Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Modernization and Its Discontents: State and Gender in Kuwait

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Modernization and Its Discontents: State and Gender in Kuwait

Article excerpt

THE initiation of commercial exports of oil from Kuwait in 1946 set in train a series of changes affecting not only the economy, but also Kuwaiti social and political life. Prior to the coming of oil, the mainstays of the Kuwaiti economy were trading, fishing, boat-building, and pearling.(1) Kuwaiti society was dominated by the ruling al-Sabah family and a few important merchant families.(2) A tribalist ideology established and supported a status hierarchy among Kuwaiti clans,(3) and a well-entrenched system of paternal and conjugal patriarchy established age and gender hierarchies within them.(4) While most Kuwaitis accepted both hierarchies, the relatively cosmopolitan life-style of the merchant elite encouraged opposition to oppressive domination by the ruling family.(5) A few merchants also ventured far enough beyond the boundaries of patriarchy to educate their daughters.(6) Despite this occasional deviance, however, Kuwaiti social and political life remained remarkably stable in the face of repeated external intervention from European and regional powers, and pressures from an economy experiencing decades-long stagnation.

As oil income flowed into the state, and particularly after the accession of 'Abdallah al-Salim al-Sabah as amir of Kuwait in 1950, resources were channeled to modernize the local economy and improve the living standards of the population.(7) The relative positions of dominant groups in the Kuwaiti social hierarchy were at first undisturbed by these policies. Members of the ruling family, along with wealthy merchants and key government employees, received the lion's share of cash distributions made via the Land Acquisition Policy (LAP), which transferred lands claimed by Kuwaiti citizens to the government.(8) Investment laws, requiring majority Kuwaiti ownership of local businesses, awarded wealthy and well-connected Kuwaiti partners direct benefits from foreign investment, while the establishment of the first Kuwaiti-owned bank in 1952 consolidated the economic dominance of five of the most powerful merchant clans.(9) Although a small group of newly-rich families sprang up, headed by clients of the ruling family who held government jobs enabling them to claim desirable land and win lucrative contracts, for the most part the families that had dominated the Kuwaiti economy prior to the coming of oil continued to do so afterwards.(10) Even the new players conformed substantially to the old rules governing the kin-based organization of state and economy.

The burgeoning oil economy, however, did affect the labor market in ways that undermined the old social and political order. Economic expansion drew a flood of foreign workers to Kuwait. These included skilled professionals such as petroleum engineers, architects, and teachers, as well as semi-skilled and unskilled labor to man the oil and construction industries and fill various occupations in an expanding service sector. The rapidity of economic growth, unconstrained by formal planning, kept demand for foreign labor very high. In 1965, Kuwait's third national census revealed that Kuwaitis had become a minority in their own country, making up only 47 percent of the population.(11) This unwelcome news heightened already existing concerns about the impact of foreign labor on political stability.(12)

Meanwhile, the government had already begun to move on the issue. In August 1962, in conjunction with the passage of Kuwait's first post-independence constitution, a state planning board was established to direct future growth and development by drawing up and supervising the implementation of a series of five-year plans. Recommendations from the first development plan, which covered the period from 1967-68 to 1971-72, left an indelible mark on Kuwaiti society. The recommendations encouraged Kuwaiti women to enter the labor market to limit the influx of foreign workers; advocated placing additional restrictions on foreign labor to enhance security; and urged an increase in welfare benefits and social privileges for Kuwaitis to promote social harmony and political stability. …

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