From clubs to camel racing, fast cars to local diet restrictions...a bracing guide to living in volatile, social, exotic Kuwait.
There is very little preparation needed for a move to Kuwait in terms of buying vast quantities of Marmite, Christmas decorations, and children’s toys because they are all available there. What is vital is a sense of adventure.
First impressions to the (British) expat are how American it all seems with three and four lane highways filled with large American cars, bisecting Kuwait City. It does not take long before the newcomer comes to enjoy the benefits of this influence as she or he watches the groceries at the supermarket being packed, pushed to the car, and then loaded carefully. The dreaded cry of ‘next please’ as you frantically shove your own shopping into bags back in UK supermarkets soon becomes a distant memory.
The initial period of getting paperwork done can be immensely frustrating and seems to take forever unless your employer has a well connected Mandoob or fixer. There are tests for blood groups, TB and HIV, and fingerprinting to be done, and soon it is clear that a dozen passport photos is a woefully inadequate number. To save time, bring twenty, any spares will come in handy later. Keep an open mind during this time, as once you have done all of this and the introductory obstacle race is over, the fun starts.
Kuwait is a very friendly place and there are many clubs and societies to cater for most interests. Amongst them are the British Ladies Society and American Women's League, both of which have a range of activities and raise significant amounts for local and overseas charities. They are a great place to start for the newcomer as they have regular coffee and evening get togethers.
There is also the KABA, which is an alumni society for those who attended colleges or universities in Britain (and has members from both the British expat and Kuwaiti community). A good number of Kuwaitis have been educated at American, British, Irish and overseas colleges, and they are very hospitable to foreigners and often form friendships with them. There is still a sense that they have not forgotten those who helped to liberate their country, and the recent war in Iraq has served as a reminder. Spend time in a Kuwaiti home, and you will experience Arabic hospitality at its best.
Alcohol and pork products are banned, though certain groups of people are allowed access to these items, but the reality is that Kuwait is a relatively tolerant country where the Christian churches offer several services a day to a large expatriate community from Asia and the West. Young Kuwaitis follow fashion avidly, and whilst some ladies are completely covered by black abayas, others can be found in hipster jeans and lycra t-shirts. How to dress is largely a personal decision, but many Western ladies do not bare their shoulders in public to avoid unwanted attention. Having said this, ladies from other more liberal Middle Eastern countries have few qualms about stepping out in skimpy, figure hugging outfits. Beach wear is, of course, the norm in the beach clubs.
Shopping malls abound as retail therapy is an essential part of daily life for most Kuwaitis. For those looking for a little more action, there is the Arabian Gulf which stretches the length of the country. Diving, boating and fishing are popular pastimes, as are the dreaded jet skis! There are several islands including one with a ruined Greek temple. Camping on the islands during the cooler months is a pleasant and often very sociable activity as you will rarely be the only ones there.
All the main sporting activities are on offer from the Hash [NB for American readers unfamiliar with this informal, borderless, loosely organized activity, these are British running/drinking clubs all over the world, wherein joggers check to see when and where local hashers are meeting to run that week, in what country or city, along what route, etc] to rugby, riding, and darts. There are indoor and outdoor tennis courts and several good beach clubs and health clubs.
Burns Night, St. Andrews Ball, St. Patrick’s Ball, St. George’s Day, Remembrance Sunday ceremonies, Anzac Ball and service, and Thanksgiving, are just some of the many events on the calendar. There are amateur dramatics companies, one of which has its own theatre, and two excellent choral groups. Guest lecturers from overseas give monthly talks on Islamic art, history and architecture, to members and guests of one of the societies. Every year in October or November, a newcomer’s evening, not unlike a university ‘Fresher’s Night’ is organised by the British Business Forum to showcase all the different societies, schools, and clubs in Kuwait.
Those arriving in Kuwait at any time during the year need only look at the ‘What’s On’ column in the Arab Times (one of three English language daily newspapers) to get an idea of what activities are taking place. The expatriate community here is very friendly and sociable. Kuwait does not have as many interesting places to visit or things to do as some of the other Gulf States, but few would dispute that the social life is what makes this place special.
For the so-called ‘trailing spouse” who is not working, young children are a great asset as the schools are an easy place to meet others. For those without little ones, joining one of the societies can lead to an instantly full diary, which could leave you wishing for just a little time to yourself. Turn up at any health club gym around 8.00 am when the school drop-off is over, and you will find the room very busy. Exercise classes are popular and are often followed by a trip to the nearest coffee shop to catch up on the latest happenings. There are also a wide range of employment opportunities for spouses.
Those with teaching qualifications are in demand. There are often vacancies for teaching assistants too. In fact, there are about 4,000 Brits here, and around half are teachers. In the commercial sector, native English speakers will find there is strong demand for people with any office or computer skills. When seeking a job, the applicant needs to ensure that all terms and conditions are set down in writing and understood by all parties. Kuwait is booming at present and businesses are expanding resulting in a demand for personnel who can turn their hand to many different areas.
The need for an adventurous spirit comes into play when driving. Big wide roads, powerful engines and a love of speed combine to make the roads quite frightening initially. There is little regard for traffic rules and indicating your desire to turn is only for wimps. ESP is the most useful survival tool as a left indicator may mean the car is turning right, though most do not bother at all. Even when the traffic is backed up, the cars will race at high speeds along the hard shoulders kicking up dust and stones.
Although there is little consideration for others whilst on the move, if you break down, you will find that within minutes someone will have stopped to offer assistance. The road system is a grid system with seven ring roads. At first, it is challenging, but the best advice is to get out there and face it. The middle lane is generally viewed as a safe place to drive at a moderate speed. Cars will both under and overtake.
Until very recently, the advantage of the road system was that with the exception of rush hour, it rarely took more than twenty minutes to get anywhere in the city, and a little more than that to get to Ahmadi or Fahaheel, two towns to the south. To put this in context, the border with Saudi Arabia, or that of Iraq could be reached within two hours from the centre of the city. However, there has been a noticeable change in the number of cars on the roads and there is serious traffic jams for the first time ever. The Ministry has reacted by doing major roadworks all over the city causing more chaos. There are (unconfirmed) estimates that Kuwait has 20,000 extra cars on the road annually.
Housing comes in many forms, and finding a home can be an interesting experience. The rental market has been cyclical over the past decade, rising and falling with fears of threats from Iraq. Now, in the post-Saddam Hussein era, landlords are building fast and rents are rising at amazing rates. Negotiation skills are an essential tool in this task, and whilst some landlords would prefer to leave a property empty than lose face, others, looking at a good prospect will reduce the rent to a more realistic level. There are many well built blocks of flats overlooking the sea with swimming pools and gyms, and further inland there are villas with three to twenty bedrooms depending on your budget and needs. Homes are found either through rental agents who charge half of a month’s rent if successful, or by word of mouth.
Kuwait is proud of its culture and the government is making efforts to preserve the little that remains from the past. The fishermen still use wooden dhows, but mainly with engines rather than sail power. Annually, the Amir sponsors a pearl-diving festival which lasts for several weeks. Young Kuwaiti males are trained in seafaring skills over a period of time, and then they set off to the pearl reefs and they dive without oxygen tanks just as their forebears did. There is great celebration on their return.
Camel racing takes place in the cooler months. The word ‘races’ is about all that this has in common with horse racing back in Europe or America. Whilst waiting for the race to begin, foreigners may be offered camel milk, and will find many friendly ‘experts’ keen to explain what is going on, and to offer you visits to their camel ‘stables’. The race itself is just a part of this whole, rather sociable, event. You will only know the race has begun when you see dust clouds in the distance, and then after a while, you can discern figures. Driving alongside the camels are vans and other vehicles with owners shouting and cheering on their jockeys.
There are some excellent museums and a new state of the art scientific centre with a good sized aquarium. Within Kuwaiti families, many traditions remain, and getting to know about these or participating in an engagement or wedding celebration for example, is a fascinating experience. Kuwaiti men often spend their evenings in what are known as "diwaniyas". These are usually a good sized room or basement in a home where the men meet regularly to discuss politics and business, and sometimes to play card games. Food and refreshments are also provided. The women gather in each others homes too, but not on such a regular basis.
The Holy Month of Ramadan is marked by Muslims fasting from sunrise to sunset. Non-Muslims are not permitted to eat or drink in public during these hours. Children are exempted from this. The evenings in Ramadan have an air of festivity and special foods are prepared for the meals during this time. Shops and restaurants stay open late and there are large crowds of people moving around the city.
Kuwait is well placed strategically for the traveller. Within a couple of hours by aeroplane, you can be in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Amman, Dubai or Muscat. India and Sri Lanka are a short hop, and the Far East, just a little further. However, time spent in Kuwait getting to know its people and its customs is in itself an interesting journey.