most food came by importation from Iran or Iraq. Every day, citizens anxiously awaited the arrival of the water boats from Basra; inshallah it arrived, and inshallah sometimes it did not (Frazier, 1969). The news came largely from a radio here and there broadcasting news from Basra (Salih, 1992). Few, outside the merchants and the ruler, could read or write.

In the pre air-conditioning era, Kuwait’s heat, which typically rises above 50 degrees Celsius in the summer, limited active life to about six to seven hours per day most of the year, three in the morning and four after dark. Dr. Lewis Scudder, former chief medical officer of the original Kuwaiti hospital, describes pre-oil Kuwait (in Frazier, 1969):

It was very simple town when I came here in 1939. The wall gates were locked at night, and you had to get a watchman up to let you through. Most houses were one story high, made of mud or coral rock with mud interiors. (p. 650)

Observers also described Kuwait as a religious place. While Kuwaitis did not adhere to the austere Puritanism of the Saudis, they took their religion seriously. Ramadan meant fasting and no drinking. Their travels had made the Kuwaitis, especially the upper class, a bit more cosmopolitan than their Bedouin brothers, but, deep down, they believed that all goodness on earth came as a direct gift from Allah for which they needed to show sincere gratitude (Sapsted, 1980). Poverty, as in the case of Saudi Arabia, only served to increase religiosity. With death so close, one came to appreciate life as a precious gift from God.

This traditional Kuwait existed largely in isolation. While travelers and merchants came and went, few stayed. The railroad from Baghdad never reached completion. Mubarak's alliance meant that Great Britain traded a bit with the Kuwaitis but spent as little money as possible on its money-losing "colony." Little money meant few people sent from Great Britain.

Even traditional Kuwait maintained a hierarchy. In fact, Ismael traces that hierarchy even to the days of herding in Saudi Arabia and the traditional differentiation between the higher status camel-herding tribes and the lower status sheep-herders (Ismael, 1992). Indeed, it should come as no surprise that the tribes who started the trek most highly ranked, the Al-Sabah and their peers, emerged as the dominant families. At society’s top stood the Emir, but the great merchants stood not far below if not simply across. Below them came the other "Kuwaitis," really an assortment of Arabs and Iranians who resided for greater or lesser times in Kuwait City to work the ships. The Shia constituted an important sub-group of both of these. Finally, the Bedouin stood basically outside this society, both physically and socially, except in their personal relations to the Emir.

traditional women's dress

The family provided the focal point of Kuwaiti life. Women, as one finds in most Arab countries, did not have a high amount of personal freedom except within the circle of the family. Most gatherings took place within the context of the family. Families of similar status tended to inter-marry both as a means of preserving capital and intensifying relationships. Family ties, far more than titles, tended to decide who mattered in the small city. Wealth tended to follow relationships, not the reverse.

This dance would not have occurred before a mixed audience outside the family.

Finally, the Kuwait of tradition differed from its neighbors mostly by possessing few points in common with any of them. With Saudi Arabia, Kuwait’s people, especially the Asil, shared a common Najdi origin (Al-Salih, 1992), but not a common religious orientation. Iran contributed its Shiism to a sub-group of Kuwaitis but not the majority. Iraq supplied trade goods and opportunities, as well as immigrants, but not enough to dominate the little country. With the local Bedouin tribes Kuwait shared some tribal values, but Kuwait's maritime outlook made it closer to Bahrain.

In sum, then, Kuwait remained a distinct place. Its distinctiveness from its neighbors and, indeed, its sense of "Kuwaitiness," centered almost exclusively within the Asil, in which one might include the Al-Sabah. They alone had a sense of Kuwait as "their place." Others could, and often did, simply return to Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Iraq. Further, the Asil profited the most from maintenance of Kuwait as a distinct entity. As in the case of Mubarak, they even took choices that led to a poorer society in preference to giving up "their" country and, of course, their position within that country.

E. The Romantic Past

This brief but pointed recounting of Kuwaiti history should serve to show that Kuwait before oil did not exactly constitute a paradise. Fewer than 20,000 people lived in Kuwait City in 1933. When one considers that about 200 families began the great trek three centuries earlier, the natural increase should have made for a far larger population. Obviously, many left and did not come back.

Today, however, adults and even the Emir look back to this simpler time with longing. Then, they maintain, men were men, women were women, and people listened to God. People had little, but shared. As the Emir recently stated (Kuwait Times, October 25, 1999), "Our grandfathers lived lives of dignity" (p. 1).

The foremost event in this national mythology concerns the Battle of Jahra in 1919. Ibn Saud had, by then, consolidated his Wahhabi rule over Saudi Arabia. He had no particular quarrel with Kuwait, which had housed him in exile (Lacey, 1982), but his commanders of the holy warriors, the Il-Khan, the Taleban of their day, found offense in the comparative secularity of Kuwait and invaded.

All of the Kuwaiti "army" gathered together at Jahra and fought the Il-Khan to a standstill. Meanwhile, the citizens built a wall (Crystal, 1992) around the city in the event of a defeat. As it happened, Ibn Saud did not particularly mind the Il-Khan losing, and British pressure meant he could not proceed anyway. To Kuwaitis, however, this battle forms a kind of Lexington, an assertion of independence in the face of overwhelming odds. The Wall and, especially, the group participation in its construction symbolize Kuwaiti solidarity (Longva, 1997).

As importantly, those present for either event became the fathers of the "Kuwaitis" of today. Anyone present at Jahra can claim citizenship (Tetreault, 1995), even if his her/family wandered in and out of Kuwait a hundred times after. A family who came even a day later, and stayed, needs to apply for citizenship, and some of these latter-day Kuwaiti did not vote until 1996 (CIA, 2001). Of course, this largely affects the "lower classes;" many forms of family records would show that, of course, the Asil fought and stayed. They, unlike the others, really had nowhere else to go.

