Features, Human Rights, Religion

Life as a Kuffar: My Seven Lost Years in Kuwait

It’s December, 2017, and I’m awash in late-afternoon sunshine, sitting outside around a table with old friends and former colleagues. The setting is a farm in the agricultural sector of Kuwait. We’re drinking tea and maybe bootleg date rum, reminiscing. Some of us are smoking shisha. There are dogs at our feet. At night, the courtyard lights can be programmed to flash and glow in different colors. If you stand on the roof, you can see the oil fires burning at Burgan, the largest oil field in Kuwait.

This is my first time back since I lived in Kuwait between 2006 and 2013, when I was in my thirties. It was a period during which I became uglier, angrier—and, finally, broken. I returned last year to see familiar faces and revisit old haunts. But I also came to figure out why I broke. Was it me? Or was it Kuwait?

I find that some things have changed and many have not. That’s true of me. And it’s true of this country. It’s big things like the rise of ISIS. But it’s also small things. In the supermarket the day before, my friend wasn’t able to locate the paper towels. I gleefully found them—just where they’d been five years ago.

On the drive from the store back to the farm, the driver pointed out properties that have been raided because of alleged connections to ISIS. While the acronym is new, the threat from Islamist militancy isn’t. My Kuwaiti host was a teenager when the Muslim Brotherhood would round up boys playing football and invite them to a villa on the seaside. A place with manicured sports fields and extravagant buffets—available to all boys who stayed for the prayers and sermon.

My host remembers a group of particularly handsome Palestinian footballers being led away by the Imams. After that, he stopped playing. I get angry, and my UK-born hostess sighs: “Why do you always want to rave on about religious fundamentalism?”.

But other guests don’t mind discussing the topic. A Kuwaiti named Abdullah (not his real name), who now describes himself as an ex-Muslim, begins to explain how his own journey pushed him away from his lifelong faith.

Before retiring in his early fifties, Abdullah worked at Kuwait’s Ministry for Islamic Affairs. He had a long beard, and his job mostly consisted of signing in for work each day and then heading back home to sleep for the rest of the morning. He would repeat this process in the afternoon.

This part of Abdullah’s story doesn’t shock me. Every industry in Kuwait is bloated with salaried, citizen employees who pick and choose their working schedules. The public sector, in particular, is a national joke.

But Abdullah’s story is different because he didn’t just give up his job. He left his religion. In retirement, Abdullah started reading. Aside from the Qur’an, books do not feature prominently in the daily lives of many Kuwaitis. And the few titles that are widely read often are the least edifying imaginable. When I would teach a unit about World War Two at a British international school in Kuwait, some kids would show up with their family’s prized copy of Mien Kampf. The Arab attraction to anti-semitism runs deep. Books are censored if they contain Jewish content or Zionist themes. Any sign of Israel is blacked out in atlases, maps and textbooks. It’s not even represented as “Occupied Territories.” It’s just nonexistent.

Abdullah stumbled into Nietzsche and then a blog about atheism, and he quickly got hooked on the subject. His entire value system shifted. Now Abdullah regularly holidays in the West, where he can indulge his new love of cycling and mountain climbing. He’s on Facebook, posting photos, and I marvel at this beardless wonder in cycling shorts, his arm usually around some fellow traveler. He exhibits a joy that you don’t often see in this country. Abdullah is still a Kuwaiti, but in his way, he’s escaped.

***

My own Kuwaiti adventure started in the summer of 2006. At the time, I’d been enjoying an easy gig working for an upscale babysitting outlet that catered to international clients staying at Toronto’s five-star hotels. I signed on to become a teacher in Kuwait despite knowing almost nothing about the Middle East except some half-remembered passages from Thomas Friedman books.

According to the World Bank, Kuwait is the fourth richest country in the world per capita

But I knew that Kuwait is a wealthy country. So I was looking forward to the car and driver I imagined I’d have in the desert, and the apartment with a pool deck, from which I’d watch dreamy Arabian sunsets while eating hummus. I packed a bunch of cotton tops, a guidebook, and not much else. My Mother threw in a pocket-sized Bible, and my Father gave me 100 Kuwaiti Dinars. Friends contributed a set of Arabic for Beginners CDs.

There was a group of us, all hired from Canada, traveling together on the long, dry Kuwait Airways flight. A few members of the group had already spent the previous year teaching in Kuwait—and they regaled the rest of us with stories that mostly seemed to involve pool parties at the American Embassy. After we landed, I followed these women into the bathroom, where they engaged in what I later learned was a pre-customs ritual for many travelers to this (ostensibly) dry country: shoving small bottles of booze into body folds.

“But you just go to the big hotels to have a drink, right?”, I asked my fellow travelers, imagining Thomas Friedman nursing a brandy snifter in Beirut.

Wrong. There’s a lot of bathtub-brewed spirits in Kuwait, as well as some even more dubious concoctions that look and smell like something you’d use to service your car. But it’s all made and consumed under the table.

The airport customs desk was chaotic. Everyone was smoking. Thankfully, our visas and paperwork were expertly taken care of by our school’s mandoob—a “fixer.” It’s one of the first Arabic words you learn. The mandoob liaises with Kuwait’s inefficient government agencies, and spends hours collecting stamps on documents from multiple windows in ministries. (The Arab world is very big on stamps, I would learn. Stamping things may not provide much benefit to society. But it’s a job. And oil-rich welfare states need to find ways to keep people employed.)

