Kuwait has no obvious long-standing cultural tradition like its neighbour Iraq. Its small population descends from conservative Bedouin communities, and its relationship with modern culture has always been uneasy.
Kuwait’s oil wealth helped transform the country into an economic powerhouse. Kuwait’s boom began in the 1950s and 60s, before the economic expansion of most other states of the Gulf region – in fact, before some of those states had even come into existence. Right from the start, Kuwait intended to develop its culture as well as its economy. This was at the peak of urban Arab culture of Egypt and Lebanon, which established a benchmark for other Arab countries. This process was not only enthusiastically embraced by the Kuwaitis themselves but also, to a large extent, by immigrants from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and especially the Palestinian Territories.
Another obvious role model for Kuwait was its economically and culturally thriving neighbour Iraq, whose large cities were moving towards a regionally coloured modernity. Iraq’s example was much more attractive than that of Kuwait’s other neighbour, Saudi Arabia – that is, until Iraq turned against its small neighbour.
After Iraq invaded the country in 1990 Kuwait’s cultural life was almost obliterated, and the country has hardly recovered. This was due not only to the physical and economic damage and the effect of the Iraqi terror on the Kuwaitis themselves, but also to the fact that many immigrants had left the country. Most of the Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait, because Yasser Arafat’s PLO had maintained good relations with the regime of Saddam Hussein.
But other factors, too, slow Kuwait’s cultural development. Kuwait’s indigenous population is not more conservative than that of the Emirates or Qatar, but Kuwait developed a model of relatively moderate constitutional monarchy, and, through the parliamentary system, conservative parties have a greater say in the course of the country than in other Gulf nations.
Another difference is that the economic and ensuing cultural expansion of the Emirates and Qatar came later, coinciding with the globalization boom that took off in the 1990s. Dubai’s development became a media event. Kuwait could shy away from modernity as unnoticed as it had slipped in, outside the limelight.
The government has always played an important role in the development of Kuwait’s art world, notably through the National Council for Culture, Art, and Letters (NCCAL), which manages the nation’s cultural institutions, including museums.
Kuwait’s internationally orientated modern culture is now the exclusive domain of Kuwait’s globalized upper classes. Art collectors such as Sheikha Paula al-Sabah and her daughter Lula al-Sabah epitomize this underlying social rift in the nation.