In the tragic oil kingdom of Kuwait

Welcome to the city state of Kuwait! Kuwait is quite unlike the rest of the Gulf states. To start with, Kuwait is the richest of them all. In terms of oil reserves per capital, it beats even the almighty Saudi Arabia. My local acquaintance boasted that it’s enough to stick a finger in the ground and the oil will come gushing out. On the other hand, Kuwait was the epicentre of a still recent and still painful national tragedy. The invasion by the troops of Saddam Hussein in 1991 has shaped the national character. A whole generation of young men was eliminated. Kuwait City (and there isn’t anything else in Kuwait, the rest is an empty desert punctuated by oil wells) was utterly destroyed, looted, burnt by the retreating Iraqis, when the overwhelming might of the coalition forced them to flee Kuwait.

But in the case of Kuwait there is no ostensible hyper compensation. The Kuwait City centre is strictly functional, there are no new eye catching buildings that you would expect from a country risen from the ashes. Obviously this is not a question of money. Rather it is the conservative culture that prescribes focusing on the private space, hiding all wealth from jealous eyes of an outsider. Only recently the government took a decision to build a proper national museum and to renovate the Kuwait Towers – more on that later.

The first glimpse of Kuwait from a plane window:

The plane prepares for landing over the centre of Kuwait City.

My visit started from the broad main avenue of Kuwait City, simply because my hotel happened to be located right on it. This broad street leads straight to the roundabout in front of the Seif Palace – the residence of the Emir. On the right we can see the Main Mosque.

The Seif Palace. The guidebook insists you cannot photograph or even approach it, but I did walk in front of the main gate and nobody seemed to mind.

All the Gulf cities are proud of their waterfronts – which are always called Corniche.

The nerve centre of the Corniche in Kuwait is the Souq Shark complex. The cluster of shops is separated from the rest of the city by this marina. Behind the Souq is the Gulf.

On the left from the marina is a modern building of the Fish Market, considered perhaps the main tourist attraction in the city. Not according to the locals though: they consider their immense shopping malls as the main objects of pride.

I did visit the Fish Market.

Of course it is nothing like the Tsukiji market in Tokyo, and yet it was fascinating in its own way – it is a life that is fully authentic, not meant for a consumption of a tourist – and indeed my presence evoked surprise.

On the other hand as you visit Souq Shark, you wouldn’t know you are in Kuwait, or anywhere really. Well actually there was one exotic aspect. There is a mosque located right inside the mall, and the toilets are combined with the mosque – they also serve for ritual ablution. It took me a bit of time to figure it all out as I entered.

Very few visitors ever go to Kuwait City for fun, this any tourist information is scarce. I did find out that there was a Contemporary Art Museum – and decided to give it a go, seeing how Dubai art galleries were a complete surprise. The museum is very close to Souq Shark. As an aside, the emptiness we see on this photo is generally very characteristic for Kuwait City – even at the height of winter, when the temperatures are perfectly friendly.

The museum was a clear disappointment. Seeing as I was the only visitor…

Only a sleepy guard was playing with his phone among the “masterpieces” from 1970s.

This is apparently the most famous object in the collection.

Kuwait City’s major landmark are the Kuwait Towers. They were built in 1970s at the time when the rivers of oil were flowing out of the country bringing in the unheard of prosperity and nobody knew the tragic future that was coming.

I decided to try to visit the Towers. The information regarding their status was contradictory: some sources said they are closed for renovations, others hinted that you can visit if you go to a restaurant inside. Impressive construction, isn’t it?

Despite all my attempts, I could not get in – the Towers were closed, surrounded by a fence and the guards resolutely refused to let me in under any pretext.

My quest to find some crowds in this ghost city finally bore fruit when I entered the traditional Al-Mubarakia souk.

In the way as the Sultan is omnipresent in Oman, in Kuwait the portraits of its rulers are absolutely everywhere. Interestingly here there are always two portraits: the ruling Emir and the heir to the throne. My understanding is that this is done to exclude any doubt as to the line of the inheritance. The Kuwaiti dynasty is comprised of two branches which separated 3 or 4 generations ago. The throne has been jumping from one branch to the other, but there are no precise rule which is a recipe for potential problems. Hence this insistence to always picture the two together.

Another landmark that you can see from any point in the centre is the TV Tower. Here it is between the souk’s buildings.

Here it is among the new blocks of the Kuwait National Museum that is being constructed currently.

It’s forbidden to take photos inside the National Museum – perhaps due to its obvious bad state. Indeed there is not much to see there – it is a poor copy to the surprising Bahrein Museum and nothing like the stylish Bait az-Zubair in Muscat.

The traditional Sadu House next to the Kuwait Museum.

The national dish of Kuwait – machboos. It is chicken with rice prepared in stew with spices and .

An unusual milky almond drink that the waiter advised me to try – in the same restaurant.

And of course I tasted the local fish sbaidi:

Accompanied by a wonderful fruit juice:

On the evening of my last day there I set out to find another museum – et’s called it the War Museum. It is quite impossible to identify its formal name. The internet offers the options “Kuwait House of National Works”, “Kuwait House of National Memorial Museum” and any combination of those words. Even more of a challenge was to locate it on the map. It’s not marked on any of the internet map. The Lonely Planet map is incorrect. So I was relying on a description in the style of “walk a wide street, take a third rune left and cross a field” etc left on a web forum by someone who managed to find it. It worked! 40 minutes on foot from the centre, mostly along the Corniche. I passed the Kuwait National Assembly on the way:

And a few parks right on the waterfront. These immigrant workers from South-East Asia playing basketball immediately reminded me the massive basketball match staged by Vietnamese immigrants that I witnessed in Barcelona. A gym is placed right next to the basketball court under open sky and is full of bodybuilders. Obviously it rains here often…

Finally I reach the National Memorial Museum (let’s call it thus):

Yet again I am the only visitor. The first thing you see:

The exhibition is rather creatively built. As you move through the space in the dark, various scenes are lit next to you and the text is played through the dynamics. The start is very peaceful: the traditional port of Kuwait in 19th century:

Very quickly we reach 1990. The Iraqi tanks of the terrible tyrant (no shortage of such characterisations here) occupy Kuwait City:

Suddenly alarms start squealing, the explosions overpower you, ominous red lights are flashing:

Iraqis jump from the sky:

Heroic Kuwaitis do their best to defend their country from the aggressor. Iraqis shoot them point blank. The scenes are very strong and you can’t help being affected emotionally.

This is the stage where the Iraqis retreat. At the orders of Saddam they lit all the Kuwaiti oil wells. There was so much smoke that for several months until all the fires were extinguished you couldn’t see the sun.

How Kuwaitis feel about Saddam.

In my trip around the Gulf I visited four countries: Bahrain, UAE, Oman and Kuwait. To my surprise, these countries turned out to be very different. Bahrain is the historical key to the Gulf, nowadays an American base that shocks its neighbours by liberal fashions. The Emirates are an immense technological gamble that hides some rather pleasant surprises. Oman is a fairytale kingdom of friendly people. And superrich Kuwait is only now starting to get over its grief. This unexpected diversity was for me perhaps the biggest surprise.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *