Destructive Development: Forgetting Kuwait’s Past Through Demolition and Heritage

By Farah Al-Nakib
Submitted to Session P2718 (Memory, History, and Forgetting in the Arab Gulf, 2011 Annual Meeting
Urban Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In 1950 Kuwait launched an oil modernization project that entailed the creation of a new city as a symbol of its rising prosperity and progress. The mass demolition of the pre-oil urban landscape that ensued was not only a means of clearing space for this city; it was a conscious act of erasure, of deliberately shedding Kuwait’s past while dreaming of a better future. This process was common to universal experiences of modernity; as Andreas Huyssen argues: “The price paid for progress was the destruction of past ways of living and being in the world ... And the destruction of the past brought forgetting” (Present Pasts, 2). At the same time, however, select aspects of Kuwait’s history were evoked in spaces like the National Museum, established in 1960, which displayed reconstructions of rapidly disappearing urban scenes like old courtyard houses with clay figures sitting on the floor. Such musealized representations of the city’s pre-oil era had an important role to play in the post-oil modernist agenda: as proof of the superiority of Kuwait’s present—its rational planning, advanced healthcare, progressive schools, and luxurious villas—in contrast to its more “primitive” past. Though explicitly involved in acts of memory, such heritage sites helped Kuwait move on from the recent past.

Since 2003 the modern landscape created after 1950 has itself undergone mass demolition to be replaced by something newer still. This time, however, nothing from the early oil period is being retained or memorialized, while previously neglected pre-oil sites are renovated and given new pride of place on the changing urban landscape. The demolition of the early oil city in conjunction with the reification of the pre-oil past in the production of Kuwait’s postmodern cityscape creates a direct link between the pre-oil era and today while eliminating everything that happened in between. Memories of Kuwait’s post-1950 modernization, it seems, serve no purpose in the present, and the absence of conservation of any aspect of this era alongside its demolition creates a double-act of forgetting.

This paper analyzes and compares the role that both demolition and heritage have played in fostering the erasure of Kuwait’s past during two major urban development cycles (1950-1980 and 2003-today). Through a close examination of state development plans, heritage projects, and public rhetoric in official publications and newspaper articles from both periods, I investigate how and what Kuwait forgets through the constant redevelopment of its built environment.