I travelled to Kuwait City on business in the spring of 2015 and was determined to get to know the country at least a little whilst I was there. As I left the very modern and efficient airport and approached the city’s financial district via an eight lane highway, across the parched desert to my left I could see the typically Emirati glass-shards of commerce, reaching for the hazy, cloud free sky shimmering in and out of focus in the early evening heat.
Arriving in Kuwait City
Kuwait is a very small emirate, one could describe it as a city state. Much of the country is empty, parched desert and outside the city boundaries, there are few major attractions or attractive landscape features.
Kuwaiti’s form the minority of peoples in their own country, with less than a third of the 3.4 million population being Kuwaiti nationals. The majority of the rest are poorly paid immigrant workers, building the skyscrapers, serving guests in the restaurants or cleaning the houses and cars of the wealthy Kuwaitis.
I spent four days in Kuwait, visiting several hospitals in order to pitch my company’s Digital Healthcare apps. The hospitals were all stunning. They were sparklingly clean and extremely modern and, as seemed to be the same throughout the city, they were eerily devoid of activity.
The journey to the Middle East started out very well. I travelled with a GP from the Suffolk village in which I live, who was acting as my medical advisor and expert. The good news was that due to his brother being a BA pilot, as we boarded the 747 at Heathrow we were quietly ushered to the front of the plane and our very comfortable upgraded seats in business class. As a result I spent most of the eight hour flight either asleep or eating the very reasonable food.
First Impressions – A Juxtaposition
I found the city rather bizarre in that it had many elegant, modern skyscrapers yet there was little if any landscaping at street level. Office car parks at the foot of 30 story glass towers, were left as rubble, interspersed with broad perfectly tarmac’d roads. The promenade along the seafront was landscaped, mainly with palm trees, but not to the lush impact of say Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
I did manage to take a walk one evening (it was usually far too hot to walk very far), from my hotel to the shoreline, through a small but pleasant public park.
However, indoors is where Kuwaitis spend most of their time and the shopping malls, restaurants and hotels I saw were grandly furnished, with both modern and antique, typically Middle Eastern furnishings. I did find a small park, with some green spaces, but the grass was damp from the constantly running sprinkler system.
Delicious Food Fit for an Emirate
For me, the highlight of my brief stay in Kuwait was being invited back to our local fixer’s lavish family villa for dinner one evening. My colleagues and I were treated to the most lavish spread of barbecued and roasted meats, lightly spiced with the distinctive smokey flavours of middle-eastern cuisine. There were also a variety of flat breads, many bowls of curried rices, pulses, raita and vegetables. There was far too much food for the four of us and the three male members of his household. We were briefly introduced to the women of the house (his wife and daughter) but they quickly retreated to other rooms, only briefly making a re-appearance to assist the hired-help to serve the lavish banquet.
After dinner we drank tea flavoured with cardamom and saffron whilst lounging in enormous, over-stuffed armchairs embroidered with intricate designs. We talked into the early hours about many things, and I especially enjoyed the stories they told about the Iraqi occupation in the 1990s. Though the first Gulf War was brief and the Iraqi forces were soon expelled by the coalition, it was clear the Kuwaitis had been quite badly treated by their occupiers and for a while were extremely concerned about their livelihoods, their homes, their freedom and most worryingly, their safety.
One afternoon I ate a wonderful lunch (more barbecued lamb and chicken) at one of the restaurants along the seafront highway. After dinner, whilst waiting outside the restaurant for the valet to bring our car from the parking garage, we talked to a group of Bangladeshi workers enjoying a well earned lunch break. We talked about how they hated the dry heat and preferred the humid steaminess of their homelands which somehow felt much cooler to them. They also freely tackled about how they missed their families, villages and food back home. Standing here for just a few minutes whilst we talked, it was easy to see what they meant about the heat. Especially at this time of day (mid-afteroon) it was unbearable. Our hire car dashboard stated it was 46′ Centigrade. It was an unusual intense, dry heat, and simply breathing burnt the back of your throat and sweat soaked your shirt within seconds of stepping out of the air-conditioned buildings.
My New Friends the Bangladeshi Workers Escaping the Midday Heat
Things to See and Do
To be honest, there isn’t much for the average tourist to or do in Kuwait City. Even the official Kuwait tourism web-site states “…outside the City there is little, only barren desert or fruit farms.” Inside the City boundaries it is clear what the greatest pastimes are for Kuwaitis. Shopping and eating. There are a plethora of gargantuan shopping malls, each with scores of cafes and restaurants. The seafront is pleasant enough, with beach clubs and, once more, a scattering of cafes and restaurants.
Everyone drives everywhere in Kuwait, which is understandable due to the unbearable temperatures (both in the day and at night time).
As an example, prior to a visit to the military hospital (which was also pristine and deserted like the others), the doctor we were meeting collected us from by the entrance to the visitor’s car park in her very flash Maserati sports saloon. She then proceeded to drive us all of thirty yards back to her parking space by the main entrance.
Afterwards, before returning to our hotel, our enthusiastic guide took us on a slight detour to show off the glitzy shopping mall where he was the resident manager. I’m not usually a fan of shopping malls, and there are scores of them across the small city of Kuwait. However, on this occasion a visit was well worth taking a little timeout from our busy schedule for. The mall (called The Avenues) was vast, two miles from end to end according to our connected guide. Every brand you could think of, including many British institutions, had vast stores here. The mall was home to over 600 stores and cafes in this giant building, which was extravagantly designed and decorated, especially the vast ornamental central dome. We had tea and cake in one of the lavish cafes and, for all intents and purposes, could have been sat in the cafe at Harrods or Selfridges in London.
My Conclusions of Kuwait
My brief visit to Kuwait left me thinking I’d missed something, surely there must be more to this tiny city state than shopping malls, skyscrapers, delicious food and an unkempt beach? I’ve since checked various websites and it is true, there seems little more than what I’d seen. I could see little evidence, albeit in the short free-time I had available, of any sports or recreation activities, such as those that are in abundance in other Emirate cities such as Dubai or Abu Dhabi. The streets and malls were eerily deserted, as if there was a curfew in place. As my plane rose into the starry Kuwait night sky, I felt pleased that I’d been to somewhere so unusual, off-the usual tourist trails. I vastly enjoyed the tales of occupation and war, admired the entrepreneurial spirit of the Kuwaiti people and I detested their reliance on poorly paid immigrant workers to do anything energetic or hands-on and the way these people longed to be home with their families. I was also confused how Kuwait had such great potential, warm seas, sandy shores, guaranteed sunshine, yet seemed to be doing little to tempt visitors. As the smiling stewardess placed my Negroni on the arm rest of my seat, I wondered to myself what will happen to Kuwait when the oil runs out. I do hope they make the most of the opportunities they have.