Accepted Paper:

Settlers or Migrants? The Impossible State of Kuwait  

Author:

Thomas Fibiger (University of Aarhus)

Paper short abstract:

How do people in Kuwait today identify as either ‘settlers’ or ‘migrants’? What does this mean to social life and imaginaries in contemporary Kuwait? And how may long-term perspectives on migration contribute to general anthropological discussions?

Paper long abstract:

Kuwait, in the north-eastern corner of the Arabian peninsula, is an impossible state. Without freshwater and therefore with little resources before the 20th Century discovery of oil, what is today a sprawling metropolis was originally a (non)place people thought they would just travel through, fleeing hardships in neighboring lands. In this paper I will discuss what this means to social life and imaginaries in contemporary Kuwait, and what this long-term perspective may contribute to more general anthropological discussions of ‘why people stay, move or settle in places they wanted to pass through’.

Based on postdoctoral fieldwork for various projects in Kuwait 2013-17 this presentation focuses on how people in this city-state today identify as either ‘settlers’ or ‘migrants’. These categories are cast in the vernacular as ‘urban’ or ‘Bedouin’, ‘bidoun’ (‘locals’ without citizenship), and the overarching Kuwaiti and non-Kuwaiti, the latter category predominantly Asian labour who may settle but can never be settlers.

Modern Kuwait was formed from the early 18th Century onwards by people coming from the inner Arabian peninsula, followed by other people from Persia, Mesopotamia and the Gulf, and more recently global migration. The Gulf region as such is now a migration hub, but Kuwait arguably has a longer historical trajectory of migration than its Gulf neighbours. A town emerged as Kuwait was found a perfect spot to do legal and illegal trade in the imperial borderzone of Ottoman and British spheres of influence, and with oil this town is now a Gulf metropolis of 4 million people, out of which only a third hold, and can aspire to, Kuwaiti citizenship. The question I will address is what such long term structures of migration may contribute to anthropological discussions of and beyond Kuwait.

Panel P089
Stranded in transit. Why people stay, move or settle in a place they wanted to pass through