Kuwait: A stopover with surprises

2 February 2017

The 2am Jazeera Airway flight  took me over Saudi Arabia’s airspace and into Kuwait. Kuwait will be a 10 hour stopover and a day of exploring before continuing onto Bahrain.

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After landing, the first task was to exchange some money then get my hands on that visa which costs 3 KWD/10 USD. The unfortunate thing about Kuwait’s airport is the lack of facilities. They don’t have any lockers so I had to carry my 9 kg backpack for the whole day.

A taxi ride from the airport into Kuwait City (2.4 million ppl) costs around 8 KWD (~24USD). Upon first impression- Kuwait, like many other well-off Middle Eastern countries is a metropolis with high-rise business and residential buildings, nice gardens, fancy hotels, well-kept sidewalks and boulevards. I’m more of a history buff so modern man-made constructions can only keep me interested if urban planning and a green city architectural design is there ( Vancoverism). However, since I was in Kuwait for a stopover, I was going to enjoy myself.

My first stop –> Kuwait’s National Museum (free entrance) which took some time for my driver Mohamed to find. With no clear entrance signs, it was under renovation and hidden behind concrete grey walls.

DSC08547Once there, I realised how lonely that museum is: two exhibitions with limited artefacts ( the museum was completely destroyed during the 1990 war), only two staff on site and information pamphlets which dates back to 2003.  The staff was nice since upon seeing my heavy backpack, he told me to leave it at the counter…shoulders liberated! Time to explore and learn a bit of the country’s history.

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The first showroom displays ancient relics found on Failaka Island e.g. animal fossils that dates back 16 million years ago, Neolithic red clay bowls, statues and coins from the Hellenistic Period etc. Failaka Island is one of most important places in Kuwait.

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As an important stopover in the sea route during ancient times, archaeological excavations revealed that a civilisation existed and continued to the Hellenistic period.  Alexander the Great found a Greek colony there called “Ikarus” at the end of 4th century BC.  Historians were able to know this since one of the houses found on the island was filled with tiles and the mould had clays in it bearing the effigy of Alexander the Great. Stone pillars typically found at the entrance of temples were also discovered along with a Greek Fortress.  It came as no surprise that Greek statues were discovered along with circular stamps and coins.

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A limestone plaque with Greek engraving also gave clues to the island being a cultural centre during the Hellenistic Age. It was also the site for integration between people in Arabia and Mesopotamia. Kuwait was under Portuguese control in 1521 and in 1613, Kuwait town or current day Kuwait City was found and inhabited by fishermen. 18th Century saw Kuwait becoming a maritime transit point and as part of the trading route, it slowly developed into the centre of boat building in the Gulf region. In more modern times, despite the island being fertile with underground water and a nice location which facilitates trade in the area, many people quit agricultural, pearl diving and pasturage after the discovery of oil. The 1990 war with Iraq resulted in the inhabitants being forced off the island. The island is now uninhabited.

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The second showroom is a replica of  a soup (market). There are displays of the ‘Beshtakhth’ or writing tools used by students in schools, old 1900’s records, jewellery, utensils, clothes and more. After the museum, I was told by a friendly local that I can also visit the National Library. Empty, new and directly opposite the museum, it was more of a place to escape the coldness. Time for Sadu House.  DSC08588DSC08593

The one staff who was working there gave me some pamphlets and showed me the route to take to see the house. With the aim to promote Kuwait’s cultural and textile heritage, it began as a private initiative in 1978.  Built in 1936, the white house reflected the traditional Kuwaiti architectural style of open courtyards and wooden doors/windows (brought in from Karachi). The Kasha tiles were brought in from Baghdad and electric power were installed in 1952. Although empty, it was better than the Grand Mosque (closed) and Alseif Palace (out of bounds for the public).  With time to kill,  I stared at Kuwait Bay.

I sat there for a long time in the cold…just like what I did in Vancouver before walking towards Kuwait Tower.

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Opened in 1979, the dot pattern on the spheres watches over the city. The bigger sphere houses a viewing platform and rotating restaurant. The second sphere is a water tank and the spike lights up the night. 

On my way back, I bumped into a gentleman who was surprised to see me. Perhaps it is an odd sight to see a girl carrying a tripod in Kuwait. Nevertheless, he gave me a lift and invited me to Starbucks at Souk Sharq (the first Starbucks in Kuwait-opened in 1999).

It turned out to be such a great conversation.We chatted about the country and life in general. It is very easy for a single traveller to strike a conversation with locals. 

“No oil- no country- no Kuwait”. Oil is the main economic pillar for Kuwait. Things are expensive but it is cheaper than Qatar.  70% of the people in Kuwait are expats. Women have higher ranking and the press is relatively free. The majority of the population is Sunni Muslim. Kuwait banned alcohol consumption in 1983 and 90% of the population live along the coast.

DSC08701Before Mr Abdul left, he thanked me for the interesting chat and encouraged me to always travel since it helps one to be more informed, open and accepting. I sat at Starbucks- staring out again into the harbour and thought about chance encounters,  words of encouragement form strangers and my last two hours in Kuwait.

With a population of around 4.2 million people, only 1.3 million are Kuwaitis. Oil reserves were discovered in 1938 which accelerated the country’s rate of modernisation. Since Kuwait has the world’s 6th largest oil reserves, it is a high income economy with the KWD being the highest valued currency in the world. Handing in 600 rmb and only receiving 25 KWD was not a good feeling. Petroleum is the main export product and their crude oil reserves accounts for 10% of the world’s reserves. All natural resources are state property hence why the Emir is never short of money.

From 1946 to 1982, Kuwait experienced a period of prosperity due to oil. By 1952, Kuwait was the largest oil exporter in the region and around the 60’s to 70’s, it was also the most developed country.  In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and US led a coalition to remove Iraq from Kuwait- Gulf War. During the war, infrastructures were destroyed and people perished. 13 years later, Kuwait became the springboard for the US-led Invasion of Iraq. Basically, Iraq and Kuwait do not get along.

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I went onto the other side of the Souq – the busy fish market, the sounds of crashing waves, a nice conversation with a local woman at the pier and the sensation of the afternoon sea breeze made me feel alive.

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It was a hectic stopover and not very well-planned out yet it turned out to be surprisingly pleasant. The locals are friendly and I felt welcomed.  A hint of  sadness hovered above me. Time to go. Tiime to kill the emo me.

Kuwait visa: For the v.o.a, change money and insert 3 KWD into the stamp machine. No change is given so ensure you have enough change. Wait for the stamp then fill out a form. If you are only going for a stopover ensure that you fill out an address on the form to ease the process. Keep the A4 paper since they collect it along with your stamp when you leave Kuwait.

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