In 1969, the Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Abdulaziz Al-Rashid (in Frazier, 1969), accurately summed up some of the characteristics of traditional Kuwait as well as showing that, even after one generation of oil affluence, Kuwaitis feared these characteristics would disappear:

What we wish to preserve is first our religion. Then our hospitality. Then our family relationships, the feeling of loving and trying to help and shelter each other. Then, the simplicity of simple men and the respect of the younger for the older. Finally, our individualism, which is both our strength and our weakness, the spirit of independence that encourages even the humblest man to approach the head of state and complain of an injustice. We hope all these will remain. (p. 667)

One could analyze Al-Rashid's speech in detail and find the origins of each trait. The tight family structure and the close relationships stem from the Bedouin, with an influx of closeness from surviving the pearl boat trade. The tradition of anyone approaching his tribal leader, or sheik, continues in Saudi Arabia today and comes from the Bedouin also. One could argue that only the religious conservatism of the Saudi distinguishes the Kuwaiti from the Saudi. However, the spirit of independence, the concept that a Kuwait simply exists separately from its neighbors, also, seems to mark Kuwait as distinct from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Iran. Kuwait, then, exists, because Kuwaitis believe it exists and view themselves as distinct from their neighbors. Thus, this sense of Kuwait existed pre-oil, and did not come as a product of oil.

Zahra Freeth and Victor Winstone nicely summarize the particular culture of pre-oil Kuwait (in Sapstone, 1980):

Kuwait before the days of oil was a Moslem State barely touched by outside influences. It formed a God-fearing community for whom religion colored practically every thought and action of life. The observance of the five daily prayers was never meaningless formality; it was homage paid to a watchful and ever-present God who punished those who flouted His laws....

There were few comforts in the average Kuwait family's daily life in those days and no protection against sickness or epidemic. For both the Bedouin and townspeople, life was full of uncertainties in the natural hazards of the wilderness and the oceans. All were conscious of man's helplessness and the need for a protecting God. Favorable conditions, good rainfall and pasture, or fair sailing winds and a good trading profit, or the natural joys of family life such as the birth of children, were always seen as manifestations of God's bounty.

Gratitude for His beneficence was constantly on their lips, but complaint never. When disaster or distress came their way, they accepted it fatalistically, especially the Bedouin whose control over their emotions was absolute. They believed that though Allah had a propensity to mercy, He had fore-ordained their lives. (p. 15)

F. The Impact of Oil

What is surprising about the discovery of oil in Kuwait is not how much it changed Kuwait's society, but the relatively limited effect it had. Again, however, this depends a lot on one's definition of Kuwait and a Kuwaiti.

Physically, of course, Kuwait became a very different place, with towering apartment blocks, brand new mosques, hordes of new government buildings, mansions, and fleets of Chevy Impalas. Every house or government building, of course, installed air-conditioning. The population grew on the order of 100-200 fold. The Kuwait of 1900 included only 10,000, that of 1998 almost 2 million (Kennedy, 1998). Whereas before the Kuwaitis died of starvation and malnutrition, the post-oil Kuwaitis died of first-world diseases: heart attacks, strokes, and obesity (Economist 353, 1999). For that reason, writers such as Ansari (1985) see relatively little left of traditional Kuwait in the Kuwait of today.

oil wells.

Yet, viewed from a different perspective, the population of Kuwait scarcely changed at all. The Asil, as noted above, consider themselves the only true "Kuwaitis." If pressed, they might consider all of those fighting at the Battle of Jahra and those present at the building the Wall as Kuwaiti as well. That population includes the only real "Kuwaitis" in terms of voting. This explains why as few as 10,000 people vote out of a total population of 2 million (Economist 314, 1990). Though allowing women to vote may soon double this figure, the current total number of "Kuwaitis" in this sense about equals that of traditional Kuwait.

Traditional looking mosque built with the latest amenities.

The others, to put it bluntly, came, like most Kuwaitis before them, for economic opportunity. In a sense, then, they represent a simple continuation of the pattern that existed in the days of pearling and the carrying trade. Foreigners came and went as opportunities came and went. In this case, however, the opportunities simply increased one hundred fold. In fact, since Kuwait's GDP increased more than 100 fold, one can consider this growth relatively predictable.

The dhow as symbol.

A close consideration of the impact of oil reveals that the Kuwaitis took probably every opportunity to limit the amount of change within their society. In this case, obviously, they form a case similar to Saudi Arabia and distinct from the modernizing impulses of the Shah's Iran or volatile Iraq. Then, again, recall that Saudi Arabia shared a "Najdi," North-Central Arabian, heritage with the Asil, so they would logically react in a similar manner to their neighbor. To look at Kuwait, then, one must consider what actually changed versus what did not.

G. The Economics of a Rentier State

Various authors have tried to explain the economies of the oil states, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dubai, Brunei etc. Earlier writers tried to explain Kuwait in terms of economic underdevelopment. More recent economic theorists such as Andre Gunder Frank (Ismael, 1982) have resorted to dependency theory, again another version of underdevelopment, in which the successful minority within a country maintain their wealth and influence via links to an outside power. Ismael (1982) summarizes the dependency theorists’ position:

Dependency theorists such as Andre Gunder Frank argue that creation of a primary commodity export economy dependent upon the importation of foreign equipment created and perpetuates a situation of underdevelopment...maintaining the imperialist relationship...[and] restricting the development of internal markets and industries....[The] capital investment and specialization of labor are limited, related to, and dependent upon the model of production metropole [industrial] nations, while the capital accumulated is transferred out of the nation. (p. 4)

Dependency theory can explain the external economic facts of Kuwait, an economy dependent on oil and financially "dependent" upon the industrial powers to supply a market for the oil, but it does not completely explain the Kuwaiti economy. Ismael, for example, criticizes dependency theory because the oil-producing states such as Kuwait do not experience a concentration of wealth into a few hands, but rather a pattern of dispersion (Ismael, 1982). Also, contrary to Frank’s model, capital accumulation does occur in the dependent nation, Kuwait, though most of the beneficiaries choose to re-invest it abroad (Lawson, 1985).

