Kuwait: Social Change in Historical Perspective

By Jacqueline S. Ismael | Go to book overview

Introduction

GROUP OF SOCIETIES IN THE ARAB GULF HAS EMERGED onto the contemporary world scene that possesses a profound significance to the international political and economic order which is surprising in terms of its minute geographic and population dimensions. Because of their vast oil and financial resources, these small societies in effect impinge directly upon the jugular vein of the advanced industrial world. In spite of their significance to the contemporary world order, however, we understand little of the social dynamics that have shaped and are affecting them. This case analysis of social change in one of these societies -- Kuwait -- is an effort to provide a systematic analysis of the historical and contemporary processes of change in the region.

Contemporary Kuwait is one of the super-affluent, oil rich shaikhdoms of the Arab Gulf. These societies occupy an anomolous position in terms of theories of modernization, development, and dependency. Rather than reflecting the poverty and instability characteristic of other Third World societies, they are capital-surplus nations with the highest standards of living in the world. Under the impact of affluence from oil wealth, they have passed from traditional tribal shaikdoms subject to British colonial administration to independent urban-cosmopolitan centers of world finance and trade within a decade or two -- and they have experienced these phenomenal transformations under relative sociopolitical stability.

Given the magnitude and rapidity of change, it appears that affluence itself is the primary explanatory variable of social change. A before affluence / after affluence framework does indeed describe the degree and rate of change, but does not explain the social dynamics--the people and events--that have shaped the trajectory of change in the region. The challenge of the analysis of social change is to identify and examine the patterns that emerge in the unfolding of history through people and events. These patterns are revealed by the characteristics of continuity as well as change. In this framework, affluence itself is only one of the characteristics. The relationship between past and present -- between continuity and change -- is the primary analytic problem.

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