Kuwait – December 16-17 2015
Kuwait, in the cradle of one of the most ancient and most-contested corners of the world, is best described as a city state. For centuries Kuwait City has been like a magnet attracting Bedouin people from the interior, in search of a sea breeze and escape from recurring drought. Today the metropolis is still an oasis in a land of desert plains, but rather more of the cultural and culinary kind. Excellent museums, a corniche of combed beaches and lively restaurants, malls and souqs mark the Kuwait City experience.
Outside the capital there are few attractions other than coastal resorts. Oil wells dominate the flat desert plains and there are few distinctive geographical features.
Capital. Kuwait City
Language. Arabic; English widely spoken
Official name. Kuwait
Population. 2.6 million
Money. Kuwaiti dinar (KD). 1KD equal to 3.3US$ in Dec. 2015. ATMs widespread. Credit cards widely accepted. The dinar is no longer pegged to the dollar but this has made little difference to exchange rates, which remain consistent from one moneychanger to the next. Moneychangers can offer slightly better rates than banks and usually charge lower commissions. Moneychangers are dotted around the city centre and main souqs, and change all major and regional currencies. Only banks and the larger money-exchange facilities will change travellers cheques which are rapidly becoming obsolete.
Tipping & Bargaining. A tip is only expected in the upmarket restaurants where 10% for service is often already added to the bill. For longer journeys, 10% is a suitable tip for a taxi driver. Bargaining is de rigueur in Kuwait’s souqs.
Visas. Available on arrival for nationals of 34 countries including Australia, Canada, the EU, New Zealand and the USA (KD3, valid for 90 days, 30 days maximum stay). The process is very unusual and cumbersome. As a first time visitor, one must go upstairs to apply, get money from an ATM, pay 3KD in a machine that dispenses stamps, take a number from a ticket dispenser showing the order of waiting, make a photocopy of your passport, fill out a short application card and wait a long time. There’s no need to wait again at the immigration desk downstairs. There is a hefty fine (KD10 per day) for overstaying once the visa has expired.
Israeli Connection: anyone holding a passport containing an Israeli or Iraqi stamp may be refused entry to Kuwait.
But after an hour, I had my visa.
When to Go. Nov–Jan – Cool evenings after the burning heat of summer. Feb. – Halla shopping festival. Feb–Mar – During spring, the desert covered in light green.
Water. Kuwait is chronically short of water. From 1907 until 1950, traders bought fresh water from the Shatt al-Arab waterway near Bubiyan Island, at the head of the Gulf, and shipped it by dhow to Kuwait. The trade peaked in 1947 when it was estimated that 303,200L of water per day was arriving in Kuwait by boat. Search for ground water was unsuccessful, but the country’s first desalination plant in 1950 signaled the end of the sea trade in water. Kuwait has a huge thirst for water that has grown to the highest consumption of water in the world. Water in the desert is far more valuable than oil. In Kuwait, it’s also more expensive.
KUWAIT CITY (pop 1.5 million)
With its landmark triple towers looming over a clean and accessible cornice, a first-class aquarium, some excellent museums, marine and land architecture, malls, souqs and restaurants, Kuwait City is a sophisticated and interesting destination in its own right.
History. The capital evolved from a collection of Bedouin tents around a well into a small military outpost with a kout (small fort adjacent to water). This kout was built in 1672 by the Bani Khalid tribe who came from the Arabian interior to escape drought. The word kout evolved to give the city (and indeed the country) its name.
As improbable as it seems today, Kuwait City was until recently a nomadic port town and Salmiya consisted of a few mud huts around a tree – and that is within the living memory of the older generation. Suddenly, within the past two decades, a booming Middle Eastern metropolis has burst from its skin and the gates are all that remain of the redundant city walls. Three successive master plans have tried to give direction to this capital growth, allowing for generous mortgages and free housing for the needy, but the growth is organic and unstoppable.
Besides the city’s name, something else that hasn’t changed is the city’s relationship with the sea. Its natural harbor made it an ideal location for a port. Indeed, it proved such an excellent port that it soon came to handle a lucrative trade in frankincense from Oman, pearls from Bahrain, spices from India, textiles from China and dates from just about everywhere. The port also facilitated the trans-shipment of goods across the desert to the Syrian port of Aleppo, a journey of two to three weeks. Pilgrims returned in the other direction, great caravans taking sustenance for the onward journey to Mecca. Today the city’s port continues to play a vital role in the capital’s fortunes.
The Iraqi invasion in 1990 tore a piece of the city’s heart out, but remarkably most of the landmark buildings remain standing. A visitor today is never likely to know how much the city suffered.
Sights. Many of Kuwait’s sights are concentrated along the corniche (Arabian Gulf St) and around the National Museum area. While some of the downtown sights are within walking distance of each other, the most convenient way of visiting outlying attractions, or of covering longer stretches of the corniche, is by taxi.
One of the best new sights in Kuwait is the night-time display of lights on the new tower blocks dominating the Dasman area of town. Architects seem intent on outdoing each other in ingenuity of design, color and motion of these lighting displays which combine to make downtown look much more dynamic and complete than it appears by day.
Al-Corniche. Comprising over 10km of winding paths, parks and beaches on Arabian Gulf St (sometimes referred to locally as Gulf Rd), the corniche is marked at its southern end by the Scientific Center and at its northernmost point by the Kuwait Towers.
Tareq Rajab Museum. Housed in the basement of a large villa, this exquisite ethnographic museum is a private collection of Islamic art by Kuwait’s first minister of antiquities and his British wife. Inlaid musical instruments suspended in glass cabinets, Omani silver and Saudi gold jewelry, headdresses (from the humble prayer cap to the Mongol helmet), costumes worn by princesses and goatherds, necklaces for living goddesses in Nepal, Jaipur enamel, and Bahraini pearl.
The museum is all the more prized given the fate that befell the treasures in the National Museum during the Iraqi invasion. When news of the invasion spread, the owners bricked up the doorway at the bottom of the entry steps and strewed the way with rubbish. The Iraqis questioned why the stairs led to nowhere, but mercifully didn’t pursue the issue and the collection survived intact.
Scientific Center. Housed in a fine, sail-shaped building on the corniche, the Scientific Center’s aquarium is the largest in the Middle East. The unique intertidal display, a living reef, fluorescent jellyfish and the wraparound, floor-to-ceiling shark and ray tanks are the highlights.
Kuwait Towers. Kuwait’s most famous landmark, the Kuwait Towers, with their distinctive blue-green ‘sequins’, opened in 1979. The largest of the three towers rises to a height of 187m, and houses a two-level revolving observation deck. The lower globe on the largest tower stores around one million gallons of water. The middle tower is also used for water storage, while the smallest tower is used to light up the other two.
Maritime Museum. Giving an excellent insight into the seafaring heritage of Kuwait, it has three magnificent dhows that brought water from the Shatt al-Arab waterway near Basra to the bone-dry city, and pearling displays
Modern Art Museum. This attractive, traditional-style building hosts a number of exhibitions of contemporary art.
Sief Palace. This is the official seat of the emir’s court. The L-shaped Sief Palace that faces the roundabout is the original palace dating from the early 20th century, while the new and ponderously opulent palace, complete with lake, helipad and dock for visitor’s yachts, was completed around the beginning of 2000. Not open to the public.
Grand Mosque. Opened in 1986 at a cost of KD14 million, it is the largest of the city’s 800 mosques, boasts Kuwait’s highest minaret (74m) and can accommodate up to 5000 worshippers in the main hall, with room for another 7000 in the courtyard. National Museum Complex. Once the pride of Kuwait, the National Museum remains a shadow of its former self. The centerpiece of the museum, the Al-Sabah collection , was one of the most important collections of Islamic art in the world. During the Iraqi occupation, however, the exhibition halls were systematically looted, damaged or set fire to.
Following intense pressure from the UN, the majority of the museum’s collection was eventually returned, but many pieces had been broken in transit and poorly stored or deliberately spoiled. The Popular Traditional Museum is in the rear of the museum complex. It illustrates daily life in pre-oil Kuwait through a diorama of full-sized figures going about their various businesses.
Souq. Kuwait City has retained the old souq in all of its complex, bustling and convoluted glory in the city center. The souq also comprises the small, covered Souq al-Hareem , where Bedouin women sit cross-legged on cushions of velvet selling kohl (black eyeliner), pumice stones and gold-spangled dresses in the red, white and green livery of the Kuwaiti flag. The close-by Souq ad-Dahab al-Markazi is the city’s central gold market and many shops spangle with wedding gold and local pearls along the perimeter of Souq Marbarakia.
Liberation Tower. The tallest building in the city at a height of 372m, it has a viewing balcony.
Science & Natural History Museum. For an eclectic range of exhibits from electronics and space paraphernalia to fossils, stuffed animals and an 18m-whale skeleton, this museum, near Liberation Tower, also has a planetarium.
Old City Gates. Despite their ancient appearance, the wall and gates were only constructed around 1920. The wall was demolished in 1957.
National Assembly Building. Designed by Jørn Utzon of Sydney Opera House fame, this landmark building resembles a piece of silk, evoking both the canopy of a Bedouin tent and a sail-furled dhow.
Arab Fund Building. This superb building remains true to a traditional Islamic aesthetic. Although not strictly open to the casual caller, with a host of exceptionally beautiful rooms, is worth the trouble of gaining access.
