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Kuwait: Past and Present

Updated on April 29, 2019

Regardless of the developments Kuwait experienced in the past two decades, and despite the changes in its political, economic, and social fabric, the state, country and even the sheikhdom, will continue to hover within a particular mindset set.

Kuwait is a concept long embedded in intellectualism, of pens, pencils, computers, books, articles, and endless research in its libraries and research institutes. It's of mellowing in its shopping centers, markets streets, alleyways, highways and corners whilst digging in its newspaper archives, university and talking to its professors, ordinary folk, some of its workers and its migrants that occupied it.

In Kuwait, the hot weather remains indelibly printed on one's mind, with the sweat pouring down the face, neck and back, it is going from one air-conditioned office block to the next, out of endless taxis and not to mention hitching the rides from my father and uncles, on the odd occasion they might be going near the place I was going to.

It was the Kuwait of the 1970s and 1980s with the sniff of the 1990s, in fact a stone throw-away before Iraq and Saddam Hussein decided willy-nilly to invade it and create the subsequent mayhem in the country, region and internationally and bringing in the invaders and the modern-day crusaders.

The Kuwait I knew was sedate, buried in books, intellectual vigor, it was first slow in economic development, but then grew rapidly, almost a pace beyond one's imagination and dreams, too much to fathom and realize. It was an entity that have been developing well since the early 18th century, according to the historical books in existence, a tribal formation that lived on its dhows, fishing and pearling—Kuwait was a nation of sea mariners and proud of it, and from such activity it slowly moved forward, at a snail's pace but with surety.

Thundering change

This was all to change however because of the discovery of the oil in the 1930s and the 1940s that set the ground for unprecedented economic development and style of living. It was a period of throwback into the international system and the prosperity of the "seven sisters", audaciously-strong international oil ventures who came to control oil drilling, its operations and distributions to world markets.

The oil made the state strong, it gave it good fortunes and palatial existence, its people and merchant families long stuck in the olden days and ways became suddenly prosperous and happy. For them this was the start of the lean, bountiful years.

Overnight, the state became able to alter its social system, fabric and classes. Its tenuous control of the black gold boosted its status, and in turn boosted its merchant families and slowly began to create a public infrastructure with an enormous welfare with it top-notch public sector employment for its citizens. It was regale.

The oil discovery created booms and dynamism for change and transformations that called for workers and professionals from outside. Kuwait was historically open to people from Iran and India but it now needed a much bigger pool of Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians and so on.

This was the glittering 1950s, the type for creation and creativity, for modernism and modernization, the time for invading cultures, and the alteration in attitudes that were remarkable received despite the fact of noises here and there from certain sectors of the indigenous population.

The labor flood was overwhelming. In the 1970s onwards it became serious, inundated by more books, research, conference papers and experts who started examining migration into Kuwait as an unprecedented phenomenon that needed to be tackled, explained, pondered on not only from the economic dimension but the political, cultural, social and even artistic.

Migrants and their families were coming in with their a la mode culture and fashion, hip styles to what was then a yet traditional society in the grips of change whose local population had not yet experienced.

The churning wheels of economic development put the Kuwaiti decision-maker, economists, public companies, private ones in a quandary because of the migration flood, people from everywhere coming to try their hands in making a better living, and for some an economic fortune.

It was a very exciting time despite the political upheavals in the region, the loss of Palestine and the misery of the Palestinian people who more than anybody else flocked to Kuwait in search of a better economic life.

It was a very exciting period not only to see and fathom the development long-rooted in traditional structures and a city fenced in by long, high, mud walls, and huge wooden doors closed at night to be guarded from the highway men, into a slick metropolis in a pace of few decades.

To watch its structures, the laying down of its infrastructure, paved road, its buildings, its Sheratons and the Hiltons was a generating as well as a delusional experience of having too longs, one in the past, and one in the modern, yet existing and changing side-by-side.

Its residential neighborhoods, some occupied by foreigners and their families was contrasted by the villas of Kuwait's emergent lower and middle class, almost all huddling in public sector employment. It was also glaring to be a witness to the palaces-like structures that came to be the abode of many rich Kuwaitis.

