Kuwait is not the type of place that most people would think of traveling to. When you think of Kuwait, you often picture either vast deserts, huge oil fields, or the invading armies of Saddam Hussein. The desert and oil are still there in large quantities, but the Iraqi army is long gone, replaced by a country that has one of the largest per capita incomes in the world (currently #11.)
I visited Kuwait in February 2012 as part of a visit to the local Microsoft offices and to speak at an event here. While it is not the type of place I’d normally recommend planning a vacation around, it is interesting and unique in a few significant ways. First off, it still suffers the scars of a violent invasion of its borders in 1990, and secondly, but more subtly, Kuwait City, the capital, is the predecessor to modern-day Dubai. Before the invasion, it was the most modern and forward-facing city in the Gulf region. After the invasion, however, local and regional investors looking to build a modern metropolis in the area focused their attention on the cities of the United Arab Emirates, most notably Dubai, as they were skittish about making too significant of an investment in Kuwait for fear of another invasion. For this reason, Kuwait City, while modern, really missed out on the boom that hit Dubai and changed the face of that city.
That said, there are changes being made in Kuwait today, and much more infrastructure is being built up. New hotels and buildings are being constructed, and there is even talk of building a massive tower higher than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the world’s tallest. Still, you can’t escape the feeling of what Kuwait could have been when you visit here. There is no changing the past, however, and Kuwait is forging ahead with its own destiny, one shiny building at a time.
By the way, a note on arriving in Kuwait. Don’t bother going down to the passport control line unless you already have a visa. Getting a visa is a bit of a challenge, unfortunately. I’ve outlined the high level process as follows:
- Head to the booth marked ‘Visas on Arrival’ and immediately get yourself a number from the machine (press the button)
- Get a photocopy of your passport from the photocopier. There is typically a line for the photocopier as well, but it’s free to use.
- Pick up a visa entry card and fill it out.
- Wait for them to call your number, then immediately hand them the photocopy, the entry card, and your passport. If you’re lucky, you’ll get it back in 30 minutes to an hour or so while they go through the process of stamping it with a visa.
- Once stamped, you can bypass the passport control line, using the line reserved for flight crew, just be sure to show them your visa and the printout that you get from the visa line. Oh, and be sure to keep that printout, you’ll need it when exiting Kuwait.
Yes, it is this complex, and yes, it is a very frustrating process and you should give yourself at least an hour to complete it.
After a presentation in the business center of Kuwait City, I took a short tour of the City with my good friend Mohammed Zayed from Microsoft. We ate lunch at a phenomenal Lebanese restaurant along the shores of the Gulf called the Burj Al Haman restaurant, and it was here that I had the best hummus I’ve tasted outside of the Levant.
Our main destination after lunch was the iconic Kuwait Towers, a series of three towers by the waterfront that house water storage facilities for the city. Designed by Swedes and built by Yugoslavs, the towers opened in 1979 to international acclaim.
The towers themselves were heavily damaged during the Gulf War, as the Iraqi forces deliberately shelled them and damaged internal equipment before they retreated, but the damage was minor enough that they were repaired quickly after the war.
The tallest ‘pod’ on the tower closest to the Gulf holds an observation deck that revolves once an hour. The pod offers the best views of Kuwait City, though the glass does get obscured by sand and dust from the frequent sandstorms in this area, so you unfortunately can’t get a clear view easily.
The far side of the pod provides for extensive views of the Persian Gulf, which is referred to here as the Arabian Gulf, for obvious political reasons.
The lower level of the observation tower includes multiple framed pictures of the damage incurred to the tower during the Iraqi occupation. They mince no words when describing the Iraqis, referring to them as ‘Barbaric invaders.’
Just down the street from the Kuwait Towers it the unmistakable form of the National Assembly of Kuwait building, known locally as Majlis Al-Umma. This building was designed by the same architect that designed the Sydney Opera House, and is used to house the first elected parliament in the Gulf.
Numerous government buildings can also be found in this area, including the Ministry of Communications, the Ministry of Information, and the telecommunications towers called the Liberation Tower, which was in the process of being built during the Iraqi invasion and was finished shortly afterwards.
Around the city one can also find multiple mosques and unique building styles, such as the Al-Othman Mosque and the Khaifan Tower.
The largest Mosque in Kuwait is simply known as the ‘Grand Mosque’, and covers an area of 20,000 square meters (220,000 square feet.)
Indeed, what is striking in many ways about Kuwait is the close mixture of Islamic symbols and symbols of Western society, such as the large McDonalds sign jutting up right next to the Jassim Al-Wazzan Mosque. It is not difficult to find nearly any store or restaurant that is found in the US here, including places such as TGI Fridays, KFC, and even obscure chains like Caribou Coffee.
Despite the prevalence of McDonalds and other western influences, you can find Kuwaiti cuisine, if you look for it. I ended up dining that evening on Majbous, a type of rice dish also known as Kabsa that is a typical Gulf dish, savory and loaded with aromatic spices, meats, and nuts.
The pains of war are fresh and raw to the people who live here, but the immediate economic impact of the conflict was nothing compared to the capital flight out of the region to places such as Dubai afterwards. It is interesting to imagine what Kuwait would have looked like if it had received the same level of attention and investment. In any case, I believe the country will continue to grow and prosper as the geopolitical situation in the region improves, and I look forward to seeing how the city and country changes over the coming years.