Nakib's book assesses the influence of massive oil wealth on Kuwait's rapid urbanization and failing social cohesion. Urbanization, she maintains, has brought about "growing intolerance toward outsiders ... volatile tensions between social groups ... inertia of the average citizen, [and] the lack of concern for the public good."
Kuwait City, founded in 1716, soon became the seat of power of the Sabah royal family, which rules the country to this day. Development was initially haphazard, motivated by the family's attempts to enrich itself although initially this was done through trade and boat building. Oil, discovered in 1938, extended the reach of the state, and this was reflected in the city's development where state and merchants cooperated in moving townspeople to the suburbs while the urban centers declined. Bedouin and foreigners were also kept separate.
According to the author, Kuwait City had once been a center of "hybrid, open, tolerant cosmopolitanism," but after the discovery of oil, the city became a hub of wealth and power, at the expense of those positive attributes. Instead, urban life was decimated and became narrow-minded, divided, and insular.
The section on Kuwait's history is illuminating, full of rich detail and analysis, and makes it recommended reading. But then Nakib moves on to an idealized, utopian future that seems divorced from reality. True, Kuwait is more democratic than most Arab states—but only for the minority who are citizens. Nakib's conclusion that a revitalization of the urban center can "open up new opportunities for social becoming and belonging" that "transcend the barriers of formal citizenship" seems a fantasy. A truly empowered and participatory democracy involving non-citizens is highly unlikely, particularly with the drop in oil prices and the ensuing shrinking of resources for allocation and redistribution.