It was an extraordinary period of change. Just as new neighborhoods were coming into existence, others were being redeveloped, altered and modernized. Kuwait was undergoing an unprecedented change, probably the first to be experienced in the Gulf, aside maybe from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Change in the Saudi Kingdom in the modern period of the 20th century may have seemed slower still, because of its huge size at 2 million square kilometers despite the fact that the country was and still is sitting on a pool of oil. Bahrain is simply not regarded as an oil-rich state but has a fair amount of industry and today relies on its services sector.

Kuwait was then about economic palates, an oil booty and glamour of plushness and renewal. In the midst of the sand, and the storms came life and the living. It was period where no one understood, nor probably cared to dwell on its elements of transitions or lack of, historical junctures or periodization where the name of the game was no longer tradition and archaicism but newness and modernity.

Part of the change was about riding fast cars, living in air-conditioned housing, eating in restaurants and buying the best brands whose manufacturers came hovering to town to sell.

This was the new aestheticism, state and society in the grip of adjustment and development, of landmarks where former structures and implements of society became relics to be proud of relegated to museums and even forgotten by the country's new young whose state was accumulating some of the oil profits, and had more than enough to send them abroad for their education.

This was all something new and have never been done before. The state was educating an indigenous strata to come and take command of certain areas of government and the economy, being helped by streams and streams of expatriate laborers, professionals, expertise and even planners.

Kuwait, under oil become a complex social formation, it was no longer a tribal society, though tribalism did continue to exist in the modern age. But a new fabric came to exist characterized by paradoxes and contradictions, an inter-wining of the old and the new, strained social integration subdued and accepted alienations, growth and developments.

With the country opening up to the world by virtual of the multinational oil companies, as well to other forms of international capitalist companies through the virtue of the demands for more imports, Kuwait was becoming globalized, in the thralls of an international system with interests in a powered formation based on high financial liquidity and even coveted by international players and powers like the United States, who was the next best state to replace British influence and hegemony that officially ended in the early 1960s.

The state became stronger. This was the new era, infrastructure was being developed, buildings were raising, the elements of functional modernist society was taking place, its population was increasing and so was its immigrants, not just unskilled workers, but across-the-board in a labor market that demanded teachers, doctors, lawyers, journalists, engineers, mechanics, electricians, to bakers and guardsmen.

Migrants and leaders

The Palestinians and Jordanians may have had a good ride for their money as workers and professionals started to send for their families. This was the case with Lebanese, Egyptians and Syrians, and although the comparison was less glaring, nevertheless a migrant community was being formed and built up.

Because of their growing size, compared to that of the small size of the Kuwaiti population, the state started to introduce policies to marginalize the migrant elements of the population.

The stay of migrants in Kuwait was controlled by work-permits and residence permits. They were not allowed to own property but had to rent for Kuwaiti landlords, they didn't have access to public schools but had to go private, and naturalization was almost impossible except for very few. This same is more or less today.

Controlled and dispossessed they nevertheless became an economic source as a Kuwaiti rentier class of landlords developed to provide flats and apartments for single and family migrants.

Kuwaiti landlords benefited from renting to foreign businesses, as well as becoming their legally registered partners through the sponsorship system that regulated relations between resident-migrants and Kuwaiti citizens. In all cases the Kuwaitis merely "lend" their name and did not pay any of the capital but have a right to a share in the profits, sometimes to as much as 50 percent.

All official transactions with government and state had to be done through the Kuwaiti partner, including all work permits and that in turn meant the transfer of considerable amount of monies on a yearly basis from expatriates to Kuwaitis. Much of this was discussed openly by Kuwaiti parliamentarians in the 1980s as shown in the Assembly preceedings.

Family migrants were also a good source of spending and purchasing power in Kuwaiti cooperatives, in commercial centers and other shops and stores. It was the dynamisms of migrants, their spending powers as a result of their monthly salaries that allowed the economy to continue on a monthly basis.

It was the migrants, especially those who had been staying there from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, with their families that came to form a strong strata of purchasing power.

In the early 1980s when there was an attempt by the state to import and rely more on single-migrants, a situation that developed increasingly in the 1990s and spare plugged by the 1991 Gulf War, many Kuwaiti landlords and merchants were worst affected by apartments that lay empty and the low purchasing power in supermarkets and in triggering off general recession.

Their avarice, lack of planning and desire to make more and more profit, had allowed them to build more and more apartment block in the late 1970s and early 1980s but it was clearly a wrong move because many of these were left empty with no one to rent to.

By this time, the state slowly begun to rethink its policies developed in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when the door was open to family migration. While recognizing their importance to certain strata and economic sectors, the state became weary of the dependence of the economy on just one pool of migration.

Such thinking was influence by political factors and security ones, probably as well because of the nature of the international economic system that was offering an even wider labor force at very cheap prices from Asian and Southeast Asia.

Lock, stock and barrel economy

This was the period of the "lock, stock and barrel" economy, where international companies would come in with their work force, build whatever was needed, at low costs and leave whenever the job was done. The state, needn't have worried about the stay of migrants, their pressures on society, nor of their security risk factors.

It was a tug and pull situation that continued till the August of 1991 when Saddam Hussein, then president of Iraq, invaded Kuwait, rendering the country inoperative and started an exodus of most of the family migrants back to their country. Palestinians and Jordanians started coming back to Jordan. The rest like Egyptians, Lebanese and Syrians went back as well as well as many others who flooded the Jordanian border from Iraq to wait for connections to their own country.

At the time of war on Saddam Hussein in early 1991 to kick Iraqi troops out of Kuwait, very few migrants were in the country, and being summer holidays when he entered Kuwait, many Kuwaitis were outside.

However, this decisive period set the migration agenda of the 1990s, in fact till the following decade and now in 2010 and beyond as the "migration mix" was irreparably changed with very few migrant families allowed back into Kuwait.

The reversion to single-migrants became the order of the day. Indians, Pakistanis, Egyptians and Syrian migrants who have no family connections were welcomed. They neither had the political, economic and cultural baggage and pressures that was connected with family migration and family stays.

However in return there was a slump and recession. Single migrants don't rent family apartments, neither do they buy from hypermarkets and they remit much of what they earn out of the country.

The war had not ended Saddam Hussein and Iraqi army but merely pushed it back behind the Iraqi borders and imposed a regime of crippling sanctions on the country that seemed to be aimed at mutilating its people rather than leadership.

And from afar Kuwait continued to feel the pressures of unease and insecurity despite American guarantees and overtures that the "ogre" has been chained.

Politically, there was a new liberalism with the calling of country's National Assembly that continued throughout the 1990s and today with a democratic experiment that continued on-and-off since 1963.

After the 2003 US-led war on Iraq that ended Baathist rule in the country, the people of Kuwait made a breather, and today's high rise oil revenues are making the state even more confident about its role in society despite the grumblings here and there from different social strata about harking to the good old days of family migrants and benefiting from their existence.

Twenty years on, today the economy may have been turned around and no economic strata formed were family migrants play less and less a role in their accumulation. However, there could still be a return to the good old days with Kuwait hosting more family migrants but this is conjectural and whatever happens it will be more controlled.

However, in Kuwait, and unlike the situation in the United Arab Emirates were dependence on non-Arab labor is the norm, there is a tradition of "Arabism" that has long developed and established itself through language, culture, existence and civil interaction and association between Arab migrants and Kuwaitis in spite of the laws and regulations in cooptation by the state.

This would certainly have been due to the fact that more and more Kuwaitis were sent abroad from the late 1940s onwards, especially to Egypt and Lebanon where there was contact with the raising Arab nationalist movement. The liberalist, nationalist trend was another factor as highlighted by the demonstrations that took place in Kuwait as a result of the tripartite attack on Egypt in 1956 and subsequent occurrences.

The strong political trends existent in the country's National Assembly may have proved a very definite awareness factor towards favoring one set of migrants against the other, as proved in the Assembly Proceedings. And if no proof was made the Assembly itself proved over the years that it provided a venue and a conduit were things related to migration, Arabism, preference of one group against another was the order of the day.

The fact that in Kuwait migration went from one to another was also related to the fact that the state, its institutions, and society were becoming much more complex and concerned with other forces impelled on them by either economic development and other external factors.

It’s a short Kuwaiti story with probably full of pigeon holes to fill, and may have been cut short. But it’s a social formation that for me any keeps changing.



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