Dialectical Anthropology

, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 53–84 | Cite as

Gulf societies and the image of unlimited good

  • Sulayman N. Khalaf
Case Studies


In conclusion, a number of theoretical points need to be made. The first relates to the question of the primacy of the economic infrastructure in determining the shape of social institutions and the direction of social change in society. We accept this theoretical position, but still one may ask, why then in the case of Kuwait is it the state which is now dominant in affecting sociocultural life? While appreciating the analytical value of the Marxist thesis which sees that it is the material economic base which in the final instance determines the evolution of society, at the same time we see that this does not mean that the material infrastructural base will also by necessity “dominate” society. For our purposes here Godelier's analytical distinction between what he terms “infrastructural determination” and “superstructural domination”1 is quite useful, and provides an adequate explanation as to why the state has come to be dominant in Gulf societies. Godelier argues that in both historical and contemporary comparative cases where superstructures (kinship, religion, the state, etc.) appeared to be dominant in society, such superstructures always functioned as a relation of production. For a social institution and/or an activity to play a dominant role in the functioning and evolution of society, “it must necessarily, in addition to its own ostensible purpose and explicit functions, function directly and internally as a relation of production.”2

Godelier's proposed hypothesis turns the analytical focus not so much on what the social relations or institutions are, but rather on “what they do, or better, make people do.”3 It is evident in the discussion above that the state structure in Kuwait, due to the peculiarities of the oil economy and other social factors, has come to play (in addition to its explicit political functions) a very important and again explicit economic role. The oil state controls not only the means of production and allocation of wealth, but simultaneously functions as a controller of the relations of production in society.

The second point relates to an earlier reference made about George Foster's conceptualization of the “image of limited good.”4 Unlike the “cognitive” conceptual formulation made by Foster two decades ago about peasant society, our argument in this paper emphasizes that “the image of the unlimited good” is a derivative social and psychocultural phenomenon resulting from the impact of broader economic and historical transformations which have been taking place in recent years in the oil-rich Arab Gulf countries. The major shortcoming in Foster's analysis of the peasants' image of limited good is that he relies only on cognitive formulation and does not go beyond the limitations of derivative analysis.

The third point ties in with our note on Foster's formulation. It emphasizes the fact that it is the broader impersonal socioeconomic conditions that in the final analysis produce certain images in a given society at a given time. These conditions also determine, but may not necessarily dominate, the forms and other cultural peculiarities these images may take. In fact, it has recently become noticeable that the image of the unlimited good has begun to shrink in people's minds, especially after the 1982–83 Al-Manakh stock market crash in Kuwait and the recent dramatic downfall in oil prices.

Since we are using a Marxist socioeconomic perspective in our analysis one may ask whether there are no contradictions in this Kuwaiti image of the unlimited good. I believe that the absence of discussion on contradictions does not create an analytical gap. We have shown in the preceding discussion that the emergence of the “oil welfare state” with its tremendous capacities to dominate society as a result of its lavish “wealthfarism”5 and its role as a controller of wealth in society has enabled it to accomodate for the rising needs and expectations of a small society. In addition, the existence of other socioeconomic and political conditions and variables—such as smallness, expatriate labor force, national and ethnic loyalties still overshadowing real class loyalties, the short historical period for this social experiment of oil wealth, and so on — has helped in repressing the rise of contradictions along class lines.

Moreover, a discourse which shows how it is possible for new socioeconomic conditions to arrest, at least for a given time period, the development of contradictions can competently follow a Marxist mode of analysis. I see, therefore, no analytical disjunction arising from the fact that a Marxist perspective has been used while at the same time we have tried to elucidate the nature of the forces and conditions which have brought about harmony epitomized by the image of the unlimited good. Such an elucidation has also aided us in seeing why it is satisfaction and acceptance of the economicopolitical system, and not contradictions, that have come to prevail in modern Kuwait.

We also note at the end of our discussion how change in the larger impersonal socioeconomic conditions since 1984 has begun generating not only new perceptions away from the image of the umlimited good but also immature class contradictions and consciousness expressing themselves in mystified forms of envy of the super-rich or rivalry with expatriates.

The last important fact is that perceptions, images and worldviews do not have a functional autonomy of their own. Images always need to be grounded.

  1. 1.

    M. Godelier, \ldInfrastructures,\rd 1978.

  2. 2.

    Ibid., p. 765.

  3. 3.

    Ibid., p. 765.

  4. 4.

    G. Foster, \ldPeasant Society,\rd 1967.

  5. 5.

    M. Nagi, \ldDimensions of Dependency,\rd 1968.


Limited Good Functional Autonomy Stock Market Crash Cultural Peculiarity Arab Gulf Country 
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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1992

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  • Sulayman N. Khalaf

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