Destination: Kuwait City
- Mission 1: Understand what differentiates this small, wealthy Gulf country from the others in the region (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 2: Explore the ruins of Failaka Island and tank graveyard, abandoned after the onslaught of the Iraqi invasion (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 3: Ascend the iconic Kuwait Towers for a view over the bay and Kuwait City (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 4: Experience local cuisine in the Food Capital of the World, with Qors Oqaily (Kuwaiti saffron cake) featuring heavily on the agenda (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 5: Catch a glimpse of the oil fields that provide the lifeblood of this nation and learn about the industry from their state-of-the-art exhibition (and I do mean state-of-the-art) (ACCOMPLISHED).
Highlight: Exploring the war-torn Failaka Island on foot was surreal and eerie, but a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Lowlight: Arriving into Kuwait International Airport with Jazeera Airways via their new terminal was like some sort of strategy escape game; like Fort Boyard – Middle East.
Feat of Architecture: The iconic Kuwait Towers. As futuristic as they look, they have been around since the 1970s and survived the Gulf War, albeit battle-scarred.
Recce Fact: The Kuwaiti dinar is cited as the most valuable currency in the world (1 KWD ≈ 3 EUR); it’s not often that one must multiply to convert local prices to GBP.
My first memory of Kuwait on television is one that I cannot shake; the dramatic news footage on the raging oil fires burning relentlessly, set alight by Iraqi forces (shown so vividly in the clip from the 1992 docu-film, Baraka). It has since been a subject of curiosity for me, to understand how it all went so wrong for the small, wealthy Gulf state who have tried to keep a relatively low profile in geopolitics.
Kuwait was the perfect choice for my very first Gulf destination eight months after moving in Dubai. Why? Because as probably the least visited country in the Gulf, it offered promise of authenticity and has had a recent turbulent history with the Gulf War of 1990-1991. Whilst the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar strive for the #1 spot for most developed, opulent and magnificent, Kuwait still has the biggest balls among the entire Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Yes, indeed, the Kuwait Towers are the balls to which I was referring. Designed by a Swedish architect, these are in fact water towers, with the largest of the balls serving as a viewing sphere. It may be easy to forget that this futuristic-looking architecture was conceptualised in the early 60s, whilst Dubai was merely an emerging fishing settlement. Despite being 75% damaged throughout the Iraqi Invasion, the towers illuminate the bay every evening with vibrant 360° light shows. Even the mighty Burj Khalifa only lights up 180° (I know because my apartment happens to be facing the dark side in accordance with Sod’s Law).
Although the designation is actually the Kuwait Petroleum International trademark, the trendy young folk are succinctly referring to the country as “Q8” these days.
» FIRST IMPRESSIONS
» JUST “ANOTHER WELATHY GULF COUNTRY”?
» WHAT REALLY LED TO THE IRAQI INVASION IN 1990?
» IRAQI BRUTALITY VS. KUWAITI RESISTANCE
» DESTRUCTION OF FAILAKA ISLAND
» OIL FIRES; AN ECOLOGICAL DISASTER
» URBAN KUWAIT
» KUWAITI CUISINE
» SOUNDS OF KUWAIT
» MISSION KUWAIT SUMMARY
Having lived in the Gulf at this point for the better part of a year, I was ready to understand and appreciate the factors that make each Gulf country unique; politically, culturally, socially, visually and otherwise. In other words, looking beyond the commonalities of oil wealth, a large population of Asian expats, Islamic laws, extravagant malls filled with the scent of oud, the falcon symbolism, luxurious sports cars and white-clad local men with black-clad conservatively-dressed women. This reconnaissance mission aimed to scratch below the surface of all of that, lest every Gulf mission might as well be a copy and paste exercise.
Kuwait is the least-visited of all the Gulf countries for the purposes of tourism. This was all-too-apparent by the fact both that the immigration officer and receptionist at my hotel were incredulous that I was visiting as a tourist. As a result of being one of the only guests in the hotel, I can say that I received royal treatment; being assigned a personal driver and being allowed to stay for an extra day when my flight was cancelled, free of charge. This compensated somewhat for a very confusing airport wayfinding experience at KWI, an airline with no English-speaking customer support and some slightly inappropriate/overfriendly questioning by the immigration officer when collecting my visa (I’m still dubious if insisting on following prospective visa entrants on Instagram is a matter of course).
The general conjecture is that there is nothing much there to see or do in Kuwait beyond what the rest of the region offers. I can say now in retrospect; very much on the contrary. Admittedly the non-conformist in me wants to go to the places that nobody else wants to set foot in, not just to be obtuse but to try and disprove a negative perception.
I uphold the belief that one can seek out hidden gems even in the seemingly most pedestrian of places. All it takes is determination, a sound research effort with the help of Uncle Google, or sometimes a willing local to set you on the right heading.
Although Kuwait City has its fair share of skyscrapers of which Al Hamra Tower is the tallest, it is definitely not skyscraper-dense.
As such, one prominent helix-shaped building (Al Tijaria Tower) that stands out prominently and almost vantablack has earned itself the Reddit alias of “Evil Corporation Building“ as it looks suitable for a super-villain (who is secretly drilling to the earth’s core?).
Notwithstanding, I ventured inside and found a shopping mall, so at least villain is maintaining a convincing front.
Just “Another Wealthy Gulf Country”?
Kuwait has a reputation today as a compact oil rich country that keeps itself-to-itself. It has nothing to prove to the world, having enjoyed prosperity since the start of the Golden Era from the 1940s-80s with its status as the largest oil exporter of the Persian Gulf at the time. The 80s and 90s were turbulent times for the country with the stock market crash driving down oil prices, and then due to the invasion and atrocities that it suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein and Iraqi forces. Nevertheless, its rich history and unique aspects of society have differentiated it from its fellow GCC members in the following ways that I have learned or observed:
- Religion: The Sunni majority is not as proportionately large in Kuwait as in most other GCC countries with the exception of Bahrain, with an approximate 70:30 split of Sunni to Shia Muslims. Shia mosques can often be spotted due to surrounding security fences which were deemed necessary after the tragic ISIL mosque bombings in 2015. Many of the mosques of Kuwait City are ornate and flamboyant in architectural design; for instance the Mohammed Nasser el Sabah Mosque resembling a step pyramid, or the Fatima Mosque that reminded me of a Moroccan tagine and triggered a tummy rumble.
- Society: Kuwait was heavily influenced by Western liberalism in the 60s-70s but has since returned to its more conservative values. Yet, it is somehow more conservative than many other Gulf states in some ways (for example, being a dry state where alcohol is forbidden) but less conservative in others (in that ordinary people seem very open-minded, and most locals probably know where to find a decent bottle of whisky behind closed doors).
- Politics: Kuwaitis are proud of having had a democracy since the Al-Sabah family were first appointed to rule hundreds of years ago (even if in reality their system is only semi-democratic). They have maintained a stance of neutrality towards Qatar since the diplomatic crisis of 2017, causing some disapproval from other GCC members but as a result is has positioned them suitably as mediators. Flights continue to operate between the two countries amid the imposed airspace blockade.
- Economy: Although Qatar and the UAE remain ahead of Kuwait in terms of GDP per capita, this small country possesses around 8% of the world’s oil reserves and relies heavily on petroleum revenues.
- Population: Of a population of 4 million (similar to that of Croatia), fewer than 30% are Kuwaiti locals at the time of writing (2019). The remainder comprise Arabs (including a significant minority of stateless Bedoon) and South Asian migrants. Kuwait was historically frequented by shifting nomads and served as a popular settlement for those escaping famine and drought from further inland. Although Kuwaitis are tolerant of foreigners, the government would prefer to achieve a more Kuwaiti-dominant population which is currently overwhelmed by expats. I probably saw fewer than 10 white people in five days, perhaps surprising since it was a British protectorate for over 60 years before gaining independence in 1961. Also, English is less widely spoken (particularly among Arab expats) than in other major cities in the Gulf. English language is of little use in Kuwaiti daily life.
- Stereotypes: Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m only citing what I’ve heard through the grapevine. Kuwaitis are seen as the most snobbish/elitist of all the Gulf Arabs. And in recent years they have been jibed at as their obesity rate has surpassed even that of the US (blimey), which is the downside of Kuwait City’s commendable goal of becoming the Food Capital of the World.
- Appearance: Playing Spot the Saudi/Omani/Bahraini/Kuwaiti by their attire has become a pastime for self-amusement of mine on many-an-afternoon of people-watching in Dubai Mall. I have noted that Kuwaiti men tend to wear a plain white ghitra on their heads (in contrast to Saudis who often prefer the red and white shemagh and unlike Omanis who wear caps). Whilst Emiratis wear ropes that hang down from the agal that secures the keffiyeh to their heads, Kuwaitis simply opt for halo-like ring. They also seem to prefer button-collars on their kanduras (robes).
Women, however, all appear much the same to me as anywhere else in the Gulf, but are proclaimed as the most fashion-conscious. Interestingly, there seems to be no such taboo about smoking cigarettes whilst wearing all the traditional regalia; something I have never witnessed an Emirati do to date (shisha is okay, of course).
- Furthermore: It is possible for Christians to hold Kuwaiti citizenship through lineage on the father’s side (although non-Muslims cannot officially be granted citizenship). The country is absent of fresh surface water sources such as lakes or rivers, and it was allegedly the first country to introduce camel racing with robotic jockeys (a more novel and palatable alternative to young boys).
It is disconcerting to imagine that a wealthy Gulf state could be invaded and occupied overnight by a less wealthy rogue neighbour who was not planning to stop there; and to think that it happened fewer than three decades ago. Middle Eastern politics is a minefield for the amateur historian, where no incident can really be viewed in isolation with religious, tribal and cultural factors so ingrained, so I shan’t feign having grasped all the nuances of the events that led to the seven-month First Gulf War (1990-1991), but will merely offer my synopsis.
What Really Led to Iraq’s Invasion of Kuwait (1990)?
Despite not having the best relations with their neighbour, Kuwait decided to offer financial support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). This might have seemed like an odd decision in hindsight, but at the time, Kuwait was fearful of the spreading of the Iranian Revolution which took a foothold in 1979. One must remember that, as aforementioned, Kuwait has always had a significant Shiite minority; many of whom are in fact Ajam (ethnic Persian settlers). Ayatollah Khomeini was not shy about professing his notion of exporting Iran’s revolution to Kuwait and appealing to Kuwait’s Shiites to strengthen influence. This appeal to sectarianism might have been somewhat successful if Kuwait had been so proactive in adopting an ethos of integration and affording relative religious freedom to Kuwaiti citizens, without marginalisation.
And so, Kuwait bet on the other horse in that race which was Iraq and were subsequently targeted by Iran on a number of occasions for their trouble. It’s safe to say that Kuwait were not the only power financially supporting Saddam Hussein’s military efforts to suppress Iran in the 80s, but let us forgo that a Pandora’s-box-of-a-discussion for now.
By 1988 there was no clear victor; and Saddam was left with a standing army with lots of shiny new firepower, WMDs and a $60 billion war debt, of which $14 billion was owed to Kuwait (it was a loan after all).
Of course, Iraq couldn’t pay back its debtors so tried to argue that it had done unto Kuwait a grand favour by dealing with the Iranian problem and thus expected some alleviation. When Kuwait refused to let them off with it, Iraq proposed increasing crude oil prices as a means of generating some much-needed revenue. But instead of allowing them to do so, founding OPEC member Kuwait decided to press ahead with their own agenda to boost their economy and upscaled their own production instead, which in turn had a crippling effect on Iraq’s oil economy. Saddam then issued a very public threat to both Kuwait and the UAE for exceeding their OPEC quotas and if they didn’t cut production with immediate effect, Baghdad would respond accordingly. Although both the UAE and Kuwait did swiftly cut production, Saddam had hastily mobilised over 100,000 troops on the Kuwaiti border and launched a brutal invasion in August 1990.
On the face of it so far, many aspects don’t really stack-up. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was an extremely bold move, especially since the accused had already acceded to their demand to decrease oil production to quota limits. So what were the other factors at play?
- Overproduction was not the only oil dispute with Kuwait, as Iraq had directly accused them of slant drilling (which is exactly what it sounds like – sticking your bendy straw into your friend’s milkshake) to “steal” oil reserved from Iraqi territory. Still, there is no evidence that this ever occurred and Kuwait fervently denied the allegations. After all, they had plenty of their own milkshake.
- Iraqis often recite the narrative that Kuwait was historically part of Iraq (as Mesopotamia and as part of the Ottoman province of Basra) and had been artificially created as a British puppet state with imposed borders intended to restrict Iraq’s access to the coastline. This is one means of justifying the intervention.
- The US had been a supporter of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi military when it suited their agenda. Although there are many conflicting versions of the transcript of the famous conversation between Saddam and the US Ambassador to Iraq (April Glaspie) as troops were beginning to amass in the south, the general consensus is that Saddam believed he had the go-ahead to invade Kuwait and that the US would stay out of their affairs. Whether or not this was merely a miscommunication, error in judgement or a deliberate trap to lure Iraq into making a blunder that would give the US an excuse to intervene and deal with the Iraqi problem, is anyone’s guess.
- Kuwait were ill-prepared to put up any sort of resistance themselves. There was no perceived need to invest heavily in national defence at that time, even with high standards of living. Saddam Hussein could essentially walk right in through an open door, and then keep on walking (towards Saudi Arabia). All the seized assets and strategic access to the Arabian Gulf were enticing prizes.
- The rumour mill circulated notions that Kuwaitis were growing increasingly dissatisfied with state control and their leadership under their Emir, Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah who had just established a contested national assembly in 1990 after four years of a dissolved parliament that triggered a political crisis. Iraq may have been convinced that many Kuwaitis would welcome a ‘liberation’ of sorts; which turned out very much not to be the case.
Iraqi Brutality vs. Kuwaiti Resistance
What is most difficult to comprehend is the brutality met by the ordinary Kuwaiti population during the Iraqi invasion. Their efforts to put up a brave resistance are greatly honoured today.
As the majority of the population of Kuwait are immigrants, one cannot forget that they too suffered at the hands of the Iraqis. The Hindi film Airlift (2016) tells the true story of extreme bravery and unity of a nation, when Air India pilots volunteered for the dangerous mission of evacuating 175,000 Indian expats who were stranded before Operation Desert Storm began. The film conveys that the Iraqi occupiers really had it in for Kuwaitis and were extremely brutal towards them, whilst expats were more of an inconvenience, if anything. For some undisclosed reason (presumably they did not agree with all accounts or light in which they were shown), Kuwait banned the release of the film in cinemas.
The Al Qurain Martyrs’ Museum is a residential house in a quaint modern neighbourhood that remains today in a (reinforced) state of destruction after being bombarded, where a brave group of Kuwaiti freedom fighters who had attempted to sabotage the Iraqi forces hid and bravely attempted to fend off aggressors in a 10-hour battle.
Unfortunately their Kalashnikovs were no match for the tank shells and assault of bullets and grenades. One of the attacking T-55 tanks remains in-situ today facing the house.
One can only imagine the terror with, not one, but two tanks firing on the team’s position in a simple brick house. The caretaker didn’t speak English but assumed by default (with the lack of tourism) that I was a foreign ambassador of some sort and I didn’t correct him, lest I wouldn’t gain access. So I was invited to enter the house and take pictures which is not otherwise permitted. Plaques mark the spot where each of the men perished as martyrs. Miraculously, two who hid in the attic managed to survive.
