Historically, various factors, such as the need for better resources, humanitarian aid, and military support, have driven governments to decide how much they want to incorporate globalization into their country. In Kuwait, it is primarily the need and demand for foreign goods and labor that expatriate workers make up two-thirds of Kuwait’s population. This demographic make-up has become part of Kuwait’s landscape and a reason behind changes that are occurring. Wheeler (2000) investigates how elements of globalization in the form of media and technology affect Kuwaiti national identity. In her research she found that the reason “Kuwaiti media space is so penetrated by foreign discourse is that Kuwait feels it necessary to provide for all the needs of its residents, which means allowing US, Asian, Middle Easterners, and European media to be regularly accessible in Kuwait, via satellite TV … the Internet etc.” (Wheeler 2000: 436). The unrestricted flow of ideas and images provided by satellite TV caused some discomfort among some of the population. However, Wheeler (2000) reported that “the government’s response is “to adopt an open skies policy”, whereby the government views “watching satellite stations as a personal choice”, and suggests that “those who don’t agree should not buy dishes”” (Wheeler 2000: 440). Furthermore, rather than restrict foreign TV programs, the Kuwaiti government made attempts to encourage the production of local TV programs and “provide competitive programming with which to woo local audiences away from the foreign channels” (Wheeler 2000: 440). Nevertheless, foreign movies and TV shows, in particular American shows, remains to be more popular than local and regional productions. The way of life portrayed in American television programs was often mentioned as an example of the source of ideas about westernization. Through her research, Wheeler found that despite the preference to watching American TV shows, and the overwhelming number of Kuwaitis who watch American TV shows versus local or regional ones, Kuwaitis did not see it as something that affected their national identity. Rather she found that it is the “country’s pre-existing identity structures, like the meaning of oil … help to secure a sense of Kuwaiti fellow feeling that is not shaken by global media alternatives” (Wheeler 2000: 433). Therefore, while all this ‘other’ influence may seem to be a form of cultural imperialism and people may be arguing that local culture is being lost, perhaps another perspective should be taken. First of all, “a simple generalization of a direct link between images in media space and national consciousness” cannot be made (Wheeler 2000: 437). Moreover, “the act itself of allowing the free flow of foreign media within Kuwaiti national space is perhaps more symbolic of Kuwaiti identity than the meaning of the texts themselves” (Wheeler 2000: 437). The changes in the country are not happening at the cost of local identity but rather they are becoming part of local identity.
Despite the fact that globalization creates a space for foreign influences to enter a country, the host country still has some control over the effects of this change. Import bans and censorship are two methods that governments can use to control the amount of commercial globalization that develops in a society. These two methods are employed in Kuwait; anything that is determined by the government to be against local values is censored. For example, due to their adoption of Sharia (Islamic) law, the Kuwaiti government has banned alcohol in the country, unlike some of its neighbors, such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Moreover, although satellite TV cannot be censored, other forms of media are edited. For example, there are only a limited number of DVD stores throughout the country, and even then, their supply is restricted to ones that have been approved by the Ministry of Information. Although the latest movies are shown in movie theaters, they are also checked and censored – up to the point where even a kiss in cartoons, such as in the wedding scene in Shrek III, is cut. The Internet is another popular site whereby there is relatively unrestricted access to all kinds of information. Even ones that are blocked by the Ministry of Information can be accessed via a proxy server.
These examples show that in spite of the evidence of globalization in Kuwait, the phenomenon is not a rampant takeover that is wiping out the country’s culture overnight. Wheeler notes that even though there is widespread access to foreign media, “in most cases, local identity structures are strong enough to influence the use of new media tools in line with local norms and values” (Wheeler 2000: 443). Despite being a cosmopolitan society, the government has taken measures to implement laws that they feel are important for their country. Therefore, it is important to consider the context in which the influences of globalization are occurring. This involves a discourse of politics and power and is controlled by a country’s economic needs. Kuwait, being financially self-sufficient, is not dependent on other countries for monetary aid. However, it does rely on foreign assistance in terms of products and services.
Given the fact that Kuwait’s production base is mainly comprised of oil, the country relies heavily on the import of foreign commodities and labor. As a result, Kuwait has a multicultural landscape. However, even though the presence of multiple cultures and nationalities may trigger some form of change, it does not guarantee the deterioration or oppression of the local culture. This circumstance represents the “plural character of culture” which occurs as a “result of the contact between cultural communities and of the consumption of cultural commodities” (Kumaravadivelu 2008: 12). It is important to note that he describes a “plural character’ and does not consider culture to be one dimensional. This plurality is evident in Kuwait. For example, there is a divide between the Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country. The conflicting ideologies and agendas of these two groups of people infiltrate the politics of the country, which in turn affects the people. Despite Kuwait being one nation, the societal divides about local issues are complex enough without even bringing influences from other countries and cultures into the picture.