Actually it makes little sense for Kuwait to industrialize as it lacks the manpower and resources to effectively industrialize. The capital "accumulated" by oil goes abroad, especially to the United States, because the Kuwaitis, both the government and individuals, logically choose this as a better method of securing a higher return on investment (Lawson, 1985). Similarly, if oil does not create "development," dependency theory fails to explain the massive immigration to Kuwait and the colossal expansion of the government since the oil industry itself requires only a small number of workers.

Dependency theory better explains countries such as Nigeria where corrupt local rulers, colluding with foreigners, squander away the money made on sale of raw materials instead of proceeding with development. In cases like Nigeria, then, development makes rational sense and would benefit everyone except the ruler who plots with the foreign power to prevent development. This does not describe the economic situation of Kuwait. To turn to a better explanation of Kuwait’s economic development, consider the theory of the "rentier state," described in Farah (Mahdivy in Farah, 1999):

Rentier states are defined here as those countries that receive revenue on a regular basis, substantial amounts of external rents. Rents are in turn defined as rentals paid by foreign individuals, concerns, or governments....Oil revenues received by the governments of the oil producing companies have very little to do with the production processes of their domestic economies....The initial inputs of the oil industry from the local so insignificant that for all practical purposes one can consider the oil revenues almost as a free gift of nature or as a grant from foreign sources. (p. 110 emphasis added)

As An-Naquib (1990) adds, the resulting economic system involves a limited portion of the workers in economic activity related to the extraction (oil) industry. Aarto, Eisenhoeffer, and Termeulen (1991), along with An-Naquib and Farah, classify Kuwait as one of the rentier states:

Most oil-producing states are now showing all characteristics of a "rentier state," a one-sided economy based on external rent income, where the state is the most important collector and distributor of that revenue, and where a "rentier mentality" derived from that prevails....Most citizens are therefore more concerned with penetrating as deeply as possible into the "rent circuit" than with the development of production activities. Consumption, not production, constitutes the fundament of the economy. (p. 206)

In a rentier state, one extremely valuable resource, usually oil, becomes the economic backbone of the economy. Foreign or domestic companies, employing only a relatively small number of workers, extract the valued commodity. The country reaps the economic windfall in the form of checks, i.e., "rents." Hence, the new wealth depends not upon production but upon ownership, justifying the use of the economic term "rents" rather than "wages" or "salaries." Those who adopt the "rentier mentality" attempt to get some portion of the state’s new riches, through checks, government employment, or government contracts, rather than engaging in other economic activities.

The rentier state literature (Farah, 1989; Aarto, Eisenhoeffer, & Termeulen, 1991) emphasizes that a country with an oil economy derives a number of positive benefits. Basically, drilling oil requires few workers, little space, and not much effort on the part of the owners. More negatively, the rentier state does not naturally create jobs since the oil industry employs relatively small numbers, and it does not create industrial development since oil requires few subsidiary industries. The mechanisms of the state shift from those of taxation to those of disbursement of wealth. To a country with few resources other than oil, such as Kuwait, a rentier state makes perfect economic sense.

If the rentier state literature does a good job of explaining the mechanisms of a rentier state, it often ignores the more interesting political question: Who receives the rents and how are they distributed, if at all? The answers to these questions often reveal that the cultures of the states in question show greater differences between them than similarities.

To state a simple case, one could term the State of Alaska a kind of rentier state. The state receives money from its oil companies. Alaska takes the stance that this oil belongs to all of the people, the citizens, equally and sends each of them an equal-share check. In this case, then, a democratic form of government considers that a particular resource belong to the entire society and delivers the resulting wealth in an extremely democratic, equalitarian way.

In the case of the Arab oil monarchies, no one seems to have questioned that the lands under which the oil sits belong only to the ruler. Interestingly, the only real questioning came from outsiders, hence Nasser's statements about "Arab oil," not the "Saudi King's" oil. Each emir, king, or shah, such as Kuwait’s emir, then, signed contracts with the oil industry that effectively put all of the oil money into his own and, as more modern accounting practices arrived, the state's accounts, or a mix of the two. Having done this, then, the question becomes this: With whom, if anyone, does the ruler share the money?

One needs to consider an important alternative that did not happen in Kuwait: If all wealth belonged to the Emir, he could simply keep it. This may seem far-fetched, but, in fact, traditional English monarchs used the funds from the royal estates not only to run the government but also to finance their own purchases.

In Kuwait, as in Saudi Arabia, the monarchs followed traditional Arab, Muslim precepts about royal government. At first, however, as the next chapter will show, the Emir did consider not sharing at all, but eventually the Muslim, Arab cultural traditions prevailed.

To put it simply, a Muslim-Arabic ruler has a duty to support the welfare of the people, including enriching them. Moreover, as a Muslim, a rich ruler needs to follow a traditional concept called "zakat" that calls upon the rich to share with the poor and, specifically, to help widows and orphans (Koran, Sura 1). These ideas traditionally provided a justification for state taxation as a means of zakat collection and distribution; in this case, the same precepts formed the basis for the opposite, a vast disbursement of wealth to the populace. Again, no one, even the Emirs, seems to have questioned that this redistribution would take place; instead debate surrounded who got what share and in what manner.

In Kuwait's case, the sheer size of the wealth in comparison to the pre-oil Kuwaiti population meant that, in effect, the Emir could give every Kuwaiti a big check for not working. However, this depends on the definition given to the term "Kuwaiti." In the period before oil, many city residents probably did not care much whether one considered them Kuwaiti or not. With oil, however, the state suddenly held vast financial resources, and many came forward claiming citizenship (except certain groups of Bedouin who never trusted any state).

In the end, the Kuwaitis effectively restricted "Kuwaitiness" to a relatively small group, those descended from those present at the time of the Battle of Jahra. They receive the full benefits of a generous welfare state: free schooling, free health care, a college education, a no-interest home loan, etc. (Metz, 1994; Kennedy, 1998). Later groups of immigrants, unless they obtain citizenship, receive little directly from the government, but their livelihoods depend on their receiving indirect payments from those who directly feed at the state's trough.

The rentier state literature, then, explains adequately how Kuwait's economy changed by reversing the flow of funds from the government to the people. However, the method of distribution showed a typical, traditional, Muslim Arab pattern of thought. The poor receive help. The ruler displays generosity and care for his people. Further, the Kuwaitis treat wealth as they had once treated water itself, as a God-given gift.

The government functioned as the mechanism through which the state spread the oil wealth to the people. Two main channels opened: government employment and government contracts. Both will also enter the discussion of the Asil in the next chapter as well as this one.

The Constitution of Kuwait (1962 in CIA, 2002; in Kennedy, 1998) promulgated just before Kuwait’s independence, guarantees every Kuwaiti citizen a job, and this effectively obligates the government to provide employment to every adult within certain age limits. In practice, any young Kuwaiti graduate can go to the government, demand, and, eventually, receive a position even if the job itself serves no real purpose. Further, since government jobs provide considerably higher salaries than those of the private sector (Al-Qudsi, 1989), any Kuwaiti who does not actually own a business typically opts to work for the government. Correspondingly, the government’s size grew in direct proportion to the size of the working-age Kuwaiti population, regardless of the necessity for these new government positions.

Hence Kuwait’s post-oil government became a series of bloated sheikly bureaus. In a sheikly bureau, positions and authority fall to those enjoying the most traditional authority, not to those most competent. High-level bureaucrats, Al-Sabah or Asil, ran these bureaus as their own private fiefdoms (Crystal, 1992).

Kuwait’s bureaucracy suffered from two related defects: over-staffing and wastah. In terms of over-staffing, consider the fact that almost all of Kuwait’s working population opted for government employment, as much as 25% percent of the Kuwait work force (Salih, 1992) and accounting for a third of the nation’s income (Kennedy, 1998). Even government-owned corporations such as Kuwait Airways constantly complained that too many highly-paid, guaranteed-salary Kuwaiti workers damaged their profitability. Political pressure fell on bureaucrats to create jobs, not to operate efficiently, and in response, the government actually reduced working hours and encouraged early retirement to create more positions.

The sudden oil wealth did not bring wastah to Kuwait, as indicated before, but it did make wastah more important because it raised the economic stakes for its accumulation and possession. In April of 2000, Dr. Khaled Al-Ahmadi, MP (Member of Parliament) and former Secretary of Education for Kuwait, made an hour-long speech in Arabic at Al-Dharra in which he derided the use of wastah in Kuwaiti society. When he finished and a student translated the gist of his speech into English, this author approached him and said to Dr. Al-Ahmadi, "I agree with you that wastah is wrong, but in Kuwait it is inevitable."

While Dr. Al-Ahmadi lamented this conclusion, he fundamentally agreed with it. Basically wastah became more prevalent in post oil-Kuwait for two reasons. First, only a privileged few, the citizens, obtained the full benefit of the new welfare state. Second, since the government held such an overwhelming importance in the economy (Economist 325, 1992), the quickest road to wealth lay in either becoming a government official or knowing one.

In this respect, wastah inevitably harmed the effectiveness of governmental bureaus. Invariably, those persons with the most wastah obtained the best positions and the lowest expectations for performance, and they, in turn, hired on the basis of wastah. Some measures exist of the sheer level of inefficiency. One survey published in the Kuwait Times found that the average Kuwaiti worked an average of a half hour per day while the average foreigner worked ten hours per day. Some entire bureaus became so unwieldy that the government resorted to creating new agencies charged with the same function (Crystal, 1992) as the useless ones.

The Post Office can serve as an example of the kind of service typical of the government. It often takes over a month for mail to arrive from the United States, and sometimes it does not arrive at all. When a package from the US came up missing, this researcher spoke with the head of the Postal Ministry. The official confided that items mailed to him and marked "Postal Minister" often did not reach their destination or arrived with the profitable items removed, and he advised that everyone use foreign, express mail instead of the system ostensibly under his control. Several trips to the Hawalli Post Office revealed a typical scene: seven or eight young Kuwaiti women in abayas chatting among themselves and drinking tea while one or two foreign women did all of the work and waited on all of the customers.

The arrival of oil, then, ended the traditional model of the economy. No longer did ships go to sea and men become sailors. Instead, they attempted to acquire wastah, wealth, and jobs to obtain their "fair share" of the newfound oil wealth. The governmental apparatus formed an integral, growing part of the disbursement arrangements. Still, the way in which oil distribution proceeded followed traditional patterns and traditional social arrangements, thereby maintaining, as the next section shows, a familiar hierarchical model.

H. The Changing Social Structure

The oil economy threatened to change the entire social structure of Kuwait. In the end, however, it did not, largely through the efforts of the Emirs. Whereas before one could rank persons into a hierarchy (Crystal, 1992), when the smoke cleared, the same generalization held. Oil merely spread out the differences between the classes to a greater degree and added a few new classes at the bottom (Al-Khasusi, 1972); it did not alter the structure. As Ismael (Ismael & Tareq, 1979) conclude, "What has emerged within the indigenous population is a stratification system essentially based on distance from the ruling family" (p. 351). In fact, one could extend his statement to include the entire population and the time frame to that before and after oil; his conclusion logically follows upon the model of Arab society developed in the last chapter and the history of Kuwait developed in this one.

The merchant class endured the biggest challenge. Prior to the advent of oil, they enjoyed a close, if not always harmonious, relationship with the ruler. Now, the Emir’s wealth threatened to dwarf that of the merchants. Whereas before the war some of the most affluent merchants had wealth in the millions of rupees (Abu-Hakima, 1972), the Emir found himself with wealth on the order of hundreds of millions or even billions of rupees ("Forbes’s List of Billionaires," 1998). The following chapter will show how the merchant class not only survived but, once again, returned to their symbiotic relationship with the Al-Sabah.

Below the Asil came the ordinary Kuwaitis. Of diverse origins, they became, by and large, the governmental employees of the vast state apparatus. They emerged as a new middle class, in terms of wealth comparable to middle classes around the world. The state guaranteed them a job, and they became experts at consumption.

Salmiya, the most Westernized city of Kuwait houses a population more foreign than Kuwaiti.

An important addition to the ranks of the "Kuwaitis" came from the Bedouin, considered in the next chapter. Kuwait simply accepted some of the local tribes as "Kuwaiti," no matter what their pattern of migration. They quickly became the local police forces and, especially, the Kuwaiti armed forces. Eventually, when the Emir needed their loyalty in parliament, some tribes acquired the vote.

These latter two groups did not perform any meaningful work in terms of the national GDP. Those tasks fell to the many foreign workers who came to Kuwait. The Palestinians enjoyed the privileged position. Hardworking and enterprising, they could with some justice claim to have built Kuwait, and they filled many of the professional jobs. Chapter six will refer to their situation.

Other Arab groups, Egyptians, Lebanese, and Jordanians, came to Kuwait, but only the Egyptians seriously rivaled the Palestinians in influence or importance. Unlike past immigrants to Kuwait, however, these Arabs came to Kuwait as guest workers and citizens of their respective countries. Hence, they could never share in the oil wealth directly.

Suk Sharq: a new mall built to appear traditional.

Below these came non-Arabs: Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinas (since most of the workers are female, this paper will use the feminine form), Sri Lankans, and Bangladeshis. Generally uneducated or little educated, they filled such jobs as sweeping the streets, manning shops and restaurants, and hard physical labor. Sri Lankans and Filipinas worked as cheap maids and housekeepers so that no Kuwaiti woman need raise her children or sweep her own floors. The Indians, though some came as domestics, also filled a more important niche in the computer industries of the country, but all Indians continued to receive treatment accorded to the lower status, less educated groups.

The oil wealth, then, created a broader class structure. However, the Emir remained on top and the Asil not far below. The descendants of the sailors, while richer, generally remained below their captains. The new immigrants took their places on new rungs at the bottom. The social pyramid remained as before, only it rested on more stones and rose higher.

Kuwait recorded some significant accomplishments during the oil era, particularly in contrast with some of its neighbors. Despite the pressures on its society, Kuwait retained its social cohesion. Further, despite having endured two major wars, the Iran-Iraq and the Gulf War, and another one threatened, the Iraqi threat of 1962 (Bulluch, 1992), Kuwait remained independent and a democracy, of sorts anyway, a unique accomplishment among Arab and Muslim states. This deserves mention because Kuwaitis often criticize their country, which, ironically, their freedom of the press allows. As Farah concludes (1989):

The achievements of the Kuwaiti political system are impressive.…[The] political system is achieved primarily through personal channels. Families still dominate the social and political life....When a Kuwaiti compares his lot to that of other Arabs, he realizes how well off he is. (p. 111)

Having said this, of course, one must remember that calling someone living in Kuwait a "Kuwaiti" meant recognizing a rare position of a privileged minority. Whereas most foreigners also lived better lives than they had lived in their home countries, they remained decidedly worse off economically and socially than the Kuwaitis.

The Twin Towers are actually functioning water storage towers, the ultimate symbol of affluence in a desert state.

Before proceeding further, however, one must note a certain historical irony. As stated above, the Shia-Sunni maintained a traditional division of occupations. The Shia, though "suspect" members of a Sunni-dominated community, in the pre-oil era controlled one of the most vital of all economic operations: the sale of water. In pre-oil Kuwait, nothing held higher value.

Ironically, the Shia obtained a similar prominence after the discovery of oil by becoming the work force in and management for the oil industry. This perpetuated a pattern whereby the Sunni, the dominant group, remained in fear and debt to a less prominent, even distrusted, minority (Wright, 1988):

Kuwait's Shiite community accounts for one third of the population, including thousands of Iranian origin. The local Shia have had disproportionately high representation in the Sheikdom's oil industry and security forces, while the Sunnis have dominated government. In the past, Shia have complained that they have not reaped the benefits of oil wealth and its by-products as much as the Sunnis. (p. 57)

It makes logical sense that the Shia would move into positions in the oil industry. For the Shia, control of vital resources, first water and then oil, meant a certain guarantee of their survival, so they gravitated to these sectors. In each case, however, this came at a cost. The oil industry alone among post-oil industries required actual work out of its Kuwaiti employees. Thus, the Shia achieved their security but only at a price.

Hence, the Kuwait of oil, largely recreated its pre-oil social structure, even to the point of continuing its most obvious weakness.

I. Affluence and Its Discontents

Affluence, of course, creates its own problems and issues. Some of these stem from the pure need to spend money and deal with the effects of its spending.

Westernization became an issue. The Asil tended to have a more worldly outlook anyway simply due to their travels. Enormous wealth expanded the opportunities for travel. Specifically, Kuwaitis toured Europe and United States and sent their children to Western universities. Less well-connected Kuwaitis toured the Arab world. These travels, naturally, had an impact, so much so that some Arabs claim the Kuwaitis became "de-cultured," more at home in the world of fashionable Paris and London than that of Kuwait City.

In fact, the Kuwaitis took decided steps to limit the impact of travel. The Asil traveled in an upper class world that often bore little relationship to the country that they visited. A person becomes accustomed to living at the Hilton, not de-cultured. Travel, moreover, became a family event in which, in typical Kuwaiti fashion, the family became the regulating factor.

Kuwaiti students abroad tended to live together in small enclaves. Single men and college boys, of course, might go a little wild while abroad, but this happened even in the days of sail, and an extremely high percentage returned home to marry nice Kuwaiti girls and live in a largely traditional, if more luxurious, manner. Young Kuwaiti women, moreover, could not typically travel alone anyway, even to college, and tended to act as the anchor on any Westernizing impulses (Al-Thakeb, 1982; Al-Thakeb, 1985).

At home, however, Kuwaitis could not help but encounter foreign ways and impulses in a Kuwait with a 50% foreign population. Having said this, however, surprisingly little interaction took place with these foreigners. Since Kuwaiti life centers around the family, and few Kuwaitis married outsiders, almost all foreign contact centered around business relations, usually with the foreigner as subordinate (Longva, 1997).

