Shiber's City: Palestinian Urbanism in Kuwait

By Farah Al-Nakib
Submitted to Session P3012 (Forgotten Legacy: Palestinians in Kuwait, 2012 Annual Meeting
Archit & Urb Plng
Kuwait; Palestine;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
In 1946, Kuwait embarked on an enormous urbanization project steered by oil and conceived by British planners. Since Kuwaitis did not possess the skills to implement these complex plans, Palestinians filled the necessary posts in the Municipality and Public Works Department. Early Palestinian migrants played a central role in shaping Kuwait’s built environment in the first decades of its modernization.

The most substantial contributor to Kuwait’s early spatial development was Palestinian-American Saba George Shiber. As Kuwait’s chief architect and planning adviser from 1960 to 1968, Shiber represented what Henri Lefebvre calls the “planning of men of good will.” Such planners “associate themselves to an old classical and liberal humanism. This is not without a good dose of nostalgia” (Writings on Cities 83). Disappointed by the failures and missed opportunities of the 1950s, Shiber championed Arab city planning over the intrusion of British “experts” he felt had destroyed Kuwait’s landscape. The next few years under his direction represented Kuwait’s most coherent, successful, and indeed “humanist” era of city planning. After 1968 the state reverted back to the destructive “abstract” planning both Shiber and Lefebvre abhorred.

This paper examines Shiber’s redesign of the Central Business District, the “historical and sentimental” urban core where Kuwait was first settled that after 1950 grew to be "the thorniest and most unwieldy area” (Kuwait Urbanization 161-162). His design plan transformed the area into the city's most spatially organized and architecturally dynamic district. Based on Shiber’s writings and on interviews with users of his spaces then and now, this paper examines the significance of this district to Kuwaiti urbanism in the 1960s and revisits Shiber’s urban legacy today.

Fifty years on, the buildings in this district run the risk of demolition. In the last five years, however, young Kuwaiti entrepreneurs have renovated and revitalized one block where they have opened new homegrown shops and restaurants. This strip has become a symbol of national pride—a spatial reflection of young Kuwaitis’ newfound creativity in what has become a franchise-culture. This rare case of bottom-up regeneration has saved the area from demolition and has thereby safeguarded Shiber’s legacy. Yet, as this paper shows, none who occupy or frequent these lively businesses know that the space was his creation. The absence of recognition of Shiber’s work in this area reinvented as a space of Kuwaiti innovation erases this distinctly Palestinian legacy to Kuwait’s urbanism.