In simple translation, Kuwait is the Little Fort. To Europeans who skimmed the surface of Arabia for five hundred years or so it was a sandy littoral, a lip of the Gulf, south of Basra, which gave them no great need to pause in their tracks. They also called it Qurain, the Little Horn. Or Grane, or sometimes Grain.
Today, it is one of the richest nations on earth, engaged in a massive experiment in social welfare and democracy, maintaining on one level its traditional Arab character--stoic, proud, fatalist--while on the other it balances a modern economy, generated by a gush of oil of almost unimaginable abundance.
Perhaps the duality of Kuwait is best revealed by its visual contrasts. By dhows, often neglected, yet altogether more patently to do with the crafts of shipbuilding and the skills of seamanship than the gigantic oil tankers which nowadays lumber to and from its oil jetties. By the herdsmen who come and go as they have come and gone for several thousands of years, with their camels and sheep and goats, accepting without question the oil wells and electrical transformers which they pass on their way. By bedu encampments whose goathair tents are juxtaposed to desert villages with bristling television aerials. By a vast expanse of modern building that is almost alarming in its manifestations of architectural fallibility, dwarfing the few remaining mud-brick houses of the old city.
Kuwait is not, of course, alone in its contrasts. It would be a dull country that could not boast variety of scene and mood. But Kuwait's go deeper than most. It has always looked two ways--across the desert towards Mecca and out into the Gulf. Its present is highlighted by the confrontation of past and future; of a past which made a singular virtue of faith and a future which is pointed unhesitatingly towards technocracy and material well-being. Its merits and its frailties (for like every nation it has both), have their origins in the early history of Arabia, even in its prehistory; in the Islamic faith and the character of a desert race; in the political stances of imperial powers; in the fuel hunger of the world and the ingenuity of present-day technology.
One of the State's first planning advisers, the late Dr Saba Shiber, put it thus: "Yesterday there was old Kuwait; today new Kuwait. Yesterday and today are literally a stone's throw away in space, and fifteen years apart in time. The story of pre-oil and post-oil Kuwait is extraordinary and unique. . . ."