arabic ability: هذا بلوق
sanity status: It’s been said that all the ex-Pats in Saudi Arabia (or the whole Gulf region) are either divorced, deranged or desperate. I’d like to add “curious,” but it doesn’t begin with a “d.”
Kuwait would not be a proper, oil-backed, Arabian Gulf city-state if there weren’t plans underway to build what would currently be the world’s tallest building. (See also: Manama, Dubai, Jeddah.) Luxurious spa resorts, expensive restaurants, posh apartments, high-end shopping, ambiguous “tourist attractions” and even a wildlife preserve(?) will all go into this immense, estimated 25-year* construction project. But this is merely the most massive of many on-going efforts; throughout Kuwait City cranes dominate the horizon as towers go up all around. Everyone seems pretty convinced, so maybe it’s not worth asking, but I wonder nevertheless: who are these hypothetical tourists and wealthy settlers that will be coming to Kuwait in droves in the near future?
*Anyone from Boston understands how to appreciate completion-date estimates for long-term construction.
Yes, I was a tourist to Kuwait, I visited of my own volition. But, I’m not a normal tourist, there’s something fucked up about me. See, a hundred years ago, the British government secured special economic status for a minute, loosely-defined region centred upon a small port just west of the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab river,* which had been gently wrested from Ottoman influence by the machinations of the British East India company since the 18th century. When oil was discovered nearby in the 1930s, they drew the most generous possible line in the sand around it, formalizing the sheikdom of Kuwait before setting it “free” in 1961.** Driving 3 hours north from Dammam, an unbending highway cutting across expansive wasteland suddenly comes upon the Saudi-Kuwait divided zone, the oil rich frontier region distant from all places of settlement but claimed by both. This is no transition zone, there’s nothing compelling on either side of the border for miles–only political affiliation changes across that line. But, endow an otherwise unremarkable region with sovereign status, and I’m compelled to visit at least once, merely because it’s there, a distinct entity on the map. Most people are more discerning.
*The 120 mile confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates running southeast from Basra.
**Later border-controversy with Iraq and Saudi Arabia was inevitable given Kuwait’s arbitrary boundaries. Of course, the British government played no small part in setting up each of these rival nations, as well.
Maybe simply having the world’s tallest building elevates a city from unremarkable status. Maybe the right mix of flashy shopping complexes and outrageously plush hotels will draw visitors who aren’t tied to the petrochemical business and its derivative industries (i.e. those who aren’t obligated to visit for business). Then again, considering on-going developments in Manama, Doha, Jeddah, Muscat (if more horizontal than vertical), Abu Dhabi, not to mention Dubai, the question is, well, who are all these rich people who will validate all these real estate ventures in the Gulf? Is this all that wealthy people want: luxurious, top-floor condos in glitzy downtowns teeming with exclusive spas, ostentatious vehicles, and all imaginable displays of conspicuous consumption–all in newly-minted neighborhoods where the wasteland meets the sea and nothing ever lived before? Is this the new dream? When it’s no longer novel, will people really choose to live in Kuwait or Abu Dhabi, rather than Paris, New York, London, or anywhere else more authentic?
Of course, this idea of what is authentic is complicated and dangerous, even.
My introduction to Kuwait wasn’t so luxurious, though. After about two-and-a-half hours of riding as one of 4 passengers on a full-size Saudi bus*, and passing Saudi immigration, we came upon a massive queue of cars in the wide neutral zone (expansive because of the disputed oil fields between). The power was out and so Kuwaiti immigration had been shut down. Ten percent of the world’s oil** is in the possession of Kuwait, and yet the one border crossing that gets any traffic doesn’t have a back-up generator! That I hadn’t packed for it to suddenly become winter that night meant I was in a decent position to get my visa, huddled in the dark customs office, when the power came back. Five hours of waiting and a new Egyptian friend later and I was in a car headed to Kuwait City, where more than two-thirds of the country’s 3.5 million people live. It’s hard to believe anyone in Kuwait lives anywhere else. The desert to the west lining the highway is full of “Bedouin” tents parked under massive powerlines, where Kuwaitis in their luxury SUVs go on weekends to “escape modern living.” Maybe the flatscreens inside are slightly smaller than the ones back home, and they have to settle for satellite TV because broadband isn’t an option. ATVs and Wranglers have replaced flocks of camels.
