The evolution of the role of merchants in Kuwaiti politics

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis studies the historical evolution of mercantile influence in Kuwaiti politics from the historical beginnings of Kuwait until the 1990 Iraqi invasion. Primary archival material and arguments from the field of political economy are utilised, particularly relying on the concepts of structural and instrumental powers for analysis. The main conclusion is that there was a shift from merchants' reliance on structural powers in the pre-oil era to a utilisation of instrumental powers after oil began to be exported.
Pre-oil, local rulers depended on mercantile economic activity to generate state revenues and provide local employment. Merchants could use these structural powers to influence and punish rulers. This is vividly illustrated in the 1910 episode of the migration of the pearl merchants and the 1921 and 1938 council movements demanding more executive powers.
Oil exports freed the government from its historical dependence on merchants for both finance and employment. Merchants' structural powers started to erode and they had to shift to instrumental powers to influence the political sphere. They also had to contend with the rising political roles of other social groups, including the Bedouin and the Shi‘a. Thus merchants had to diversify their strategies for political influence. These included becoming active in parliamentary politics, participating in the emerging state bureaucracy, establishing chambers of commerce, setting up media outlets and forming alliances with other forces in society.
Although merchants were part of one economic class, they formed a group of notables which was not necessarily politically cohesive and frequently exhibited differing political actions, particularly on non-economic issues. It is therefore important to move away from the view that merchants were a homogenous group and towards a more nuanced understanding at the micro- and meso-level that links individuals with the institutions and networks in which they operated. Factors such as political ideology also played an important role in the actions of individual members.
Date of Award2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorRory Miller (Supervisor) & Michael Kerr (Supervisor)

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