Here's the 1st instalment of my long overdue Gulf travelogue:
Kuwait: A Cybercafé Called Diana
Visa counter at Kuwait International Airport. Kuwait used to be closed to international tourism, but it has recently followed the lead of Dubai in allowing citizens of well-off nations visas upon arrival. However, that hasn't led to the tourism bonanza Dubai is enjoying. Instead, apart from the odd businessmen in boring suits, the other ones at visa queues were fat, balding men in safari suits and burly, Halliburton-types in loud t-shirts with slogans like "Liberators of Iraq" and "USA - Land of the Free" - "contractors" and mercenaries on transit to Iraq.
Getting a Kuwaiti visa for Singaporeans is easy enough. After all, our nationals are unlikely to sneak into Kuwait in search of a construction worksite or housemaid job. The Singapore Armed Forces participated in the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991 with a modest contribution of a medical contingent, and more recently, were members of the so-called "Coalition of the Willing" that followed US forces into Iraq. In fact, a few Singapore gunboats are now patrolling the short Iraqi coast just miles north of here, as members of the "Coalition Forces". Well, I have to say we are smart in getting into the good books of Uncle Sam without undertaking excessive risks.
A driver from Oasis Hotel picked me up and we sped northwards to Kuwait City along a multiple lane highway. The Oasis Hotel is a typical three star business outfit in the heart of Kuwait City. At 25 Kuwaiti Dinars or US$90 per night, Oasis Hotel was not exactly my idea of a budget hotel. But well, Kuwait isn't the backpacker's paradise - be thankful that they have started allowing tourists. Oasis Hotel was the cheapest I could find and book via the net.
Nearby was Kuwait City's Souq, or Bazaar. Here I entered the realm of South Asia. Blasting Hindi music, plasma screens with hip-gyrating Bollywood nymphs and heroes, sarong of colours run wild, aroma of the most exotic Dravidian spices - welcome to Little Karachi, Mumbai or Dhaka for that matter.
Kuwait, like the rest of the Gulf, is run by the South Asians. With a small indigenous population who prefers to enjoy the richness of Allah's gift of the black gold, the Gulf states rely on the South Asians on most aspects of everyday life - Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to clean the streets, build their homes and palaces, change the diapers of their babies and to supply household goods and provisions. Europeans run companies the former colonials command greater respect from ex-colonial subjects worldwide who tend to look down on fellow ex-colonial subjects, a phenomena found anywhere from Casablanca to Beijing and Santiago - and the Filipinos and Thais, with their natural ability to serve with a smile, work in restaurants and hotels; but the South Asians do almost everything else.
The result being the South Asians as the largest population group in the tiny Gulf States - even more than the local Gulf Arabs in some of the Gulf States. 34% of Kuwait's population of 2.3 million are South Asians, about the same number as Kuwaiti Arabs. Everywhere from Kuwait City to Abu Dhabi, one sees more Indians and Pakistanis than Arabs, and South Asian culture dominates public domain to a certain extent - be it Bollywood movies or Indian briyani.
Remittances these South Asians made to their homelands are a major source of foreign exchange and a valuable funding for mosques, temples, schools and small businesses in many small towns across the subcontinent. Many South Asians have lived in the Gulf for decades and yet most are not allowed to become citizens, unlike their cousins who emigrated to Europe, North America and Southeast Asia.
"Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. Ash-hadu alla ilaha illa-llah". The call for evening prayers overwhelmed the exuberant lights and sounds of Mother India as I left the Souq. Walking along the avenues of the city centre, I couldn't help but be surprised with how run-down the surroundings were for the capital of an oil rich state. There were more than a few potholes and many of the buildings were unpainted edifices which had probably seen better days in the 1970s and 1980s. Unimpressive shops many of which were shuttered. It certainly had more in common with Damascus than the legendary shiny space age Gulf. But then, Damascus is a monumental historic city with 5000 years of history whereas there was hardly anything in Kuwait apart from a fortress and some palm trees a hundred years ago.
Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. After all, for more than a decade after its liberation from Iraq, Kuwait lived in fear of yet another Saddam Hussein adventure. Which prudent businessman would dare invest here? Perhaps investments would pick up again now that Saddam is gone.
To me, taxis are a measure of how developed the country is or will be. A country with taximeters and taxi drivers who abide by them indicates that country's willingness to do business on a fair basis with strangers who do not know the local rates. It is easy to build world-class infrastructure - one just need hard cash - but to be able to convince one's citizens to do business in a proper manner requires software which takes time to cultivate.
