I took some more shots of Kuwait and added text in December 2000 in order to update this page. Despite what the Iraqis might claim, Kuwait has a long and independent history. The main theme is one of immigration from Northern Saudi Arabia, but other immigrants from Iran and Iraq make the origins of the Kuwaitis diverse. This is somewhat documented below. I worked in Kuwait from 1998-2007. I was one of those rare highly paid foreigners.
One could hardly find a people less likely to live the sea life than the Kuwaitis. They came from the deserts, after all, of Saudi Arabia. Quickly, however, the small group of settlers found that they could make a better living through sea trade, and they became involved in fishing, pearling, and carrying trade. The Al Sabah family, eventual rulers, differed from the others important families in that they maintained themselves through servicing the caravan trade, and they kept close alliances with the nearby bedouin tribes. The sea life had its ups and downs. An old Kuwaiti saying holds that "a man who returns from the sea is reborn." This shows a simple truth: Many did not return! The captains and crews lived a hard life on the ships. However, the captains and their bosses, the great merchants became tough businessmen through the ups and downs of a business in which a lost ship might mean ruin. The wives of the sailors, also, became very hardened and indpendent: In the absence of their husbands they had to run the family business. Everyone, man and women, suffered from the paucity of fresh water. Merchants literally sold water, which they carted into the country. The Al Sabah emerged as rulers. The other important families needed to go to sea whereas the Al-Sabahs did not. When the Al Sabah's desert trade went sour, the important merchants worked out a deal whereby the Al Sabah's would govern the city, and they would pay for the "emir's" expenses through customs duties and other subsidies. While children may study these times, old people do not look back with much envy. They lived trying lives and died young. They kept their faith in Allah because verily they might join him at any moment. This Kuwait never held more than 10000 souls.
Obviously, modern Kuwait bears little physical resemblance to traditional Kuwait. It holds a million souls, over 50% of them foreign. Its buildings meet the highest standards of construction. Mosques remain a constant, but most testify as much to the wealth of their supporters as anything else. Oil, obviously, supports all of this. Yet very few Kuwaitis actually work for the oil industry. Instead, the most prominest merchants, as before, work in the private sector, selling goods to relieve the Kuwaitis of their affluence. The vast number of poorer Kuwaitis, including the naturalized bedouin, work for the government. Their jobs basically serves as a means of collecting wealth which the government, in turns, takes from the oil money. In the end, then, it all comes down to varying forms of dependence on oil money. Kuwaiti culture forms a mix of the modern and the traditional. As in traditional Kuwait, life revolves around the family, religion, and close relationships. Sometimes it seems the entire day revolves around meeting and talking with relatives and friends. Modern technology, phones, email, etc. only aid this. The modern veneer comes from consumerism. The shopping or restaurant trip functions as the means for resuming those acquaintances as well as acquiring the latest Western goods. Yet obviously, not all works as well as it seems. A growing religous conservatist movement wishes to take away many of the Westernized freedoms many people take for granted. Meanwhile, individual spending sprees have put many Kuwaitis heavily in debt. The government continues to draw down the "Fund for Future Generation." No one really can offer a solution to the fact that more and more young Kuwaitis graduate with high expectations from the state but little to offer the state in terms of actually contributing to the economy. The oil wealth can go only so far. Yet Kuwait has surivived many a crisis before. The British blockaded in World War I. The pearl trade collapsed in the thirties. Their parallel stock market crashed in the 1980s. They endured Iranian inspired terrorism in the 1980s, the suspension of the legislature, and an Iraqi invasion. The question remains: Can they survive decreasing affluence amidst increasing expectations?