Mustafa the mandoob pushed our group, along with our passports and luggage, ahead of dozens of other people standing in line — women dressed in blue uniforms, who looked to be from developing countries. They put up no protest as we cut the line and the customs guards waved us through. These were people who knew the drill.

In the arrivals hall, amid a sea of men dressed in white, the heat hit us like a clothes dryer at mid-cycle. But we were quickly hustled onto an air-conditioned bus with curtained windows. Now, was when our magical, holiday-resort adventure would begin.

Urban Kuwait

Alas, when the bus pulled up in front of an apartment building in a drab part of town, it was clear we weren’t at Sandals. As the months passed, I would create unhappy memories in this building—many of them originating with the assholes on motorcycles who roamed bored throughout the neighborhood. Kids rang my bell until I cried. Or they’d trap me in the elevator while tossing in lit fire crackers. Every day, I would pass by the same Syrian guy sleeping on a couch in the lobby. I never learned his name.

***

Among Western travelers who spend a few days or weeks in Muslim countries, much is often made of the adhan, the call to prayer. It’s described on travelers’ Facebook pages as beautiful or uplifting. To me, I confess, it was noise pollution.

Mosques in Kuwait tend to be built less than a kilometer apart, which allows worshippers to get to one of them quickly for the five-times-a-day prayers —beginning with the fajar prayer, before daybreak. Imagine hundreds of mosques across a small city-state, each with its own competing muezzin, sing-shouting the adhan through loudspeakers. I didn’t find it beautiful, or uplifting. It just woke me up and made me anxious.

The guy at the mosque beside our building was clearly a smoker. In the early mornings before sunrise, there would be a lot of static as he turned on the loudspeaker system, and then a minute of throat clearing and hoarking as he geared up for the call to prayer.

At the school where I taught, the attached mosque was a place to goof off. Teachers were regularly summoned to remove little boys, amped up on the Red Bull and cotton candy available from the cafeteria, who wandered into the mosque to play. These were always awkward encounters, in which the (usually non-Muslim) teacher would have to try to snatch the offending student without actually putting an infidel foot into the sacred space.

Friday is part of the weekend (the only day off for most ex-pats), with the day’s noon sermon being the religious high point of the week for the locals. At the more fundamentalist mosques, even passersby could hear the Imam whipping himself into what seemed to my ears like a frenzy. I learned that the favorite themes in these sermons were the evils of Western hedonism, Zionist conspiracies, and the best ways to get rid of ex-pats like me. Though I never properly learned Arabic, even casual, long-range exposure to these firebrands helped teach me a few words: Yahudi (Jew), Americani (American), kuffar (unbeliever), and haram (forbidden).

In his 2012 book, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, Yemeni-born Canadian writer Kamal Al-Solaylee wrote: “I hated Fridays, at least until after the noon prayers wrapped up. My idea of happiness and my cultural inspirations were derived from Arabic music and cinema first, and then American and British influences. The constant bashing of everything I liked made me feel I could never belong in this world.”

I admit that the vitriol that spilled out of the mosques—and which also seemed to permeate much of the public life I observed on an everyday basis—put me off my earnest desire to plod through those Arabic for Beginners CDs. Colleagues of mine confessed to the same sentiments: You arrive with a desire to immerse yourself in the language and culture, and then get turned off and stick to English.

***

My hometown of Toronto is renowned for its diversity. In its own way, Kuwait is equally diverse: Public spaces teem with workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Sub-Saharan Africa. But the relationship between Kuwaiti nationals and these temporary workers follows the model of patrician and plebe.

Class warfare occasionally plays out in a very literal way. At the time of writing, the Philippines government maintains a ban on domestic workers going to Kuwait, following on an episode in which a 27-year-old Filipino woman was found strangled and stuffed in a freezer. (Her Lebanese/Syrian employers have been sentenced to death by hanging.) One headline I read recently in the Kuwait Times rejoiced that “The Ethiopians are Back.” They had been banned by the Kuwaiti government after a number of incidents involving the murder of employers or children in their charge. This included a widely circulated video last year that showed a Kuwaiti woman filming her Ethiopian maid clinging from a balcony and crying for help before she fell. The reporter enthusiastically related the “psychological” tests that Ethiopian domestics would now be made to take before they could be deemed “safe” to work in Kuwaiti households.

Arab nationals historically have staffed a large number of the positions in Kuwait’s banks, industry and business—including Egyptians, Lebanese, Jordanians and Syrians. Before the Iraqi Invasion, Palestinians made up a large part of the Kuwaiti economy and merchant class. (In fact, Yassar Arafat himself claimed to have earned a fortune in Kuwait.) But, the Palestinians made the mistake of siding with Saddam Hussein during the 1990 Iraq War. When the war ended, more than 300,000 Palestinians were expelled.

As well, there are every kind of European, and thousands of Americans employed by the DOD who work on American military bases in Kuwait, affiliated contractors and logistical-support operations. Then there are the teachers, like me—many thousands of them — from all over the world.

Only Kuwaiti citizens have access to free education in the government schools. Everyone else must pay. So there are specialized private schools for Indians, Egyptians, British, Americans, Bulgarians, Canadians—you name it—ranging substantially in quality and cost. Many wealthy Kuwaitis, especially members of the professional class, eschew the public system and send their children to the top-tier international schools. While a school might be called the British School of Kuwait, it is mostly a collection of local and Arab-national children, perhaps with some maternity-tourism passport holders.

