INSHALLAH:



A PRIVATE SCHOOL FOR PRIVILEGED KUWAITI
YOUTH ATTEMPTS TO STRADDLE A CULTURAL DIVIDE (continued)



Chapter 05 THE ASIL, THE BELEAGUERED UPPER CLASS

 

 

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V. THE ASIL, THE BELEAGUERED UPPER CLASS



A. The Asil: A Civil Society?

The previous chapter served to outline some of the history of Kuwait. This history concentrated on the part played by the Asil for three important, but different, reasons. First, the Asil played a large part in the development of Kuwait. Indeed, one can argue that, if one includes the Al-Sabah as part of the group, the Asil define Kuwait. A second reason consists in the fact that this group dominates the school community of Al-Dharra Madressor, a subject treated in chapters seven through sixteen. Third, the Asil constitute not only a community in Kuwait, but, some scholars contend, a "civil society," as suggested by the inclusion of Jill Crystal’s Asil-centered "Civil Society in the Arabian Gulf" in Boston University Professor Augustus Norton’s anthology Civil Society in the Middle East (1996).

However, the term "civil society" requires some serious qualification when applied to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or Gulf Arabs in general. As indicated previously, ideas and organization in Kuwait tend to arrange themselves along the lines of hierarchy and relationship. Hence, the resulting society by no means ranks everyone equally. Thus, one must contrast the essentially inequalitarian, family-based tribal society of Kuwait with that of a Western country. It stretches the definition of "civil society" to compare a tribal primary election in Kuwait, in which everyone does not rank equally, with a club meeting in the United States in which, except for office earned by election, the opposite principle holds true. Of course, this returns to the same sort of contrasts one can make between the sheikocracy and the bureaucracy. Still, one might consider the Asil version of "civil society" as fitting into the general definition if only because it grants everyone a voice.

Another point of caution in using the accepted civil society (Norton, 1996) definition concerns the very exclusiveness of the proposed civil society in Kuwait. In fact, Asil history features persistent attempts to exclude almost everyone present in Kuwait, including the Shia, the Bedouin, the Palestinians, and the foreigners, from formal democracy and even the informal "civil society" of meetings, organizations, etc. which, for foreigners, proceed only within heavily controlled parameters. If exclusion of others does not rule out the presence of a civil society, a scholar might plausibly argue that a family of two constitutes a civil society. These two qualifications suggest the need for some reconsideration of the application and development of the civil society concept as it applies to the Arab world.

The resulting "civil society" in Kuwait much depends upon the nationality rankings mentioned in the previous chapter. For instance, one can rank the communities within Kuwait, roughly speaking, on their cohesion as tribes in the Arab sense and on their largely corresponding ability to support a civil society. Consider the following as a "civil society" scale or, alternately, as a means of describing the completeness of the tribes depicted:

Authors such as Tetreault (1995) and Crystal (1995) avoid some of these conceptual difficulties by not even claiming that civil society exists outside of the Kuwaitis. The following sections will deal with the Asil, a group of Kuwaitis that, considered in isolation, reasonably fit the civil society concept.

As explained previously, the Asil made the initial desert migration from Saudi Arabia with the Al-Sabah. A group of families, they can trace their origins back to immigrants from the Bani Utub confederation. Though that entity no longer exists, the families themselves continue to exist and to trace their origins back to the same mythical founder. This not only gives them a sense of continuity but also a sense of superiority to other Kuwaiti passport holders. Thus Crystal (1996) maintains that, "The most important tribal social distinction is between the long-settled (although once tribal) Bani Utub families...and the desert families of more recent nomadic origin, historically client to the Al-Sabah" (p. 269).

Traditionally, the Asil considered politics and finance as their particular domains. In fact, historically, the two went hand-in-hand since the Emir’s political decisions often depended on the merchants’ willingness to continue paying customs duties (Crystal, 1989; Ismael, 1982).

However, the discovery of oil threatened this relationship, indeed, the very survival of the class. A crisis erupted in 1938 that not only led to the survival of the class but also led to adoption of (limited) democracy in the Gulf.



B. The Parliament of 1938.

Kuwaiti history books call 1938 "The Year of the Majilis (Parliament)." To the merchants themselves, this forms an event of particular significance, just as the Battle of Jahra does to the Kuwaiti-passport population as a whole. Kamal Salih’s article "The 1938 Kuwait Legislative Article" deals with the events in considerable detail. For the sake of clarity and to avoid spelling confusion, henceforth this analysis will refer to the institution created as "Parliament" instead of the Arabic phrase "Majilis Al Ulema."

In 1938, desperate times provoked desperate measures. The pearl trade had collapsed. The merchants consulted the British Consul who, at least implicitly, supported the idea of a more democratic government with the Emir sharing some power. Meanwhile, Iraqi radio continued nightly broadcasts attacking the Emir. The propaganda from Iraq had something of a ring of truth in sleepy Kuwait as well as eerily presaging the messages sent in the summer of 1990 (in Salih, 1992):

It pains Iraq to behold on her borders an Arab territory with an excellent geographical position and yet in a backward state, lacking modern systems of education, health, and economic organization....Iraq is in a position to help turn the backward principality of Kuwait into a prosperous, progressive, and civilized country. (pp. 70, 72)

At this time, the Emir received the first oil-revenue check. In the eyes of the merchants, their paying customs duties constituted a kind of sharing with the Al-Sabahs. Now, they reasoned, he ought to share the oil check with them. Other issues divided the Emir and merchants, but the economic conditions formed the most important division. As Salih notes (Salih, 1992):

The reform movement was mainly instigated by the business oligarchy...[who were] very critical of the system of state monopolies and of corrupt practices of the custom officials. This group felt it had the right to share power with the ruler since it shouldered a great portion of the public expense [such as through funding the] Al-Mubarak School. (p. 70)

The Emir, at first, gave in to their demands and allowed for selection of a Parliament with broad powers. His cousin, later emir, headed the new Parliament. The prominent Shia businessmen, suspicious of so many prominent Sunni in the Parliament, did not join. Significantly, nearly every family represented in this Parliament has descendants in Al-Dharra Madressor.

The Parliament, over time, became more and more strident in its demands. The Shia encouraged the Emir to move against the Parliament. When the Parliament demanded the Emir hand over the oil check, he refused. The Parliament went into virtual siege mode in its building. The Emir's tribal allies, some of whom happened to be present in the city, voiced their readiness to fight if called upon.

At this point, it appeared that all would end peacefully as the Emir persuaded the Parliament to leave its building. Unfortunately, Muhammad Al-Munayes returned from a trip to Iraq where he had heard the latest anti-Emir propaganda. In the streets of Kuwait, he loudly and publicly denounced the Emir and declared Kuwait a republic. A fight broke out (Crystal, 1992):

Muhammad Al-Munayes, a small grain merchant and erstwhile water carrier [was captured]....Yusif Al-Marzuk and Muhammad Al-Qatami tried to obtain his release...Qatami fired on the police, but missed; they returned the fire, killing Al-Qatami and wounding Al-Marzuk....Ahmad [the Emir] intervened personally to restore order, sustaining a slight injury in the process....Other dissidents, Abdullah Al-Sager at their head, had already seen the direction the rebellion was taking and fled to Iraq.... (p. 48)

While condemning Al-Munayes, the Emir and the Kuwaitis considered Iraq the root cause of their difficulties (Salih, 1992):

He [Al-Munayes] was tried, convicted as a traitor, and sentenced to death, the public execution taking place the same day. It was felt in Kuwait...[that the Iraqis] had the lives of two dead Kuwaitis on their hands, and that, as far as was known, no internal disorder and bloodshed of this kind had ever taken place. (p. 94)

Emir Ahmad dissolved Parliament. Furthermore, he made it known that he also blamed the British Council (Salih, 1992) for the conflict with the Parliament.

It tells something about Kuwait that the Emir did not retaliate against those who allied against him other than Al-Munayes, whom the Emir executed essentially to appease the crowd. Eventually, he allowed Al-Sager's son to return, and he made no moves to confiscate the leaders’ property. Al-Munayes' son and Al-Sager's son both became important MPs; indeed Al-Sager’s grandson is a current leader of the opposition. Qatami’s son became an important opposition leader (ADM 19, 1998) and, in his turn, spent some time in prison for outspoken criticism of the government, yet, paradoxically, he remained a good friend of the Emir (Aarto, Eisenhoeffer, & Termeulen, 1992). This shows, yet again, the very clannishness of the Asil. Note, also, that descendants of all of these families, Al-Sager, Al-Munayes, Al-Marzuk [Marzuki], and Qatami, attend ADM.

Significantly, the Saudi government, which never liked the idea of a democracy, voiced its public support of the Emir. The following letter appeared in the Meccan newspaper, Umm Al-Qura , as a response to Iraqi criticism of the Kuwaitis (in Salih, 1992):

His Majesty the King [of Saudi Arabia], being a true and faithful Arab and a master of Arab fidelity, is bound to be a faithful guardian to the prominent and notable Arab families....They [the Iraqis] committed a crime against the kind Emir, who had treated them with our traditional Arab hospitality....[The Iraqi writer] knows nothing about the Nejd and Nejdis. There is a great difference between our brains and the brains of this Basra correspondent, who has already proved himself to have no brain or any common sense.... We Nejdis pay no heed to what you call "Modern Civilization" which is more or less against our religion and moral law. The correspondent should have considered the fact that we prefer our present governments and beloved king to any other system in the world. Thus there is a great difference between the writer of the message and ourselves, thank God [inshallah]. (p. 95)

This bears examination for two reasons. First, and obviously, it shows the relative conservatism of the Saudis and, by extension, the Kuwaitis. Second, the author extends the Arab sense of family in two different respects: (1) he considers the Kuwaitis as part of the "family" of Nejdis and (2) he considers Kuwait as part of the family "fathered" by Saudi Arabia. It shows, yet again, "me and my brother against the next village."

The Parliament of 1938 formed a fundamental event in maintaining the Asil sense of identity. Though they failed, temporarily, in their attempt to force a more democratic government on the Emir, the event reinforced their sense of cohesion (Crystal, 1989). For that reason, Jill Crystal concludes that the event formed a seminal event for the Asil (Crystal, 1992):

It was the rulers' memory of the merchants’ oppositional potential that persuaded them to buy the merchants out of politics rather than simply drive them out. Their reluctance to bring other groups in, a reluctance that cost them some support in 1938, was perhaps in the long run a strength, since it preserved their political identity. [The revolt formed] a national myth, a myth of merchant equality and democratic opposition....It was a merchant myth, that the ruling (not royal) family had come to power almost by accident when the others left it behind during the pearling season. (pp. 57-58)

Yet, like many myths, this one holds at least some truth. The merchants in the Parliamentary movement functioned, as they always had, as a check and balance on the Emir. They derived their voice, however, as much from their social status, fellow Asil, as they did from economic power, and in times of crisis the two, Emir and Asil, would draw together.

The Asil continued to exist because they constituted the peers, rivals, and relatives of the Emir. Though they disagreed with the Emir in this instance, in the end both sides took their disagreement as a quarrel between peers, not a "revolution" as the Iraqis would have liked. While the two might sometimes quarrel, they eventually sided together in the face of outsiders.

This solidarity, between the Asil including the Al-Sabah, and the Asil excluding the Al-Sabah, met its first challenge with the first oil check. As the oil money continued to flow to the Emirs, the Asil struggled until they found their particular niche in the rentier state.




C. The Asil as Part of the Rentier State

Prior to the advent of oil, the merchants enjoyed a close, if not always harmonious, relationship with the ruler. The initial discovery of oil changed this relationship. For one thing, the Emir, but not the merchants, directly benefited from the oil checks so that his wealth soon exceeded theirs by an entire order of magnitude (Tetreault, 1991). The Emir no longer needed the income from customs duties, which he soon eliminated (Crystal, 1989).

As the oil money continued to pour into Kuwait during the 1950s and 1960s, the merchants struggled to find a place within the economy of the rentier state. A new range of economic opportunities lay open to them but also to potential rivals. As a minister of state commented (Al-Najri in Tetreault, 1991):

Merchants started to move to being customers of the state....They had to decide whether to enter the new system or sit back and watch. Will they be able to keep their strength?...So there is a total change in the balance of power. You either get incorporated or left behind, especially with the expansion of the government apparatus. This created a new breed of potential merchants who started to appear either by being connected to the (ruling) family, or because they were directors of a ministry. The merchants witnessed that change. They had the choice to push and go into it and compete with others or just to sit, not happy to compete because they think this is not their domain. The new breed was their former servants, laborers in their own establishments. They [the old merchants] all came in. (p. 568)

At this critical juncture, the Emir could have eliminated the merchants completely by simply handing out state contracts and licenses to other Kuwaitis or even his own family as the Al-Thani did in Qatar (Crystal, 1989). In fact, however, the Emirs apparently did everything possible to guarantee the survival of this class. At one point, the Emir sold enormous quantities of land to the merchants at nominal rates. As Kuwait City rapidly expanded, the Emir, in turn, repurchased these very acres at as much as 100 times their original prices. Surprisingly, this policy did not happen through governmental error or corruption but through deliberate policy, as the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the United States stated (Al-Ghousein in Frazier, 1969): "What may surprise you most about Kuwait is the way oil revenues are distributed....Sheik Abdullah simply decided to buy land from Kuwaiti owners and pay high prices for it" (p. 642).

The Emirs even went so far as to place a million pounds sterling of newly acquired oil wealth in the new National Bank of Kuwait (Tetreault, 1992), guaranteeing its success. Further, the Emir tacitly forbade his family from entering business (Crystal, 1989), effectively saving the private firms of the Asil families. The government even forgave the Asils' debts several times.

Crystal argues that the Al-Sabah allowed the Asil to continue to exist largely because the Al-Sabah had no other choice (Crystal, 1989, emphasis added):

The merchants survived as a class because of their high degree of social cohesion (intermarriage and visiting patterns, distinct merchant culture) and pre-oil polarization...giving them a nuisance value which allowed them to negotiate a new economic niche.... [They] traded their pre-oil influence for economic survival. (p. 261)

Her explanation, however, does not totally explain the Asil's survival. It makes more sense to refer to the fact that the Al-Sabah shared a common origin and sense of solidarity with the other Asil. This explains Mubarak’s behavior and that of the Emir in purchasing their land. Nor does the relationship go only in one direction. When the prices of oil temporarily slumped in the 1950s, and the Emir suddenly went insolvent and even considered abdication, the merchants raised the funds to loan him (Crystal, 1992).

In this instance, the position and actions of the Al-Thani in Qatar form an interesting contrast. The Al-Thani came from more humble origins than the Al-Sabah. Essentially, the British elected them as Emirs for then impoverished Qatar. As a result, the local merchants looked down upon the Al-Thani as upstarts. When Qatar began to get oil checks, the Al-Thani felt no obligation to these merchants and kept the majority of the lucrative state business contracts and licenses within the family (Crystal, 1989), running the merchants out of business. In contrast, the Asil in Kuwait not only survived, but flourished.

In a rentier state, beneficiaries can make money in two ways, directly or indirectly. Only the ruling family, the Al-Sabah, received direct benefit in the form of checks written to them. The Asil merchants did not, of course, receive money in this way. Rather, they received money from two channels, government employment and government contracts, such as the repurchase agreements above.

Not surprisingly, the sons, and sometimes daughters, of the merchant class quickly filled the most important positions in the bloated governmental bureaucracy (Aarto, Eisenhoeffer, & Termeulen, 1991). Crystal (1989) concludes:

The local bureaucratic elites bear a strong familial and social resemblance to pre-oil merchant elites. This is because the traders were the first to educate their sons abroad....The bureaucracy may be giving the merchants back in a new form what they lost with oil-independent control over a larger population. (p. 439)

Perhaps more importantly, the Asil became the contractors for the companies doing business with the government and for foreign companies intent on entering the emerging Kuwaiti consumer market (Crystal, 1989). Not surprisingly, the same merchant families that once ran the pearling fleets became involved in a whole host of business ventures having little to do with fishing or oysters (Crystal, 1992):

Important merchant ventures of the 50s included National Bank of Kuwait, Kuwait Airways, Kuwait Cinema, Gulf Fisheries, and the Kuwait Oil Tankers Company. The overlap between the pre-oil elite and the board members of these modern firms was striking as is readily apparent in a comparison of the names of trading families and board members. (p. 76)

At the same time, the new commercial laws favored Kuwaitis and particularly favored those, like the Asil, who already enjoyed the commercial connections to attract foreign capital, including a new commercial law requiring 50% Kuwaiti ownership of all commercial ventures (Kennedy, 1992). In many cases, Kuwaitis contributed little more than their names to such ventures.

The Asil, then, moved into two different roles within the new rentier state, as top-level bureaucrats and as those running retail operations created by oil wealth. In some instances, as noted above, the Asil started their own businesses, often with the help of government-granted monopolies. In other instances, they became the import contractors with major corporations such as Ford, General Motors, all of which required local partners to set up their dealerships. The Asil, having the local contacts, i.e., the wastah, and the funds, quickly became important conduits for the new consumer culture. The next section will explore that role further.



D. The Asil Company, the Sheikocracy

To understand the Asil requires some understanding of the typical Asil business, which meets the definition of Ali’s sheikocracy. In this respect, one can consider the old merchant firms, even pre-oil, as sheikocracies. To recall Ali’s description (Ali, 1995):

The characteristics of sheikocracy include hierarchical authority, rules and regulations contingent on the personality and power of the individuals who make them, an ‘open-door’ policy, subordination of efficiency to human relations and personal connections, indecisiveness, informality among lower-level managers, and a generally patriarchal approach. Nepotism is often evident in the selection of upper-level managers, but qualifications are emphasized in the selection of middle- and lower-level personnel. Chain of command, scalar principles, and division of labor are also characteristics of the sheikocracy. They are not as strictly observed as in the West. (p. 7)

A sheikocracy places those charged with informal authority within the family or tribe in similar places within the formal business hierarchy. Reinforcement for authority, then, comes from traditional relationships, not formal bureaucratic rank.

As indicated previously, one can classify traditional Kuwaiti family firms in this manner, yet in distinct contrast to the sheikly bureaus, Kuwaiti family firms predate oil and experienced considerable success. This success, as distinguished from the wasteful inefficiency of the Kuwaiti bureaucracy, occurred for three different reasons. First, the success of the company coincided with family success, and the family allotted the necessary resources to maintain "face" in the community. Second, the firms enjoyed success because the highest-ranking members possessed wastah that they could use to further the aims of the firm. Third, the private firms after oil generally hired cheaper, often superior, foreign labor, rather than Kuwaitis.

Since the oil industry, per se, employed relatively few people, family-owned firms continued to dominate the post-oil economy. Consider the following figures.

A full 86.3% of the firms fall under the categories of sole proprietorships (single-owner) and partnerships, a figure not entirely different from comparable figures for the United States. In the United States, though, sole proprietorships remain relatively small firms, and joint stock companies employ over 90% of all workers. In contrast, in Kuwait, the sole proprietorships and partnerships employed a full 90.4% of all workers.

In this respect, the small size of Kuwait, 2 million people or so, makes a difference. A Kuwaiti firm does not need as much capital as a larger market would require. Thus, the family firm dominates the Kuwaiti market, allowing Kuwaitis to continue in their preferred practice of doing business with their relatives (Al-Thakeb, 1982; 1984) rather than resorting to selling stock.

Given the lower salaries typically offered by these firms (Al-Qudsi, 1989) and the Kuwaiti preference for easy, high-paying government jobs, one can come to another conclusion: in most cases, these family businesses contained a few Kuwaitis at the top supported by foreign laborers at the levels below (Ali, 1991).

Asil involvement with these firms varied in intensity. In some cases, as explained in the following chapter on the Palestinians, the Asil did little more than supply their name to the venture. In some cases, they provided all of the capital and actively managed the firm. In either event, the firm generally bore their family name, Behbehani Electric, The Al-Sharifa Center, Mais Al-Ghanim restaurant, etc., so that the owning family maintained a high interest in the firm’s continued profitability.

Ali (and partners) did a study of both the Kuwaiti managers and of managers in Kuwait, which would include non-Kuwaitis, usually Palestinians and Egyptians. He describes these Asil managers, unsurprisingly, as competitive and yet traditional (Ali, Kishna, & Taqi, 1997):

They have developed a spirit of competition, sportsmanship, and entrepreneurship and at the same time have adhered to the traditional views of authority, recognition, and cohesiveness. Therefore, the Kuwaitis exhibit two contradictory values: a strong individualism on the one hand and a passionate attachment to primary (tribal, sectarian) groups on the other. (p. 629)

This individualism often results in consultative decision-making styles, which management scholars more commonly associate with Western, democratic, free-enterprise societies (Ali, Taqi, & Kishna, 1997, emphasis added):

In the matter of decision styles, our results provide strong support for the conceptual and empirical findings that the Arab culture nurtures consultative and participative tendencies....Delegative and autocratic styles were the least effective, an indication of an organizational pattern where superiors are less comfortable in either delegating authority or issuing dictates. Although the political environment is autocratic, the organizational environment is not. (p. 31)

This seems to contradict the traditionalism of the Kuwaitis in general and their hierarchialism mentioned previously. In fact, An-Naquib, a basically Arab nationalist writer, specifically criticizes Kuwaiti firms as just the opposite, decidedly undemocratic and authoritarian (An-Naquib, 1988):

There is no trace of democracy in [such] corporations, however, for relationships within the corporations are asymmetrical between the sheikly leaders within their families and the rich of the tribe or the tribal confederacy on the one hand, and the generality of members of the tribe on the other. (p. 126)

To make this more interesting, Ali’s findings do not differ when studying Kuwaiti managers and others simply managing in Kuwait, i.e., Egyptians, Palestinians, and other Arabs (Ali, Kishna, and Taki, 1989, 1997):

Seventy-seven percent of the participants were male; 68% were 40 years old or less. Fifty-two percent of the participants worked in the public sector, and the rest worked in the private (23%) and mixed sectors (25%). Sixty percent were senior managers. Fifty-eight percent were Kuwaitis, and the rest were Arab expatriates (mostly Egyptian and Syrian). In the past, most of the businesses in Kuwait were run by Palestinians and Iraqis, most of whom have been replaced by other Arab expatriates since the Kuwaiti crisis of 1990-1991...More important, there were no significant differences between the Kuwaiti and Arab expatriate participants. (p. 637)

If Ali finds the executives "consultative" in some studies and An-Naquib finds them "autocratic," in other studies Ali classifies the Arab executive’s decision-making style as "pseudo-consultative" (Ali, 1997a). In this decision-making style, the manager presents a decision while only pretending to consult with those under him. Thus, paradoxically, it seems that decision-making styles either must fluctuate considerably or require further consideration.

In reality, it seems that Western management decision-making classificatory terms simply do not easily describe a tribal society and its adjunct, the sheikocracy. Ali, the foremost scholar on Arab management thought, himself laments the lack of cohesion in Arab management thought (1995). A more adequate explanation requires considering the actual decision-making environment.

In the typical family firm, the family patriarch, the father or grandfather, holds the top position though two or three brothers may share a position. At the next level come the various sons or sometimes daughters, sons-in-laws, and possibly nephews who actively manage the company. The places below the Kuwaitis fall to foreigners, with Palestinians traditionally occupying the highest ranks. The non-Kuwaiti positions go to foreigners according to merit. The lowest ranks, the floor-sweepers, come from the lowest-ranking nationalities, the Filipinas, the Sri Lankans, and the Bangladeshis.

In reality, the sheikocracy at times partakes of all three decision-making styles. In some instances, indeed, the tribal company owner simply makes decisions and, place or formal authority notwithstanding, the others of the company do not challenge, a patriarchal or authoritarian decision-making style. On the other hand, those of approximately equal rank, or equal wastah, such as the brothers, may well consult in decision-making in a very democratic manner. Finally, when a Kuwaiti needs to gather the professional advice of someone better educated but of a lower social rank, the process may much resemble pseudo-consultation; the Kuwaiti, in this instance, prefers to consult to avoid losing face. Hence, a sheikocracy may use all three decision-making styles.

This forms a complete picture of an Asil company. Closely associated with the family itself, it obtains the highest commitment of family members. While wastah and birth account for the positions of some of the Kuwaitis, most employees, the foreigners, earn their position and must work to retain it. Further, most families, knowing their children will take over the business, devote their attention to preparing them for this task, which helps to explain their enrollment of their children in schools such as ADM, KAS, and KBS, a subject considered in chapters seven and eight.

Finally, in contrast to the sheikly bureau, the family company exists for decidedly different purposes. While the sheikly bureau hires as many as possible, the sheikocracy tries to keep expenses low. While the sheikly bureau often elicits little active interest on the part of its Kuwait workers and managers, an Asil sheikocracy forms a very vital part of Asil life for which the family members struggle, not only in the market place, but also in the places in which they can obtain and use wastah such as the Parliament. Their reputation in the community, after all, partly depends on the company itself.

Having described the economic institution of the sheikocracy, one can turn to the social and political life of the Asil.



D. Traditional People in Modern Wrappings

Two other important points about the Asil concern their political and social liberalism. The first arises out of the traditional role played by the Asil in politics as the counterweight to the Al-Sabah. They formed one of two Parliamentary blocs, along with the Shia, who outspokenly support female suffrage (Demick, 2000; Longva, 1993). However, here, as elsewhere, one must speak of relative liberalism.