Probably the only important exception concerned the maids, and, in this instance, the foreigners in contact with the Kuwaitis remained in comfortably inferior positions. The very low pay offered and humble positions of maids, moreover, tended to draw less educated, more docile people from the countries of origin. Kuwaitis, then, could continue to live the life they enjoyed centered around the family and the diwaniyyah, a men's gathering, simply on a far more lavish scale.

Still, some foreign ideas filtered into Kuwait. Particularly, Western ideas about women's rights and liberalism in general aroused interest and some suspicion. The Islamic revival in Iran, another country dealing with Westernization, found some avid listeners among the Shia, especially the lower classes (Wright, 1988). During the hey-day of Nasserism (1955-1971), also, Arab Nationalism filtered into sleepy Kuwait.

A number of studies support the notion that Kuwaitis changed relatively little. Some of the studies already cited showing the relative lack of modernization of the Arabs in general center on Kuwaitis and Palestinians. Al-Salem and Farah's study of Kuwaiti University students, for example, concluded (Farah, 1984):

Not only are these students religious; they are also traditional. Even Western-educated technocratic elites, though probably less traditional than their parents, are nevertheless traditional people with modern wrappings. (p. 174, emphasis added)

Farah concludes that scholars misread modernization by considering it as an "either or proposition." Rather, cultures pick and choose from the "package of modernity" the aspects they wish to add to their tradition. Interestingly, Farah draws this conclusion based on Kuwait and Lebanon, and the Lebanese enjoy a reputation in the Middle East as the most Westernized Arabs (Al-Salem & Farah, 1976).

Dr. An-Naquib (1988) offers a more critical view of modern Kuwait, critical enough that Kuwait banned his book and imprisoned him. Dr. An-Naquib, however, does not propose anything particularly new in terms of analysis of the past but rather his prescriptions for the future. He argues that until the birth of Kuwait, the entire Arabian Peninsula exhibited what he terms the "Arab Mercantile mode of production," showing the following characteristics (An-Naquib, 1988):

(a) mudarabah [carrying] trade;
(b) tribal institutions as the channel for the redistribution of the income;
(c) the mechanics of monetary exchanges;
(d) seasonal arrangements which controlled economic activities [i.e. pearling]. (p. 117)

Dr. An-Naquib, working along dependency theory lines, argues that the rentier state continues the work of British imperialism and makes the country submissive to foreign powers. Like the Saudi Oil Minister quoted at the beginning of this chapter, he views Kuwait as an artificial creation designed to promote the interests of the Al-Sabah family through collusion with imperial powers.

The analysis above should show some of the problems with his argument. First, one can certainly name instances, such as the land purchases mentioned in the next chapter and the job-creating provisions of the Constitution, in which the Emir intervened expressly to help the Kuwaitis. Second, one can consider the modern Kuwaiti state, even down to layers of classes, as resting on historical foundations. Third, though they might argue about the size of their share, few Kuwaitis voice much dissatisfaction with the rentier state.

J. Walls Built on Sand: the Foreigners' Dilemma

An important change brought about by oil wealth concerns the rising numbers of foreigners present in Kuwait. As noted before, Kuwait always included a hierarchical, segmented society. The large influx of non-Arabs and particularly "bachelors"(azub) constituted something of a new phenomenon and, as the next chapter will show, a new challenge as well.

Anh Longva recently published an important book about Kuwait society entitled Walls Built on Sand (1997). In it she depicts Kuwait’s society as dangerously divided along national and class lines, which often coincide. Each national community lives its own life and only relates to the others for business reasons; as she states (Longva, 1997):

I suggest that what many of these studies [of Kuwait] fail to capture is that Kuwait is a plural society....In these plural societies, communal fragmentation and individual atomization are extreme: people experience no sense of belonging to an "organic whole" and everyone looks forward, more or less eagerly, to returning "home." (p. 3)

Of course, the Kuwaitis, especially the Asil, themselves remain an important exception to this statement since they consider Kuwait home. While one can argue that they certainly enjoy taking luxurious trips abroad and leaving Kuwait temporarily, the percentage of Asil actually expressing any interest in leaving Kuwait permanently probably ranges at about 0.3%. More reasonably Longva argues the presence of a number of people who do long for home affects the Kuwaitis as well, a subject worth further exploration.

Longva's (1997) title refers to the original walls of Kuwait, closed nightly to protect the tiny population of the traditional city and a symbol of the closure of Kuwait to foreign influences. Longva sees the Walls’ continuation in nationality laws, social beliefs, and informal prescriptions that lead to an un-natural division between Kuwaitis and foreigners, who live lives with very different goals (Longva, 1997):

For the non-Kuwaitis the major preoccupation and projects were centered around life improvement, while for the Kuwaitis they were centered around nation building. My purpose is to show that the two projects closely impinged on each other: the non-Kuwaitis migrated and worked under circumstances peculiar to a country in the throes of material and identity change, while the Kuwaitis modernized and built their national consciousness against a background of substantial labor importation. (p. 9)

Correctly, she notes that divisions of society predate the arrival of the vast influx of foreign, guest workers to distinctions between shepherding tribes (Ismael, 1982) and camel herders. In other words, as indicated before, the stratified nature of society arose organically, not merely through the arrival of foreigners. This somewhat undermines her argument since it argues against the relative importance of the foreign arrivals.

However, the sheer numbers of foreigners in comparison to Kuwaitis does amount to something new in Kuwaiti history. Since 1957 these foreigners constitute the majority of the population of Kuwait, despite the wholesale granting of Kuwaiti nationality to nearby Bedouin tribes, as the following figures indicate (Longva, 1997):

Another important point about these immigrants concerns the composition of the ethnic groups.

Derived from ILO, Rapp0rt informal sur les travailleurs migrants du Koweit touches par la crise due Golfe, 1991 (International Labor Organization Informal Report on the Migrant Workers Affected by the 1991 Gulf Crisis)

The second to the last column lists the total number of families in that category, and the last lists the dependency ratio. A "dependent," as the name implies, depends on another for his sustenance. Hence, this category would include children as well as retired persons. A single worker, thus, would have zero dependents. This researcher created the last column by (a) subtracting the working population from the total and (b) dividing the results of this subtraction, the dependents, by the working population.