Even though I lived modestly, Kuwaiti society did accord me a high status because I was a Westerner. Many apartments and jobs are advertised for “Westerners only,” and pay a higher salary than would be paid to someone doing the same job under an Arab passport. Indians are often targeted with special kinds of disparagement, with “Hindi” being used as a routine racial slur. Poor Egyptian workers were openly mocked for the cheap food they ate (including Koushari, a carb-heavy combination of rice, lentils and macaroni). Efforts to root out systemic racism are widespread in the West. But such terms can barely capture the openly observed racial hierarchy that exists in Kuwait.

The lack of empathy for foreign menial workers from poor countries is stunning, and can infect the minds of everyone passing through this society. In one case that remains vividly stuck in my mind, a Lebanese-Australian friend turned her maid over to the police because she discovered the woman was pregnant and unmarried, which is haram. When I asked about the maid’s whereabouts, she proudly told me that the woman was now in jail and would soon be deported.

Kuwait is one of the richest countries in the world, with per capita GDP of close to US $70,000 per year. Yet the poverty that exists among many menial workers is acute. There are no international aid organizations to help. No bustle of humanitarian do-gooders and institutional watch dogs. Temperatures in some especially hot patches of the country can surpass 50 degrees. But this data tends to be suppressed, because outdoor work is forbidden when the mercury rises above a certain level. There are simply too many building projects to finish. In these areas, it’s always officially 49 degrees.

In large and small ways, men are emasculated by one another depending upon where their nation of origin sits on the status hierarchy. Outside workers wear orange jumpsuits and get casually abused. When we would have buffet lunches at school, the maids were invited to take the leftovers. We would look the other way, embarrassed by how hungry they seemed. I had plenty to eat, but suffered for being part of such a system. The hypocrisy of a place that purports to be ruled by religion, yet is governed by greed and cruelty, corrodes the soul.

***

During my first year in Kuwait, I worked at a school that was owned by prominent Kuwaitis with close ties to the ruling Al Sabah family. Most of the students in my class were related, including by way of first-cousin marriages among their parents or grandparents. The “All About Me” September projects that are popular with teachers, took on an interesting aspect as I attempted to trace family trees that entwined and crisscrossed. I would soon discover that moving around the school with my class was a complicated and time-consuming process, as meetings between family members occasioned obligatory rituals of kissing and greetings.

Yet for all these gestures of intimacy, I rarely observed much in the way of overt joy. Public affection between men and women generally is forbidden in Kuwait, and a scent of loneliness wafts throughout the country. There are few opportunities for boys and girls to learn about each other when they are young, and certainly nothing akin to modern sex education. We have learned what happens in repressive cultures in which healthy sexuality is taboo. Someone always pays a price, and often it’s children. This point was driven home to me during my first year in Kuwait, when guards had to be placed in front of the boys’ bathrooms at school because older male students were sexually assaulting the younger boys.

In Kuwait, beauty usually is reserved for the private space. What should have been a gorgeous shoreline was littered with junk—including chicken bones from past beach barbecues and lots of diapers. (No one cleaned the beach because locals didn’t use it — since that would involve displays of flesh.) In my apartment building, it was seen as an acceptable practice to simply chuck garbage bags out the window. A full mattress once sailed past my view.

Arabian Shore Line, Kuwait

One weekend, a friend and I were paddling (more or less fully clothed) when a car stopped and two men got out. One of them started swimming beside us. He was trying to touch us in the water while maniacally grinning and romancing us with lines like “sex me.” We yelled at him, and even brandished a stick. Finally, we convinced the man’s driver to coax him out of the water.

***

Given the many negative impressions I am relating, readers may wonder why I stayed in Kuwait for so long. The answer was no different from that which other expats might give: I did it for the money.

Most of the locals I met had internalized Kuwaiti culture, and didn’t know any other life. But there were brave rarities, such as Abdullah, who managed to find their own path by casting away the hypocrisies and dogma they had grown up with.

When I left Kuwait after seven years, I realized that I, too, was pushing down a new path. The creed I had grown up with in Canada was one of cultural relativism: I believed that all cultures were more or less equal, and that every culture had something important to teach me about the way to think and live. But my time in Kuwait cured me of that idea. The starry-eyed traveler who first touched down in the desert is no more. I am now truly woke.

“It was like working in a dark cave with the aid of a single candle,” Thomas Friedman wrote in From Beirut to Jerusalem. “Just when you thought you had spotted the white light of Truth, you would chase it, only to discover that it was someone else, also holding a candle, also looking for the light.” Friedman wrote those words almost 40 years ago, but from what I saw, very little has changed.

 

Carla Rosemary Wilson is a Toronto-based writer and teacher. Her works include Christmas at the Krak. Follow her on Twitter @carlarwilson.

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50 Comments

  1. Kerry Griffiths says

    An incredibly well written, inciteful and accurate account of most ex-pats experiences during their time in Kuwait. Its a time when you effectively sell your standards and beliefs which, while being economically beneficial, erodes your humanity.

    • Frankly I don’t where to start. As someone who was brought up in the private school system and taught by people like the author, I don’t see why she gets applauded for having her cake and eating it too. I grew up having American/Canadian/Australian teachers telling me and my classmates that our values and culture was outdated and disparaging us for taking any pride in it but they seemed to have no qualms about cashing their checks.

      • Ben says

        Fair call halfarhan; but without the cheques (checks) why would expats of any description go there? Even Indian workers are there for the financial benefit; without them Kuwaitis would have to actually clean!

        • everyone is there for the financial benefits and that’s perfectly alright, but what is spending years cashing the cheques and then deciding the culture and the people are completely worthless

          • stevengregg says

            It’s cynical but honest. There’s nothing attractive about most Arab countries but the cash.

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  2. Susan says

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful first-person account-fascinating.

  3. CMFG says

    Remarkably similar to my experience. In the UK before I left for Kuwait cultural relativism was pretty much the accepted norm in my circles. By the end of my 5 year contract there to say the scales had fallen from my eyes would be something of an understatement.
    Carla’s stories and descriptions brought vivid recollections of my time there.
    The injustices regarding the overseas foreign workers in particular were heart-breaking. It is indeed a very dangerous environment for ex-pats indeed, particularly for Filipinos, Nepalese, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Ethiopians. It was widely accepted that Kuwaitis could maim, rape and murder them with complete impunity. I recall several cases of Kuwati or Arab mothers who had killed their children and blamed the Filipina or Sri Lankan maid and consequently this had led to the maid being hung.
    In retrospect, for all its oil wealth and brutal government control, as a society it felt very brittle and fragile indeed. Literally and metaphorically built on sand.

    • “I recall several cases of Kuwati or Arab mothers who had killed their children”

      Gosh! These sand niggers must be exceptionally cruel towards their kids…

  4. Ben says

    Having lived in Kuwait from 2003 to 2007, this article brings back so many memories. You’ve articulated well the issues facing both the country and its inhabitants, wherever they may be from. Like you, I lived a comparatively privileged life being a ‘pink-skin’, and lucky my Indian wife was married to the Regional Director, otherwise she would have had ‘Indian status’. Also luckily she looked Arabic, which helped prevent the immediate disdain. I am confounded by the Al Jazeera hypocrisy of calling western countries racist!

  5. I can’t tell if you’re detached from reality or if you just decided not to look hard enough. There are certainly some truths in your article, mainly that South Asians and domestic workers are treated badly and that needs to change.

    I’m curious, in your recent trip did you fail to notice the entire culture shift since 2006? Kuwait generally responds to culture shifts in the region, the tide has switched from conservatism (triggered by the Islamic revolution in Iran) to a current wave of liberal secularism (evidenced by the mass de-hijabing). What bothers me most in this piece is that its a collection of observations without any context or research. It also seems like you just casually referenced ISIS just for the buzzword. If you wanted to talk about fundamentalism or about addressing things have changed and yet not quite, you would’ve perhaps referenced the mosque bombing a few years back and the national attempt to address sectarianism as a result of that.

    In some ways, the most strange aspect of this article is the way its written as if we were still in the 70s. The internet existed in 2006 and Kuwaitis are generally well traveled people. If one wanted to know something, they’d have access to it. Thousands of Kuwaitis are sent on scholarships every year to attend university in England, US, Canada, Australia, Malta, etc. During that time, we are exposed to ideas and thoughts beyond our own and we bring them back to Kuwait.

    • K says

      I appreciate both yours and the author’s perspectives here. One of the reasons I really enjoy reading this site. Thanks for contributing to the conversation, halfarhan.

    • ga gamba says

      @ halfarhan, Your comment brings forth a couple of good points. FWIW, I lived in Kuwait (Fintas, Bayan, and Mangaf) and later Abu Dhabi for a few years after 2006. The internet was quite slow, but the pirated satellite TV had hundreds of channels. My comment is to offer a different perspective, one that’s a bit positive about Kuwait.

      Thousands of Kuwaitis are sent on scholarships every year to attend university in England, US, Canada, Australia, Malta, etc.

      I think it’s about 15,000 who receive a scholarship covering fees, living expenses, books, etc. And there are many more who are self supporting. The government is keen to support tertiary education, particularly subjects in STEM and education, though it would be interesting to see some studies of the outcomes.

      I think crowded Highway 30 is a good metaphor for Kuwait. In the right lane are the creeping water and sewage trucks driven by the menial workers. Old yellow school buses – without air conditioning – filled with Indian and Bangladeshi labourers off to sweep this and unload that plod along. In the middle lanes are the Toyota Corolla and Mitsubishi Pajero drivers, who are the technical- and managerial-class expats. And in the left lane are the Range Rovers, the AMG Mercs, and super cars accelerating far beyond the speed limit, tailgating everyone, rapidly flashing their high beams as a visual shout: “Get out of my way!” Those are the Kuwaitis. On the shoulders are the wrecks and debris, often sitting there for days and even weeks. Add to this bags of fast food litter tossed from moving cars, women whose niqabs block their peripheral vision, and blinding sand storms, sometimes so frightening they compel drivers to u-turn in the highway and drive back into oncoming traffic. And almost everyone is thinking “Inshallah”. It’s an exciting mix, sometimes breathtakingly so. But, as time goes on people alter their behaviour, often for the better, and police enforcement improves to deal with the recalcitrant.

      By and large Kuwait’s private sector functions very well. But, where the state has committed itself to do for the people the difference is startling. Compare Geant and Lulu hypermarkets to a state co-op. State hospitals are dreadful compared to the private ones. From getting one’s TB test for the work visa and iqama (Civil ID) to applying for a driver’s licence, the shabbiness of the state’s facilities and the workers’ professionalism was a depressing experience. When I first moved there one of the relevant ministries had been shut down for months, throwing the whole process into disarray. When my household goods arrived they were stuck in customs because the labour force hired by the government to unpack the containers for inspection was on strike due to being unpaid for months – this is a common occurrence for this labour class. The Kuwaitis working there couldn’t be bothered to open boxes. I suppose it was beneath them, or maybe they dislike lifting. There’s a too cosy relationship between the ministries and those Kuwaiti companies contracted to perform state services. And whoever was in charge of the dustmen and the street sweepers should have been fired – seemed more rubbish went into the street than into the truck. Kuwaitis build lovely homes and decorate them lavishly, but go outside and the public areas are often trashed.

      It isn’t that the fellas hired to landscape and care for the public areas are any different from the fellas who do the same at the Sahara Country Club and the Avenues Mall. It’s down to the quality of middle management who need to get out of the office and supervise things. In the gov’t ministries they prefer to drink tea, smoke cigarettes, and chat with their mates. This is what happens when the gov’t reserves good jobs for citizens and doesn’t hold them accountable. And this is part of the reason why the private sector so resists Kuwaitisation, the gov’t policy to replace expats with citizens.

      I think you’re right Ms Wilson’s essay betrays a bit of cultural bias that’s kind of common amongst those reared in the West, especially from those whose countries were built by immigrants such as Canada and the US. They tend to think that’s the way it ought to be everywhere. For a lot of the world it isn’t applicable. Yet, her examples are true for her; it’s how she experienced the place. She probably could have mentioned Kuwaiti landlords also dislike renting to young Kuwait males; I recall when looking at residences every agent was quick to point out Kuwaiti bachelors weren’t allowed to live in the buildings. This confounded me. I was told they use the flats as ‘bachelor pads’ to host wild parties through the night that upset the neighbours, and police will do little to stop them.

      Though Kuwait has a large number of foreign residents, about two-third of the population, it is not an immigrant society. And that’s OK. Further, there are a more than a hundred thousand people, the Bidoons (stateless people without papers), who claim to have lived in Kuwait before independence, and who should be eligible for citizenship if their claims are true, yet mostly the gov’t sees them as illegals. Being without papers in Kuwait is a very messy situation. Attending public school, obtaining state health insurance, being eligible for a driver’s licence, etc. all requires paperwork. Legal foreign residents must have a valid iqama – Bedoons refuse to apply for a foreigner’s iqama because this would mean relinquishing their claims to citizenship. One’s iqama and salary determines many privileges. For example, if you want to sponsor your family to join you in Kuwait for a visit or to reside, or obtain a driver’s licence, you must meet certain minimum salary thresholds. This is such an issue of concern and confusion that for years The Arab Times newspaper’s Legal Clinic column has on a daily basis answered readers’ questions re one’s visa and privileges that may be granted (or lose), www(dot)arabtimesonline(dot)com/news/category/legal-clinic/. The laws are quite strict, but there are many exceptions and, of course, wasta (connections) has its role. Further, because immigration is a mess, it has offered opportunities for some, both Kuwaitis and expats, to exploit.

      Kuwaiti citizenship confers one many benefits, some of them quite expensive to the state, so it is understandable why the gov’t is not keen to greatly increase the population of citizens, especially by naturalisation. Under Kuwaiti law, every married Kuwaiti couple is entitled to a government house built on 400 square-metre plot or a 400 square-metre apartment. The choice of a plot of land comes with a 70,000 dinar (approx. $230,000) long-term, interest-free loan. Opting instead to purchase a house or flat of at least 360 square metres on the open market comes with a 70,000 dinar long-term, interest-free loan. Yet, the gov’t can’t build housing fast enough where Kuwaitis want to live, and undeveloped land requires the state to build more roads, schools, mosques, hospitals, co-ops, etc. IIRC, more than 100,000 Kuwaiti families are waiting for the gov’t to approve their applications, and presently the Public Authority Housing Welfare is building only about 5,500 units, www(dot)pahw(dot)gov(dot)kw/default_en.aspx.

      The Kuwaiti welfare state is very generous to its own (when it can live up to the promise), but because no taxes are levied on income, and the other taxes that exist are very low, the gov’t relies on oil to provide the nation with guaranteed employment, free medical services (including sending Kuwaitis overseas for treatment), subsidised food co-ops, free education, etc. “Just pump more oil!” some my declare. Easier said than done. Kuwait has its existing production facilities, and it’s also bound to its OPEC production quota.

      Building and sustaining a welfare state is not only very expensive, it requires a lot of highly skilled and dedicated public servants who can set ambitious yet realistic targets and meet deliverables. I don’t think Kuwait has that pool of talent in many of its ministries. Much of the problem is due to citizens thinking the government owes them jobs that aren’t demanding but provide them many perks. Resource rich countries are blessed, but also cursed because people see it as the money tree to shake to make all their material wishes come true. Will these thousands being educated overseas change the ministerial culture? Possibly, such as in areas like public health, education, and science, but elsewhere I doubt it. Certainly not by studying exclusively in Europe and North America. Kuwait needs to send a large cadre of public-servants-to-be to Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea. Korea has done marvelous work building state-of-the-art satellite cities such as Ilsan, Sejong, and Songdo to address its housing needs. Kuwait could learn a lot from Singapore, which has ambitiously sought to attract highly skilled foreigners to make up its shortfalls and has done so without much of the controversy. All three countries are energy insecure and likely keen to enhance cooperation and exchanges with Kuwait.