One can describe the Asil as relatively liberal in terms of social values. For example, they generally opposed the expensive reconstruction of Kuwait University to divide the genders into separate classrooms. They believe in women’s education and women’s rights within limits. Still, as already suggested by the work of Al-Thakeb (1972; 1982; 1985), one should not confuse liberalism with Westernization as the following summarization about marriage implies (Al-Thakeb, 1985):

More and more people are entering marriage by their own free choice. The trend among these is to sign a marriage contract and then have a short engagement that allows the partners to become better acquainted.....[Still] girls must be virgins at the time of marriage, and love and dating in Western styles are considered likely to lead to premarital sexual relationships....relationships on the part of dependent females bring shame upon the family. (p. 578)

Al-Thakeb concludes that many Western ideas meet with little affection among the Kuwaitis (1985):

Resistance [to Western values] remains strong, however, with regards to certain aspects of that ideology, such as marriage through love and free choice, abandonment of the dowry, the weakening of kin ties and obligations, movement away from marriages between kin, the diminution of husbands' and parents' authority over wives and children, and equal rights in marriage and divorce. (p. 579)

Later sections of this chapter will show the relative liberalism of the Asil on certain aspects of Islam, but the Asil remained steadfast in their adherence to Islam. Indeed Tawfik Farah’s 1982 article, "Two Myths," tries to dispel two ideas he considers wrong: first that Kuwait stands on the verge of an Islamic revival and second that the Westernized classes experienced a lessening of faith in the first place (Farah, 1982, emphasis added):

Economic, technocratic, intellectual and political elites of Kuwait [now] use Islam in their daily speech. But there has been little if any change in the orientation of the masses. These masses have been and will likely continue to be devout Muslims....Some individuals have taken apart the modernization packages; others have wrapped themselves in a modern facade---no more. (p. 176)

The same holds true of Asil political views. They consistently opposed the extension of citizenship to the Bedouin and, of course, any end to the economic monopolies enjoyed by their own families. Indeed, many attribute their espousal of women’s suffrage as a means of getting Asil women to vote and counteract the Bedouin vote. When asked by a Westerner observer about the possibility of extending the vote to more long-time foreign residents (i.e., Palestinians), a leader of the Kuwaiti opposition and Al-Dharra parent replied, "This is wishful thinking" (Ahmad Al Noolah in Hubbell, 1992, p. 540).

Thus one returns to the previous appellation of the Asil as traditional people. If Asil abroad seemed to indulge a bit in Western vices, these instances had little effect on Asil Kuwait, which, in many ways, resembled a small town. Within that town, everyone knew everyone, and no behavior went unobserved. Strangers and strange ideas met with resistance, just as did Al-Munayes’s declaration of a republic.

Indeed, to many Asil, Westernization literally meant little more than the freedom to wear fashionable Western clothes, and hence Farah’s and Al-Thakeb’s fitting depiction of Kuwaitis as traditional people in modern clothing. This differentiation, however, will have importance later when discussing the Bedouin, whom one could describe as traditional people wearing traditional clothing.



E. Asil Civil Society: "Protected Spaces."

One can argue that, while the years since 1962 independence exhibited several suspensions of the Parliament, a relatively well-developed "civil society" did continue in Kuwait. The Asil, including the Al-Sabah as Asil, maintained and enjoyed that society almost exclusively (Crystal, 1996). While one can highlight the first Parliament as a single instance of Gulf democracy, it merely continues a basic tradition within Kuwait and, indeed, the Najdi region, in which, within certain contexts, individuals enjoy freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of discussion.

However, all of these freedoms come within the hierarchical context of Gulf society. Thus, as mentioned before, any Kuwaiti, by tradition, might approach the Emir with a petition (Frazier, 1969). A smarter Kuwaiti, however, would entrust such a petition to one of the great merchants, someone with wastah with the Emir, to whom the Emir might more readily listen.

Tetreault (1993), agreeing with Crystal that Kuwait indeed possesses a civil society, specifies three specific institutions in which this civil society can meet and flourish without state interference. Tetreault (1993) defines these as "protected spaces: physical domains and social organizations within them that institutionally, legally, and normatively are off-limits...[That] includes the home, but some parts of public space also enjoy relative protection from state intrusion" (p. 277)

She lists the mosque, the home, and the diwanniyah (Tetreault, 1993). While some students at Al-Dharra have very religious parents, relatively few Asil would say that the mosque functions as a protected space for them. They simply do not use it in that way. The other institutions she mentions, the diwanniyah and the home, have more importance. To this list, this author would add the chalet, which for some Asil functions as a third protected space in lieu of the mosque.

The "diwanniyah" (Kennedy, 1998; Tetreault, 1993) literally means a room, a meeting place for men. At the diwanniyah men sit around, drink coffee, and discuss. At a particularly wild diwanniyah, a bit of alcohol may circulate and men might even invite over female "entertainers."

In general, though, the diwanniyah consists of that room, the men, and the discussion. It combines some aspects of an Irish pub, a Puritan town meeting, and a Bedouin tribal gathering. While Tetreault (1993) claims that all diwanniyahs need a license, in fact, the diwanniyahs vary so much in their level of affluence and formality that the government could hardly track them all, and Human Rights Watch (2001) testifies as to their freedom from governmental interference. One Bedouin diwanniyah near this author’s place of residence consists of two old metal couches placed on an empty space in the back yard under the bare moonlight. However, the more affluent diwanniyahs meet in a large, plush, purpose-built room in the owner’s house. All diwanniyah meet at night, generally running well into the night. Men sit on the floor in this space, and they talk.

Like everything else in Kuwait, the diwanniyahs, of course, revolve around families and function in hierarchical fashion. As a man rises in importance and age, his diwanniyah rises in importance as do his invitations to more important diwanniyahs. However, his "rise," as in society, may have little to do with his abilities but result from his age and family ties. Interestingly, a male writer provides the best description (Farah, 1982, emphasis added) of this concept:

[The] diwanniya provides an arena for social intercourse and concomitantly serves the very vital function of providing a framework for settling disputes and arriving at decisions...A man cannot really choose a diwanniya; he is born into one....[The] structure is simple: men sit in a loose circle, drink tea and coffee, and talk.... [The diwaniyyah] is where "wastah," connections or influence, become tangible or felt. (p. 171, emphasis added)

The Emir holds his own diwanniyah which functions much as an informal Cabinet, yet he himself might drop in on the diwanniyahs of his Ministers, other Al-Sabah, and, occasionally, ordinary citizens. Information, ideas, rumors, and opinions, tend to funnel upward. An important man needs to schedule his diwanniyah attendance almost as carefully as his business schedule. When the Emir dismissed the Parliament in the late 1980s, the opposition planned its protests in the diwanniyahs of prominent opposition MPs (Economist 314, 1990).

If the diwanniyah excludes women, the house, of course, does not. In a family-oriented society, families meet frequently. In these meetings, women have their voice. Further, women, especially female relatives, meet constantly (Al-Thakeb, 1985). In the home, women can literally "let their hair down" since even women who believe in the hijab and abaya do not wear it in the presence of other women or family members. Women also can engage in exercise in their homes, something generally considered "shameful" in most other contexts.

For the Asil, the chalet almost equals the home as a "protected space" since nearly every Asil family owns one. In some ways, it combines the attributes of a diwanniyah and a home. With the rising prices of city real estate, those hoping to buy beachfront property need to purchase far away from the city. Also, though, the distance from the city itself functions as something of an attraction because it affords group privacy.

Hence, from late March until late October, with time off for trips abroad in the summer, nearly every weekend consists in an expedition to the chalet. The distance involved means packing up, and invited guests generally stay for the entire weekend. The chalet offers one of those rare instances in which owners can offer traditional "Arabic hospitality" to guests, treating them well, relaxing with them, etc. Unlike the diwanniyah, chalet owners can invite members of both genders, even unrelated ones, though typically a chalet trip centers around the family.

It bears mention, again, that the other national groups in Kuwait do not really enjoy the same social freedom. Some foreign males do seem to spend a fair amount of time at their local mosque; however, recall that mosques admit men of all classes, including Kuwaitis. Males also tend to gather at a nearby restaurant, a kind of "informal diwanniyah." Groups tend to gather together by nationality-as schedules allow. None of these meetings or gatherings enjoys much more than official toleration. Here, as in the last chapter, one can refer to the foreigners as stunted, incomplete tribes with, again, the Palestinians as something of an exception.

Tawfik Farah specifically spells out the connection between the diwaniyyah, political power, and Kuwait’s version of democracy. The family forms the building block for all three of these. Just as the Asil enjoy a special status, so their membership effectively distinguishes them from those without such freedoms (1982):

Kuwaitis are indeed a member of a privileged and affluent group....Access to this small political system is not blocked. Access is gained through personal and informal channels. The functions of interest aggregation and articulation are handled by the extended family....The function performed by the friend or relative is referred to as "wastah." The [business or political] decision made can also be reached directly at the diwanniya. (pp. 170-171)

In conclusion, then, this and the previous section paint a fair picture of Asil life. While competitive socially, politically, and economically, the competition takes place within set tribal limits. Life centers around the family. Social life centers around five very different places and different relationships: the office, where one deal with foreigners; the mosque, which men (and Shia women) visit; the diwanniyah, the center of male socialization; the home, the center of the family; and the chalet. This entire world, and the civil society that arguably arises out of it, however, really include only the Asil themselves.

This bears mention because, in fact, Asil daily life finds them almost constantly surrounded by the excluded, the foreigners.



F. Masters and Servants

This researcher once made the statement that you cannot think of each Asil as a single person but as a small community. Every Asil adult, as a matter of course, has maids, drivers, and foreign workers who treat him with deference, just as he treats his father or mother; he, in turn, makes all of the major decisions for those in his little community. They exist in a symbiotic relationship: he makes and gives the orders, and they execute the orders and get paid.

None of those in this small community can question his authority since, of course, they come from inferior ranks and nationalities. For him or her they function as hands and feet. At the school level, this finds its extreme expression in the fact that smaller Asil school children never carry their own bags; maids come on campus and get them. On the streets it finds its extreme form in Kuwaitis throwing trash out the window, knowing that the government-hired Bangladeshi street sweepers will pick it up.

