[P6023] Excavating Modernity in the Arab Gulf: The Case of Kuwait

Created by Farah Al-Nakib
Tuesday, 10/06/20 11:00 am


In his book on Dubai, Ahmed Kanna astutely recognizes that, “Today it still seems acceptable to present the Arab Gulf in ways no longer so acceptable” of other postcolonies: as traditional, tribal, religiously conservative, and struggling to retain authenticity in the face of overwhelming change (2011: 1). While Gulf rulers are sometimes described as obsessive modernizers steering their societies, for better or worse, into the hypermodernity of 21st century globalism, citizens are portrayed as either passively accepting these top-down changes or lamenting the “loss of local, Islamic values as their countries become enmeshed in global economic systems” (Exell 2016: 69). Tropes commonly drawn upon to depict Gulf societies as inherently bound to tradition and apprehensive of modernity include the existence of strict labor and citizenship laws that seek to preserve a cohesive national identity distinct from foreigners; the persistence of kin-based tribalism and/or upsurge of Islamism in political and social institutions; and the proliferation of heritage-based discourses and practices in local culture industries. However, as Kanna argues, such recourses to tradition in the contemporary Gulf are not “traditional” at all but are specific responses to the experiences of early oil modernity (31).

While significant strides have been made in the literature of the broader Middle East to counter orientalist depictions of the region as a timeless “repository of tradition … the Gulf seems a recalcitrant holdout” (Kanna 2011: 3). Most scholarly literature that examines the experiences of early- to mid-twentieth century modernity in the Middle East has overlooked the Gulf’s contributions to the formation of a postcolonial Arab modernism. This has been exacerbated by the deluge of social scientific research on the Gulf’s transformations since the late 1990s (especially the UAE and Qatar), which has created the impression that the region only really began to modernize in the context of late 20th century globalization.

This panel disrupts the “tradition versus modernity” dichotomy by which the Arab Gulf is persistently studied. With specific focus on Kuwait, the papers analyze how many facets of the contemporary Gulf assumed to be grounded in “traditional” or “conservative” values—labor laws, tribal politics, Islamist institutions, heritage cultures—were in fact modern products of and responses to modern problems originating in the early oil decades (1950s-1980s). In so doing, these papers excavate the agency of diverse social groups (workers, tribes, intellectuals, artists) alongside that of the state in the construction of a distinct Kuwaiti postcolonial modernity.


Association for Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies (AGAPS)


Art/Art Hist; Hist; Pol Science; Socio



Daniel Tavana

(Pennsylvania State University)
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;