I went to Kuwait with one major prejudice about the country; the fact that Kuwaitis do not work. I don’t mean they are lazy and they wallow in their misery, I mean they are lazy and they live comfortable lives because their country is floating in oil.
My knowledge of this is anecdotal and biassed, but funny. A friend of mine studied for a year at the War College in Kuwait City. Unlike in Western War Colleges, his study group was led not by one, but by two Directing Staff: a Kuwaiti Colonel who “headed” the group, and a retired British Colonel who actually did the work. Diddo for my driver in Jordan, who’s son had a Master’s Degree in Microbiology, and worked in Kuwait for a boss who had not finished GRADE school! Of course, there was another expat who did the actual work of the boss, but the man would still show up a few hours a day to have tea and sign a few documents.
So I couldn’t help but laugh a bit when I saw this picture at the Kuwait Scientific Centre.
This is probably a more common scenario. From left to right: western senior scientist who does the work, western ex-scientist turned manager, Egyptian middleman who makes things happen in Kuwait, Kuwaiti “Boss”, who hands over the check, and western junior scientist, who does what the senior scientist doesn’t want to do.
Not wanting to completely go away from reality, I consulted Kuwait’s own 2011 census. On page 16, you see that nearly all employed Kuwaitis fall in the category “Administration and Defence, Compulsory Social Security”. In other words, they do nothing. Two exceptions: many women work (for real) as school teachers, and men serve in the police force, as the country doesn’t want foreigners in that role. A taxi driver told me young men are attracted to that relatively low ranking job because it allows them the opportunity to pull over taxis and ask them for their female passenger’s phone number!
But, enough of my lame political comment and on with the “touristing”, although there is something strange about “touristing” in Kuwait. The strange thing is that you are the only tourist. Actually, I have been to far less touristy places, like North Korea or Burundi, but to be in a big, modern rich city with no tourists was a little strange. A taxi driver even asked me what I was doing with a camera. I said I was a tourist. He laughed! This reminded me of Djibouti, where the immigration agent didn’t believe me when I said I wanted to visit the country and had no other business there!
The Scientific Centre is one of the few major touristic attractions in Kuwait City. The other one is the big mosque, but my interest in such things is limited.
The centre starts with an ethnological exhibit. What I noticed the most was this display of the traditional possessions of a Bedouin. The funny thing is that about 70% of the objects this family would own are directly or indirectly linked to the making and drinking of coffee!
The museum also has a magnificent collection of fossils, all donated or purchased from Morocco. Unfortunately, so difficult to photograph properly through the glass.
Owls, in a cage much too small for them.
Scary horned vipers, camouflaged in the sand.
Less camouflaged, but not less scary python.
Beautiful display of sardines swimming in a gigantic cylindrical tank.
The big tank, with sharks and all. Apparently the best aquarium in the Middle-East, but for don’t fly to Kuwait City just for this.
Fly to Atlanta, where I took this shot at the Georgia Aquarium in 2009. I had never seen a whale shark in a tank before!
Out of the Centre, I began a 12 kilometre walk along Kuwait’s Corniche (that’s from where I am all the way to the last shadows of buildings you see on the right). The Corniche is mostly a very nice place to walk, although it is occasionally cut off by buildings or complexes, like a marina. You then have to walk along what feels more like a highway than a street, and you are pretty much the only pedestrian there. I think authorities had not planned for people to walk the whole thing, but rather park their car and walk a little to one side or another, before getting back behind the wheel. Incidentally, Kuwait has the highest obesity rate outside the Pacific Ocean countries.
Because it was Friday afternoon, thousands of people were in the parks, with friends and families.
Quickly, thousands turned into tens of thousands. This might look like a normal, lively scene of holiday relaxation, but there is one strange thing. None of these people are Kuwaitis. Most are Egyptians, and others come from all over Southeast Asia and the Arab World (maybe not Iraq!). Before the 1990 Iraqi invasion, about a million Palestinians called Kuwait home. Unfortunately for them, Yasser Arafat was an outspoken defender of the Iraqi invasion and after the liberation, most Palestinians were expelled. Kuwaitis became determined not to be a minority in their own country. However, they quickly realized what that meant: driving your own car? Doing the laundry?! Driving a truck on the oilfields?!?! Laziness won over nationalism and Kuwaitis today are outnumbered by foreign workers 2 to 1.
Maids from the Philippines must really enjoy yachting, because there were a lot of boats close to where they were hanging out.
The beach, where women can show off their latest abaya.
The Hard Rock Cafe, where every hour is unhappy hour: zero beers for the price of zero. That’s right, Kuwait is completely dry. I was so disappointed my oil engineer friend left Kuwait two years ago. She knew all the illegal bars and I’m sure my stories would have been a lot better, but alas, that was not to be and Kuwait became the second country I visited without having a drink there.
At the other end of the Corniche, the Kuwait towers, symbol of the country. The strange towers were designed by a Swedish firm and built by a Yugoslav company in the 1970s (the Kuwaitis didn’t work back then either). They became the symbol of the country and survived Saddam’s soldier’s using them for target practice. There is a cafe and a restaurant up there, as well as an observation platform. Unfortunately, I was stopped by a sign saying the whole thing was closed for renovations.
So I played with my camera instead before having dinner at the best restaurant I could find in the area, T.G.I. Friday’s (alternatives were McDonalds and KFC).
I wanted to walk around downtown, but it’s hard to explain how pedestrian unfriendly Kuwait City is. This is nothing unusual by North American standards; walking there is like walking in Detroit (except it’s safe!), Los Angeles or, to a lesser degree, Edmonton.
Nevertheless, I walked another 8 km back to my hotel, in part out of curiosity, in part because I couldn’t find a taxi. These streets were empty during the day but quickly filled-up after sunset (which occurs very early in the winter, like 17h00). I was amazed at the number of quarter-million dollar sports cars revving up their engines and accelerating as fast as they could to cover the 40 meters of open space traffic had allowed them to cover in one go. A little sad.
The mosques were full, one of the few places I saw Kuwaiti, albeit from a distance. I eventually walked through a Kuwaiti neighbourhood. Like most of the Arab world, the houses are all fenced-off, giving the residential area a bit of an industrial feel. I only saw two guys talking on a balcony, the rest was quiet. Truth is, Kuwaitis are very private and gatherings are mostly done in private homes. This reminded me a lot of my visit to Brunei.
So, in a nutshell, Kuwait City is a nice but boring place where you can meet lots of Egyptians and dream of a nice, cold beer. It is not tourist un-friendly or dangerous, but nothing is designed to make your life easy. For example, the Scientific Centre had a very nice website, with information, nice graphics and everything. But nowhere did it mention where the Centre is located! Surely everyone knows this, right?