Nor does foreign travel much alter this worldview. When the Kuwaitis travel to the Middle East or even to the West, they travel in such style, "Hilton level," that the foreigners they encounter, maids, butlers, and drivers, treat them with the exact same deference. Indeed, they often bring their own maids with them to guarantee a continuation of reliable service. Hence, even in the most egalitarian-minded countries, their wealth surrounds them with those expected to treat them unequally.

College does not change this situation. When Kuwaiti children go abroad, their wealth enables them to miss almost all of the college experiences that make American college students more self-reliant and more humble. For example, Asil parents invariably rent nice apartments for their children, and the government and/or their parents pay for their college tuition. Sometimes, their parents even send along one of the maids. Hence, in college, unlike many American students, they worry little about money or comfort. They can even afford such luxuries as hiring tutors and paying others to help them on their papers.

As Longva (1997) relates, these life experiences tend to give Kuwaitis their sense of superiority. The Asil may feel this to an even greater degree because, unlike their Bedouin brothers, they go to a work in an environment filled with foreign workers, not Kuwaitis, and come home to a house full of servants.

These experiences may lead to a certain mind-set. Some Asil see all these servants as inferior and stupid since, unlike themselves, the others must work to obtain money. Further, it gives them a certain sense of moral superiority since the Asil do not "obsess" about making money; rather it simply comes to them, often through no effort or through their own cleverness. In Kuwait’s foreigners, they see those whose entire life, or the portion apparent to Kuwaitis, seems to revolve around them. It also gives them a view that, since they never observe others actually living, maybe others do not actually live (Al-Khansa, 2002). As Al-Jinnah (2001), an ADM teacher concludes: "They’re so narrow-minded because of the way their [Asil] culture is."

Another Kuwaiti spouse talked of the need to display class not only for other Kuwaitis but for the workers. She mentioned that certain Asil parents do not even let their children play in the desert sand because this implied equality with the laboring servants.

However, this sense of superiority and the culture of inequality did not suddenly occur. The rich Kuwaitis, unlike the poorer Bedouin, always kept servants, including slaves, and traveled in some style. The post-oil infusion of foreigners, though, increased the distance between themselves and those servants as well as increasing the number of those around them who lived stunted, and, to their eyes, incomprehensible lives.

The Asil world, then, if composed of a civil society inside, consists of masters and servants outside. Transactions with these outsiders revolve around the payment of the servants and the giving of orders. Having established this Asil world, this analysis now turns to some key challenges that threatened it.



G. The Economic Challenge and the Manakh Al Suk

The merchants did not, by any means, retain an invulnerable position in the economy. In either case, through license monopolies and foreign contracts (Lawson, 1985) or through direct government employment, they remained subject to the whims of the Parliament and to an Al-Sabah government increasingly dominated by conservatives and Bedouin with very different agendas.

In the first generation of oil wealth, the merchants enjoyed considerable advantages over most other Kuwaitis, but this situation could not last forever. The creation of a public school system took away the Asil's’ monopoly of a key resource, education (Tetreault, 1993):

The spread of education among members of formerly disadvantaged groups in Kuwaiti society promoted the development of a new class of able and ambitious Kuwaitis who did not come from the old powerful families. Having neither the capital to start their own businesses nor the political connections to win monopolies, dealerships, or agencies, these, at first mostly male, Kuwaitis gravitated to positions that, like themselves, were also products of economic modernization. They became managers in the state's oil company and professors at Kuwait University, both non-executive positions (most executive jobs are filled by members of important families) requiring high levels of education and/or skills. The dependence of the state and the economy on high levels of technical competence created "protected spaces" from which ambitious non-elite men could challenge the economic and status dominance of the old Kuwaiti elites. (p. 407)

So, while the merchant Asil appeared in a good position to substantially benefit from the oil wealth, nothing guaranteed that they would benefit indefinitely. As other families received an education, they proved they could, indeed, match the Asil for cleverness and ingenuity. One marked instance of this new challenge came in the form of the stock market bubble involving the Manakh Al Suk, "the street market."

The Manakh Al Suk, which hit its height in the period between 1980-1984, presented new economic opportunities for the public-school educated children of the ships’ captains and sailors. Whereas the Kuwaiti merchant families traditionally dominated the KSE (Kuwait Stock Exchange), everyone, but especially non-Asil, traded at the Manakh Al Suk, a much cheaper stock market dealing in offshore, often questionable, companies not listed on the KSE. In many instances, the trade amounted to little more than mere speculation (Metz 1994, p. 70).

In the Manakh Al Suk, a person of relatively humble, but Kuwaiti, origins could make a fortune quickly. Fred Lawson, who intensively studied the Manakh (Lawson, 1985), considers the rise of the Manakh as an indirect challenge to the social order and links the rising non-Asil Kuwaitis with Arab nationalistic views. As these Manakh millionaires built their own companies, the Al-Sabah and old merchants, the Asil, aligned against them (Lawson, 1985):

By investing in real estate and private shareholding companies, the nouveau riches gave the ruling coalition a strong disincentive to invest in Kuwaiti enterprises....[By investing abroad and not locally] the government ensured that its own activities did not end up benefiting those forces challenging the established order. (p. 18)

In a way, the Manakh offered exactly the kind of opportunities to make wealth that would most appeal to the Asil. It relied on cleverness, not hard labor. A person bought shares with a post-dated check and, before the check became due, sold the shares at a profit (Graz, 1992). No one actually produced anything. Eventually the amount of post-dated checks circulating in Kuwait far surpassed the nation’s total wealth (Graz, 1992):

Post-dated checks appeared, made out for sums calculated to include interest at up to 300% per annum for short-term loans....[Eventually the] mountain of overdraft and assorted other debts reached a total estimated at $80 billion [quadruple Kuwait’s GDP]....A humorist mocked the directors of the Kuwait Fisheries Company for being so busy at the Manakh that they had forgotten where the sea was. (p. 92)

Since the Manakh, like most speculative bubbles, ultimately based itself on assets of no real value, it depended on speculation for continued high returns. So long as buyers continued to believe they could sell the shares to the next buyer for more, they bought, expecting to sell. Of course, this did not continue forever. The crash came about when one of the dealers tried to cash some of those post-dated checks. This set off a chain reaction.

The 1984 crash of the Suk affected all Kuwaiti families financially, but not all equally (Al-Jinnah, 2001). After all, in contrast to the newly rich, the Asil and Al-Sabah owned real assets, not just promises of payment. Notably, the Asil and some members of the Al-Sabah family maintained that those in debt should "pay off every fil;" on the other hand, the middle classes, those most involved in the Manakh, urged a government bail-out (Lawson, 1985):

Many members of the ruling family insisted that the nouveaux riches should be forced to repay their outstanding debts in full....Representatives of the professional and administrative class [the middle class] argued that the government should bail out those who had lost most heavily....The state ended up salvaging a majority of the smaller investors who had lost their fortunes, despite the opposition of influential members of the established merchant families. (p. 21)

In this instance, then, the Al-Sabah did abandon the Asil. However, the crash effectively turned back the social challenge of this class even without their economic devastation, urged by the Asil. Further, the crash dangerously rocked the whole economy so that withholding government support might have endangered everyone, including the Al-Sabah. Few suffered bankruptcy, but, due to inter-family borrowings, most individuals felt the damage and, technically, all banks but NBK became insolvent. The government directly punished only a few, but the crash effectively caused a recession (Graz, 1992).

Sheik Ali Khalifa Al-Sabah (Bulluch 1984, p. 135) concludes rather too charitably:

Certain people became richer, certain people became poorer, but from a national economic point of view, that essentially had no bearing. The important thing was that it made people concentrate again on productive employment. There had been a corruption of values, with a lot of people making a lot of money in a very short time, and so forgetting about real work. (p. 135)

Graz answers this optimism in his appropriately titled article "Dangerous Opulence" (1992) in which he rhetorically asks: "Where, except in Kuwait, can you find bankers who give a 10 year grace period [for repayment]... a government ready to pay off the debts of all those whose overdraft does not exceed 2 million dinars [$6.6 million]?" (p. 95).

From the point of view of the Asil, however, the rise and fall of the Manakh showed their economic vulnerability. At the market's height, men of humble origins claimed bigger fortunes than they. Its fall, of course, brought many of the newly rich back down to earth. Despite the fact that the old families controlled 90% of Kuwait's foreign investment (Osman, 1991, p. 48), they felt economically vulnerable.

In fact, the Manakh Al Suk, in a way, provides a fair analogy for the Kuwaiti non-oil economy, which this author describes as a "Monopoly [Game] economy." In a sense, it does not matter that much if the Emir chooses to forgive consumer debt, buy land, grant franchises, or hire Kuwaitis. Any of these moves serves to transfer funds from their ultimate source, the oil money, to Kuwaiti citizens. All of the other occupations in the economy vary between moderately productive to simple wastes of times, and the Manakh epitomizes this because individuals made money doing absolutely nothing. Hence, Sheik Ali vastly exaggerates the importance of most Kuwaitis in the economy when he states that they will return to "real work." Some of the Asil business owners did indeed work very hard, but most Kuwaitis received a government check for doing little of use, "rents."

