This post was written in early January while I was in Kuwait visiting my boyfriend’s family.
Greetings from Ku-what? I won’t fault you if you’ve never heard of Kuwait, the small Arab country I have spent the last two weeks in. Until meeting my boyfriend, who was raised here, I’d never heard of it myself.
Nestled between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and a stone’s throw from Iran, Kuwait could be considered the calm amidst the chaos (especially true given I was in Kuwait when the US killed Iran’s top military general in Iraq). And while its tempting to write off this small state of ~18,000 square kilometers, Kuwait has some surprising traits. It boasts the strongest currency in the world, the fourth largest oil reserves and the Middle East’s second highest score on the Global Peace Index (Qatar is in first, if you were wondering).
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Here are some interesting things to know about Kuwait.
Oil is cheaper than water.
Yes, oil is in fact cheaper than water in Kuwait. This is driven by extremely low oil prices (in December, gasoline prices were ~$0.35 USD per liter) and expensive water prices (all fresh water is imported, or derived from the expensive desalination of seawater).
Oil literally slides from Iraq into Kuwait.
In the 1990s, Iraq accused Kuwait of slant drilling (drilling at a diagonal to steal oil from within Iraq’s borders). This led Iraq to invade Kuwait and occupy the country for seven months, until the United Nations intervened and US-led forces liberated Kuwait (all this is known as the first Gulf War, a complicated conflict I won’t get into). What sparked the ‘slant drilling’ accusation apparently (from what I’ve been told) is that underground geography slants inwards at Kuwait (the end of the Persian Gulf) and this causes oil to literally slide into Kuwait from Iraq.
Kuwait’s population is 70% expats.
Kuwait’s total population is ~4.2 million, of which nearly 3 million are foreign workers. This includes both professional expats and foreign laborers. It’s very common for household’s to have live-in help, typically workers from India and Bangladesh. Foreigners, regardless of profession or wealth, cannot own property and cannot gain Kuwaiti citizenship. In most cases, foreigners are here on a work visa and must leave the country if their employment ends.
In Kuwait, community is everything.
Kuwait is a small country with only one real city (Kuwait City) and is surrounded by little more than desert, oils fields and conflict (not exactly a road trip destination). Alcohol is illegal, so Western tourists won’t find any craft breweries or nightclubs here. All that is to say, there isn’t much to do in Kuwait. But then again, that’s not the point of Kuwait – the country is much more about the who and not the what.
People here don’t work around the clock and free time isn’t spent binge-watching Netflix in solitude. People work a typically ~7-8 hour day and spend the evenings with friends and family.
I have never seen more luxurious cars than here.
Back home in Canada, a Lexus or a BMW would be considered a nice car. Here, they’re a dime a dozen. Even a Porsche or a Bentley became a regular sight; toward the end I only turned my head if someone said “oh look, a Rolls Royce” or “check out that Ferrari” (but eventually even that became tiresome).
Kuwait has the best fast food in the world.
Everyone I know in Canada who has been to Kuwait said the same thing – fast food in Kuwait is on another level. And, after trying it, I have to agree. Neither I nor my Kuwait-raised friends can pinpoint exactly why the fast food (like burger-joints and ice cream shops) are so delicious. Theories have emerged like better dairy imported from New Zealand or slacker requirements on MSG. But whatever the reason, it’s distinctly tastier than what I’ve experienced in North America.
There’s much more to traditional dress than I’d thought
Visually, the starkest contrast between Kuwait and North America would be in the ways people dress. You’ve probably seen photos in newspapers or magazine which show Arab women dressed in black head-to-toe (niqab) and Arab men dressed in white with a red-white checkered fabric on their heads (thobe). But that’s just one type of dress. Something I had not understood nor appreciated before coming to Kuwait was that different sects of Muslim wear distinctly different clothing. So although many people were dressed in traditional Muslim outfits, there was still huge variety in what they wore.
(We in North America don’t exactly get a great education on world religions, so in case this is new information – it was to me – there are many different sects of Muslim. It’s a bit analogous to different types of Christianity, though that is an oversimplification I’m sure.)
Despite the visual differences, there is a lot of same-ness. On my second full day in the country, I went into a Starbucks and found two women, dressed very traditionally, drinking coffee and studying for an engineering exam, something I did quite regularly when I was in school. This seemingly insignificant moment has stuck with me throughout the trip – regardless of the all the physical differences between us, we are more the same than we are different.
What have I been doing in Kuwait (and why did I come in the first place)?
I came to Kuwait because this is where my boyfriend was raised and where much of his family still lives (the majority are Indian expats living and working in the city). Because of this, my itinerary here has been centred on family gatherings rather than ticking off tourist attractions (though as his friends will point out, Kuwait doesn’t really have tourist attractions).
Each day I’ve woken up to sunlight piercing through my window – there has only been about 6 hours of clouds since I arrived. Oh, how will I return to dark and frigid Toronto?
The days pass by slowly. No one is in a rush. Again, a sharp contrast to life in the North America. There has been some sightseeing, like visiting at the Kuwait Towers, strolling through Avenues (the second largest mall in the Middle East) or the souq (traditional market), and walking along the beach, waterfront and at various outdoor parks.
There has been a lot (and I mean A LOT) of eating. We went to a hole in the wall restaurant for absolutely amazing fatayers (sort of an Arabic pizza with cheese, meat and spices on a deliciously doughy base). I have visited all of my boyfriend’s favourite childhood junk food joints, like Hardee’s for an excellent chicken burger, and KDD for the best soft serve ice cream I’ve ever had. The last stop on the list is KFC, which everyone assures me is 100x better than any KFC you can get anywhere else (I’m skeptical, but I will report back my findings after the taste test!). Coffee is expensive, but I have still been trying various coffee shops and cafes. Many of my favourite meals, however, have been home cooked – namely, traditional Indian and Parsi food (my boyfriend is Parsi Indian, as is much of his family here).
We spent one day swimming at a fancy hotel (you can buy a day pass) and that was relaxing. There’s also been a lot of walking on the beach. But, as I said above, community is so central to life in Kuwait that most of the time we are surrounded by friends and family.
I didn’t know what to expect before arriving in Kuwait and I’ve been surprised by how much I liked it (even despite the lack of pine trees and canoe-able rivers). I imagine I’ll be back here in the not-so-distant future!
Photos from Kuwait