Kuwait is a small country of only 17,818 sq km located at the northern tip of the Arabian Gulf, between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The coastline stretches 290 km with 9 islands, the largest being Failaka, Bubyan and Warba. The country is mostly flat desert only 1% of which is cultivated. The only notable areas of higher ground are Muttla Ridge and the Ahmadi Range. The capital and commercial centre is Kuwait City located on Kuwait Bay.
Kuwait's desert climate makes it very inhospitable for plants and animals alike. However, certain wildlife does thrive, including many species of reptiles ranging from the dhubb and monitor lizard to the tiny house geckoes and, of course, snakes. Mammals are represented by gerbils and jerboas and by desert hares and foxes. Being an important stopping off point on many migration routes, the area can be a bird watcher's paradise – bee eaters, eagles, cormorants and terns have all been spotted.
Kuwait's climate is one of extremes: maximum temperatures in the summer can rise above 50 degrees centigrade, but can drop to below 0 degrees in the desert in the winter. Summer is deemed to run from May to October and sees not only extremely hot weather, but also spectacular sand storms with high winds which can reduce visibility to nil. The cool season from November to April is generally very pleasant. Annual rainfall is about 5 inches. In general the coastal area is marginally cooler and more pleasant. Humidity is usually low.
AGRICULTURE AND FISHING
Only one per cent of the land is cultivated – mostly using natural water sources in the Jahra and Wafra areas to cultivate cereals, tomatoes, radishes, melons and cucumbers. Sheep and camels are herded in the sparsely vegetated desert areas. The government places great store in improving the environment by 'greening' the city and the numerous landscaped areas are a credit to their efforts. A great effort is directed at research into what plants can thrive here. Fishing has always supplied an abundant supply of fresh food, and care is being taken to conserve resources.
Kuwait's population is so small that the country has traditionally needed a significant foreign workforce. Consequently, there is a large population of non-Kuwaitis working in Kuwait. The expatriate workforce is multinational with particularly large numbers of Egyptians, Indians, Filipinos and Pakistanis. The total population is about 2.4 million.
The key to Kuwait's existence has always been trade. Archeological finds dating back as far as 2000 BC suggest that Failaka island was a trading station with links to the Dilmun trading empire and the ancient Greeks to whom it was known as Ikarus – named after a Greek island in the Aegean. During the mid 18th century the Utub, a clan within the Anizah tribe, settled in Kuwait, probably to escape the ravages of a drought that was sweeping the Arabian peninsula. They chose Sabah Bin Jaber to be their leader in 1756 and his dynasty has ruled the country ever since. The country grew through trade, fishing, ship building and pearl diving to be one of the most prosperous in the region, blessed with a natural harbour, water and a strategic position.
In 1899, Sheikh Mubarak the Great signed an agreement with the British which led to the recognition of Kuwait's independence with British responsibility for defence and external affairs. Oil was discovered in 1938, but was not exported until 1946 because of the second world war. Subsequent oil finds have made the country a major world producer with estimated recoverable reserves sufficient to take Kuwait well into the 21st century. Since those days Kuwait has built itself into a modern state with a welfare system which is the envy of the world. In 1961 Kuwait became a State in its own right and joined the Arab League. Kuwait joined the United Nations in 1963 and was instrumental in the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981.
On 2 August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait unleashing a seven month cruel and brutal occupation which horrified the world. Kuwaiti forces put up a valiant fight, but were heavily outnumbered. Many brave Kuwaitis refused to be intimidated and established an effective resistance, which operated with success despite brutal Iraqi reprisals. Kuwait was liberated on 26 February 1991 by a mighty coalition of 35 allied countries under the auspices of the United Nations. Today, Kuwait and its people can be proud of the great strides that have been taken in an astonishingly short time to repair the structural and environmental damage, to reestablish an infrastructure which was systematically dismantled, and to restore a shattered economy.
The official language is Arabic, but English is very widely used in business. Street signs are generally bilingual. The knowledge of a few phrases of Arabic is not only useful but very much appreciated.
The principle factor in Kuwait's economy is, of course, oil, which represents about 70 % of gross domestic product, 90 % of government revenue and about 95 % of foreign exchange earnings. Kuwait is estimated to be the fourth largest oil producer in the Middle East and OPEC and the seventh largest in the world with reserves sufficient for 70 to 100 years' further exploitation. It has been a policy to deliberately limit oil production in order to conserve reserves and to maintain prices. A large quantity of natural gas is also produced. Although some industry is connected with these natural resources, there is a policy to actively pursue more diversified sources of employment. This broadening of the country's industrial base is centred on the Shuaiba Industrial Area. Non petroleum based employment includes large scale building and construction projects and the expansion of the shipping sector. Prior to the occupation, Kuwaitis were, in terms of per capita GNP, the richest people in the world, and the countrys relatively small size and population had contributed towards its comparatively mature economy. The invasion interrupted Kuwait's industrial development, but the underlying strengths remain unchanged.
Sadly, little traditional architecture remains today. However, there are efforts being made to restore some of the older housing. The traditional Kuwaiti style house consisted of a series of rooms built around a central courtyard. There are very few still standing, but the Bayt Al Badr next to Kuwait Museum is an excellent example. However, the modern architecture of Kuwait features some of the most impressive in the world. Well worth a visit are Kuwait Towers, the Ministry of Justice, the National Assembly, the Stock Exchange, and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science, the Arab League Building, Sharq Souk and the Scientific Centre.
