In common with the rest of the Gulf, Kuwaiti people value privacy and family intimacy at home, and enjoy the company of guests outside. In many instances, ‘outside’ is the best description of traditional hospitality: while female guests are invited into the house, men are often entertained in tents at the front of the house. These are no scout-camp canvases, however, but lavish striped canopies made luxurious with cushions and carpets.
Any visitor lucky enough to partake in tea and homemade delicacies in these ‘majlis al fresco’ may be inclined to think that life in Kuwait has retained all the charm and simplicity of its Bedouin roots.
Kuwaitis take a different view, however. Some blame the war for a weakening of traditional values: theft, fraudulent practice, problems with drugs, the divorce rate and the incidence of suicidal driving have all increased. Others recognise that the same symptoms are prevalent in any modern society. With a cradle-to-grave welfare system, where 94% of Kuwaiti nationals are ‘employed’ in government positions, and an economy that has run ahead faster than the culture can adapt, many Kuwaitis feel their society has become cosseted and indulgent, leaving the younger generation with too much time on their hands to wander off course.
Life in Kuwait has changed out of all recognition in the past decade: women work, couples hold hands in public, formerly taboo subjects find expression, and people spend money and raise debts. Indeed, the galloping pace of change is proving a divisive factor in a country of traditionally conservative people. It would be ironic if a society that survived some of the most sophisticated arsenal of the 20th century fell under the weight of its own shopping malls.
Barely a third of Kuwait's population are Kuwaitis (the rest are expats) and many Kuwaitis boast Bedouin ancestry. After liberation, the government announced that it would never again allow Kuwaitis to become a minority in their own country, implying a target population of about 1.7 million. However, with an unquenchable desire for servants and drivers, and an equal antipathy for manual labour, it is unlikely the Kuwaitis will achieve this target any time soon.
There are small inland communities, but for all intents and purposes Kuwait is a coastal city-state.
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 over 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 to their country of origin – a bitter phrase in the circumstances. As Yasser Arafat was widely regarded as a supporter of the invasion, all Palestinians were tarred with the same brush; some were even court-martialled on charges of collaboration.
Today Kuwait resembles 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. Talk to many Pakistani or Indian traders, taxi drivers, pump attendants or restaurant workers, however, and they evince a warmth towards the country that is somewhat surprising to the Western bystander. In comparison with other countries in the region, Kuwait has a relatively small Western expat population, working almost exclusively in higher-paid professions.
Feature: Diwaniya, Kuwaiti Gatherings
An important part of life in Kuwait, diwaniya refer to gatherings of men who congregate to socialise, discuss a particular family issue or chew over current affairs. The origins of these gatherings go back centuries, but the rituals remain the same – a host entertains family, friends or business acquaintances in a room specially intended for the purpose at appointed times after sundown. Guests sit on cushions and drink copious cups of tea or coffee, smoke, snack and come and go as they please.
In the early 20th century, on the edge of Souq Mabarakia, Mubarak the Great held a famous daily diwaniya, walking each day from Sief Palace through the old souq to an unprepossessing building amid random coffeehouses. Here he would sit incognito, talk to the people and feel the pulse of the street. Sitting near the same place today (a renovated traditional building without signage may mark the spot), with old men nodding over their mint teas, city types trotting to work, merchants hauling their wares to the souq and groups of women strolling in the shade, it’s easy to see why he chose this spot.
Most Kuwaitis are Sunni Muslims, though there is a substantial Shiite minority. During the 1980s there was considerable tension, mostly inspired by Iran, between the two communities, a worry that has returned with sectarian violence over the border in Iraq.
Before the Iraqi invasion, Kuwait was still governed by a strict code of conduct, steered by a devout following of Islam. The invasion shook belief in all kinds of areas, including religious observance. Materialism is beginning to exert as strong an influence on the young as religion used to affect the customs and manners of their Bedouin or seafaring ancestors. Kuwaiti society certainly can’t be described as permissive, but the veil in many areas of social exchange is discernibly slipping.
A tolerance towards other religions is evinced through the provision of services at Coptic, Anglican, Evangelical and Orthodox churches in Kuwait City. Kuwait is the only Gulf country to have a strong relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.
It has to be said that Kuwait is not the most well-endowed patch of earth, in terms of the sublime or the picturesque. The interior consists of a mostly flat, gravelly plain with little or no ground water. Its saving grace is the grassy fringe that greens up prettily across much of the plain late in the spring, providing rich grazing for the few remaining Bedouin who keep livestock. The only other geographic feature of any note in a country that measures 185km from north to south and 208km from east to west is Mutla Ridge, just north of Kuwait City. The coast has a little more character, with dunes, marshes and salt depressions around Kuwait Bay and an oasis in Al Jahra.
Of the nine offshore islands, the largest is Bubiyan Island, while Failaka Island is the most historic: there are plans afoot to develop a container port on the former and a vast tourist complex on the latter, but at present there's no overwhelming draw on either island.
