Kuwait is another country (like Saudi Arabia) that doesn’t encourage western tourists. 15 or more years ago, I taught English for a semester in Kuwait to primary school children. This month I’ve been back twice to visit my aunt and uncle and cousin, who’ve lived there for 40 years. Read on to find out what it was like.
I’m working out in the Middle East (despite being based in Thailand) a lot at the moment – 1-2 weeks out of every month – and the first of my two visits to Kuwait was part of a work engagement, and for the second I went for the weekend in-between two weeks in Saudi Arabia (Saudi not being a place you want to hang out in for kicks particularly!).
Kuwait: What to Wear as a Business Woman (?!)
The work engagement was as an assessor for a couple of days of assessment centres for a bank. If this sounds like gobbledegook to you, it’s where I, as part of a team, put a group of candidates through exercises including group activities, presentations, role-plays and interviews. This was for development of the candidates, though it can also be for recruitment.
There were no female candidates, they were all male and fairly traditional Kuwaitis, but the actual work went fine. Although the food was terrible. Very little veggie stuff and what there was was very greasy.
The biggest challenge for me this time? What to wear. <Sigh> Kuwait is a fairly conservative Muslim country – for example, it’s ‘dry’ (no alcohol). I knew I needed to wear conservative business dress: more conservative than Dubai; less conservative than the abaya that’s the law for women in Saudi. But remember I live out of a suitcase, so I really don’t have that many clothes here in Thailand.
Working in conservative countries – from Kuwait to Malaysia – has given me an awareness of my dress in a way I haven’t had to deal with before. It turns out that the scoop or v-necked dresses I wear in the UK for work (perfectly respectable there, I should add!), aren’t necessarily appropriate in other countries. Or, I could wear them, but I would garner less respect and inappropriate attention. Some of the older, male, very traditional clients in these countries are already being stretched by working with a female interviewer/trainer/assessor. I want them to focus on my words, and not be distracted by judging me for not meeting the cultural dress code (whether or not I agree with the dress code is a different issue).
I ended up visiting the huge Avenues Mall where I managed to pick up a new outfit thanks to the patience and advice of my aunt. The Avenues is the largest mall in Kuwait and apparently one of the largest malls in the world. In the mall, apart from the traditional local dress of many of the other patrons, I could have been anywhere in the world – apparently the mall has (at least!) eight Starbucks alone.
There’s even a Victoria’s Secret, which was a bit disconcerting, but the models in the window have dressing gowns and nighties rather than pants and bras.
Given there are no bars or clubs in Kuwait, night-life there centres on restaurants and shopping, and so the Avenues is only one of many malls in the country. During the invasion(s), many of the wealthier Kuwaitis left the country and went to Europe or the States, and when they came back, they brought a number of the shops from those countries back with them, so you can find everything from Harvey Nics to Häagen-Dazs to Prada.
On my second visit to Kuwait I visited yet more global brands (much more than I do in Thailand). I picked up tights from M&S; we went to Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee, and had lunch at Le Pain Quotidien. Quite nice, but I don’t miss visiting these kinds of shops when I’m in Thailand. Every dress or possession I buy is one more thing in the suitcase; and sometimes I feel I have to let one thing go if I buy something new.
As well as work I stayed with my family in Kuwait. My aunt and uncle have lived in the country for nearly 40 years, mostly teaching. They love it there – even enough to go back after the invasion(s) despite their house being trashed.
The weather in Kuwait in May is hot, in the late 30s and early 40s (it gets even hotter in August), so we didn’t spend too much time outside in the day, but we did go for a walk several times in the evenings along the Kuwait seaside called the Corniche, getting an ice-cream at the Scientific Centre (one of Kuwait’s limited attempts at tourism).
We also had a delicious and fun brunch at my aunt and uncle’s house. I was amused to realise that these days my cousin lives next door to her mum and dad – rather, she corrected me, they live next door to her as she moved to the spacious apartments first!
It was good to get some social time in-between my two weeks in Saudi in particular, because I had felt very isolated there the second time I visited. More on that in another post. Suffice to say that laughing and joking with family was very welcome, and I’m very grateful for their hospitality.
One fun trip out was to the Friday market (the weekend in Kuwait is Friday-Saturday). When I was in the country 15 years ago, this was a much less structured affair, with sprawling stalls of all kinds of everything covered in a thin layer of dust. These days, it’s still out of doors but there are giant structures to provide shade, which on the day we went was very necessary.
We had a clear mission, because my cousin, who is a drama teacher in one of the English speaking schools, had spotted some barber-shop style chairs that she wanted for the school’s production of Grease. She’d bargained them down to one price, and she thought that if her father went and bargained for them instead, he might get them cheaper.
It’s true that my uncle does tend to bargain hard, but that’s usually because he couldn’t care less whether he actually gets to buy the thing or not – he offers his lowest price and walks away with a shrug if they don’t take it. This time, with my cousin hiding hopefully around the corner (yes, really) there was a little bargaining, and he managed to get the chairs for £40 ($60) less than my cousin was offered by the stall-holder. Which my cousin was simultaneously happy and indignant about as you’ll imagine!
My uncle and I were both taken aback by quite how ugly the chairs were (sorry cuz). You can see the story unfold, including the ingenious ‘platform on wheels’ to get them from the stall to the car, in the pictures below. It’s a long way from Ikea (though there is an Ikea in Kuwait too!).
The planes I took in and out of the country were interesting. On one, I met an attractive Italian engineer, who distracted me so much with scintillating conversation on the flight from Kuwait to Qatar that I left my kindle on the plane. Ouch. Still, he offered to cook me dinner if I go back. We’ll see 🙂 Unlike my uncle and aunt, he wasn’t really enjoying life in Kuwait. Not many single (and appropriate) women there I imagine.
And supporting that, in the main, the flights in and out were very heavily male. As I’m finding on these ‘commuter flights’ around the Middle East, there are few women travelling on their own, and very few western women. I continue to experience being a minority that sticks out like a sore thumb, and some days this bothers me more than others.
I was lucky enough to be flown business class by my company for one of the flights, and I pretty much had the small Emirates business lounge at Kuwait airport to myself. Nice. The flight back to Saudi was another interesting journey, but I’ll leave that story to another post…
Kuwait has, naturally, changed a lot since I was there the first time, 15 years ago. It’s more built up, there’re more malls, more expats, and it’s even more conservative – I saw more women completely covered than I remember, and my family agrees. But the smell of the desert is the same, and the quality of the light. And I slipped back into the sarcastic banter with my family there as if I’d been living with them just last week…
Would you ever consider working and living abroad? Where would be your dream destination? Or are you already an expat? What draws you to that life? Share your answer in the comments below!