If Iraq had not invaded in 1990, Kuwait could have been the next Dubai or Qatar, a country made fabulously wealthy by oil and making its name as a travel hub, taking advantage of its position as a bridge between Asia and Europe. Kuwait may not be as glitzy, but it offers a refreshing change from its Gulf neighbours – it's not showy or sparklingly modern, and arguably has more Middle Eastern charm as a result.

Democratic Kuwait?

Kuwait has an elected 50-seat National Assembly, which is sometimes described as one of the strongest in the Middle East. The powers of the emir, crown prince and cabinet are tempered by the increasingly vociferous 50-member Assembly, which must approve the national budget and can question cabinet members. That said, the emir has the power to dissolve the assembly whenever he pleases (and he has done so nine times since 1962, most recently in 2016). Only six parliaments were able to run their full terms since 1962. However, the emir is required by the constitution to hold new elections within 90 days of any such dissolution.

In 2005, after years of campaigning, women were at last enfranchised and permitted to run for parliament. In 2009, four women were elected to the National Assembly – despite the reticence of hard-line clerics and traditional tribal leaders, the move was viewed by many as a sign of a new era of transparent government. In 2016, however, 15 women ran for the 50 open parliament seats and only one was elected. That woman, Safa Al Hashem, is particularly outspoken about her views on foreigners. In 2017, she accomplished her task of making medical treatment for expats more expensive.

Two-tier Society

The origin of the non-Kuwaiti population has changed considerably in the last two decades. Before the Iraqi invasion, 90% of the expat population was from Arab and/or Muslim countries, with large volumes of Egyptian labourers, Iranian professionals and more than a million Palestinian refugees, who arrived after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Arab nationalities now make up less than 15% of the expat population, with large numbers of Palestinians, in particular, having been forced to return home. Former Palestinian political leader Yasser Arafat was widely regarded as a supporter of the Iraqui invasion of Kuwait, and all Palestinians were tarred with the same brush; some were even court-martialled on charges of collaboration.

In recent years, Kuwait has resembled other parts of the Gulf in its mix of mainly Indian and Filipino immigrants. Alas, a two-tier society appears to have developed, wherein some immigrant workers (Filipino maids, in particular) are engaged in virtual slave labour. Filipino workers have garnered much media attention after a married couple killed were found guilty in 2018 for murdering their Filipina maid. The murder prompted a ban on Filipinos travelling to work in Kuwait, before a new policy on workers rights was agreed between the two countries in 2018.

Outspoken members of parliament blame expats for most of Kuwait's problems. Kuwait's only female politician, Safa Al Hashem, would like to see expats banned from getting Kuwait driving licences and have them pay tax if they wish to use Kuwait's roads. Talk to many Pakistani or Indian traders, taxi drivers, petrol pump attendants or restaurant workers, however, and they evince a warmth towards the country that may surprise a foreign bystander.