Mythbusting in the Middle East

15 November 2009

Written by: Tom Cowie

“Kuwait? Really? Geez don’t get blown up or anything, OK?”

This was the common response from people when I told them I was visiting Kuwait, a country located in the Middle East, one of the world’s most fascinating regions.

Not surprisingly, it was precisely this kind of reaction that led to our invitation to visit the Arab gulf state, courtesy of the Kuwaiti government.

The Kuwaitis, it seems, are eager to dispel the myths, misconceptions and plain lack of knowledge that the West has of their country.

For a lot of Australians, the Middle East is desert, oil, war and Islam. The substantial differences from one nation to another get lost in the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ news coverage we often get from the region.

But it would not be unfair to say that Kuwait is located in a rough neighbourhood. Bordered by three large, troubled states in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait has a relatively precarious foothold on its little piece of desert at the top of the Gulf.

The First Gulf War – when this foothold was first broken – still looms large over the Kuwaiti psyche. It was mentioned by most people we spoke to, as it effected everything.

Eighteen years after liberation, there are still several hundred Kuwaitis missing. We heard stories of average Iraqi soldiers warning Kuwaitis to stay inside the day Saddam’s Republican Guard began rounding up hostages.

The Kuwaitis generally don’t seem to harbour any long-term resentment to Iraqis. They know that the invasion was, for the most part, the act of a single malignant dictator. That said, following the chaos of the 2003 invasion and occupation, no Iraqis fled to Kuwait seeking refuge.

During our many meetings and visits, were we often thanked for Australia’s commitment to the Gulf war. In the offices of the Burgen Oilfield – one of the world’s largest – an Australian flag sits among an array mounted on the wall, representing the nations militarily involved in the liberation of Kuwait.

It’s not surprising that they are thankful. Current production from Kuwaiti oilfields is at 2.55 million barrels per day. At the current price of $76 USD a barrel, that’s a tidy little earner. Kuwait nationalised the oil industry in the 1970s, channelling the profits to the state, which 95% of Kuwaitis work for, tax free.

As a Kuwaiti, the benefits of this are clear. Fancy studying overseas? The state will pick up the tab for a business class airfare, pay for your study, your rent, your bills and wire you $3000 a month to make sure you don’t starve.

If you’re a female, a male chaperone can travel with you and will be treated to the same deal. It’s not surprising that the Kuwaitis are a patriotic bunch.

In the Kuwaiti parliament building, portraits of the country’s Emirs line a meeting room wall. They are arranged in chronological order. They seem to become happier with time. The first Emir looks rather stern, the current Emir – Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah – looks positively jovial.

An MP’s chief of staff explains: “The first smiling Emir, around the middle of the row, he’s the one who was in charge when they discovered the oil.”

Another question that came up prior to our departure for Kuwait was: “They don’t let you drink in Kuwait do they? How will you cope?”

With alcohol abuse a major and chronic issue in Australia, it was interesting to see exactly what night-life without alcohol could possibly consist of.

While young Kuwaitis prefer shopping malls crammed with consumer goods, for us Westerners the old markets were the place to be. In Melbourne, we like to boast of our ‘cafe culture’ and ‘outdoor lifestyle’, while huddled at a table on a footpath, crammed between parked cars and pedestrians forced to walk in single file.

In Kuwait, we found ourselves winding down in a large, open town square at an outdoor restaurant. In such a pleasant setting, the absence of alcohol was more of an inconvenience than a major issue.

With talk of ‘the clash of civilisations’ and extremism often dominating the Western discourse regarding Islam, it was insightful to visit a predominantly Muslim country, and one that is decidedly pro-USA as well.

When asking a Kuwaiti woman about her decision not to wear the hijab, we expected a defiant response about a woman’s right to self-determination.

However, her answer revealed a simple pragmatism that we felt throughout the country.

“Oh I do wear it sometimes, but just not today”, said the young female stockbroker.

“I find it a bit uncomfortable”.

For me, one sight in particular summed up the relaxed Kuwaiti attitude.

In one of the country’s numerous shopping malls, it was not unusual to see a chic young shop assistant – who would look perfectly at home in Paris or New York – handing out lingerie catalogues to women covered from head to toe in a black burqa.

It seems that, in this Arab gulf state, the Kuwaitis are eager to break all misconceptions, no matter how established they are.

Dan Bray is completing his Masters studies in Media and Communications at Swinburne University. He attended a a journalism study tour of Kuwait with Erdem Koç, Tom Cowie and Kelly Theobald. The delegation was organised by IDEA.