*Not an all together pleasant experience, though, even with all the empty space. First it took 45 minutes standing on-line to just buy the ticket, even though I was the 4th person in the queue when I arrived. Basically, any line in Saudi Arabia is bad news, at least when government bureaucracy is involved (I know I sound like a Texan.) Then they wouldn’t let me board the bus for a while because I had no Kuwaiti visa, even though I kept explaining that Americans don’t need them. Then, the bus bathroom was locked, so I had to make the driver stop after an hour or so just so I could piss outside off the highway, which is something not explicitly forbidden, but in a country which doesn’t condone urinals certainly a source of discomfort. My discomfort trumped theirs, though.
**105 billion barrels. Maybe if they had 110 billion they’d build that generator.
Whoever tallies the lists of world’s most expensive cities must not consider Kuwait a real city. At $3.59 = 1 Dinar, Kuwait has the world’s highest-value currency (#2 Bahraini Dinar, #3 Omani Rial…#11 U.S. Dollar). It’s a great challenge to find a room that goes for less that US$70 per night, regardless of how mediocre the hotel is. When I exchanged 200 Saudi Riyals at my hotel for a mere 14 Dinars, I suspected I must be pretty small-time; menus at various establishments confirmed it.
Besides prices, Kuwait City’s most distinguishing feature might be the difficulty in trying to actually encounter true locals.* Over two-thirds of Kuwait’s population are non-nationals. Because the government guarantees free education at all levels and employment to its citizens**, one is unlikely to find any Kuwaitis working in shops, restaurants, hotels, taxis…really anywhere a tourist might encounter someone at work. The government (royal family) has expressed alarm at the fact that Kuwaitis are clearly minorities in “their own country” (who did the actual construction?) and, similar to Saudi Arabia, has announced future plans to severely curtail the population of foreigners working in the country. This stated goal, however, seems in direct conflict with all the plans for construction and the free handouts to citizens. (uhh…who’s gonna do all the driving and building?)
*I was told to check the shopping malls and fastfood joints, neither of which made my itinerary.
**Unemployment in Kuwait is just over 1%, one of the world’s lowest rates, while per capita income is over $80,000, again among the world’s highest. (I’m not sure how the guarantee of employment works exactly, but I’m betting it’s not exactly efficient. Unless Kuwaitis are so proud of their country and it’s social system that they work really, really well, you know, just to set an example…) Other benefits available to Kuwaiti citizens include marriage bonuses, loans for housing, free medicare, and retirement payments. In 2007 the government spent over $1 billion paying off the private debts of its citizens. In 2011 the government instituted a plan to pay every citizen $3500 per month and deliver every family a basket of food each month for 14 months. Does this really seem sustainable? Not that the Saudi model (“rOILs only!”) is better.
The first stop on my itinerary was to Kuwait’s iconic landmark, the Kuwait Towers. Off the corniche at the tip of Kuwait City’s main peninsula 3 concrete pillars taper skywards, one with a garish, greenish globe midway up, another with two. They are together part restaurant, part revolving observation deck, part water storage facility*, but mostly just odd-looking. Like some monument to the 1970s vision of the future that never came, these bizarre structures have been called by some guidebooks the “symbol” of the Gulf region. (That says more about the Gulf than it does about the notoriety of the towers). Of course, given my well-established affinity for vertical architecture, I had no choice but to visit the observation deck.
*4,500 cubic meters or 30,000 average American showers, but nowhere near the 1.5 million cubic meters used each day in Kuwait.