Fatima Mosque. Distinctive green-and-white domed mosque in Abdullah al-Salem.
Shaikh Nasser al-Sabah Mosque. Pyramid-shaped mosque is another example of exceptional modern mosque design.
Sharq Souq. With its wind-tower design and adjoining marina.
Kuwait House of National Works: Memorial Museum. This innovative museum encapsulates the horror of the Iraqi invasion and honors the sacrifices that Kuwaiti citizens, the Kuwaiti military and the allies made in order to beat back Saddam’s forces.
Entertainment. In the absence of bars and alcohol, entertainment in the city is confined to shopping and dining, although film and theatre are popular. Check www.bazaar-magazine.com. Cinemas. Considering its size, Kuwait has an overwhelming number of cinemas, which unfortunately show the same films usually heavily edited to exclude kissing, nudity and sex – violence, however, is left uncensored. Single men are segregated from women and families. Women are not expected to go to the cinema alone.
Shopping. Salmiya is the shopping district of Kuwait. The main street, Hamad al-Mubarak St, is known as the ‘Champs- Élysées’ of the Middle East and is filled with dazzling shopping malls. The Avenues Mall has a six-star hotel and is worth a visit just for the architecture.
Kuwait Bookshop. The best place to look for English-language books.
Kuwait, to all intents and purposes, is a city-state wherein most of the attractions and activities are centered in the capital. There are few towns outside Kuwait City and even less in the way of physical attractions in the oil-producing interior.
Kuwait is comprised of a long and beautiful stretch of coast, and future tourist developments include the multi-billion-dollar holiday resort and entertainment complex on Failaka Island, expected to take 10 years or so to complete.
Failaka Island. With some of the most significant archaeological sites in the Gulf, a history dating from the Bronze Age, evidence of Dilmun and Greek settlements, a classical name to die for (the Greeks called it ‘Ikaros’) and a strategic location at the mouth of one of the Gulf’s best natural harbors, this island could and should be considered one of Kuwait’s top tourist attractions.
But the Iraqis established a heavily fortified base and then it was billeted by Allied forces with equally pitiful regard for antiquities. Thanks to the new resort, the island is once again open to visitors and is beginning to assume its rightful importance at last.
Ras Al-Zour. Around 100km south of the capital, it is one of the most pleasant beach areas in Kuwait.
Mutla Ridge. While not a particularly spectacular line of hills, it is about as good as it gets in Kuwait and offers a wonderful view of the full expanse of Kuwait Bay.
I had several issues with my stay in Kuwait. After many couch surfing refusals, I had arranged one night for the 16th but as my flight was arriving late at 10pm, the visa takes an hour and I baulked at the $30 taxi ride to her place wanting to take public transport, she eventually declined (I would also have had to leave her place at 7am as her boyfriend was coming over anyway!). So I consulted sleepinginairports.com, but there was no useful info. But I found a great place to lay down: there was a lounge area on a balconied area, just behind the large round mosque above departure security with 10 leather couches. Though noisy and well lit, it was very safe and comfortable and no one minded me being there. So I had a pretty comfortable night.
I also had only a few hours in Kuwait and had to maximize my time to walk the corniche and see the sites I wanted to visit. Luckily I was able to check my bags for my 3pm flight at 7am so I was able to go on a long walk. I took city bus #13 to the souq area and walked down to the corniche and walked all the way past Kuwait Towers to about half way to the Scientific Center. It was simply too far to continue so then got a taxi and went to the aquarium at the Center. I need to remind myself to not visit aquariums. I have had so many great dives that they are all meaningless wastes of money. I then got an expensive taxi to the airport in time for my flight to Dubai with an ongoing flight to Shanghai. I am excited about spending Christmas with a friend – one of the hardest times of the year to be alone.
On the flight from Kuwait, I sat next to two single Kuwaiti women, both wearing an abeyah: one a 40ish widow with no hijab and the other a 30ish divorcee wearing a full hijab and veil (which she removed after I started talking to her). She only had the veil on to make her family happy in the airport and will not wear it in Dubai. But she wore it again in the Dubai Airport even though her family was not around, so who knows how she feels about it? She had enormous false eyelashes (very common) and prominent black, painted-on eyebrows. She opened her phone and showed a photo of her in a skin-tight leopard outfit exposed from the knee down and lots of cleavage. She has a boyfriend, a much older married guy with 7 children. She didn’t answer when I asked if they had a sexual relationship (why not ask them anything – I will never see her again). I asked if she found Western men more attractive than Arabs – yes. When I told her about me, she asked if I wanted to get married. I said I couldn’t afford her. All very revealing stuff.