And so the flip-flop trail begins in Kuwait. Kuwait has significant oil reserves and production volumes and is part of a long-term significant oil-producing region in the Middle East. Kuwait exports 87% of its oil and favours Asia’s growing plastic producing markets. This is the right oil and it moves in the right directions making it the first leg of the flip-flop trail. Oil is responsible for Kuwait’s impressive GDP; it accounts for 95% of its export earnings and 95% of the government revenues on which its citizens depend. Kuwait literally runs on oil and over half of it comes from Burgan – the world’s second largest oil field. While a lack of secure oil supplies is problematic – the early twenty-first century too runs on oil – so is an economy shaped by oil. The source of Kuwait’s wealth is also a source of fragility and insecurity. The images of burning oilfields as Iraqi troops retreated from Kuwait under the coalition bombardment known as ‘desert storm’ in the winter of 1991 generated iconic images of war. Oil is dangerous stuff.
Having found the beginning of the trail didn’t give me access to it. Kuwait has only one oil Company – the Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) – and it is government owned. If I failed to get into Kuwait , there was a plan B. I would have to move to the next producer – Oman and the Emirates were next on my list. I cast about among my contacts. I have a neighbour who works in oil but he explained that the oil industry is paranoid about researchers because it is regularly criticised by environmentalists. Oil does pollute and we are all dependant on it: cities, everyday life without oil would look very different. I have contacts in the Norwegian Oil industry because I am an advisor on a research project investigating the shaping of urban culture by oil in Stavanger, but this too is the ‘wrong’ oil. I read a great book called ‘The Oil Road’ which follows a pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the City of London. But closer examination revealed that the authors did not get access to a single part of this trail.
Through the International Trade Union Federation I had a great contact at the Port Workers Union in Kuwait City: but this was the wrong port – oil leaves through a dedicated port near the desert oilfields and this is very difficult to access. I had a second contact through a local activist in Hackney who works internationally. He put me in touch with an architect who teaches in China who put me in touch with her former student who does have KOC contacts. Many phone calls later I could feel the difficulty he was having getting me the right introductions at KOC. He said the research on plastic sandals didn’t sound very scholarly or important: I’d underplayed my research (and myself) and needed to big it up. I explained that it was a vital investigation of globalisation from the bottom up and that I was a leading UK scholar in the field (!): then gave up.
It was another local turn in my thinking that finally gave me access to KOC. An email to Goldsmiths International Office revealed that we had four Kuwaiti students and the international office kindly offered to send my email plea for help to all four of them. One replied, but one contact is enough to start a research project, although two feels better. The student’s dad was an oil geologist who had worked at KOC, and although he no longer worked there, he was in daily contact with KOC HQ as an independent contractor providing geological survey technologies. This is how I met Mohammad. It took a few emails to explain what I was doing but he got it and could see how he could help. He also happened to have some free time on his hands while he waited for a big contract to come through. A lot hinges on luck.
Mohammad indicated that he would try to introduce me to the right people at KOC without making any promises. I decided this was as good as it gets and I booked a flight to Kuwait City. Mohammad even met me at the airport and drove me to my hotel. Over the weeks that followed he drove me around Kuwait City explaining it, as well as current Kuwaiti politics, to me. He took me to his weekend family gatherings where I spent time with the many women and children in his family of 13 siblings – four of them also working at KOC. He took me to the informal gatherings of the oilmen in the weekend camp in the desert on the Saudi border where they were unperturbed by my being the only woman and patiently answered my questions. He took me through many offices at KOC HQ in Al Hammadi just south of Kuwait City and introduced me to the multi-disciplinary teams supporting the oil drilling operations in the desert. Oil flowed through Mohammad’s life and in his thorough and reflexive deliberations on oil and life in Kuwait he was a researcher’s dream informant – he had time, contacts, knowledge and a keen interest in politics and current affairs. His wife, a doctor, took me on other excursions where I met her network of women friends.
Mohammad even got me onto a ‘wildcat’ – an exploratory oil well in the desert. He had gone to some trouble to set this up officially for me, as my visit to the well had to be approved by the Ministry of the Interior. Amazingly it was, and quickly too in a place where things grind slowly through bureaucracies. But the young woman in charge of public relations at KOC who was to accompany me had somehow lost the staff security pass that would have got us through the gate. Mohammed spent a long time urging her to apply for a new pass, but this involved reporting the lost pass to the police and she was waiting for her husband to drive her to the police station. Mohammad lost patience and appealed to his friend who was in charge of drilling who made some phone calls to the on-site manager at the wildcat.
We drove in his SUV through the desert towards the Iraqi border and the wildcat, past a Bangladeshi goatherd shepherding the assets of a local Bedouin – meat is big business but not as big as oil and migrants do most of the work in Kuwait. The (Indian migrant) ‘company man’ the KOC representative and the ‘tool pusher’ the (Texan) head of the drilling contracting company were expecting us. The noise of the drilling and the generator were deafening. I had to sit through a half hour safety briefing in an air -conditioned portacabin (summer temperatures soar above 50 C). Then back to the tool pusher’s office. He looked doubtfully at my trainers – did I not have any steel capped boots? Did I have a permit for the camera and digital recorder? Not exactly, I replied: in fact I had nothing of sort and even Mohammad didn’t know how to get one. I thought – I’m not going to get on the rig! Mohammad appeals to the tool pusher : ‘She’s come all the way from London’. He relents and gets me some steel capped boots from the store. They are two sizes too big but I’m not complaining. I put on the safety goggles and hard hat and get into the rig lift which hoists us to the top, only remembering at I am whisked upwards that I am actually terrified of heights.
Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths based at CUCR. Her research is about circulations of people and objects and, in addition to publishing many books and papers, she is co-author (with Douglas Harper) of Hong Kong: Lives, Landscapes and Journeys published (2009) by University of Chicago Press.
Caroline will be speaking on the Uses of Photography in the Practice of Sociological Research at IVSA 2013 on Wednesday 10th July 5-6:30pm in Ian Gulland Lecture Theatre, Goldsmiths College.