Tomlinson (1999) defined the cultural imperialism thesis as “the idea that certain dominant cultures threaten to overwhelm other more vulnerable ones” and indicates that it addresses “a number of fairly discrete discourses of domination: of America over Europe, of the core over the periphery” (Tomlinson 1999:80). Dunch (2002) shares Tomlinson’s view and claims that there are some people who view
the global consumption of American cultural products as the new opiate of the masses, the sign of an emerging homogenized world culture of capitalist consumption, controlled by Western media corporations and undermining class solidarity and third world revolutionary potential. (Dunch 2002: 304)
The basic premise of these perspectives suggests that with the distribution of consumer goods – the ones that are dominating the market – a culture is also being spread. Consequently, users of the consumer products are in fact participating in a foreign culture. As a result of incorporating elements of a foreign culture, their local culture is being suppressed.
Importing international goods, hiring expatriate employees, and investing in foreign-made technology are all consequences of globalization. However, does this “distribution of a capitalist monoculture”, as Tomlinson (1999: 81-83) calls it, lead to a “single hegemonic ‘homogenized’ global culture”? Tomlinson cites Schiller’s (1979) theory that globalization “determines global culture: in the distribution of commercialized media products containing the ethos and values of corporate capitalism and consumerism [which is] now conceived in terms of a cultural totality – a ‘way of life’ and a ‘developmental path’ for developing nations to follow” (Tomlinson 1999: 81-2). This would suggest that “interaction with these goods penetrates deeply into the way in which we construct our ‘phenomenal worlds’ and make sense of our lives” (Tomlinson 1999: 83). Thus, the cultural imperialism theory is suggesting that the superficial flow of consumer goods has the capability to invade and occupy local cultures and belief systems. However, this does not mean that we all share one culture. More importantly, one has to consider whether sharing this capitalist monoculture leads to the destruction of local national culture. Is Tomlinson right in claiming that if “we assume that the sheer global presence of these goods is in itself token of a convergence towards a capitalist monoculture, we are probably utilizing a rather impoverished concept of culture – one that reduces culture to its material goods” (Tomlinson 1999:83 emphasis in original)? I would argue that culture is not that easily penetrable. A Kuwaiti having an Americana coffee at Starbucks is no more American than an American eating sushi with chopsticks is Japanese. Culture, beliefs, ideologies, and identity go a lot deeper than the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the consumer practices we follow. As Bernstein notes, “[c]onsumer culture has spread very fast and comprehensively. On the other hand, the cultural values certainly diffuse less easily than the consumer images flashing on television screens in almost every home on the globe” (Bernstein 2002: 245). Thus, while it cannot be denied that the mixing of multiple ‘cultures’ has some effect on the local environment, it is a far stretch to say that the locals are being dominated and that their ‘culture’ is so weak that it cannot resist, reject, or react to globalizing changes. Moreover, the notion of ‘culture’ is complex and cannot be interpreted as a definitive, restrictive label; even within a single nationality, there are multiple cultures represented based on people’s beliefs, ideas, and behaviors.
Despite the interconnectedness that results from globalization, it is important to acknowledge that the connectivity “doesn’t make all places the same, but creates globalized spaces and connecting corridors which ease the flow of capital by matching the time-space compression of connectivity” (Tomlinson 1999: 7). The connection of spaces and the blurring of borders have made it so that “the map of the world has no divinely or dogmatically sanctioned spaces, essences, or privileges” (Said 1994: 377). Regardless of this fact, each individual is able to construct his/her own unique space based on his/her own experiences and preferences. This attention focused on globalization has brought into question whether or not people see “a threat, real or perceived, to their own cultural way of life, compelling them to take active measures to preserve and protect their traditional cultural identities” (Kumaravadivelu 2008: 138).
It is important to note that not everybody sees the changes as a threat. Therefore, it is a continuous struggle with identity and positioning within society. There are some members who want to follow tradition and avoid negotiating with the effects of globalization. There are others who approve of the concept of ‘managed globalization’, and there are still others who want to see a complete change in their society, incorporating the elements of globalization into their constantly evolving identities. The negotiation process is continuous.
Bernstein, A. (2002) ‘Globalization, Culture, and Development: Can South Africa be More than an offshoot of the west?’ in Berger, P. & Huntington, S. Many Globalizations: Cultural diversity in the contemporary world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dunch, R. (2002) ‘Beyond cultural imperialism: Cultural theory, Christian missions, and Global Modernity” History and Theory 41 pp. 301-325.
Kumaravadivelu, B. (2008) Cultural Globalization and Language Education. Yale: Yale University Press.
Said, E. (1994) Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage.
Tomlinson, J. (1999) Globalization and Culture. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Wheeler, D. (2000) ‘New media, globalization and Kuwaiti national identity’ Middle East Journal 54(3) pp. 432-444.