Kuwait: Riches to Fires to Riches

By: Yousof Hamza

February 24 is a crucial date in Kuwait. It is when 600,000 coalition troops started the liberation of the country from Iraq 29 years ago. They started their liberation in a cloud of black smoke. The black smoke was an attempt from the Iraqis to thwart attacks and the liberation of Kuwait. The Iraqis set over 600 oil wells on fire. The same oil wells that caused the invasion.

I lived in Kuwait while my mother taught there and I attended my last three years of high school. I have always heard of Kuwait for various reasons, such as the 1991 Gulf War, or the place where my father was born. I am not Kuwaiti though. My dad was Syrian and was unable to get Kuwaiti citizenship because of their strict laws. However, I did not know much about Kuwait or its people. I expected it to be similar to Dubai, but it was a mix, similar to Arab countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, but with the oil money of the Gulf states. It was a strange brew of the humble and old conventions of the non-Gulf countries with unprecedented wealth.

Kuwait has gone from the smoke and fire of burning oil wells to the smoke and fire of oil refineries. They have three, and one more being built. The three constructed sit next to each other, taking up over seven square miles of land, the fourth one under construction is another 4 square miles. A portion of the economy lies there, the other part lies in the massive oil fields. The largest, the Burgan Oil Fields, is around 386 square miles, or just about the size of Mahoning County. This is where 7% of the world’s oil comes from. This is why Kuwait is what it is.

The people of Kuwait are bred out of the oil culture. Wealthy, nationalistic and peculiar. A Kuwaiti friend, Ahmad al-Subaie, who I have since lost contact with has said this about Kuwaitis: “The difference between Kuwait and Dubai is – in Dubai they are Arab rednecks, but they know they are rednecks so they build all these fancy buildings. In Kuwait we are rednecks as well, but we don’t know this.”

Oil fields burning in Kuwait. Photo Courtesy of Jonas Jordan, United States Army Corps of Engineers

In a way, he was right. Kuwait is largely filled with three floor cement houses tightly packed into districts. Some districts, mainly ones filled with foreigners, have almost exclusively multistory apartment buildings. In the area where I lived buildings were an average of ten floors, filled to the brim with southeast Asian laborers. There are few fancy buildings in comparison. Al-Hamra Tower, Liberation Tower and the Kuwait Towers being the most significant buildings. However, Kuwait has a proposed $100 billion plan to build a new city to ease reliance on oil and gain tourism like Dubai.

The citizens of Kuwait, while wealthy, can be unsatisfied with their country. Kuwait suffers from significant brain drain. Young Kuwaitis leave to European and American universities for their education while being paid for by the government of Kuwait. If a Kuwaiti has met the academic requirements, they are eligible for the Kuwait scholarship, which pays for their university, housing, travel and a monthly stipend. However, according to some of Kuwait’s youth, this is not enough for equality.

While Kuwait has a more liberal press and better gender equality than most of the region, there are still issues. In an article by Reuters, a protesting Kuwaiti youth, Abdullah Ashkanani, said, “One day we will get married and have children and we want them to have a fair, equal life, it is not about money. It is also about freedom and freedom of speech. Do not think you can give us money and we will sit at home and shut our mouths.”

While this article was written in 2012, shortly after the Arab Spring, it still stands despite greater representation of women in the workforce and government (Embury-Dennis).

As an American living in Kuwait, I saw things with bias. I knew that the Southeast Asian laborers were treated poorly, but I realized that they were treated better than in other gulf countries. However, domestic servants are a different story. “Ethiopian maid filmed falling from seventh floor ‘trying to escape Kuwaiti employer wanting to kill her’” is not a headline you want to see (Westall). It was at the point where the Philippines banned the citizens from taking domestic servant positions in Kuwait, and a support organization was formed to help domestic servants escape their abusive families. Despite it being difficult for certain foreigners, many have settled comfortably – mainly Arabs in primarily non-Kuwaiti Arab districts.

Kuwaitis also cause issues for their government through their love of wild animals. It is not uncommon to hear of people having pet lions, tigers, cheetahs and most common, monkeys. I have had classmates with pet monkeys and heard of families with more exotic “pets”, such as a giraffe. You are also able to go to the animal market and buy exotic pets. There have been instances of maids being mauled by lions, big cats attacking herds of sheep and police capturing a lion in a police cruiser. These are occasionally seen out in the city and highways, and in the words of my mom: “Thankfully we didn’t see any lions or tigers.” (Hamza)

Since the Gulf War, it is clear that Kuwait is still finding its new self. It is the most American non-American country out there. Partly of their gratitude towards the American troops that liberated the country, but also of the bit of American culture that was brought over. The Americans brought over their food. This has been attributed to being one of the primary reasons of Kuwait’s obesity problem. American food is not the only imported food though. Most of Kuwait’s food is imported. Indian food, Thai food, Syrian food and any food that your heart desires. Kuwait’s traditional food is heavily borrowed from the Levante, Iran and Southeast Asia. Kuwait, like the other gulf countries, is a melting pot.

While Kuwait has a higher percentage of nationals than other gulf countries, it is still only 30%. 30% of the population that can own businesses, serve in public offices and most importantly, vote. While this gives Kuwaitis more power than any foreigner, some families are more powerful. This can be demonstrated by the amount of “wasta” you have. Wasta is essentially nepotism, but celebrated. Wasta can be used to get a prestigious job, get out of tickets, get better housing, getting a business or accelerating government paperwork. Wasta depends heavily on the family and where the person is within the family hierarchy.

The al-Sabah family is the most powerful family in Kuwait. They are the ruling family and have ruled since the formation of Kuwait in 1752. Other powerful families include the al-Ghanim family, the Mubarak family and the al-Kharafi family. All these families carry great wasta. An example of wasta occurred at school. A group of al-Sabah children got expelled for bad behavior and poor academic performance. However, the family paid the school for new classrooms as long as the children were allowed to attend the school again. A personal favorite of mine is a person getting $5,000 of speeding and parking tickets wiped off. This was the biggest shock to me about Kuwait.

As an American in Kuwait, I saw a country that was unaware of itself. I saw a country that was completely normal after being devastated by war 30 years ago. It is a country that recovered to its former glory and celebrates its liberation. Despite this, it is still trying to grow, and the youth are trying to change the country. Its nationalism is celebrated even though it hurts foreigners. It is a country that is more modest than its neighbors despite being wealthier. It is a country that is aware of its limited future and is trying to work through to make it better.