Hardship and survival in a barren land is the story of pre-oil Kuwait. Bas Ya Bahar (1972), Kuwait’s first and only feature film, drilled in us a fear of the sea and of a life of toil and hardship. Likewise, museums, festivals, and theater performances celebrating our heritage drew a clear line between past and present.
Contrast this image to the Kuwait of my youth; a city-state under permanent construction, a desert landscape dissected by a criss-cross of highways, some a destination to nonexistent neighborhoods. Interacting with this new landscape required a car, oftentimes two or three to meet the growing demands for mobility in a suburban context. The courtyard home, once housing multiple generations of family members, disappeared, replaced by single family homes styled in a box like fashion, with aluminum framed windows, frequently overlooking motorways. Government ministries abuzz with armies of bureaucrats engaged in endless paperwork. Although emotionally alienating, this newly engineered landscape promised prosperity, comfort and a break from the harsh past.
Transitioning Kuwait from a small port town to a modern nation state, the role of the welfare state was transformative, exhibiting a generosity that had no limits. Free schooling and health provision, a house and a job were pillars of the state’s redistributive policies. Water, electricity and gas, heavily subsidized, were accessible and affordable to all. Being born Kuwaiti was like winning the lottery; a government that took care of you from birth to death, promising a future of ease and possibilities. More importantly, for the older generation of Kuwaitis who had experienced the vagaries of a small and vulnerable economy based on a handful of commodities, this new state of affairs was a relief.
Hardship and survival in a barren land is the story of pre-oil Kuwait. Bas Ya Bahar, Kuwait’s first and only feature film, drilled in us a fear of the sea and of a life of toil and hardship. Likewise, museums, festivals, and theater performances celebrating our heritage drew a clear line between past and present. Even our physical relationship with the sea was interrupted, direct access cut off by an imposing motorway. If any lesson could be learned from a cruel past, it was an appreciation for a benevolent and all-giving present.
And yet, despite a veneer of modernity, a utopia-gone-wrong is how many of us feel about the country’s current state of affairs. Redistributive policies meant to increase living standards and create a modern state bred an unsustainable society. A once productive population was absorbed into an unproductive public sector. Today, almost nine out of 10 Kuwaitis work in the public sector, indulged with shorter working hours, public holidays, and undemanding work. Professions that once built the fabric of our trading economy disappeared, leaving in their wake a vacuum of skills and productivity.
Perhaps the biggest victim of the policies that have guided our development in the past 60 years is our fragile ecology. With only 10 m3 of renewable water resources/inhabitant, Kuwait is possibly the most water poor country in the world. Our reliance on desalination, introduced in the mid 1950’s, has facilitated a forty-fold growth in the country’s population, from a port town of 100,000 people in 1940 to a metropolis of 4.2 million in 2018. A heavily subsidized utility, the consumption — and waste. — of desalinated water is subject to no limits. Rather than price water to reflect its true cost, desalination production capacity continues to soar, and with it the serious costs on our health and environment.
Likewise, with motor gasoline and diesel prices amongst the lowest in the world, the car has become king. Alternative solutions involving public transportation to reduce traffic congestion and pollution have been marginalized because of cheap fuel. Our over-reliance on the car has become a feature of our culture, one that will be impossible to reverse. In a similar vein, with no regulations around waste production, Kuwait is one of the largest producers of demolition, domestic and other waste per capita. With a total of 18 landfills — most of which are managed so precariously that they constitute health and safety hazards— the country has greenhouse gas emissions that are double the global average, and growing.
Yet again, opportunities to increase awareness and responsibilize the citizenry are missed; instead of limiting waste through recycling, re-using and repurposing, we create new landfills.
Stepping back from a dysfunctional present, some of us have chosen to engage with the past in a more meaningful way in the hope of rekindling our sense of agency and finding our way back to sustainability: “the past opens up a multitude of potentialities.” By developing a less superficial understanding of the pre-oil era, the hope is to connect to the essence rather than the form of an earlier time. An appreciation for Kuwait’s fragile ecology is the key to understanding how it shaped the culture, be it livelihoods, architecture, clothing, crafts, cuisine, music and social organization. Feeling the elements on our skin — the unforgiving sun, the fierce winds, the ubiquitous dust — allows us to appreciate the creative solutions used in building, shading, clothing, and storage, among others.
Kuwait’s greater geographic context, which locates us in a trading sphere that extends from the Levant to the Indian Ocean, underscores the value of pragmatism, interdependence and humility in our dealing with others. It is through trade and exchange, not isolation, that we built our cuisine and our music. The ecological reality of a port town surrounded by sea and desert built a culture heavily built on solidarity. The quest for freshwater generated a culture of skills, objects, and professions to manage water provision. The need for shade engendered an architecture that prioritized thick and high walls, the right exposure and proper ventilation. Turning towards the desert, how can we not admire the heightened ecological awareness of the desert dweller and his role in giving birth to a culture of mobility, gentle on the environment, gracious in its hospitality and ingenious for its portability?
Through a better understanding of ecology, sociology, economics, a more complex picture comes to life, allowing us to establish a thread between old and new Kuwait. In this search, the role of livelihoods and local crafts are paramount. The designer and educator Victor Papanek wrote that “the cultural object is both a diagnostic tool and a directional sign indicating the future. [They] reflect not only the tools, materials and processes used but also the climate and priorities of the time and place from which they came.” With this framework in mind, it becomes easy to conceive of a world where past, present and future are linked.
In the transition from past to present, Kuwait was deprived of its present perfect. If we manage to change this predicament, we can start viewing our development differently. We can appreciate the fragility of our ecology and learn to build priorities based on constraints rather than consumption. Combining historical solutions with new technologies and materials to treat endemic challenges like the lack of water and the difficult climate can help us develop a more sustainable approach to urban life. Putting our relationship with nature at center stage can breed a more thoughtful development, less extractive, more reciprocal and hopefully more humble. The task falls on all of us.
At the dawn of the oil age, Kuwait traveled the path to a welfare state to relieve the hardship on its small population and to provide it with the security and comfort that it had heretofore lacked. The side effects of these policies have greatly endangered our environment, compromised our productivity and our sense of agency, bred a sense of entitlement and contributed to a culture of consumption and denial. In a world where renewable energies are quickly rendering fossil fuels less relevant, reversing some of the habits that are increasing our vulnerability and exposing us once again to risk can re-align our priorities and help prepare us for a more productive, satisfying and lasting future.
This article appeared in the March 2020 issue of Khaleejesque magazine: