In Kuwait, the Tiny Country

I was in Kuwait for a week. Most of the time I was working. Kuwait felt more traditionally Arab than other Middle Eastern countries I have visited. It has ten islands off its 300 mile coastline, otherwise it is nearly all low-lying desert. Only 0.6% of Kuwaiti land area is suitable for agriculture. The flat, dirty brown desert was littered with Bedouin style tents stretching to the skyline. I was told that many people owned both house and tent and that they would alternate between the two. The sun sets atmospherically behind the lines of guy ropes.

Kuwait City

Kuwait City is located on Kuwait Bay, a natural deep-water harbour. This metropolitan area, replete with gleaming skyscrapers (there's still a minuscule historic core) is the political, cultural and economic centre of the emirate. It's home to Kuwait's Seif Palace, government offices, and the headquarters of most of Kuwait's corporations and banks.

The three slender Kuwait Towers here have become a symbol of the city and are both decorative and practical. They house equipment and water tanks, and the largest sphere also holds a restaurant. There's also the 372-metre-high tall telecommunications tower. It is the second-tallest structure in the country and the 39th tallest building in the world.

Kuwait - in a Nutshell

  • Kuwait is a tiny country, one of the smallest in the world, by land area, with a population of under five million. Two thirds of this number are not Kuwaitis, but foreign nationals working there. Nearly everyone lives in Kuwait City, an urban sprawl along the Persian Gulf. This erstwhile fishing village is the heart of the country, and a stark contrast to the arid desert around.
  • Historically, Kuwait was a highly strategic trade port between Mesopotamia and India. The name Kuwait is derived from the Arabic diminutive of the Hindustani kūt (“fort”). Today, the country is better known for its oil and gas - oil reserves were discovered in commercial quantities in 1938. The Kuwaiti dinar is the highest valued currency in the world and Kuwait is the fifth richest country in the world, by gross national income per capita.
  • Kuwait is an emirate, ruled by the Al Sabah family, the first Gulf country to have established a constitution and parliament. However, human rights abuses in Kuwait are common and it has the largest number of stateless people in the Middle East.
  • Apparently, Kuwait is known as The Switzerland of the Middle East, because of its strong economy and neutral position. I'm struggling with that one, in the desert. Marseilles of the Gulf is perhaps mor acceptable - because of the port and its consequent diverse population.
  • Kuwait came to world prominence in 1990, when the country was invaded, and later annexed, by Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The fires they set when they retreated created over 500 oil lakes. These rendered huge swathes of land uninhabitable. Some of the damage is still visible.

The Corniche

In the evenings, I wander past the towers and other scrapers, along the corniche. There's a sail building, sheltering a food court (that features on most photographs), a Hard Rock Café (with a Louvre style pyramid), museums, a science centre and the obligatory old Arab dhows. Kuwait was famed for its boat building, throughout the Persian Gulf region. During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ship vessels made in Kuwait carried the bulk of trade between the ports of India, East Africa and the Red Sea.

There's a pretty little beach, dotted with blue umbrellas. It's January and not quite beach weather, though I'm sleeveless most of the time. It's preferable to coming in the summer, when this is one of the hottest cities on earth. Average summer high temperatures are above 45 °C, for three months of the year. So, I drink piquant lemon and mint at one of the cafes lining the harbour. Alcohol is strictly prohibited here - it is forbidden to bring it into the country.

Kuwaiti Food

I also stroll around the fish market, crustaceans and fish laid out on ice and beautifully aligned, like soldiers on parade. Seafood is a key part of the Kuwaiti diet - they aren't able to grow much. Favourites are hamour (grouper), which is typically served grilled, fried, or with biryani rice; safi (rabbitfish); maid (mulletfish); and sobaity (sea bream).

The national dish is Mutabbaq Samak (literally layered fish). It is basically spiced fried fish, usually Stromateus (bony butterfish) and caramelized onions served over rice that has been cooked in well-spiced fish stock. Because of its location and trade links Kuwaiti cooking is a melange of Arabian, Iranian, Indian and Mediterranean cuisines. Spiced rice features heavily. If its not fish it's chicken or mutton.

North of Kuwait City

Venturing north, along Kuwait Bay is the Sabah Al Ahmad Natural Reserve, split into two by the coast road. It's flat and unprepossessing, tinged with green. But I'm told that it's home to 250 bird species, who over winter here or just call in, on their way through. A little further north, mangrove swamps edge the sea. I'm surprised, until I realise that this area is a spill over from the huge Mesopotamian Swamps, created by the meeting of the Tigris and Euphrates, as they empty into the Schott El Arab, in southern Iraq. (I visited the marsh dwelling peoples there). Candy floss pink flamingos (they're overwintering too) adorn the lonely lagoons. Less prosaically, the surrounding area is home to oilwells destroyed during the Iraqi invasion, in 1990.

Camel Market

I am also lucky enough to find a camel market, auction in full swing, just outside the city. The baby camels, so cute, with their long eye-lashes. The locals, in their dishdasha and check headdresses are extremely friendly, and insist I try the prized camels’ milk, which they say has miraculous healing and strengthening powers. The poor mewling babies are separated from their mothers and put in another pen, so the mothers can be milked, for on the spot tasting.

A short trip, but an authentic, untouristy experience.

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