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Tradition matters in the Gulf. Alongside the shimmering skyscrapers and fancy new malls, there are constant reminders of a culture that draws deeply from the past. In the heart of Kuwait City, such reminders exist in the form of diwaniyyas. Some of these diwaniyyas are far older than the country itself, having achieved independence in 1961. These historic diwaniyyas have a museum-like feel, with wooden beams on the ceilings and walls lined with archival photographs and letters. Yet diwaniyyas continue to play a major role, not only in the Kuwaiti national discourse but in the fabric of everyday life. This role, however, is being challenged by alternative public spaces and wildly popular technology.
A Venue and a Way of Life
The diwaniyya is a physical space where Kuwaitis meet to socialize and exchange ideas. It is an empowered version of the majlis concept that exists elsewhere in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and an institution that hosts many conversations on governance and politics. It was in the diwaniyya that the people nominated Al-Sabah (the ruling family) to a position of leadership, and it is largely in the diwaniyya that candidates running for a spot in the National Assembly, the parliamentary body, make their pitch to constituents and vie for influence. Within the walls of the diwaniyya, discussions are often political and quite open in terms of criticizing and questioning the government. This is in stark contrast to the citizens of places like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who much less frequently talk about politics in an informal and brutally honest manner.
Diwaniyyas, which typically represent a family or notable individual, also play host to engagement parties, weddings, and occasions of mourning. It is an all-encompassing environment, where Kuwaitis gossip and watch football, debate fiercely over politics and everything in between. While the diwaniyya is marked by an open-door policy and oftentimes encourages the free-flowing mixture of different demographic groups, it is essentially a male-only space. There are a number of exceptions, but the idea of women’s diwaniyyas has enjoyed very limited success.
The diwaniyya has endured through a period of rapid and sometimes abrupt change, though not entirely unscathed. While it will remain a fundamental pillar of the Kuwaiti way of life for the foreseeable future, its meaning has been diluted by new attitudes and, increasingly, more competition from other venues and social media.
The Diwaniyya Moves Offsite and Online
If the diwaniyya is the native, historically-substantive location for gatherings, a number of invasive species have emerged. Young Kuwaitis now have the option to meet at a constantly expanding world of malls, coffee shops, shisha cafes, beach chalets, and other outlets. In some cases, the diwaniyya may be lost in the shuffle for a new generation of Kuwaiti men, who can instead meet at fashionable, co-ed destinations or smoke hookah far from the watchful eyes of their fathers and uncles. These college-aged men may only feel the need to visit the diwaniyya when absolutely necessary. There too may be a strong disconnect for the thousands of Kuwaitis who study in the West. Nevertheless, there are many that routinely visit their friends’ diwaniyyas, host their own, and sit with their families on the formal diwaniyya day.
Nothing disrupts tradition quite like technology. Social media usage in Kuwait is extraordinarily high, as it is throughout the GCC. In a land of Snapchat celebrities and Instagram superstars, where does the old-fashioned diwaniyya fit into the equation? One way is by loosening the definition of the term. There are now “virtual diwaniyyas” in the form of WhatsApp groups, where catching up with one’s circle of friends and arguing about foreign policy can be done digitally with little energy expended. The convenience of WhatsApp is highly appealing, and adding and removing group members is practically effortless. It is not clear to what extent the government is monitoring such applications, but that possibility is something that many are aware of.
For the casual diwaniyya, this is a somewhat acceptable substitution. Yet, it is no match for physically attending a diwaniyya. There remain considerable advantages of attending a formal diwaniyya, with its dress code and strict hierarchy. Maybe it is outdated, but the process of taking several hours to sip coffee and tea, exchange pleasantries, and reinforce relationships matters immensely. If a Kuwaiti wants to cash in a favor, utilize the wasta system, where connections are used to get things done, to streamline a business deal, or ask the Minister of Oil about the shaky petroleum market, the diwaniyya is the most logical place to achieve such aims.
Equally important is the designation of the diwaniyya as a safe and respected space, which provides an impressive level of comfort and protection for attendees. While there have been numerous cases of courts handing out draconian sentences to Kuwaitis for speaking out online, there is a clear sense that one can speak freely in the diwaniyya. The diwaniyya will continue to be a pivotal zone for Kuwaitis to discuss subjects considered taboo in other venues, express frustrations with the status quo, and question the government, without an electronic trail for the authorities to monitor. Generally speaking, there are two red lines in terms of criticism: Islam and the Emir, though these topics are surely broached in some diwaniyyas.
The Future of the Diwaniyya
Nowadays, the tone in the diwaniyya is less politically charged. The atmosphere is a far cry from that of 1989-1990, when in a dramatic and violent episode the government forcibly shut down the Monday diwaniyyas where the opposition was protesting the dissolution of the parliament and the suspension of the constitution. In an unprecedented move, the regime employed tactics such as riot police, dogs, and stun grenades to deter participants. With tensions sky high, the aftermath resulted in a snap election which once again demonstrated how critical the diwaniyya is to political expression in Kuwait. Recently, there has been a lull in the opposition camp that fared so well in the elections of 2012. Many of the youth activists that used to fiercely represent the opposition post-2011 have lost interest and no longer carry the same level of conviction. The present National Assembly members were elected during an opposition boycott and are decidedly pro-regime, but this may well change in the near future, as Kuwaiti politics is far from predictable.
The diwaniyya crowd has plenty to talk about though, without focusing on internal politics, such as the situation in the nearby warzones of Syria and Yemen. And of course, the conversation in the diwaniyya is not always intellectual. Diwaniyyas can sometimes resemble the American “man cave,” where young men pass hours with frivolous chatting, playing cards and video games, and watching television. However, the diwaniyya continues to reflect the intensely political nature of the Kuwaiti population.
The diwaniyya is not an endangered species. It simply no longer has a monopoly on Kuwaiti social life as in the past. While young Kuwaitis may rebel against the conventional, and stray from its reach, the diwaniyya, will remain central to the social life of the country. One practical example relates to something weighing heavily on every bachelor’s mind: marriage. When a Kuwaiti woman’s family is evaluating a potential husband, they may well look into which diwaniyyas he regularly attends, if any. This can be a strong indication of his character, contacts, and political or religious leanings. In a culture that emphasizes heritage and close family ties to a great extent, the diwaniyya is a well-entrenched guardian of such values. The diwaniyya is still an essential setting in the story of Kuwait; there are just a lot more smartphones around.
recently concluded a Fulbright Scholarship in Kuwait, where he researched the diwaniyya in affiliation with the American University of Kuwait. Prior to that, he studied at Johns Hopkins University as a political science major focusing on the Gulf and greater Middle East. He is a former intern with the Middle East practice at the Albright Stonebridge Group in Washington, DC.
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