The towers’ position lends them views across the bay, as well as of Kuwait’s burgeoning skyline, but the most notable aspect of the towers to me was the gallery of pictures with nationalist captions of the damaged towers from the summer of 1990, when the ravaging Iraqi troops sacked Kuwait City.* The entire observation deck used to rotate when the towers were initially completed by a Scandinavian’s design in 1979, but the marauding soldiers sabotaged the electrical equipment, perhaps to repurpose the deck for surveillance of the city. Today just the outer ring of floor inside the globe slowly spins. If it ever gets crowded, this is probably annoying for a lot of people, having to stand with one foot stationary, the other slowly drifting away.
*To be fair, speaking as a driving range veteran who will always break from my routine to aim for the ball-collection cart if it’s roaming, of course the Iraqi soldiers were going to use the Kuwaiti Towers for target practice. I mean, give me a massive piece of artillery and a disregard for negatively impacting the lives of others, and I’d have blasted away at them myself during my visit. They simply beckon projectiles.
In many more significant ways, Kuwait’s recovery from the 1990 Iraqi invasion has only been partial. Though Iraq invaded with the stated intent of annexation, illogically the arrival of the Iraqi army was marked by pillaging, destruction, and general devaluation of the worth of the region they were conquering. Of course, after anger that Kuwait was keeping oil prices low by massively increasing production, and claims that Kuwait was stealing Iraqi oil, the assertion of historical ties and unity with Kuwait as antecedent to British involvement in the region, since the Ottomans included Kuwait with the province of Basra, was only the tertiary justification provided by Saddam for the invasion; perhaps there never was any intention of actually treating Kuwait and its citizens like members of the 19th province of Iraq, as it was declared shortly after conquest.
When the Iraqi army was routed out of Kuwait, they set fire to over 750 oil wells while retreating. The southeast coastal region of Kuwait has yet to recover from oil spilling everywhere, though it used to be a source of some agriculture. The coastal fisheries similarly suffered from oil pollution in the seas. However, beyond physical scars, many of which are today hard to find in Kuwait under the wave of post-invasion construction following the recovery of the oil industry, the invasion has left behind psychological scars.
Studies have shown that Kuwaitis who stayed in the country during the occupation have a higher mortality rate. Thousands were “disappeared” by the invading forces; it took years for Kuwaitis to find out about their whereabouts, or what happened, while many Kuwaits are still missing, with no record yet unsurfaced as to what happened to them. Saudi friends have told me that before the invasion, Kuwaiti television shows, music, and all sorts of exports were disseminated throughout the Gulf, that Kuwait was the cultural center for the region; today that’s no longer the case even as massive wealth has returned. They suggested that the trauma of having put up such a short, unsuccessful resistance against the Iraqis is a source of shame for Kuwait (though it’s hard to imagine how Kuwait could have defended itself against Saddam’s massive army and military machine, well-rehearsed after a decade-long fight with Iran). I just think shock of this army invading a city that had become modern so quickly must have been great; we might be prone to thinking that these things don’t happen anymore in developed places. I mean 1990–that wasn’t very long ago!
From the glorified water storage facilities, I taxied west towards the urban center and Old Kuwait. Unfortunately “Old Kuwait,” much like absolute zero appears to be merely a theoretical abstraction, an idea written on paper (in this case, a map) that you’ll never bare witness to…that is, unless you take “old” to mean “built in the ’70s, cheap, characterless, and crappier-than-average.”
See Kuwait, like North America (or, really, most places outside the “Old World”) is a land of ancient history and settlement, only you have to really dig to find it, the reminders are quite well-hidden. The difference regarding Kuwait, though, is that the area is part of the written historical record dating back to before Alexander. There are some ancient Greek ruins on one of Kuwait’s island, Failaka, near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, and the ancient Persians supposedly had a province here called Characene. However, in 1912 there were still only 35,000 people living in the area. Nomadic herdsman and merchants would come in the summer months to the cooler coastal area to do business. Kuwait City as a metropolis is a post-oil-economy construct. The culturally-imperialistic temptation is again to call it a “fake” city, whatever it is I mean by that.