Iraq’s brutality progressively increased as the occupying force continued to face resistance from the Kuwaiti people as their military had become overwhelmed. The Iraqis were authorised to execute, torture and crush any form of rebellion, after initially opening the floodgates to allow citizens to leave and weaken the resistance movement. Emir Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, fled to Saudi Arabia. His half-brother, Sheikh Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, became a national hero when he was killed and run over by a tank while bravely attempting to defend Dasman Palace. Many of such valiant efforts are well honoured and commemorated, and it is estimated that over 1,000 Kuwaiti citizens were tragically killed during that time.
The turning point which marked the start of the Gulf War ensued when the international community condemned the invasion, and the UN Security Council passed Resolution 660 demanding unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces from the region. Saudi Arabia were growing extremely anxious and asked for US assistance. After US diplomacy had failed, the US-led coalition forces launched a massive campaign on Iraqi forces in January 1991. The Iraqi forces were crushed and subsequently retreated, marking the liberation of Kuwait by March.
The capital’s Liberation Tower was so-named to mark country’s return to freedom. During the invasion, its construction had been postponed mid-completion; fortunately receiving relatively little damage.
Failaka – New Hope for the Abandoned Island of Destruction
Getting to the island was not so straightforward logistically. I learned that it is now home to a new heritage village, an important ancient archaeological site and there are plans to fully develop the island into a resort in the near future. Aware that this may be my last opportunity to see it in its current state of destruction, I was determined to get there and walk for hours in the blazing sun if necessary to explore it in full. And that is exactly what I did; all owed to the help of a knowledgeable local (a Kuwaiti-born Filipino/Iranian named Jaber after the Emir) who, much to my relief, spoke Arabic.
The island was divided distinctly into the heritage centre zone (where most passengers chose to remain for the day and relax by the pool and petting zoo), military-restricted zones, residential/development areas and an archaeological research and conservation site. Everything in between was a blend of vast desert planes and what was once a village and residential areas where people lived and a community flourished until 1990.
What struck me as the most surprising, is that among the ruins of what were once homes and residential streets, some locals have returned to reclaim their properties and are continuing to use them (perhaps as holiday homes), seemingly not put off by the fact that they may be the only intact and occupied house in the entire street.
What I was sure were abandoned and no-longer-functioning mosques hauntingly played the adhan on loudspeaker into nothingness; just into the abyss of vast deserted land.
Every now and then, a youngster would zip past on a quad bike, or a police car would slowly cruise by surveying the area. When the officers spoke with me in limited English, it quickly became clear that they had no objections to me freely roaming the area, but were purely inquisitive. Content with knowing I was in the all-clear, I politely declined their invitation to hop-into the car with them (there’s no such thing as a free ghadaa’ after all) and continued with my mission of unrestricted exploration.
As with any well-equipped village, the island was once home with schools, mosques for worship, a police station and the famous National Bank of Kuwait building that has become intrinsically symbolic to the island. The bank building is a true fortification, as the bombardment it has suffered is nothing short of cataclysmic. That’s the sort of bank I’d like to keep my hard-earned savings in. The vault today is of course empty, alas (I checked).
While exploring the school classrooms, I came across many scattered children’s books left behind. Being the overly sentimental sort I am, and I adopted one Lady & the Tramp book written in Arabic as a keepsake (unfortunately it was not possible to do the same in Chernobyl for obvious reasons).
To this day, I have still not heard the official account of what happened on that island that led to its complete obliteration by the Iraqi military, or why tonnes of military equipment and vehicles ended up there. But it was obvious from the bullet holes and shell damage on the houses and abandoned vehicles that the Iraqis were using this island for target practice.
