Kuwait's Modern Spectacle: Oil Wealth and the Making of a New Capital City

By Farah Al-Nakib
Submitted to Session P2348 (New Histories of Oil and Urban Modernity in Iraq, the Persian Gulf and Iran, 2010 Annual Meeting
Urban Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In 1983 the architect Stephen Gardiner wrote the following about Kuwait City: "There was no breathing space between ancient and modern, rags and riches ... The unique creation of oil, the story of this city is astonishing" (Gardiner 1983, p. 14). This paper re-examines the making of modern Kuwait City between 1950 and 1980 by complicating this popular "rags to riches" paradigm that permeates both official state discourse and much of the literature on Kuwait's urbanization. It argues that the "modern" city that replaced the demolished pre-oil town during the first three decades of oil urbanization was more of a spectacle than a lived reality. Although the state exerted much effort and expense between 1951 and 1971 in planning for the development of a capital city to celebrate Kuwait's newfound prosperity and progress, certain unexpected consequences of rapid oil wealth significantly hindered the production of the rational and usable city the state was hoping for. As this paper will demonstrate, a combination of skyrocketing real estate, land speculation, systemic corruption, and weak decision-making in the fifties and sixties rendered the city - whose inhabitants were relocated in new suburbs - an incoherent, undeveloped, and largely vacant space by the early seventies.

This paper goes on to investigate an alternative approach to city-building initiated by the state in the mid-seventies, after the shortcomings of the previous two decades and particularly after the oil boom of 1973. During this period several world-renowned architects were commissioned to design a handful of architectural masterpieces for the city to serve as landmarks of Kuwait's modern capital. However, while certainly decorating the urban landscape, most of the spaces and interstices between these structures remained only minimally developed by the early eighties, making the city little more than an uninhabitable panoply of unconnected dots. Oil thus transformed Kuwait City into a spectacle to put on display rather than a space to be lived in and used by its inhabitants, whose own critiques throughout this period on the inconsistencies between the fatade and reality of Kuwait's "nahda al-'imraniya" ("urban awakening") certainly challenge the modernist success story of oil urbanization in Kuwait.

The sources used in this paper include various master planning documents, architectural journal articles, and local newspapers, all published between the 1950s and 1980s, which collectively record and critique Kuwait's urban progress from the perspectives of the state, professional architects, and its own residents, respectively.