Kuwait City evolved from a collection of Bedouin tents around a well into a small military outpost with a kout (small fort adjacent to water), built in 1672 by the Bani Khalid tribe who came from the Arabian interior to escape drought. The word ‘kout’ evolved to give the city (and indeed the country) its name. The outpost continued to attract Arab nomads who migrated east in the hot weather, but its natural harbour also made it an ideal location for a port. Indeed, it proved such an excellent port that it soon came to handle a lucrative trade in frankincense from Oman, pearls from Bahrain, spices from India, textiles from China and dates from just about everywhere. The port also facilitated the transshipment of goods across the desert to the Syrian port of Aleppo, a journey of two to three weeks. Pilgrims returned in the other direction, great caravans taking sustenance for the onward journey to Mecca.
Walls were built around the city in 1760, 1814 and 1920 in an attempt to define as well as confine the city, and five of the original districts – Qibla, Murgab, Sharq, Dasman and Salhiya – remain. But no number of walls could restrain the oil boom. Within the memory of the older generation, Kuwait City was a nomadic port town and Salmiya consisted of a few mud huts around a tree. Suddenly, within the last two decades, a booming Middle Eastern metropolis has burst from its skin and the city gates are all that remain of the redundant walls. Three successive master plans have tried to give direction to city growth, allowing for generous mortgages and free housing for the needy, but the growth is organic and unstoppable.
The Iraqi invasion in 1990 tore a piece of the heart out of the city, but remarkably most of the landmark buildings remained standing. Barring the fortifications around hotels and embassies, and the mirror searches under cars, a visitor today is never likely to know how much the city suffered.