Logically, one would expect at least one dependent per each two workers, i.e., a dependency ratio of .5 per laborer, meaning one child per each couple. One might, for a lower estimate, assume a dependency ratio of .3, i.e., one child or elderly person per couple along with a single worker. Instead, the ratios work out to considerably less than this. Except for the Indians and the Palestinians/Jordanians, all groups do not reach even the lower figure. The second column, which shows the percentage of the population working, ranges between 75% (Indian) and 87% (Thai) and reinforces the same impression: a population of single workers.

In contrast, note the figures for the Palestinians/Jordanians (3.64 dependents per laborer) and, albeit to a much lesser degree, the Indians (0.33). With these figures, one sees a community, either parents and children, or workers and their parents. Comparable dependency figures for the Kuwaitis range between 4.0 and 5.0.

From these figures, then, one gets a truer picture of the situation of foreigners. For most, Kuwait constitutes something between living as a contracted professional and a camp laborer. Their Kuwait experience has a definite beginning and ending, the length of the contract, and a definite goal: make and send as much money home as possible. Hence, as Longva notes, Kuwait now held a vast number of people "longing to go home," something different from Kuwait’s past and certainly different from the experiences of either the Kuwaitis themselves or, as the figures indicate, the Palestinian/Jordanians.

The foreigners came, as Kuwaitis always iterate, "by choice," and remained "by choice," and yet this "choice" did not always seem so clear-cut as first appears. For one thing, foreigners could not easily leave Kuwait. The typical foreigner, except for the highest level British and American, immediately surrendered his/her passport (Longva, 1997) upon arrival and did not see it again until the end of his/her contract. To assess the importance of this, recall that Kuwait borders Iraq and Saudi Arabia and nearly borders Iran, none of which would welcome someone fleeing Kuwait. Hence, leaving Kuwait meant leaving by plane or boat, either of which required having a passport. Even with passport in hand, many foreigners could not easily afford the trip home.

Nor did simply wishing to stay mean that a foreigner would stay. As the nationality list above indicates, many foreigners arrived to a culture very different from their own. This created the possibility of a making a social error resulting in a quick deportation (Longva, 1997):

The phrase "customary criteria of an ordinary man's behavior" was generally taken to mean the customs and norms that were common among the Kuwaitis. Thus moral norms were cultural norms prevailing among the native population....[There were] two main dangers [of which one was committing a] "cultural gaffe"...[and the other] that the sponsor would use the rather vague notion of a violation of cultural norms as a pretext to get rid of troublesome employees. (p. 98)

The expatriate's experience in Kuwait depended largely on the often uncertain whims of his employer who also held the key to reaching his/her financial goals. To make a fair appraisal, the expatriate’s relationship with his Kuwaiti "kafil," sponsor, could range anywhere from that of near-equality down to near-slavery.

The lowest-level foreigners lived grim lives indeed. Even among Kuwaitis, stories of manual-laboring, foreign workers receiving no salary for months circulated freely and appeared in the newspapers. The average, bottom-level laborer earned a government-mandated, minimum salary of KD 20 ($66/month), which meant living in an apartment or labor camp shared with many others of the same gender, riding the busses, and saving a little, as little as KD 2, $6.60, to send home to Egypt, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, or the Philippines. A maid might earn even less, though she typically enjoyed guaranteed room and board from her employer. The worst treated workers one writer termed "modern slaves" (Plascov, 1992, p. 75).

On the other hand, high-level British and American workers lived lives of relative ease. Generally sent or sponsored by a company, they typically received an apartment as part of their overseas allowance (ADM 18, 1998). Salaries for teachers ran slightly above American after-tax norms, but salaries for engineers and oil technicians ranged, even after taxes, above that of American-based engineers. Still, even Westerners worried about deportation (Longva, 1997) though sometimes Westerners tended more to fear the loss of their end-of-contract indemnity than their job. Stories circulated, even among engineers, of sudden, unintended departures.

Few mechanisms existed for protecting, let alone enhancing, the position and pay of the worker. The highest-level technical workers, Americans, British, and Indians, simply voted with their feet if unhappy. Well-educated Lebanese and Jordanians waited, often years, for Canadian or Australian citizenship. The average, low-level, unhappy worker, the Egyptian, Filipina, or Sri Lankan, could, however, neither strike, file grievances, nor leave. In fact, the workers' unions boasted Kuwaiti leadership. A popular joke perhaps best describes the low-level workers’ situation in Kuwait (Hubble, 1992): "The joke around the union halls where many foreign workers congregate is that if they formed a union to protect themselves from being deported, they would surely be deported" (p. 540).

The most important mechanism for resolving work-related problems proved "conciliation," i.e., talking to, bargaining with, one's sponsor. The Kuwait Times, an English language daily, had a question-and-answer column devoted to sponsorship. Longva (1997) concludes that the advice column, "nearly always opted for conciliation, placating their kafils as best they could, often by adopting a docile and subservient attitude" (p. 448). This author’s reading of the same column in the period from 1998-2002 generally confirms Longva’s conclusions. However, perhaps twenty-five percent of the time the column alluded to parts of the Kuwaiti Constitution (in Kennedy, 1998) which explicitly guaranteed worker rights, though whether the worker could obtain these rights remains a different story.

The new immigrants brought their own issues with them. The non-Arabs, except for the small number of Westerners, lived in a position of decided inferiority. They spoke little Arabic and, except for the maids, lived apart from the Kuwaitis. The Palestinians and Egyptians exerted a more important influence on the Kuwaitis. Both filled the positions of school teachers in government and private schools as well as those of high and mid-level corporate managers. The following quotation, notably printed in a Cairo (Al-Jumbriya Daily, Cairo, 2 May, 1981 quoted in Tetreault, 1992), not Kuwait, accurately summarizes the private opinion of many Arab workers:

[The Egyptians are made to feel like] aliens who should be grateful for being supplied with work. They, in turn, secretly accuse their "hosts" of making their fortunes at the expense and on the back of those who carried the burden of the war with Israel....[They think that the] Gulf's modernization...should be attributed to their own hard labor rather than to the local dynasties.

