I visit Kuwait and find all but nothing to surprise or excite me. It is exactly what you picture in your mind and it is so dull.
This is one of those days where it drives me absolutely crazy to be in the Arab world. It’s all these small things. Like, I got in late last night after reporting all day and there were these security guards in the hotel lobby who wanted to x-ray everything. They made me take my shoes off and my glasses and dump out my bag of radio equipment and they were just such dicks about everything. I threw a fit and said I’m just trying to go to sleep and I’m obviously not a threat. I don’t even know what they were doing, what they were thinking. Every other time I came to the hotel they just waved me through. I guess that’s not so bad, now that I write it. In fact, thinking of how upset I am today, it does feel a bit silly, since there isn’t all that much to complain about. I was in the hotel waiting for half an hour for a cab, even though there’s a cabstand five minutes away. And every time I asked the front desk to call the cab again they acted like they never heard that I wanted a cab in the first place. Every meeting I tried to set up required so many phone calls and resulted in a bunch of in’shalahs and vague words of maybe we’dll see each other. I don’t know, I feel like I’m too tired and annoyed and I’m not conveying this properly. Just trust me. It is really annoying here a lot of the time. People are so inefficient here and there is no sense of urgency or the importance of time. I interviewed a real estate guy, an American, here. He says that he is incredibly lucky to show four apartments a day here. In the US, he’d show four apartments in an hour and a half. Here you have to wait for the person for an hour, then you have to sit and have coffee and talk about your families or whatever for an hour. Then you slowly get around to discussing the possibility of seeing an apartment.
It’s frustrating here, in Kuwait, because when I landed Friday night I thought I was entering the first world. The airport is so slick and metal and glass and modern looking. It was shockingly efficient picking up my visa. My hotel had faxed a request to the proper ministry, and I just walked up to the visa counter and they handed me the visa in a second. Then I was all but waved through passport control. Even the famous Kuwait x-ray machine, where they x-ray everyone’s bags to make sure they don’t have any alcohol, took only a minute or two. Then you leave the hotel and the roads look so modern and well maintained. It’s a lot like Vegas’there are lights everywhere’dwrapped around the palm trees, lining bridges, that kind of thing. It’s bright and slick and seems so efficient. But my fixer told me not to be fooled. Kuwait is every bit the crappy Arab country that Jordan is, just Kuwait has a lot of money. They have the same inefficiency, same bureaucracy. Same crap all around.
Driving around the city yesterday, I don’t think I’ve ever been less interested in getting to know a country. I felt completely unexcited. Everywhere I go in the world there’s some frisson of seeing all this new stuff, all these strange ways that people do things. Even England or France or Canada, you feel excited and surprised. I’ve certainly felt that in Jordan and Lebanon and Syria. But here it is exactly how I thought it would look. It offers no surprises, no excitement. You drive down this main road along the gulf, you feel just like you’re in Miami or Palm Beach or something. It’s sunny and resort feeling and there are palm trees and lots of very fancy American cars. There is broad well-manicured grass in the median strip. There are all these fancy malls with American and European stores. The only thing that did surprise me was the number of McDonald’s’d. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anywhere so many McDonalds. In a five minute drive from my hotel there were six of them. My fixer told me that in one area there is a Starbucks directly across the street from another Starbucks. This is kind of surprising, but it’s also exactly what I would expect. That real estate guy I spoke with told me that there’s lots to do here: little league, golf, barbecue. I do get the sense that the culture is interesting’that mysterious Bedouin gulf culture. But I can’t access it in a three day trip. That American says he hasn’t accessed it in 12 years here. So, for a brief traveler, Kuwait is definitely the most boring country I’ve ever been to.
This conference I’m attending is a bit more interesting. It’s run by this guy who is a combination of self-help guru and Islamist religious teacher. He says he takes the lessons of Stephen Covey and those guys and applies them to the Muslim world, so that the Muslims can get stronger and eventually take over the world. I feel too tired to get into the details right now. I’dll try to write more later. But the guy who runs the thing is very dynamic and fun to talk to. He talks about how professional Arabs aren’t. How they have to learn a lot from America. They have to learn respect for time and for professionalism and for leadership and management. He has all these 4-step plans or seven-step plans. He talks just like any self-help guru. But the bastard blew me off today. After giving me a big talk about how Arabs just blow things off and have no respect for other peoples’d time, he scheduled an interview for today at 3:30. I showed up early, he came in and told me he was going to take a nap and would try to see me later tonight. In that vague way that you get here. Things are so vague here. Directions are: go to this area and it’s kind of around there. Meet you sometime this afternoon or maybe tomorrow or we’dll see. I will try to call you. What are these people doing? How do they think they are going to take over the world? They can’t even get an interview together? A lot of Arabs say they don’t believe Osama Bin Laden blew up the WTC because they don’t believe Arabs could be that organized. I totally see where they’re coming from. I can’t begin to imagine how annoying it must be working here all the time.
I guess the one interesting thing is how most men here wear these long robes’dishdashas’dand the head covering, which is not called Kefiyah here, I forget what it’s called. It does look pretty odd to see all these guys in dishdashas everywhere. Also, it’s officially a very religious country. No booze. No Kuwaiti’dnot a man, not a woman’dcan rent a hotel room, because they don’t want anyone to be having sex out of marriage. But my fixer says that people get drunk and laid all the time. Just as much as in the US, where he lived for 10 years. Booze is a lot more expensive: $140 for a bottle of Johnny Walker Red. $120 for a case of Heineken. Sex is a bit tricky, since you can’t do it in your house or in a hotel. But they manage, he said. Everyone does all the time. They meet at a shopping mall and then drive up the coast and have sex in their cars. He said that sometimes the women who wear the full face covering robe are actually out with their lovers’dnot their husbands’dand are hiding in plain view. It seems pretty fucked up, I’d say. Also, my fixer said, the youth culture is very screwed up. There is so much money but not much professional opportunity and absolutely nothing to do. Kids just drive up and down the main stretch, the Gulf Road, like in any American small town. A lot of them get these expensive hot rod motorcycles and do tricks up and down the street. They pop a wheelie for a mile straight or they ride down the street while lying on their backs. Or they stand up on the seat and surf the bikes. It’s all to get laid, he said. To get the attention of girls who are driving around in SUVs.