Whilst it’s a real privilege to enjoy the freedom of exploring such an abandoned place without fear of trespassing, I recalled the grave concerns about Gulf War Syndrome, when American troops began to suffer from chronic illnesses after their exposure to all the “nasties” in combat. There was so much controversy over their exposure to depleted uranium (used in bullets designed to penetrate tank armour) as well as chemical gases, that when I stumbled upon empty gas grenade canisters on the ground I did wonder if I was wise. There are some contaminants that a 90-degree washing machine cycle just can’t get rid of.
This vehicle of horrors is a epidemiological disinfection variant (DDA) of a GAZ-66. The tanks would have served as boilers to shower personnel who had been exposed to a whole host of nasties.
I am unsure if the “Danger Bomb Inside” graffiti on the school’s wall was someone’s idea of a joke or if it had any truth to it. Nevertheless, I avoided stepping over the threshold.
I truly hope that the island is now safe enough for residents to return once again and that the government can continue to develop its infrastructure and facilities to appeal to the masses, as the view from the “beach” really is very pleasant. As for the tank graveyard… perhaps even they will still have a place in the future, as Kuwait evidently does not insist on erasing every bitter memory of the past, which says much about their resolve as a nation.
Kuwaiti Oil Fires; An Ecological Disaster
Kuwait’s working oil fields are not accessible to the public (unlike Mission Azerbaijan where I was able to roam among the nodding donkeys, wading through half-a-foot-deep sludge). Fortunately, the KOC Ahmed Al Jaber Oil & Gas Exhibition more than compensates for this, as it is truly state-of-the-art, albeit slightly remote from the city. As the only visitor, I had a private tour by a staff member (a local) who worked in the industry and understood it well. The exhibition conveys the importance of oil in Kuwait’s recent history (whereas it once relied on fishing and pearl diving), as well as illustrating, through dramatic interactive demonstrations, the quantity of oil produced per second and how drilling and extraction works with specialist machinery.
It would take only 27 seconds for number of barrels of oil produced by Kuwait to reach the height of the Burj Khalifa, if the barrels were stacked on top of one another.
What I really wanted to learn about were those devastating oil fires etched in my memory from that dramatic video footage in 1991. Why did the Iraqis set fire to the oil wells? How did Kuwait manage to stop them? What was the impact? Little did I know that the exhibition included a sensory cinema that gave a heart-wrenching account of the catastrophe. Through special effects, the experience gave the audience (only me that day) a demonstration of the scorching heat and dense black smoke faced by the valiant firefighters who were tasked with putting a stop to this disaster, without physically melting their faces off. Trust me when I say that none of us can even imagine that degree of heat those firefighter experienced, even in our nightmares.
Over 700 wells were set alight after using tanks to run over the well head on the instruction of Saddam Hussein as the Iraqi military were forced into retreat by the coalition forces’ assault, to ensure that irreparable damage would be caused to Kuwait’s resources, refineries and facilities in their wake. It was estimated that the operation to extinguish the fires would take 5-7 years, with 4 million barrels being burnt every day at a tremendous rate of loss.
Although Kuwait lost a significant amount of their reserves in the fires and spillage, they managed to extinguish them all in only 9 months. This was owed to a combined effort of international companies and a specialist team of 30 firefighters (including one Kuwaiti female engineer named Sara Akbar) who endured scorching heat of the giant flames as the air temperature soared (in the already-hot desert whilst wearing all their protective gear) and had to overcome challenges such as sand melting and turning to glass, exploding bulldozers due to the high temperatures and surrounding minefields as obstacles to thwart their attempts. The direction of conventional pipelines was reversed to pump seawater onto the fires (rather than pumping oil towards the sea), but this was insufficient. Many pioneering methods were proposed and trialed, including lifting-up the flame momentarily and disconnecting it from the well, drowning the flame (as proposed by the Hungarians) and the Texas method which would remove oxygen for just long enough to cut-off the source by triggering a small explosion. Seven lives were lost in the attempts and many more injured, but they succeeded to prevent an even more serious global ecological disaster than had already materialised with effects having reached as far as the Himalayas.