The Palestinian labor situation holds enough importance that it merits a separate chapter. Interestingly, after the Gulf War, and expulsion of most of the Palestinians, Kuwait came to rely more on non-Arabic labor. This made the society one of "foreigners" to a greater degree as it increased the cultural and linguistic differences between themselves and the Kuwaitis (Longva, 1997):

The total number of foreigners does not show another important aspect of the new immigrants’ lives, communal fragmentation. The country hired workers of certain countries to do certain tasks and let them live in certain places. Those tasks, those areas, and that social status became associated with them. As one American writer (Hubble, 1992) ironically summarizes:

Kuwait is like a corporation that only hires top workers; Bangladeshis drive the city buses (on which the foreigners are the only passengers), Iranians man the oil platforms, Egyptians teach high school, Somalis labor on construction sites, Filipinos clean house, and Americans clear unexploded ordnance. (p. 540)

Partly by design of the Kuwaitis, and partly by chance, the foreigners’ lives became a kind of parody of the tribalism of their hosts. With the exceptions of the maids, foreigners lived in national groups, including, at the bottom level, work camps. Foreigners spent the vast amount of their free time with their fellow nationals, a factor encouraged by housing policies, and they involved themselves in activities by national group, such as the Filipino Basketball League, the Malayam (Indian) Society, and the Goan Poets League. Merely glancing at a newspaper advertising weekly activities for all of these different communities seems to give credence to Longva’s (1997) concept of communal fragmentation.

However, in a society that values family and relationship, these foreign "tribes" remained relatively weak and inconsequential, particularly from the point of view of the Kuwaitis and other Arabs. If Arab society revolves around family, the lack of family made the foreigners seem incomplete. If Arab society values age, the almost total lack of older people made the foreigners seem insubstantial. If Arab society values personal relationships, relationships with foreigners inevitably revolved around business and placed the foreigners in the inferior position. Further, some groups suffered the additional stigma of either not following Islam or, even worse, non-inclusion among the "peoples of the book," Jews, Christians, and Muslims, such as the Sri Lankans. From the point of view of a tribal society, then, one could view the groups of foreigners as ranging from rival (the Palestinians) to inferior (the Indians) to vastly inferior (the Bangladeshis).

In their turn, the foreigners, as Longva indicates, maintained an outlook centered on their lives and families back home, so much so that to some the events of the day in Delhi or Cairo seemed more real than the events in Kuwait City. This world back home, of course, paradoxically, brought them to Kuwait in the first place and would, in the end, accept them back, preferably after they earned the amount they needed. Especially among the lowest-level workers, the manual-laboring Egyptians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshi, a defeated, emasculated, vacant facial expression often seemed the norm, at least while in public. Yet Kuwait did not lack for foreigners of any of these nationalities wanting to come and work in Kuwait. Again, these generalities do not include the Palestinians.

In this respect, then, the foreign "tribes," or parodies of tribes, brought something generally new to Kuwait. They remained no more assimilated to Kuwait than the Bedouin thirty years earlier.

K. The Oil Change?

While undoubtedly post-oil Kuwaitis enjoyed having a lot more money, one can argue whether any deeper changes actually occurred in Kuwait. To consider this, recall some of the generalizations made about traditional Kuwait: poor, religious, isolated, hierarchical, family-oriented, and distinct. In most respects, all of these statements still hold true for Kuwait except the first. Shafeeq Ghabra (1997) takes the position that substantive changes occurred which "have polarized Kuwaiti society along certain traditional divides: city versus desert, Shia versus Sunni, old money versus new money, men versus women" (p. 360).

Yet his analysis above also lends equal credence to the opposite position. Ghabra holds that the rapid change actually made traditional distinctions between classes and groups in society more intense; these divisions followed cleavage lines already present. It bears mention, in this context, of what did not happen in Kuwait: a total breakdown of traditional divisions of society into more modern ones aligned by professions. Instead, the traditional hierarchy remained almost intact, if supplemented. As the following sections will show, about the most significant change concerned the rise of "new money," and, at every turn, society allied against this phenomenon.

Significantly, Ghabra (1997) refers to an analogy from the move beyond the traditional city walls when he concludes that, "Many Kuwaitis moved outside the historical walls...which had symbolized their isolation and fear of the outside world" (p. 360). These walls re-occur in the analogy in Walls Built on Sand, which suggests that social barriers took the place of the physical ones. The walls remained.

While one could dispute the religiosity of rich Kuwait, residents held fast to Islam. If they lacked the strict orthodoxy of the Saudis, they also lacked it before the advent of oil. Further, they tended to regard their oil wealth in much the same manner as they had held much simpler earthly rewards in the past, as God's gift.

As to isolation, certainly more people came to rich Kuwait and wrote about it, and more Kuwaitis went to other places. As the analysis above shows, however, the impact tended to concentrate more on the surface level, in business transactions. The Kuwaitis became insulated by a wall of servants within which traditional Kuwait largely remained. The servant, whether at home or abroad, deferred to Kuwaiti norms, not the reverse.

Further, the basic class structure remained in place. If anything, new citizenship laws that tied material rewards to classes of citizenship tended to reinforce the hierarchy. Sticking to one's "place in life" became more important, not less.

A new Kuwait, then, emerged from the wealth of oil. On the surface, it seemed changed, but beneath it did not change markedly, at least as far as this writer can discern today. The group most affected by change, and perhaps most fearful of it, the Asil, struggled but maintained their place in the hierarchy and another new group, the foreigners, came to occupy a new position outside of or beneath society. The following chapter will turn to the Asil situation.

Onward to Chapter 5: The Asil, Kuwait's Upper Class
Back to Chapter 3: Arab Culture, Comparison and Contrasts to the West

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