      For many foreigners Kuwait offers better opportunities than their homelands. My landlord hired a haris (guard, minor maintenance, groundskeeper) from Bangladesh at 75 dinars ($250) per month plus room, board, and health insurance. Now, you’re probably thinking $250, that’s practically slavery. At most he did was 2 hours a day. To maximise his income he then washed my cars and many of the neighbours’ cars, did other odd jobs, and also worked as a groundskeeper for the house next door. In total, he was earning about $750 per month tax free. If he remained in Bangladesh he would’ve earned $2 per day being a peasant or $3 per day salvaging ships (ship breaking), a very dangerous job. Living in Kuwait allowed him to earn about 8 times more per month than he would have made in Bangladesh. What what you do for 8 times more than your highest potential wage? Almost all his earnings were wired home to support his parents and wife, educate his children, buy land, and aid his siblings. This is life changing not only for him, but for many. This is what a job in Kuwait meant for him. We could debate the fairness of menial labour wages in Bangladesh, but whilst doing so that dangerous salvage job is still $3 per day. The most senior school teachers at the highest pay band in Bangladesh earn $925 per month and they’re paying income tax.

      By and by, I enjoyed my time in Kuwait. I’ve lived most of my life overseas in a variety of countries where I’m conspicuously different, so being the “marginalised outsider” doesn’t cause me any angst. In fact, play it right and it can get you off the hook. But not always: “If you weren’t here this accident wouldn’t have happened” a police officer told me when I was ticketed for being rear ended at a traffic light. Max out your auto insurance.

      Through my memberships at the Sahara and the Hilton Corniche I met many people of several nationalities outside my professional group. Socialising with Kuwaitis was tougher than with expats, but that’s frequently true in the other countries I’ve lived, except for the Filipinos, who are amongst the world’s most sociable people. If you can find Filipinos you’ll never be without a friend, a buffet, and a party. Expats tend to be more welcoming, or at least more open, because locals already have their social network, family, etc. Living in Manila I struck up conversations and friendships with Kuwaitis smoking shisha because they were outsiders and having lived in their homeland we had something in common.

      I deliberately moved out of the “foreigners-only” apartment complex I lived in Fintas to villas in Bayan and Mangaf, and these were overwhelmingly Kuwaiti-family neighbourhoods. Walking my dog through the neighbourhood inevitably attracted the children and soon enough I was chatting with their fathers – I reckon you can always find a motoring and a football enthusiast in every Kuwaiti street. After a few times I was invited to their diwaniyas and sometimes even offered a scotch.

      Each person will experience a country in his or her own way, and if one has a few bad experiences it’s kind of easy to take on the bad experiences of others to buttress the justification for one’s dislike. It’s hard not to fall into that.

      • Prince of Slugs says

        This a really interesting and informative reply to this article. I’d be interested to hear more about your time in Kuwait.

  6. dirk says

    How far away is this description and picture from the ones as known from painter Tadema and writers such as Flaubert, who gave flamboyant and colourful pictures of the oriental societies, that on top of that were so permissive in sex and gay habits. I wonder what Edward Said would have said of it. One thing is for sure, the general picture of these worlds has changed completely, from positive, inquisitive and pleasantly exotic, to next to an armageddon now. What would the evolution there have been without rich Westerners paying the sheiks there with the billions from something deep down their desert sands (not for the delivery itself, but for the rights to mine it). I wonder what John Locke would have said about all this.

    • dirk says

      Correction: I saw that the companies that started the exploration,drilling and exploitation of oil are, in the meantime, nationalized into a Kuwaiti Cy, but it is not clear to me in how far the engineering and management now are in the hands of nationals, I can’t find out, maybe Halfarhan knows?

      • ga gamba says

        www(dot)arabtimesonline(dot)com/news/kpc-subsidiaries-started-implementing-kuwaitization-policy-90-95-pct-kuwaiti-employees-eyed/

        books(dot)google(dot)com(dot)ph/books?pBuV5z_hnngC&pg=PA376&lpg=PA376&dq=KNPC+kuwaitization+of+labor+force&hl=en

        As of 2003 Kuwaitisation of KPC and subsidiariaries was about 75%, with the gov’t goal to increase it to 90-95%. KPC’s labour force almost doubled by the end of 2006. KPC also requires its contractors to be a minimum of 25% Kuwaiti.

  7. What a spiteful article! It is difficult to be a woman in Middle Eastern countries. And, understandably, for a Western woman quite a shock.

    “I get angry, and my UK-born hostess sighs: “Why do you always want to rave on about religious fundamentalism?”.”

    So this woman lived with her hosts for some period and has nothing positive to say about them whatsoever. And she has nothing positive to say about the whole country or any of the people. What!? The whole country is wicked and full of evil beasts?

    “I admit that the vitriol that spilled out of the mosques”

    Right? So if you don’t understand the language, how come you understood the malice of mosques?

    “But there were brave rarities, such as Abdullah, who managed to find their own path by casting away the hypocrisies and dogma they had grown up with.”

    The real purpose of the article, I suppose. The only person she “champions” and found palatable was an ex-Muslim.

    This is an obvious and rather clear agenda of Quillette. The only good Muslim is an “ex-“.

    • stevengregg says

      Isn’t that really true, considering how Muslims celebrated the Sep 11 attacks and the string of attacks which followed? You can’t really be a moral person and a Muslim who demands the world convert to Islam, accept Muslim subjugation, or die. The sooner you abandon the belligerence of Islam and accept the tolerance and collaboration of the Western world, the better, more moral person you become.

