Long ago, in a visa agent’s waiting room in London, before I had ever stepped foot in the Gulf, I chatted with a long-time GCC resident. He was not over-flattering of any of the countries he had lived in over the preceding twenty years, but for Kuwait he had a single sentence. It was not to the city-state’s advantage. I had to visit.
No one-liner is ever fair to a whole country, but in this instance, I can think of no comment that more completely misses the mark. Kuwait charmed me from the first. In comparison with Riyadh, its advantages were legion and started right inside the airport.
Enter the arrivals hall of Kuwait airport and there are shops and cafes. Want to buy a book to read? No problem. Need to rent a car? Straight this way, sir. If it is possible to do either in Riyadh airport I have never discovered how. Here everything a visitor might want is easily found. So it didn’t take too long before we were in our rental car, out on Kuwait’s open roads.
Here was to be found my second delight. The roads were open, well maintained and clean. The driving didn’t make me fear for my life. It was all quite manageable and it wasn’t long before Kuwait City’s skyline (delight number three) hove into view.
The modern architecture is great. The city’s old covered souq bustles with energy and distraction. The food stalls are tasty. The palace is huge and impressive. The Kuwait Towers are fantastic, especially when lit at night. The beaches are clean.
But more than any of this, Kuwait is a clearly conservative country that lacks any of Saudi Arabia’s oppressiveness. People smile and chatter. Men and women mix freely. Some women are covered but others are not; indeed abayas are not compulsory and there is a riot of colour in the women’s clothes (some of which is pretty revealing). When the call to prayer is sounded people do go to pray, but the shops stay open and restaurants still serve food. The country is dry, but people still appear to relax, to smile, to gather and to enjoy themselves.
As a Gulf city, Kuwait could not be more different from Riyadh. There are cinemas. Shops play music. A troupe of singers performed inside an (utterly giant) shopping centre.
27 hours is a fleeting visit indeed. I have barely scratched the surface. I have not had to deal with too much frustrating bureaucracy. I admit Kuwait is very expensive for the region. It doesn’t have the glamour of the UAE. It isn’t quite as relaxed and friendly as Oman. It feels more lived in and less pristine than Doha. But I enjoyed my visit enormously. The man in the waiting room was wrong. For me, Kuwait City wins hands down. But I will leave the last word to a longer term visitor.
I asked my waiter at lunch how long he had been in Kuwait (two years) and if he enjoyed it (yes sir). I told him I lived in Riyadh. He shook his head.