Kuwait: Al Salam Palace, built in Kuwait during the early 1960s to house visiting heads of state, will be reclaiming its former glory next year if all goes to plan.
Famous for its majestic chandelier which shone brilliantly from the grand hall, and decked out in marble and mosaic details as far as the eye can see, Al Salam Palace once formed a pivotal part of Kuwait’s urban landscape.
For decades, it welcomed foreign dignitaries and VIP guests including the likes of the Shah of Iran; former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing; and even Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales.
During the Gulf War in 1990, however, when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, the palace was severely damaged to a point that was thought to be beyond repair.
Since then, it has remained abandoned, derelict, and almost forgotten.
But the fate of Al Salam Palace changed when the Diwan Al Amiri announced it would reopen to the public as a museum in April 2017. The news came as somewhat of a surprise considering Kuwait’s penchant for demolishing old buildings — several other historic structures had already been erased from the country’s urban landscape, and more are currently scheduled for demolition.
“The speed and scale by which Kuwait developed after the advent of oil, when the entire city was demolished and transformed in less than two decades, created a sense of ‘placelessness’ that we’ve now gotten used to,” commented Dr Farah Al Nakib, assistant professor of History and director of the Centre for Gulf Studies at the American University of Kuwait.
“As a result, Kuwaitis generally don’t develop a sense of attachment to places, and don’t seem to mind the incessant transformation of our built environment,” she added.
Al Nakib was one of the few who actively protested the destruction of Kuwait’s previous Chamber of Commerce building in 2014. Also constructed in the 1960s, the building was a symbol of Kuwait’s modern heritage before it was completely destroyed. The National Council for Culture, Arts, and Letters (NCCAL) even tried listing the site on Unesco’s World Heritage List.
“The NCCAL is the official entity responsible for the preservation of Kuwait’s historical buildings,” said Deema Al Ghunaim, an architect and managing director of the Madeenah Tours in Kuwait. “Their strategy right now is concerned with government-owned sites since private properties are subject to the owner’s desire to maintain or destroy the building.”
In 2015, it was announced that Bayt Lothan, a private property and a non-profit organisation, was going to be demolished and replaced with a mall.
One of Kuwait’s oldest surviving buildings, the house was built in the 1920s in both the style and tradition of the pre-oil era. The announcement sparked public outcry, and thousands signed a petition to protest its destruction.
But demolition continued to command public attention, when it was announced earlier this year that a 123-year-old mosque at the heart of Kuwait City was going to be destroyed. The Shamlan Al Roumi mosque, built in 1893, was in the way of the final phase of a major infrastructure project taking place in Kuwait. Local activists and MPs demanded the halt of any scheduled demolition, after which the Minister of Public Works announced that the mosque wouldn’t be destroyed, but dismantled and relocated instead.
According to Al Ghunaim, this erosion of Kuwait’s built environment can be linked to a lack of knowledge and awareness about the overall value of the country’s urban clusters and streets.
Al Nakib also cites high land values as a trigger, in addition to difficulties in obtaining permits for renovation from the Municipality, which is often more expensive than demolishing.
Historical buildings also provide a city with a multitude of benefits that make the higher renovation costs worth considering. They add to a city’s culture and complexity, for example, and are able to attract more visitors by means of cultural and heritage tourism.
Older buildings can also serve commercial purposes, and young entrepreneurs have quickly caught on.
Today’s generation is growing increasingly aware of the cultural, economic, and environmental value of retaining old buildings, and how they can be retooled to serve new purposes — and for a profit.
In the last several years, several small to medium enterprises have flocked to Kuwait City, with many local restaurants and cafes setting up shop in older buildings and districts that charge less rent than modern high-rises. Unlike those towers and government-owned sites, Al Salam Palace is not situated on land zoned for commercial use, nor does it fall under the jurisdiction of the Kuwait Municipality. It’s also considered to hold more ceremonial importance in terms of Kuwait’s urban history than everyday office buildings.
These are the main reasons why it was spared from demolition.
But what about buildings that don’t hold such formal status?
“I don’t agree with the notion that state buildings are more important than everyday structures, as the latter play much more prominent roles in the lives of average citizens and residents of the city,” said Dr Farah.
“If we can’t recognise that the modernist era of the 1950s-80s is as historically significant to our national and cultural identity as the pre-oil period, then there is little hope of saving these buildings,” she continued.
While the renovation of Al Salam Palace is a momentous example in the country’s history of reusing rather than demolishing, it is important to re-evaluate what constitutes historical significance to begin with, in order to preserve what is left of Kuwait’s urban heritage.
— Khalid Al-Shammaa is a freelance journalist based in Kuwait