The anticlockwise flow of Gulf currents favours Kuwait’s shoreline by carrying nutrients from the freshwater marshes of Shatt Al Arab and the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates in southern Iraq. The result is a rich and diverse coastline, with an abundance of marine life that even the poisoning of spilt oil has failed to destroy.
Birding highlights along the mudflats include black-winged stilts, teals, lesser crested terns, huge nesting colonies of Socotra cormorants, and flamingos. Inland, birds of prey, including the resident kestrel and the short-toed eagle, roam the escarpments.
Nocturnal desert creatures (rarely sighted) include caracals, hedgehogs, big-eared fennecs – the smallest canines in the world – and jerboas, which gain all the liquid they need from the plants and insects they eat. It is easier to spot the dhobs, a monitor lizard with a spiny tail, popular as a barbecue snack.
In terms of endangered species, given the events of the past few years, it’s remarkable that a few more species have not been added to the list of desert mammals, like the oryx and the gazelle, made regionally extinct through hunting. The desert wolf has apparently made something of a comeback in recent years and has been spotted near residential areas.
Larger than the state of Bahrain, the 863-sq-km nature reserve on the northern end of Bubiyan Island is home to many species of bird and animal. Comprising marshland and creeks, it is a haven for waders. It was heavily mined during the Gulf War and the causeway destroyed. The future could be just as alarming, with a port and residential complex planned for the southern part of the island.
While Kuwait shares many of the same environmental concerns as its Gulf neighbours, it has also had to contend with the extraordinary circumstances inflicted by war. Over a decade later, the casual visitor is unlikely to detect any signs of war either in the desert or along the coast. A thorough clean-up by Pakistani and Bangladeshi troops, and subsequent diligence with regard to the removal of unexploded ordnance, means that Kuwaitis can once again enjoy the ritual camping expedition without fear of danger. Perversely, however, it is now the campers who are threatening the environment, with discarded rubbish and overuse of delicate grazing lands. In addition, relaxed standards with regard to waste and oil dumping have led to concerns about polluted seas along Kuwait’s shoreline.
Every year on 24 April the country observes Regional Environment Day, with school competitions and raised public awareness regarding marine and land resources.
Kuwait's Water Shortage
Kuwait has long been known for its fine natural harbour, but, like so many places in the Middle East, it is chronically short of water. Indeed, from 1907 until 1950, traders had to buy fresh water from the Shatt Al Arab waterway near Bubiyan Island, at the head of the Gulf, and ship it by dhow to Kuwait. The trade peaked in 1947, when it was estimated that 303,200 litres of water per day were arriving in Kuwait by boat – thankfully, the country didn’t have a golf course.
Early investment of oil revenues into the search for ground water was unsuccessful, but Kuwait’s first desalination plant in 1950 signalled the end of the sea trade in water. An exorbitant way to acquire fresh water, desalination nonetheless satisfies the country’s huge thirst for water, which (according to some local water-resource experts) has grown to become the highest consumption of water in the world.
Natural resources are precious and, as every Bedouin knows (and any midsummer visitor can guess), in the desert, water is far more valuable than oil. In Kuwait, it’s also more expensive.
Feature: An Environmental Catastrophe
On 20 January 1991, the third day of the war, Iraqi forces opened the valves at Kuwait’s Mina Al Ahmadi Sea Island Terminal, intentionally releasing millions of litres of oil into the Gulf. The resulting oil slick was 64km wide and 160km long. Between six and eight million barrels of oil are thought to have been released, at least twice as much as in any previous oil spill. At least 460km of coastline, most of it in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, was affected, with devastating consequences for the region’s cormorants, migratory birds, dolphins, fish and turtles and large areas of mangroves.
The systematic torching of 699 of the emirate’s oil wells contributed to the environmental disaster. By the time the war ended, nearly every well was burning. At a conservative estimate, at least two million barrels of oil per day were lost – equivalent to about 5% of the total daily world consumption. One to two million tonnes of carbon dioxide streamed into the air daily, resulting in a cloud that literally turned day into night across the country.
Like the slick, the fires devastated wildlife throughout the region, but they also had a direct impact on public health. Black, greasy rain caused by the fires was reported as far away as India, and the incidence of asthma increased in the Gulf region.
The slick was fought by experts from nine nations, and oil companies eventually managed to recover, and reuse, around a million barrels of crude oil from the slick. Initial reports that it would take five years to put all the fires out proved pessimistic. A determined international effort, combined with considerable innovation on the part of the firefighters, extinguished the fires in only eight months. The crews did the job so quickly that one well had to be reignited so that the emir of Kuwait could 'put out the final fire’ for reporters in November 1991.
Cleaning up the 65 million barrels of oil, spilt in 300 oil lakes covering around 50 sq km of desert, was not so speedily effected. Through a variety of biological processes, which included composting and bioventing, more than 4000 cu metres of contaminated soil were treated, resulting in soil of such high quality that it was good enough for landscaping and could be used as topsoil.
The Japanese Garden in Al Ahmadi is a showcase for the miracle ‘oil soil’. The garden’s ‘blooms of hope’ are testament to international cooperation and the ability of humans and nature to combat the worst that disaster can throw at them. The gardens are currently undergoing rejuvenation.