Kuwait is an Islamic state, and mosques of varying size and importance are to be found throughout the country. The largest is the Great Mosque opposite the Seif Palace. For most newcomers, their first awareness of Islam will come as the dawn prayer rings out across the city in the small hours, the first of five calls to prayer each day.
There are five pillars of Islam – basic beliefs common to all Muslims. The first is the profession of faith: "There is no other god but God, and Mohammed is the messenger of God". The second is prayer and the third is fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. The fourth is the giving of alms, and the fifth is the pilgrimage or Haj to Mecca, which all believers should attempt to make during their lifetime. Islam has a separate calendar with 12 months all of which are timed to the phases of the moon.
The holy month of Ramadan is important as a time when all Muslims fast completely from dawn to sundown – this refers to eating, drinking and smoking, and to every other "bodily indulgence" including malicious gossip and spite. Nightfall is marked by the breaking of the fast, and the whole month is a time of celebration and family togetherness.
It is important to note that during Ramadan non-Muslims are also forbidden to eat, drink or smoke in public and that this is upheld by law.
During Ramadan business hours are usually adapted. Public holidays are usually associated with the Islamic religion and are a time for celebration or reflection.
Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol and pork products of any kind and these commodities are therefore illegal in Kuwait.
PRACTICE OF OTHER RELIGIONS
Unlike other Middle Eastern countries Kuwait has a written Constitution. Article 35 states… “Freedom of belief is absolute. The State protects the freedom of practicing religion in accordance with established customs, provided that it does not conflict with public policy or morals.”
- Evangelical Church, Kuwait City
- Roman Catholic Church, Kuwait City
- Roman Catholic Church, Ahmadi
- Roman Catholic Church, Salmiyah
The extremes of temperature make it essential to have a range of clothing from ultra lightweight in summer to warm heavyweight in winter. Warm clothing is important because, although there is very effective air-conditioning in the hot season, very few schools, offices and public buildings are felt to be adequately heated in the winter. During the summer contact lens wearers may experience frequent drying out of the eyes even if protected by sun glasses, and are advised to invest in prescription sunglasses which automatically lighten and darken with the intensity of the light. Everyone needs sun glasses to counter the intense glare.
Much of social life revolves around the home – parties, entertaining guests and being entertained, informal bridge and darts sessions, watching videos and so on. It is important to make an effort to be social and to make a circle of friends. Eating out is a real joy as there is a variety of excellent restaurants – western, fast food outlets, Indian, Chinese, Italian, Turkish and Arabic. All the hotels have good restaurants offering buffet meals and a la carte dining, with a variety of styles and cuisines. Prices are generally lower than in the UK.
There are many societies and clubs organized by expatriates – bridge, soccer, rugby, darts, cricket, scrabble, choirs, amateur dramatics and social. Most expatriate sports tend to be organized by hotels or by expatriates themselves. To mention a few, facilities which are available to enjoy: water sports – boating, sailing, wind surfing, diving, jet skiing, and fishing; bowling – 4 main alleys; ice skating; horse racing; golf; car rallying; archery; martial arts; squash. Places to visit include the National Museum, Sadu House (traditional handicrafts), the Dhow harbour, dhow building at Doha village, Kuwait Zoo, Kuwait Towers, the Waterfront project (scenic walks), art galleries, Entertainment City (fairground), the traditional open air Friday Souk, the Tareq Rajab museum, 14 cinemas
FINANCE AND BANKING
The Kuwaiti Dinar (KD) is acceptable by the IMF. It is traditionally a stable currency linked to the dollar. However, rates do vary from day to day – but is usually approximately 1 Pound Sterling = KD 0.500. The KD is divided into 1000 fils. Kuwait is served by modern banks which offer all normal banking services. International credit cards are generally accepted by major businesses. At the time of writing personal income is not taxed in Kuwait.
Opening times for banks are usually 8.30 am to 12.30 pm Sunday through Thursday. Most banks are open in the evening. All banks provide automatic cash withdrawal facilities outside working hours. IPE and the majority of its employees deal with the Gulf Bank, Kuwait Finance House (KFH) and National Bank of Kuwait (NBK).
Banks and money exchanges provide facilities to change money. New staff are advised to use their credit cards to withdraw cash locally and bring cash with them for the first month, rather than any form of travelers cheque.
There are three English language daily newspapers; the Arab Times, The Daily Star and the Kuwait Times. Most national newspapers from the UK, Europe and the USA are available – usually the following day. There is an English medium television channel – rather bland – and with a suitable aerial English programmes can be received from neighbouring Arab states. Many invest in satellite television. Sky News, BBC Prime and numerous other stations – American, British and international are available. Radio Kuwait has an English language station and most world broadcasting services can be received. BBC world service is on FM radio.
Almost every commodity is available in Kuwait. There are traditional souks (markets) and ultra modern shopping malls. One Kuwait entrepreneur has made it his mission to bring Oxford Street to the Middle East and consequently there are massive shopping malls which contain every shopping brand from Boots, Debenhams, Marks and Spencers to Dior and Jimmy Choo. Cooperative Societies in each area provide large western style supermarkets supplying most goods at controlled prices while Carrefour and the Sultan Centre group of supermarkets also provide a more up market service. There are also traditional corner stores in most streets for small grocery items.
Websites that you may find useful
A very informative site
One of the English daily papers
Geographical facts and figures
A NGO promoting positive relationships between Westerners and Arabs. AWARE organises social activities and information services related to Arabs and Islamic Culture.