      • stevengregg – So how many Muslims is that who celebrated 9/11?

        “The sooner you abandon the belligerence of Islam and accept the tolerance and collaboration of the Western world…”

        Oh the fucking irony! In other words you are only moral if you accept Western Values only. Which is the exact same dogmatic position you were against when talking about Islam and it totalitarian demands.

    • Right?
      The other thing I forgot to add to my initial comment is that the title is grammatically incorrect. Apparently despite acquiring that surprisingly selective vocabulary, she failed to learn that kuffar is plural. You’re a Kaffir, Carla not a kuffar.

    • Matt says

      “So if you don’t understand the language, how come you understood the malice of mosques?”

      That is not a denial. In fact, you are being overtly disingenuous.

      My sister is an Arabic linguist, and one of the things she frequently talks about is what is said internally inside Middle East countries when they think no one on the outside is listening. You know damned well much of what is being said in those mosques is anti-West vitriol, exactly as the author observed.

      But, instead of the negative, and without rhetorical tricks to sidestep, how about we do this: please tell us about what is good and beautiful about Kuwaiti culture. This is a serious request. What is Kuwaiti culture, literature and art all about?

      • @Matt

        “That is not a denial.”

        Denial of what? I don’t know which mosques she is talking about… one, two, three, many? So what exactly is she talking about? The comment is extremely vague and she used it as an excuse to cover the fact despite many years being there she doesn’t know the language. And the reason she didn’t learn the language is because the mosques were pumping out this malice!

        And then you think I am the one who is being disingenuous! How?

        “You know damned well much of what is being said in those mosques is anti-West vitriol, exactly as the author observed.”

        No I don’t! How presumptuous. Why would I? And how did she observe it? When she doesn’t speak the language. That was the whole fucking point. So how many mosques were involved and when do they pump this out and how?

        “This is a serious request.”

        No it isn’t! How dare you! You accuse me of being disingenuous and then you throw this out… if you were one bit serious then in future try not engage people by calling them disingenuous.

        “What is Kuwaiti culture, literature and art all about?”

        Look it up yourself. It is the effing internet… couple of quick Googles. Why the fuck are you asking me for?

        • Matt says

          @Amin

          How dare I? How dare you, sir.

          You want to take down the author for saying something you don’t like, but whether or not she has arrived at the conclusion in a “valid” way, what she is saying isn’t wrong. Overt anti-West rhetoric is part and parcel to much of the internal “teachings” of far too many mosques in the Arabic world. Even in countries the West counts as allies, like Kuwait. The inferiority complex is palpable.

          How do I make this claim? Western analysts track the very different messages of what is intended for internal and external consumption in the Arabic world. And yes, the teachings of mosques are part of that tracking. (You as an individual, of course, are not responsible for any of it unless you actually are.) The fact of the matter is much of what is “taught” in mosques is anti-West. Pretend otherwise, but the people who count know different.

          So stop the rhetorical tricks.

          • “How dare I? How dare you, sir.”

            Oh I dare!

            “You want to take down the author for saying something you don’t like”

            Yeah. That is what generally happens… perhaps child you are new to this.

            “but whether or not she has arrived at the conclusion in a “valid” way”

            Ah! Gotcha! Look up “confirmation bias”. It will help.You haven’t got a clue as to what you are babbling on about. You have been reading lots of anti-Islam Muslim rhetoric online. Hence this sort of nonsense. You are a bigot.

            “The fact of the matter is much of what is “taught” in mosques is anti-West.”

            That is just it! You don’t know. She doesn’t either. That is the “whole” fucking point. This is why it doesn’t matter as to the validity of what she is saying – as long as it confirms your biases. Hence why you deliberately overlooked her the fact that if she cannot understand the language then she hasn’t got a clue as to what an individual mosque is saying or not.

            “So stop the rhetorical tricks.”

            Which ones? Quote them back… and stop posting such accusations that are outright lies.

            This is a nasty and vile bigotry and it is written for people like you.

  8. Skip Gallagher says

    I spent a couple of weeks in Saudi Arabia shortly after the first Gulf War and noticed similar things as the author. But let us Westerners (Christians?) not cast the first stone, particularly with respect to treating others as we’d wish to be treated.

    My wife and I lived in Hong Kong long before “the Handover.” Our amah was a wonderful Chinese woman; she was truly part of the family. When we had to leave we offered to find her new work. She was grateful, but requested no Chinese or British. Fortunately, we had (and still have) a very nice Australian friend who was more than wiling to take her on.

  9. augustine says

    “The hypocrisy of a place that purports to be ruled by religion, yet is governed by greed and cruelty, corrodes the soul.”

    Thank you for an excellent essay. Interesting that you did not have anything to say about “native” cuisine or architecture, parks or other cultural features. My impression of Kuwait as one of the world’s least beckoning countries, in the city or in nature, is reinforced.

    If you have the chance to travel to Yemen (but maybe not work there), I’d say do it. In place of wealth they have culture and art, as well as natural history, that competes with anything else on the planet.

    • Susan says

      Yeah- FGM rate of 30%. It sounds like a paradise

  10. brian jackson says

    ” I am now truly woke.”
    Am I the only one disturbed by this recent trend of butchering the English language with deliberate grammatical inaccuracies? It seems to have started in the advertising industry as a cheap way of making a slogan stick in the mind. (eg. using adjectives in place of nouns or confusing tenses) and to have been immediately and unquestioningly adopted by journalists and other writers attempting to establish their ‘millennial cool’ credentials. I realize language is constantly evolving and that today’s slang is often in tomorrows dictionary but this is just silliness.
    ” I am now truly very annoy.”