Kuwait City, despite its oil wealth, does not impose meters on taxis. The foreigner has to bargain hard for a reasonable rate. The same goes for Bahrain, Muscat, Moscow, Cairo and Nairobi. Malaysian and Manila taxis are metered but most drivers would refuse to use the meter when a foreigner boards the taxi. Ironically, taxis in Chinese cities are metered and tend to stick with the meters, which indicates a desire to adapt international best practices.
I walked 5km to the Kuwait Towers, the iconic national landmark of Kuwait along the windswept seaside boulevards of Kuwait City, comprising of three towers two of which had bright greenish spheres containing drinking water. Like fishballs stuck on kebab sticks. I took the lift up one of the towers where apart from the wonderful view afforded of Kuwait City there were photos of the destruction caused by rampaging Iraqi soldiers when they invaded and occupied Kuwait for seven months. Internal fittings were totally destroyed and the Iraqis blew up most of the glass walls and windows of the observation floor. War is savage. Invaders don't just want to take over lands. They often destroy the cultural heart of occupied lands as well.
On a clear day, one could see Falaika Island from the observation deck. Known to the ancient Greeks as Ikarus, this was once a major port and Gateway to ancient Mesopotamia and Babylon. Here, Nearchus, an admiral of Alexander the Great, established a Greek trading colony where goods of the Near East were exchanged for treasures from India.
Not much remains of this ancient Greek port, except for a few columns and mounds, and even that suffered some damage during the Iraqi invasion. The island, due to its strategic location off the coast of Kuwait City, was heavily fortified by Iraqi forces and was the scene of the first land assault of US Allied forces that liberated Kuwait.
A Kuwaiti couple - a handsome young man in his spotless flowing white robe and a white headscarf, and the lady in a black robe dress that covers her from head to toe called the abaya, with her face covered with a face mask only with her eyes revealed - were admiring the panorama from the deck as well. I approached them, wanting to ask them to help snap a picture of myself. The young man, seeing me and my camera, waved his arms before I could even speak, "No, no." His lady, with her palm covering her mouth as if about to scream. It was as though I was holding a pistol instead of a camera.
"Oh, I just wondered if you could take a photo for me," I said.
"Yes, I see," the panic eased into a smile. They must have seen me snapping around the observation floor and thought I was about to capture their images for some infidel pornographic exhibition. In Islam, human images are deemed indecent if not forbidden by the most conservative Muslims, and it is an absolute no-no for decent women to be photographed, especially by a stranger.
After an international crisis was adverted, I strolled along the beautiful Corniche with its many palm trees, passing the flashy Souq Sharq mall which an Iraqi missile hit during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, a marina complex and a fish market. Fishing boats spotting the green-white-black-red Kuwaiti flags moored by the quayside, fishermen unloading the catch of the day while others were repairing or cleaning the nets and lines. These workers didn't look Kuwaiti though I couldn't quite place them either. Perhaps Pakistanis who have rented the boats from Kuwaiti owners, so allowing them to fish under the Kuwaiti flag. The catch looked good.
I visited the Dixon House, where the British Resident in Kuwait lived. The British Resident was a British diplomat stationed in protectorates of the British Empire to advise the native rulers on key matters of state, especially foreign affairs. Between 1899 and 1961, Kuwait was a British protectorate, i.e., a state which was under the control but not direct rule of the British Empire.
Today, Dixon House is a mini museum devoted to Anglo-Kuwaiti relations and many old photos of what Kuwait used to be were displayed, together with photos of British and Kuwaiti royalty scratching each others back figuratively of course. Like many non-European monarchies round the world, this museum boasts about how close the two royal families were. Even though the British Empire no longer exists in its previous forms, the British royal family remains the most unilaterally proclaimed "best friends" of numerous other royal houses elsewhere. Chinese calls this "Hu Jia Hu Wei" - "the Fox relies on the Glory of the Tiger."
Kuwait, before the discovery of oil, was like many of the other Gulf States, not much more than a fortress and a few oasis settlements. There was little water and so no large population could be supported. The poverty-stricken population relied on pearl fishery men who dived into the sea to harvest pearls from oysters, which was a very tough but only way to make a living in these parts until the collapse of the pearl prices following the Japanese invention of pearl farming. These lands were governed by various tribes who often fought each other and any foreign troops who might be around. The Gulf in those days was very poor and few powers bothered to station huge garrisons to enforce whatever territorial claims they might have there. Why govern unruly tribes who bring in little tax revenue?
