Saturday, June 13, 2009

Kuwait Day 2 - Business, Souk, Towers

Up and off for our first meeting in a cool 36 degrees and met by a team of women, some dressed in designer western clothes, others with hibabs, others in black from head to toe. The guys from the British Council were superb, giving us a cultural briefing – how to greet people, the business environment and Kuwaiti culture. First day was a series of presentations from both sides with endless cups of coffee, tea, water....hospitality at its best.

The wealth of an oil economy has its advantages, such as a high standard of living, no taxes and households with cooks, nannies and servants, but it also brings its problems. Of the 3.1 million in Kuwait only one third are Kuwaitis so there’s not a great incentive to work and diversify the economy. There’s a quota system so that private companies have to hire a certain proportion of Kuwaitis, but many have a poor attitude towards work or simply don’t turn up. Many young people are cosseted and lack initiative. Malls have become the social hub for young people and conspicuous consumption the norm.

Strange to see people openly talk with each other while you’re presenting, and the endless checking of mobiles. Kuwaitis love mobile phones and a few questions showed that social networking was huge.

Politically, the country has a parliament (50) and four women were elected in May, for the first time, causing a huge rumpus, when two turned up without covering their heads. Several religious hardliners walked out and it’s still a contentious issue. Then there’s the clash between the desires of the ruling family, who dominate the cabinet, and the elected parliament who are pushing for reform. This shows itself in the inevitable accusation of corruption.

A walk around the old market gave us that eastern feel, with the smells of perfume, spices, fish and freshly slaughtered meat. Pablo bought a couple of dishdashas (long white robes) for a fiver each, along with some hats. Unlike souks in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt there was absolutely no hassle. Only polite exchanges and smiles. But boy it was hot, hitting 45 during the day and high 30s in the evening. The outdoor restaurants are bathed in a mist of cool water sprayed out by huge fans and the alleys were canyons of colour. Our drivers showed us around but we had the measure of the numbers and could read the Arabic prices.

Trip to the twin towers, Kuwait City’s main landmark. We took the lift to the viewing platform and saw the city at night on one side and the darkness of the gulf at night on the other. There were pictures of the damage wreaked on the towers during the 1990 Iraqi invasion. Even the hotel had a display of damage done to the hotel. Reparations are still being paid and leading to tensions between the two countries. The Iraqis were here for 100 days, on the grounds of slanted drilling into their oil fields and disagreements over money and borders. It was clear that the famous ‘incubator’ stories were propaganda, but the burning of 700 oil wells was not. That’s what the war reparations are about. Watch Jarhead for a sense of what it was like, a living hell of oil falling like rain, choking smoke and fierce fires.

Drivers here have huge powerful cars and SUVs but little in the way of etiquette or sense. Our drivers waited patiently then took us back to the hotel. The accident and casualty rate is frightening, with young men using the roads as race tracks and dozens of drivers on their mobiles. Back to the hotel for a huge Lebanese meal of mezzes and seafood. Stuffed as a camel bag. Drivers took us back to the hotel for our final night of luxury in Kuwait. A fine time was had by all – and business closed!

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