The Urban Character of Kuwait City
The city streets truly come alive at night, as families and friends gather al fresco as often as the season permits. They gather by the bay, at the marina, in the public parks, the old souk and in the plethora of restaurants and juice/coffee bars on offer. Although local families engage in all the same sorts of activities in the UAE, it feels like a much more proper and dignified affair and less of a “fun” vibe compared to the atmosphere Kuwait. In contrast, Kuwait City is loud and vibrant and chaotic; all in a very healthy, lively sort of way that conveys its real spirit.
Having said that, one residential complex in the city centre has been the topic of much controversy; the Al Sawaber Complex (built in the 80s) that would look more at home in the Balkans, lies abandoned, awaiting imminent demolition despite countless petitions to save it. [UPDATE: I am grateful that I had the opportunity to see it before it was demolished in 2019.]
Something that is absent in more prominent Gulf cities is authentic character. Sure, there may make efforts to revive the original feel by constructing new districts in the traditional style but in Kuwait City, the old style is still prevalent, with no attempt to erase it in favour of a modern facelift.
Gulf cuisine is markedly similar throughout the region; with mandi type rice dishes to be eaten with hands, bajila (fava beans) often eaten for breakfast, kebabs galore and stuffed dates or kunafa for dessert. With Kuwait’s heritage as a fishing settlement and coastal location, seafood is an integral part of local cuisine. There are two Kuwaiti dishes that I would like to pay homage to in particular; one savoury and one sweet.
Kuwaiti Murabyan consisting of flavour-infused rice and shrimps stoods out among the crowd for me, although I did also enjoy the national machboos meat and rice dishes with a tomato-based sauce. Murabyan is particularly fragrant due to the sautéed onions, turmeric, coriander and dried loomi as part of the ingredients.
The star of the show, however, must surely be Qors Oqaily/Gers Ogaily (I am unsure how those two accepted spellings are phonetically the same hence my tendency to refer to it simply as Kuwaiti saffron cake); a delightfully light perfumed sponge cake coated in sesame seeds, with a delicate cardamom, saffron and rose water flavour. Absolutely my new favourite cake.
Sounds of Kuwait
Usually this is where I would say, “See my personal favourite songs from Kuwait on Reconnaissance Jukebox” but I have only managed to find a grand total of one song that I genuinely like so far (by a contemporary band named Kuwaisiana) so it is the only song that features at the moment. I hope to expand this list eventually, but traditional Kuwaiti genres don’t really export too well beyond the Gulf.
Before the discovery of oil, it was a very popular occupation to be a musician in Kuwait. The country is associated with sawt music (a traditional dance; I say that loosely, that traditionally takes place among male gatherings) and fidjeri vocal music that was once sung by the pearl divers, accompanied by clay pots and clapping. These days, khaliji music is one of the most popular in the Gulf; and hailing from Kuwait are the revered Abdallah Al Rowaished and Nawal El Kuwaitia who is often cited as #1 singer in the Arab world (aren’t they all?). An interesting and controversial khaliji singer known as Shams denounced her Kuwaiti/Saudi nationalities (despite having a Kuwaiti mother, women do not pass on citizenship) in 2015 in protest to the Syrian refugee crisis, blaming Gulf Arab governments for their roles in the wars. Instead, she adopted citizenship of Saint Kitts and Nevis; a West Indies island state which is allowing citizenship through investment.
Mission Kuwait Summary
It’s a superb feeling when one has immersed oneself in a place that is wholly fascinating, but also bittersweet at the same time. For I know I shall not discover its like again in the Middle East. Kuwait is content enough with its petroleum-based exports and finance industry and isn’t at all concerned about generating tourism in preparation for future a post-oil economy (watch this space). But I opine that tourists are losing out. If you can cope with no public transport, the urban hustle and bustle, surviving without alcohol and getting lost in translation more often than not, a trip to Kuwait City can be rewarding and entirely perspective-changing.