The State of Kuwait is a small country on the Persian Gulf, bordered by Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Despite its size, it holds around 10% of proven oil reserves and is one of the world’s richest countries per capita. The booming oil industry has led to a curious demographic: 80% the labour force is composed of migrant workers and only a third of the population are Kuwaiti nationals. The culture is therefore highly cosmopolitan and far less restrictive than those in Saudi and Iraq.
Applications for visas must be sponsored by a Kuwaiti company or individual. Note that overstaying your visa may result in a heavy fine.
The official language of Kuwait is Arabic. English is taught at school and is used as a second language.
Some basic words and phrases in ArabicMarhaba – helloMin fadlak – please Na'am – YesLaa – NoIsmee... – my name is...Bikam...? – how much is...?
Currency in Kuwait is the Dinar (KD), which is the world’s highest valued currency and is roughly pegged to the US dollar. At the time of writing (August 2006):1 KD : US$3.461 KD : UK£1.821 KD : €2.68
The dinar is subdivided into 1000 fils. Banknotes are available in denominations of 250 fils and 500 fils and 1, 5, 10 and 20 dinars. Coins are found in amounts of 1 (rare), 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 fils.
Currency exchangers are numerous. Avoid the more expensive airport and especially hotel facilities in favour of cheaper banks.
Kuwait is a relatively flat country consisting mostly of hot, dry desert. Rainfall is very low, on average 15cm per year. This mostly falls between November and April, a large proportion of it in the occasional heavy storm. There are no natural bodies of water. Temperatures can reach 50˚C in the summer. In the winter, they may drop to around 20˚C and in December and January, night time temperatures can dip below freezing.
Kuwait’s beaches and calm, clear seas attract many sailors and divers. Islamic monuments and cultural museums abound for land-based tourism.
Failaka Island, 13 miles east of Kuwait City and 30 miles south of the Iraqi coast, is Kuwait’s foremost archaeological site, with evidence of cultures stretching back into the Stone Age. It was invaded by Iraq the First Gulf War and heavily fortified. Most of the damage has now been repaired and visitors are allowed back (with a pass) to the museums and ancient temple sites.
Kuwait presents a range of shopping opportunities, from classy, upmarket stores to bazaars (souks) and shops filled with traditional products. Custom duties are low and you should be able to buy top-brand wares at very competitive prices if you choose the right shop. At other places prices will be breathtakingly high.
Be prepared to bargain if you visit the souks. Gold (sold by weight at a good price) and jewellery markets are common, especially in the old downtown souqs of Kuwait City. Other traditional goods include Persian and Afghan rugs. The huge Sharq Mall on the waterfront is very popular, with an extensive food court and an amazing array of shops. The Fahaheel and Jahra Friday Markets offer the best prices on just about anything Middle Eastern. For an all-round shopping, eating and entertainment experience, try the Al Mohalab Centre on Muthana Street in Kuwait City.
Alcohol, dancing and live music are all illegal in Kuwait, which restricts the opportunities for entertainment. People tend to hang out in restaurants and cafés, visit the mall or go to the cinema (often in shopping complexes).
One curiosity of Kuwaiti culture not found elsewhere in the Middle East is the diwaniah. These are usually evening meetings between Kuwaiti men, who gather to discuss a range of matters including current affairs, sports and politics (unique because criticising the government is illegal in nearby countries). Whereas most diwaniahs are private gatherings, some MPs and rich businessmen advertise their meetings in the newspaper.
The cost of petrol is extremely cheap in Kuwait. Roads are well maintained and lit, but heavily used. Driving can be somewhat dangerous. Speeding is very common and traffic laws are badly enforced and frequently entirely flouted. Drivers can be aggressive and careless and deaths on the road (particularly of pedestrians) are common. Should you be involved in an accident, you must remain with your vehicle until the police arrive.
Drive on the right. You will be able to use your home driving licence for the duration of your stay, but make sure you have liability insurance. Also make sure you carry your licence and registration documents at all times.
During the day, sunglasses will be useful as the glare on the road often makes it difficult to see. At night, make sure you use your headlights – many other drivers simply won’t bother.
Food and Drink
The multicultural nature of Kuwait’s population ensures tremendous variety when it comes to food. Arabian food is, of course, readily available, as well as Western, Indian and Mediterranean.
Traditional Kuwaiti food is a product of its Bedouin history as well as the influence of the neighbouring regions. Because of its position bordering the Gulf, fish is frequently eaten. Due to Islamic law, pork is forbidden and beef and lamb are common instead. Rice is a staple, although it may be prepared in many different ways. Dishes are often carefully spiced and blending these spices is a local speciality. One favourite is machboos, a biryani-like dish consisting of meat (chicken or beef) or fish, mixed with spiced rice.
Alcohol is illegal in Kuwait. Tea (often with mint) or coffee (with cardamom) are drunk instead. If you are offered these, accept – turning them down may be considered an affront to hospitality. Tap water is not safe to drink.