With nothing else really left to do except visit historical museums (no doubt heavy on funding, light on substance), I went to a guidebook recommended coffeeshop, toured the “best aquarium in the Gulf” with its 3D Imax cinema, and walked for long stretches along the gardened, shopping-mall-and-upscale-restaurant-lined 10 kilometer corniche, taking photos of the modern city skyline. On the boulevard nearby, Lamborghinis and Ferraris and other fantasy cars that in the U.S. you see more in magazines than on roads would drive by, while everywhere there was heavily-watered green grass.
For a while I became critical of my negative reaction to these modern structures and opulent displays of luxury, this easy condemnation of mine that it all lacks real substance. I thought, well, 80 years ago foreign visitors would have come here and dismissed Kuwait for its tents and camels, its lack of department stores and “culture.” Now I come here and dismiss it for its skyscrapers and luxury cars, it’s shopping malls and its lack of well-preserved structures or “culture.” It’s like a perpetual cycle of derision, as if no matter what I encounter, it’s not quite the way it is elsewhere, so it’s wrong.
But that’s not quite it, though, because there is something to the point that a city of 3 million people really shouldn’t exist on this barren, wasteland peninsula. I mean, no food grows here, so 95% of Kuwait’s food must be imported. Kuwait is already so dependent on water desalinization that the residual salt byproduct returning to the sea has noticeably increased the salinity of local seawater. If you click on the wikipedia article for Kuwait City and scroll to economy, all they discuss is the number of international hotels, followed by a mention of shopping malls–there isn’t much going on in the way of business. About 75% of GDP just comes from the petrochemical industry, but that remaining 25% no doubt largely comes from businesses like shops, hotels, restaurants, telecommunications, construction, real estate and shipping that simply wouldn’t exist if not for the oil industry.
So, fine, obviously the presence of oil in enormous quantities has warped the settlement pattern of the region, no one could argue that. My mildly-informed critique, though, is that with all this money simply sitting underground here, the regime isn’t creating any wealth. They’re just trading one currency, oil, for things that begin to deteriorate the moment they are purchased–buildings, roads, cars, parks, clothing. Fine, there’s no reason they shouldn’t have all these things. But, every restaurant is P.F. Changs or Starbucks, some import or imitation from the United States or Europe. Every quality hotel is the Sheraton or the Hilton or Novotel. The cars and handbags and wallets and jewelry are all from elsewhere. Even the landscaping, the grass, all these plants require the kind of regular rain that never occurs in Kuwait, having been built in the style of foreign examples.
But it’s not just Kuwait. It’s Bahrain, it’s Saudi Arabia, it’s Qatar. These countries are being built, and are attracting new immigrants based upon the greatest bubble in history. Not only is oil’s supply not unlimited (well, okay, there’s obviously still a shitload left), but it’s not a good we utterly require, there are substitutes. There’s nothing intrinsic to oil that makes it superlatively valuable, only that it’s supply can be greatly limited and that at present its the primary source of energy for a world that’s slow to embrace innovation. But even if Kuwait is best served by this slow innovation elsewhere, it does itself a disservice by not innovating at home.
Suddenly this nation was endowed with unimaginable wealth, but instead of using it to promote itself, Kuwait has watered away its own culture by valuing most what foreigners have made elsewhere, and importing so many workers that they’ve become the minority in their own historical lands. Why haven’t they developed beautiful styles of parks and landscapes that make sense in a desert environment? Why haven’t they innovated buildings and streets that are designed for the climate? Why hasn’t the Bedouin culture been preserved and advocated? Why isn’t there Kuwaiti art? Maybe it’s unfair, certainly hypocritical, to level these critiques, but incredible wealth allows for the opportunity to do amazing things. Instead you could say that Kuwait, whatever it was before, is being done in, not by military invasion but rather commercial construction and passive imitation. Oil wealth is a blessing and a curse.
The sky is a blue desert, the land as nutrient-rich as a potato chip. Only modern people are misguided enough to maintain themselves upon its oily sustenance. “But it tastes so rich!” we explain, as we amass in places not designed to be so dense. We all, everywhere, pay for it: short-term satisfaction, towards what nasty end?