Kuwait lies on the outer fringes of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and the ruler of Kuwait, from the al-Sabah family, ruled the fortress of Kuwait autonomously as a qaimmaqam, or provincial sub-governor, which is theoretically subordinated to the Ottoman province of Basra, today Iraqs second largest city. The late 19th century was an era of decline of the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire, and the British were anxious to gain control over Kuwait, which lies near the key trade route from Turkey to India. In 1896, the ruler of Kuwait, Muhammad bin Sabah, was assassinated by his half-brother, Mubarak al-Sabah, who in 1897 invited the British to deploy gunboats along the Kuwaiti coast. This was quickly followed by a treaty in 1899 which gave the British control over Kuwaits foreign policy in return for military protection and annual subsidy of 15,000 Indian rupees to the ruling family.
Control over the trade routes was the objective of the treaties Britain signed with Kuwait and other Gulf States, but within half a century, it was oil which motivated political alliances or sparked off conflicts in the region. Today, the Gulf supplies 21% of the world's oil and accounts for 46% of the world's confirmed oil reserves. Combined this with the reserves of Iran and Iraq, the percentage rises to 66%. So, the moment you switch on the lights or turn on your car engine, spare a thought for the suffering masses of Iraq or imagine the sound of the cash registers of the fabulous malls of Dubai.
Near Dixon House was the Dasman Palace, chief residence of the Emir of Kuwait. This was the site of intense fighting when Iraqi forces invaded in 1990 and a younger brother of the Emir was killed in the defence of the palace. Little did I realise that a constitutional crisis was about to break out in Kuwait in less than a month's time.
On 15 January 2006, the long-serving Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad passed away and Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah, 76, who has been crown prince since 1978, succeeded him. However, Sheikh Saad had long been ill - in fact too ill to take the oath of office - and many clamoured for Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the real power behind the throne for many years, to be emir instead.
Like the other Gulf States, the Kuwaiti throne does not pass from father to son. In many Gulf States, the throne tend to pass between brothers, a system that often leads to disputes between brothers, or between those who would prefer the throne to pass from father to son. In Kuwait's case, since Mubarak the Great assassinated his half brother in 1896, the throne has always been alternated between two branches of Mubarak's al-Sabah family.
So when it became known that the new Sheikh was too ill even to take office formally, the supporters of the Prime Minister clamoured for the latter to be the emir. This angered supporters of Sheikh Saad who felt that it should be the turn of his Salem branch of the al-Sabah family, especially given that he had played a prominent role in rallying for world support during Iraq's occupation of Kuwait.
No one would have bothered if this had occurred in a landlocked African state, but Kuwait controlled 10% of the world's oil reserves. Fortunately for the energy-hungry world, after a nine-day succession crisis, Sheikh Saad had decided to abdicate in the best interests of Kuwait, and Sheikh Sabah was proclaimed emir by Parliament.
Consumption of alcohol is not allowed in Kuwait, which makes the place rather dull for many expats. I am not mad about alcohol but the ban sets the tone for the place. Expats that I met prefer to spend their weekends in Dubai or Bahrain. Oil accounts for over 95% of export earnings and over 40% of GDP, and is likely to continue to dominate the local economy for a long time. So, unlike either of these two states, Kuwaits rulers are not too concerned with income diversification, even less with tourism development. This could also be the reason why Falaika, a major archaeological site, is not well known.
I did not stay long in Kuwait. I could not find any form of local cuisine. I did not do much except visiting a few museums and run down 1960s style shopping malls. I wanted to send a postcard but the post office was closed for afternoon siesta. I had a Thai lunch, and spent one afternoon at a cybercafé called Diana, after the late princess who is probably more popular in these parts because she died in an accident with her Arab lover which explains the popularity in the Middle East of the conspiracy theory that both of them were assassinated by the British Secret Service which according to the theory was concerned that she might convert to Islam together with the heir to the British throne.
Kuwait has lots of oil. It is certainly a reasonably rich country, but perhaps one somewhat past its time. Its streets are dirty streets; its city centre was messy and uninspiring with little investment and paintwork. Obviously people have lived in fear of another invasion and Iraqi unrest, and thus businesses were unwilling to invest. A stabilising Iraq may spice things up - but can it match the progress already made by Dubai? It's also a fairly Islamic place compared to the UAE - with more restrictions on liquor and entertainment. It is more difficult to do offshore business in that sort of environment if your neighbours enjoy greater stability and are more loosened up.
With that, off I went to the UAE.