The Manakh incident, though, did emphasize that the Asil portion of the oil wealth could all disappear just as easily as the merchants’ did in Qatar (Crystal, 1989) if the Asil either lost some of their cleverness or lost some of their wastah with the Al-Sabah.



H. The Social Challenge of the Bedouin

Another challenge to the Asil came from an unexpected source, the Bedouin. In response to the need for an army and police force, the state started to hire large numbers of Bedouin. Initially, in the fifties, the Bedouin lived in shacks at the edge of the city (Frazier, 1969). The seventies found them living not only in government-provided houses (Duncan, 1986) but gradually obtaining Kuwaiti passports (Al-Ramadhan, 1995). The Nineties found them not only the most numerous Kuwaitis (Ghabra, 1989) but also the largest voting bloc in Parliament. The Al-Sabah came to rely on them as loyal voting members just as they once relied on the Kudum as loyal bodyguards (Salih, 1992). The Bedouin brought a new challenge to the Asil, a social challenge.

The Asil, though in some respects extremely conservative, prided themselves on their cosmopolitanism and worldliness. The new opportunities of wealth allowed them more trips to the US and Europe in which they observed a freer society. This attitude led to their general acceptance that, for example, women should have more freedom and shed the veil, men could wear jeans, and that men, some anyway, should have freedom of speech and assembly, a quick summary of the liberal agenda in Parliament. They tended to view their worldliness as a sign of education, not a lack of religion. This leads Ghabra (1997) to conclude that "Kuwait's urban families saw no contradictions between Islam and economic and social progress....Their forward looking mentality was the basis for progress in Kuwait until the 1980s" (p. 363).

In contrast, the Asil tended to look down on the Bedouin for their lack of sophistication and inferior education (Ghabra, 1997):

Urbanites looked down on the Bedouin, making them feel politically and socially marginalized, and pushing them to cling more tenaciously to each other and to their tribal values and relations....Because of their high birth rates, Bedouin today account for an estimated 65% of the total population. (p. 365)

This attitude would have fatal political consequences when the Emir granted the Bedouin the vote. The Bedouin gradually came to dominate the Parliament and remained loyal supporters, at times the only loyal supporters, of the Al-Sabah. The Al-Sabah aided the rise of the Bedouin not only by giving them citizenship, but also by gerrymandering election districts to maximize their parliamentary seats. The Al-Sabah cemented these relationships by marrying members of the most prominent tribes, sometimes as second and third wives. A conservative social agenda emerged in the Parliament in which the Bedouin, the religious Islamists, and sometimes the Al-Sabah voted together, though the Al-Sabah had a habit of switching sides (Crystal, 1989).

The Bedouin attempted to enact, politically and socially, what Shafeeq Ghabra (1997) terms the "desertization" of Kuwait:

Desertization means the transfer of the desert's customs, traditions, beliefs, dress codes, and mentality into the city....[This] accelerated when the leadership role of the commercial class and the major urban families was weakened.... Desertization brings into the urban milieu the ultraconservative values of the desert, which are often mixed with Islamist populist beliefs....Religious fervor...can also highlight sectarian [Shia-Sunni] and societal [Bedouin-urban] differences. (pp. 366-367)

To writers such as Shafeeq Ghabra, Bedouin values represent an unwelcome, radical departure from those of the urban Asil (Ghabra, 1997 II), including "patriarchal family values, marriage to more than one wife, tribal cohesion and solidarity, and competition with outsiders and other tribes" (p. 365). Ghabra also links desertization to the rise of popular, political Islam (Ghabra, 1997 II, p. 61). He emphasizes, however, that the apparent "Islamic revival" results as much from a desire for more social equality as from a new religiosity (Ghabra, 1997 II):

The majority of the relatively deprived Bedouin tribes have moved from the sidelines to the forefront in demanding societal recognition and equality, the basis for which is found in Islam. Several influential populist Islamists have risen from among their ranks. A similar trend of outspokenness can be seen in urban families of lesser influence seeking equal footing with the more cosmopolitan and traditionally powerful families.

This process of "desertization," as the Bahraini thinker Muhammad Ansari labels it, is among the most destructive processes in the Middle East. It undermines modern life by bringing into urban society the ultraconservative values of the desert and mixing them with Islamist populism. The process destroys the hope of a nation-state whose urban centers can assimilate and acculturate newcomers. (p. 363)

Tetreault also sees a threat in desertization. She sees a competition between values she identifies as "egalitarian" and hierarchical Bedouin beliefs (Tetreault, 2000): "Egalitarian urban values stressing loyalty to the political community now competed with hierarchical tribal values emphasizing allegiance to the ruler" (p. 29).

In fact, the foregoing analysis suggests that, rather than as a clash of values, one finds the rise of the Bedouin and "desertization" not so much of a clash of cultures as a clash of tribes, one more liberal than the other. The two groups both cling to ideas of group solidarity, hierarchy, and family, though they disagree on other issues. Further, one can think of an Asil corporation as essentially a tribe gone into business, and sometimes, foreign Arabs describe the Kuwaiti (Asil) as "Bedouin gone soft." The foregoing analysis, further, should show that describing the Asil as "egalitarian" seriously misreads their values. Hence, the clash between Bedouin and Asil represented, on the one hand, a purely political struggle for power and influence (Crystal, 1996), and on the other, a struggle regarding the establishment of stricter social and legal standards for behavior linked, in some instances, to something of an Islamic revival.

As for the latter, one could describe some form of a religious revival, especially linked to the lower classes, the Shia, and the Bedouin. The fires of Iranian Islamic extremism served as some inspiration for some Shia (Economist 353b, 1999), and Islamists arose from the ranks of the middle class as well as the Bedouin (Crystal, 1989). In Kuwait, the steadfast anti-Iraqi stance of the Islamists during the Iraqi occupation drew new support. This revival, however, generally excludes the Asil which, as Farah (1982) indicates, remained consistently loyal to a more moderate form of Islam.

Whether directly linked to the Bedouin or to the religious revival, a new conservatism directly impacted all Kuwaitis. The government, under the pressure of conservative elements, banned an increasing number of books from the shelves, including Shakespearean classics. Prominent intellectuals such as Dr. Ahmed Al-Baghdadi (Tetreault, 2000) and Dr. Shamlan Al-Issa both went to jail for allegedly anti-Islamic remarks, and the government temporarily suspended Mohammed Al-Sager’s Al-Qabas, the most influential liberal newspaper (Kuwait: Human Rights Watch, 2002). The government made the public schools a particular project in this program, as explored in chapter seven.

The Islamic revival took some uglier forms also. Unknown persons, allegedly members of an ultra-Islamic boys’ gang, assaulted a "provocatively dressed" student of Kuwait College of Business Studies down the street from ADM. In 2002, "unknown persons" also assaulted Laila Al Othmann, a well-known Asil feminist author.

As already suggested, the new conservatism particularly affected the lives of women. Traditional Islam provides a life of quiet seclusion to women. Female virtue has a religious as well as personal significance. Through the early era of affluence, Kuwaiti women, the Asil in particular, took steps to obtain some Western-style freedoms, including that of dress and behavior. The increasing prominence of the Bedouin and increased conservatism brought them into conflict with others who saw their behavior as not only different but immoral (Longva, 1997).

For women of the Asil, the oil wealth had promised to bring new opportunities in the "world of work" as well (Tetreault, 1995):

The recruitment of such women allows the elite to fill vacancies caused by a shortage of qualified men from their own class [the Asil]. Elite Kuwaiti women thus play an important role in class politics. Their public activities, though undertaken in the guise of actions that benefit women as a group, serve their class interests at least as much as their gender interests....Girls left these homes to go to school, and women left them to go to work. Working women from the merchant class took professional positions in private firms, government offices, and the university. Soon, other women also moved into living and work spaces that made no special provision for gender segregation. They drove their own cars, wore Western-style clothing, and lived more like their contemporaries in Beirut or Cairo than as their mothers and grandmothers had lived. (p. 27)

Notice Tetreault does not compare the Asil women to Americans but Lebanese and Cairenes, liberal Arab women, but still Arabs.

In contrast, the Bedouin women lived by more traditional values. In towns such as Fahaheel, where the Bedouin predominated, nearly every woman on the street wore the abaya, the head to toe black covering that exposes only the face. As the Bedouin moved to the city, they held wholeheartedly to the abaya, and most also added the niqab, a face veil that covers all but a woman’s eyes. In contrast, Asil women continued to dress in the latest, albeit modest, Western fashions. Longva (1993, p. 453) considers this a kind of "battle of the dress code," in which the two sides each wish to convey a message: the one side wanting to show its modernity and the other its morality.

