Undergraduate Honors Theses

Thesis Defended

Spring 2018

Document Type


Type of Thesis

Departmental Honors



First Advisor

John Willis

Second Advisor

John Stevenson


The ascension to power of Shaykh Mubarak al-Sabah in 1896 has been treated by many historians as the beginning of the modern Kuwaiti state. With the bloody murder of the Shaykh Muhammad and his brother Jarrah, leadership of the al-Sabah family fell without further contention into Mubarak’s lap. In the cosmopolitan, trade driven urban society that characterized the port city of the nineteenth century, however, this transition of power meant little to the merchant families that operated as Kuwait’s de facto government. Similarly, a narrative familiar to states’ across the broader Gulf region, the discovery of oil in 1938 and its later commercial export in 1946 is often treated a historical rupture point through which a previously medieval Kuwaiti society was transformed over night into a modern state. Referred to as Gulf exceptionalism, this model of understanding Kuwaiti history is, as argued by Farah al-Nakib in his 2016 Kuwait Transformed, an ineffective approach as it largely ignores both the political and social processes at work in the pre-oil urban center. The Kuwaiti state that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century can be understood in neither terms of monarchical sovereignty nor material wealth but rather through an exploration of the processes of governance in which the rational of state was fundamentally renegotiated.

While the development of the state in Kuwait is best understood as a historically extended process, individual episodes nevertheless provide indications of its direction. Departing from the poles of Mubarak’s accession to power and the discovery of oil, the 1912-1923 project of establishing a permanent supply of fresh water speaks to the development of a state rooted in environmental mastery, the language of expertise, and a self conscious awareness of the biopolitical. Concerning itself with “economic observations, of the problems of birthrate, longevity, public health, housing, and migration” the category of “bio power” deals with population as a mass category that can be arranged and rearranged at the discretion of the state. In the case of Kuwait, the development of the biopolitical was inextricably linked to environmental mastery. This rational of governance defined the period of urban development discussed by al-Nakib, however its birth far preceded oil era modernization in the advent of the Kuwait water scheme in 1912. Aimed at extending al-Sabah power over the endemic condition of water scarcity, the scheme redefined the category of population in terms of its material requirements and enforced a biological discipline derived from the state’s ownership of “the right to make live and let die”. Similar to developments identified in John Willis’s “Governing the living and the dead: Mecca and the emergence of the Saudi biopolitical state”, the rational of the al-Sabah governance became an “administration of and intervention in human life” rooted in the goal of environmental mastery. The biopolitical and environmental rational of the Kuwaiti state was thus well defined well before the discovery of oil in 1938.