      • Ken Phelps says

        Yes, an opportunity to bask in a failure of *both* grammar and content.

      • brian jackson says

        Hi Ivan, Thank you for your suggestion. Here is what I found on Wikipedia;
        Woke is a political term of African American origin that refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice. It is derived from the African American Vernacular English expression “stay woke”, whose grammatical aspect refers to a continuing awareness of these issues. Its widespread use since 2014 is a result of the Black Lives Matter movement….. So, in the context of this article ‘woke’ is better defined as a 60’s slang term recently appropriated to describe a state of hypersensitivity to perceived injustice, often used to signal some vaguely defined ‘politically correct’ mode of thinking.
        Groovy baby.

  11. I’ve never lived in Kuwait, but I lived in Saudi Arabia for six years. Although I can relate to some of the infuriating contradictions and bull#hit of living in the Middle East, I’ve never confused ideology with action. Just because you lived in Kuwait doesn’t mean you are an expert on Islam, Middle Eastern thought, or politics. There are bad and good people in every religion/country. There are plenty of Western Muslims that have the disdain for certain things that happen in the GCC, but are equally devoted to their faith. Isn’t it more “woke” to not categorize an entire group based on your own personal bias? #justathought

  12. Bill Haywood says

    So in all those years the author met only one local person she liked? And him because he became an atheist like her? This piece is so devoid of human connection — I could not even tell what grade she taught. I don’t doubt there are many objectionable things in Kuwaiti society, but there are fine people to be met anywhere you go. I have lived in the Third World and could easily create a list of tiresome things. But if that’s all the author experienced, that’s on her. If you are an introvert and do not socialize much, fine, that’s what you are comfortable with. But don’t blame the surrounding society for your isolation. Didn’t even her students have personalities? Kuwait does sound like a bizarre place for a North American to work, but this author’s failure to see anything positive shows that it’s the world she rejects.

  13. Matt says

    Except I *do* know.

    LOL.

    Deny it all you want, and it doesn’t matter what the author knows or not, Western intelligence services fucking track what’s said in pretty much every mosque in the Arab world. (Risk management, brother.) And anti-West rhetoric is fucking in pretty much every fucking sermon in almost every fucking mosque.

    Don’t like it being pointed out? Tough. Do something about it or fuck off with the faux outrage.

    • @Matt

      You are a fucking bigot and nothing much more. You ain’t really interested in anything other than confirmation of your petty bigotry. Now fuck off you right wing twerp.

  14. dirk says

    And it all started so nice, cosy and harmless, with a cup of tea on a farm, and dogs at your feet!

  15. Peter says

    Let us not forget the author describes the experience of being a single woman in the most conservative Arab country.

    When traveling on the Greek island of Crete more than three decades ago, I talked to a free spirited young Swiss woman, who made the mistake of going out alone in Iraklion in the evening. That was enough, she told me; she would never try it again. This story of course will not draw accusations of bigotry; it will probably be praised as a proof of toxic white masculinity. (And I believe such unpleasant experiences in Greece are much rarer now.)

    • dirk says

      Then, Peter, may we conclude that such experiences have to do with backwardness? and that it has not (what is mostly the case) to do with money and prosperity?

  16. I note that commenters are not refuting the author’s observations. They are changing the subject to what a bad person she must be and why it is terrible to generalize. There is also the standard cliché of not imposing “Western” values – as if mistreating and even killing the servants is not an affront to morality anywhere.

    The cry always goes up: you cannot criticize our culture because you do not understand it. Oh, you do understand it? No, no. You must not really understand it.

  17. Rachel says

    Excellent article thanks for sharing. Even just visiting Morocco and Dubai I got tired of the constant sexual harassment and leering (which despite the #metoo’ers I have never experienced in the west). Perhaps the author didn’t see some of the beautiful aspects of Kuwaiti cultures but even just highlighting such a vast difference between Kuwait and western lifestyles suggests that mass immigration will certainly lead to clashes.

    • dirk says

      How were you dressed Rachel? Our minister(and even queen if I am not wrong), when visiting the ministers of Iran, are neatly dressed and veiled, even Swedish feminists acted that way, though with a lot of backlash and criticism from autochthone ” sisters” . Everybody his own bubble is the best way to avoid clashes. The times we westerners thought that the whole planet should westernize is over now (since a quarter of a century, not longer than that).

  18. Alex says

    @carlarwilson really well written article, you certainly have skills to write a compelling narrative. It’s a pity it doesn’t go past the subjectivity of a personal experience. Instead of digging deeper into the root cause of such appalling societal decay.

    I’ve lived and worked in KSA, and the UAE. Can confirm the too much money and too few books are a dangerous mix.

    I’m curious, considering what’s happening now in Canada, any plans to do something about it?

  19. dirk says

    @Alex: sometimes, a description of things and situations around (the tea, the dogs, the boat trip, the conversations) is more valuable than digging deep into the root cause, because it leaves the scene more open to reflections and such. Although, I agree, the seduction to do so is always around the corner. And sometimes pressed hard to come forward with, by any ambience.

    • dirk says

      In the style of Raymond Aron, who called himself an -engaged spectator- (with thnks to Emmanuel for link)

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