While Ghabra does not believe that the Bedouin and Asil values can exist side-by-side, certainly the power of the emerging Bedouin voting bloc probably means that the two will not co-exist together for long. The Bedouin see the behavior of the Asil as not only different, but immoral, and hence they want to make that behavior illegal.

The rise of the Bedouin and Islamists socially and politically sometimes made the Asil feel like aliens in their own country, a feeling that vast numbers of foreigners would likely produce anyway. This feeling of alienation led to an increased emphasis on the Asil as the "real" Kuwaitis, as opposed to the Bedouin, the foreigners, and even the lower class. Their response, in part, leads to the formation of Al-Dharra Madressor.

In summary, then the "Kuwaitization" of the Bedouin threatened to lead to the desertization of Kuwait, a country in which the Asil no longer felt so comfortable living.

 

I. The Challenge of the Outsiders

If the Asil felt threatened by having the Bedouin on the outskirts of town, they felt the influence of foreigners in the workplace and on the street. The Asil had a reputation, then and now, for cleverness, not hard work. They prided themselves on their ability to avoid the hard work of sweating on the pearl boats then or laboring long hours in the offices now, a system of values shared around the Gulf (Bulluch, 1984):

One factor in the dependence on outsiders was that the local Arabs, whether in Kuwait or Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Sharjah, had no tradition of regular, day to day work. They were adaptable, enterprising, and quick to learn, but they were never attracted by the idea of manual work at a steady rate and staying for a set number of hours. Their skills were as entrepreneurs, organizers, wheeler-dealers, at a certain level, or as drivers, fixers, and interpreters at another. (p. 96)

This leads logically, as the previous chapter explained, to the importation of armies of foreign workers. Longva (1997) asserts that Kuwait's inequitable society not only harms those at the bottom, the foreigners, but also harms those at the top, the Kuwaitis themselves, a subject for exploration here. Seeing those below them living in servility creates a sense of privilege and identity, but it also robs the Kuwaitis of a sense of safety, security, and well-being. Certainly the presence of foreigners led to ample opportunities for lazy cleverness (Longva, 1997):

It did, indeed, seem meaningless for a Kuwaiti citizen to work...when he could start a private business and employ foreigners at a low cost, especially since many expatriate businessmen, eager to gain a foothold in the Kuwaiti market, were willing to enter into a business partnership with the nationals. (p. 196)

Many of these "partnerships" actually meant that the Kuwaiti contributed nothing more than his name while the foreigner contributed all of the capital and did all of the work. Yet the Asil felt fully entitled to this (Longva, 1997) since the money "was perceived as a tax collected on the foreigner’s profit-making activities on Kuwaiti territory." (p. 68) When this author once commented on the relative lack of work of Kuwaiti nationals in contrast to foreigners, one of the children of these businessmen happily commented, "That shows how clever we are!"

However, economic benefit or not, the arrival of foreign workers put demands on Kuwaitis and fear into them. The sponsor, whether a person or a company, remained responsible for a foreigner’s presence and behavior in the host country. Kuwaitis viewed the whole process as confusing and potentially frightening. As a Kuwaiti woman noted (in Longva, 1997):

It is a lottery. There are all the questions that remain without answers: Are they good people? Are they honest? How safe can we feel we are with them? Can we entrust them with our homes? Our children? We get the answers only after they have arrived, and if the answers are negative, then it is too late. (p. 102)

This led, of course, to the common practice among employers of taking the foreigner's passport. With that in hand, Asil felt at least some control of the foreigners working directly under them. However, this did not totally take away the feeling of fear from foreigners (Al-Ramadhan & Russell, 1995). Even for those not actually sponsoring foreigners, the fear of the presence of these foreigners grew, especially a female fear of "single" males. Actually many of these so-called bachelors (70%) had a family left behind. Still this left a population in Kuwait of over sixty percent male and predominantly adult males. Current populations statistics (CIA, 2002) reflect this gender imbalance:

Newspaper reports fed into a common Kuwaiti female fear of violation. Longva (1997) claims that "fears were fueled by nearly daily reports in the press of so-called ‘sexual crimes’ committed by non-Kuwaitis." (p. 122)

One must take these reports with more than a little salt. Kuwaiti law, after all, regards adultery as a crime, not only a sin. This did not mean it did not happen. Reputedly, more than a few Kuwaiti men supported mistresses of various foreign nationalities around the city. However, most would have the influence so that no policeman would dare charge them. In contrast, the foreign man and partner became a page-two newspaper story that usually ended with a note about deportation. During this author's tenure, the papers’ reports of these illicit partnerships, "crimes," did not equal the number of stories about Kuwaitis and Bedouin men raping other men.

This does not, however, change the fact that many Kuwaiti women believed these tales of predatory foreign men. Beesen (Beesen, Meleis, & El-Sanabary, 1979) found the same thought patterns as early as 1979. Longva (1993) traces the return of the abaya in part to the rise of the more conservative Bedouin, but also to a rising fear among all Kuwaiti women of these foreign men (Longva, 1993). Longva believes that the return of the abaya relates more to the presence of single foreign men (Longva, 1997), "The purpose of which was to illuminate to the expatriates, not least the men, on the attitude to adopt when interacting with Kuwaiti women." (pp. 448-449)

To many Kuwaitis, the very streets seemed full of foreigners, a permanent source of insecurity, even if not of violation. As one elderly man commented (in Longva, 1997):

Imagine seeing strangers everywhere around you, including in your own homes. We used to know all the Kuwaitis and to trust each other. In the old days, when someone made a promise, you knew he would keep it. We were like a big family. Now everyone is a stranger. You do not know whom to trust any more. (pp. 124-125)

Thus while one might compare Kuwait to a small town, with only 10,000 people who actually "count," this did not erase the physical presence of foreigners. In the eyes of some, the country seemed under veritable foreign occupation. As one Kuwait women said (in Longva, 1997):

"You have been to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, haven't you? How many local people did you meet in the streets there? One? Two? They are so few compared to the expatriates that they have surrendered the streets to them. Sometimes, I think we should do that, too, withdraw to a ghetto where we would be only amongst ourselves. It would have been easier, less tiring. But we are more numerous than the Emiratis. And we are not shy like them. We want to retain our streets, to keep them Kuwaiti. We want to hear Kuwaiti spoken out there, see Kuwaiti people and Kuwaiti manners around us. This is our home. We don't want to lose it. We want to be able to live here in our own way." (pp. 124-125, emphasis added)

Thus, the Asil had to deal with the presence of foreigners in their country. True, some of them worked for the Asil. Indeed, the Asil companies, unlike the government, almost exclusively hired foreigners, but this did not take away the sense of insecurity. One particular source of insecurity came from the foreign housemaids.



J. Inside the Walls: The Foreign Housemaid

The most feared force of foreign pollution, ironically, came from the most docile members of the foreign community, the maids. Whereas the poorest workers came from Bangladesh, recruiters purposely brought maids from different countries than the male workers to prevent settlement. This analysis will use the term "maids," but the maids generally worked as nannies when their employers’ household held children. They came from the following countries (Abdulmalek, Al-Aamriti, El Hilu, Kamel, & Mousa, 1990):

Other sources (Bonner, 1992) put the numbers as high as 75,000. This latter figure, however, includes all domestics, i.e., cooks, chauffeurs, etc..

In many ways, it made perfect sense for Kuwaitis to hire maids. Traditionally, richer Kuwaitis kept servants, so having a maid served as a status symbol. Further, modern Kuwaitis had more children than before, as many as seven or eight, and maintained two houses, one in town and a "chalet" on the beach. Beyond this, help came very cheap. A foreign maid would work for as little as KD 15 (US $46.50) per month (Bonner, 1992). Even richer foreigners hired maids. For Kuwaitis, not hiring a maid actually invited ridicule. This author knew of only one mother who did without a maid, and she did this as a kind of political statement; only grudgingly did other Kuwaitis accord her much respect. Thus a staggering 84% of all households employed maids (Longva, 1993).

The maids suffered from a double form of discrimination. From Kuwaiti males this came from unwanted attention. Given their lower status, maids could often offer little resistance to advances from Kuwaiti men leading to instances of rape (Kuwait Human Rights Watch, 2001). On the other hand, they endured the suspicion of Kuwaiti women, who often regarded certain classes of foreign women as little better than whores (Longva, 1993):

In Kuwait, it was the Asian female workers who were the most frequent victims of sexual aggression. These women wore neither the abaya nor the head scarf, but saris, jeans, or Western dresses. This was often interpreted as a sign of un-Islamic moral predisposition, especially when combined with men, as, for example, in the case of Filipinas....Among the Kuwaitis, there was little doubt that most Asian female expatriates were responsible for their miseries. One can claim, however, that the stereotype of the "sexually lax Asian woman" arose neither from the way she dressed nor the way she interacted with men, but rather from her being positioned at the bottom rungs of the labor hierarchy and her lacking any protection derived from family or middle-class ties. (p. 449)

Distrust on both sides led to abuse by Kuwaiti employers. Even popular Western periodicals such as New Yorker (1992) and People (Hewitt, 1992) carried stories of the mistreatment and abuse of Kuwaiti maids (Bonner, 1992). The Kuwaiti press followed in some detail the case of a Kuwaiti couple arrested in London in 2001 for mistreating their maid. A psychiatric study of some foreign maids reveals some of the strain under which they suffered (Abdulmalek, Al-Aamriti, El Hilu, Kamel, & Mousa, 1990):

First admission rates to the psychiatric hospital in Kuwait revealed that foreign housemaids as a whole had about five times the rate of Kuwaiti females. According to hospital diagnoses the housemaids had significantly more acute situational disturbances and mania, and less depressive illness and organic mental disorders....There were significantly more [emotionally disturbed] of the [Kuwaiti female] control group in the 15-24 years age class and significantly less in the 25-34 years age class than in the foreign housemaids. (p. 291, emphasis added)

Notably, the study found that of the maids only a very few spoke a foreign language other than their local Indian language, mostly English, and none spoke Arabic. Perhaps this explains, somewhat, the stress the maids felt working with children and adults who spoke Arabic as a first, sometimes only, language. This situational stress may explain the fact that, on average, a maid per day committed suicide, certainly one of the highest suicide rates of any population anywhere.

As for the Kuwaiti females, the study concluded that they also felt pressure. Just as one can imagine the maids’ distress in living in a foreign household, one can see the position of the Kuwaiti woman, surrounded by foreigners. While theoretically "in control" of such situations, in fact her lower status compared to Kuwaiti men and the sheer communication difficulties could lead, quite logically, to feelings of depression and even fear.

If foreign women suffered from Kuwaitis, the Kuwaitis sometimes looked upon their maids with suspicion as carriers of weak, alien morals (Bonner, 1992). Kuwaiti women questioned the contact of the maids with their own men. More directly to the point here, they feared the contact of such women with their children.

In some maids, indeed, Kuwaiti women uncovered a plethora of potentially dangerous habits. The willingness of unmarried and even married foreign maids to mix freely with single men seemed shocking. Also the maids brought with them strange, even incomprehensible, cultural habits, including, in some cases, non-Islamic religious beliefs. Finally the Asil, while they communicated in a kind of broken English with their servants, worried that their children would learn poor English instead of good Arabic. While husbands might work with foreigners during working hours, their wives needed to endure them constantly, around the clock.

This created a strange and strained child-rearing environment. Maids and nannies treated even young Kuwaiti children with due deference, a fact clearly shown at any social gathering. Yet, as adults, they needed to take responsibility for the assigned child or children. Thus one often saw the maid following along the Asil child in humble fashion, cleaning and carrying, "solving" behavior problems by personally absorbing their immediate effects, seemingly in as much in fear of the child as the parent.

Before concluding this section one must add that the Asil always emphasized that the Bedouin, not the Asil, mistreated the maids, and most maid mistreatment stories did come from Bedouin neighborhoods. The Asil tended to take a position that only an ignorant person would work a maid to craziness. Of course, this did not mean they treated the maids anywhere near as well as an equalitarian-minded, lawsuit-fearing American would treat a maid. The range of treatment varied somewhat between that accorded to another, albeit alien, member of the family to a favored house slave.

In any case, the foreign maids served to create another kind of challenge: How do parents care for their home and, especially, raise their children when constantly charged with placing them in the hands of an un-trusted, usually uneducated, maid?

 

K. The Asil Women and the Search for Values

While the economic challenges fell on men, the previous several sections all suggest a common theme: Asil women bore the brunt of the changes wrought by oil and reaped fewer of the benefits.

For one thing, Kuwaiti women became trapped in a stereotyped version of motherhood. Whereas traditionally Kuwaiti women, especially the upper class, enjoyed a fair amount of freedom and a looser, more Westernized version of Kuwaiti culture, the presence of foreigners and Bedouin put this to the test. The desertization of Kuwaiti culture made their behavior and dress particularly suspect. The constant presence of Bedouin women in abayas and niqabs not only reinforced the morals of Islam but called into question their own virtue. The foreign maids created the fear of their own children succumbing to alien values and practices.

On the other hand, the presence of the upper-level foreigners and the constant mixing of Kuwaiti men with foreigner women presented its own, particular challenges. Perhaps the most prevalent and unending fear of upper-class younger Kuwaiti women lay in the possibility that a Kuwaiti man, their intended, would marry a foreign woman, a scheming Palestinian or Lebanese, or, even worse, a Westerner (Longva, 1997):

There was a strong feeling among Kuwaiti women of Khalida's generation that the benefits of the modern age were, as far as they were concerned, a double-edged weapon that female expatriates, in particular, manipulated...to marry Kuwait men, thus gaining access to Kuwaiti nationality. They tried to convince the men that Kuwaiti women were morally superior. (pp. 207-208)

This fear bears further discussion. Kuwait University students conducted no fewer than three studies on the subject of Kuwaitis marrying foreigners, some sign of its fascination. The figures below show how seldom this actually occurred (Al-Thakeb, 1985).



Clearly, the vast majority came from Arab countries and Iran. Further, many of the "foreigners" do not seem quite so foreign upon further inquiry. In fact, a lot of the partners came from the Bidoon or Bedouin, some of whom still lacked citizenship. Hence many of the "foreign marriages" above involved situations such as: a conservative Bedouin marrying a second wife, a foreigner; a Bedouin marrying a tribal cousin who lacked citizenship; or one of the few naturalized Kuwaitis, such as a former Palestinian or Lebanese, marrying one of his own former nationality. As indicated above, the 97 "Asians" referred to above probably constitute Iranians married by Kuwaiti Shia, not exactly "foreigners."

Very few instances involved the feared myth above, the upper class Kuwaiti marrying a Western woman. The total number of marriages to Westerners numbered only 2.7% rising to 3.2%. Given that probably 5000 total marriages occur per year, one can set the total marriages to Westerners at well below 1%.

The prevalence of the myth of foreign women hunting for Kuwaiti husbands shows the insecurities of Kuwaiti women. On the one hand, as shown above, they found their own lives increasingly suspect due to the presence of foreigners and the suspicions of the Bedouin. Yet, they found the freedom for their brothers, cousins, and fathers increasing as they became more exposed to the West. The ultimate nightmare found its expression above: without a secure place in Kuwaiti society, surrounded by foreigners, and finally replaced.

Nor did work function as an escape. The presence of foreigners in almost every profession meant that work, again, made them potential victims of moral "pollution." Further, the laws guarding Kuwaiti wages essentially meant that no private sector company would hire them at an "acceptable" wage. This left only the ubiquitous positions in the government occupied by the Bedouin, nursing and education. In each case, employment made the female worker, at least implicitly, the equal of an inferior: in government, the Bedouin; in nursing, Filipinas and East Asians; and in education, Palestinians and Egyptians. In essence, this meant for many Asil women two choices, either the family firm or motherhood.

Motherhood often presented itself as the only logical and "moral" alternative. Before the Gulf War, Longva estimates that as little as 6% of all Kuwaiti women worked and most of them came from the lower class. By marrying and having children, a woman quickly secured herself an assured position in society, not only through obtaining kinship ties, but also through entering a recognized, morally safe position whose importance the media constantly depicted. One became part of the privileged class, those having maids and maintaining great houses, as well as receiving checks from the government. In a sense, Longva finds (1993), the idleness of women made their role as mothers only the more important:

[The Kuwaiti] citizens’ position as a minority emphasized the important function of mothers, not only as human reproducers, but also as cultural reproducers....[Motherhood] gave the modern Kuwaiti woman moral legitimacy.... [Preserving traditional values] was an integral element in the Kuwaiti national agenda of ethnic self-preservation....Kuwaiti women were instrumental in this "politics of exclusion" through their rule as cultural gatekeepers and reproducers. (pp. 452-454)

The oil wealth, then, brought about some particular challenges to Kuwaiti women. In some ways, their freedom became less and their anxieties more. With the new wealth came new fears.



L. Conclusions

This chapter served to explain the origins of the Asil and the challenges that the class faced due to the newfound oil wealth. While they became richer, their riches came at a cost. They lost some of their economic self-sufficiency and, with it, some of their influence on the government.

At the same time, they faced new social challenges. The rising numbers and conservative agenda of the Bedouin threatened to undermine their way of life. Meanwhile the on-going presence of foreigners, while enabling their businesses to continue and their households to function, brought about potentially dangerous social interactions.

Finally, a last comment concerns the children. They, in a way, faced the biggest challenge of all. They grew up in a society of foreigners and attended, as chapter seven will explain, schools taught by foreigners. They spent most of their waking hours interacting with foreigners and surrounded by them. Their lives, in a way, made a mockery of the very project Longva claims engaged the government: the creation of Kuwaitis. This will become the subject not of the next chapter, but the following one. First one must deal with the Arabs possibly most important in the upbringing of young Kuwaitis, the Palestinians.





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