My wife and I experienced much the same abuse and obscenities in Kuwait during our 2 year contract. We share the writer’s love of the average Kuwaiti family and respect for the harassed maids, drivers and servants, etc. We also enjoyed the kids, who, for the most part were genuine and friendly, if somewhat lacking an occidental sense of humor.
We were subject to anti-semitism and intense anti-Israeli vitriol by the owner of our American school despite not being Jewish, but obviously supporting US sentiments about the Palestinian situation. It was made abundantly clear that the topic was out of bounds for discussion and that anyone openly advocating for justice and equality in Kuwait would be on the first plane out. We never, however, felt directly threatened and loved living in the vibrant ex-pat community.
While Kuwaitis seem to find themselves admirably glorified by Allah’s will, the reality is that the country is a sad and ludicrous place, which would revert to the Kingdom of Saud in a New York minute if the US military left or the foreigner workers abandoned it. During the invasion, the first to turn tail and run were the ” Royals” and then the 5 families, closely followed by the 38% of the population that could escape. We refered to Kuwait as the Disney World of the Middle East.
We experienced the patently biased court system, indifferent but always polite police services and egotistical Kuwaiti men in all their ignominy but we also received wonderful sympathy, support and service from other Kuwaitis, when we needed something to be found, translated or directions, etc. What was particularly aberrant was the egalitarian abuse every nationality, religion or culture received at the hands of some of the worse Kuwaitis, regardless of their Arabic, Indo-European, Muslim, or North American backgrounds.
All in all, Kuwait is atypical of the Middle East (other than their close cousins the Saudis) and while there is considerable anti-American sentiment in most of the Middle East, the Kuwaitis do appreciate the UN’s contribution to their liberation. It is not always a safe and welcoming place to work in but it does have its rewards and its satisfactions, as my wife and I enjoyed during our stay there.
Excellent review of life in Kuwait. I have lived in Kuwait since 2004 and have worked at 3 different American schools. This is a very detailed and honest review.
I observed first hand much of what this fellow is talking about. It is the reason I left Kuwait. I advise teachers who have a social conscience to seriously reconsider this location as a choice. They are likely to be deeply offended by what they experience.
This reminds me of the attitude of many of the Anglo-Indians in Great Britain and how they treat the Indians, particularly those newly arrived. I have always thought it is because they despise the “East Indian” half of themselves. I am a small female Christian from Texas-Mexico. I was in London and actually got in a barroom fight with a young man who was treating the poor waiter like a slave. The poor East Indian man was so sad and trying so hard to please. I was so shocked. When the Mexicans come to Texas, they are our cousins. We not only give them respect, we give them the Social Security Benefits that many of us do not have. Of course, there is the exceptional meany who doesn’t, but it makes the paper if people find out about it. Hopefully, the students who learn about America and come to our country to study eventually will take some of our attitudes of egalitarianism home with them. Sharon Davis, San Antonio, Texas (Previously in Honduras, Mexico, Tunisia, and Korea)
I lived and worked in Kuwait for 2 years (1999-2001). The whole time I was there I just kept thinking….My goodness, Kuwait, today is just like North America was 100 plus years ago: No equality. No ecology. No “real” economy. Imported labor force to run the infrastructure, do domestic work and live in horrid and oppressive conditions. Elitism. Class entitlement. Child labor. Workhouses; factories without no labor rights or unions. Racism. Discrimination. Low wages. Beating and raping a woman–your wife–not unacceptable. Beating children in schools encouraged. Extortion and bribery, through political and corporate corruption, was rampant, is still rampant today. The slaughter of hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples accepted and encouraged. Self-serving civil servants. Foreigners sucking up to the locals who offer them benefits for a better life. Voting reserved for the few. Jobs reserved for the non-immigrant class or put aside for the elite immigrants who bought their way into positions. Controlled and corrupt import and export docks and exploited dock workers, i.e., food, natural resources, finished goods all went to the elite first. Hundreds of young immigrant girls forced into prostitution because they could not find jobs—considered a lower class so hooking was acceptable. Identities changed due to unscrupulous bureaucracy or the system simply could not understand foreigners names. Passports confiscated, never to be seen again. No social agencies advocating for the immigrants. Often housed for weeks and months in large gated slums and then released to fight for themselves. Terrible public schools, public hospitals and immigrant slums abound riddled with crime. All under the guise of a better life. Freedom. Opportunity. If most knew what they were getting into, many would never have gotten off the boat.
Much of that above is true today– in North America. I know I am over the top here with comparing and examples but there’s a lot of nasty stuff in North America. We accept it all because we enjoy our great privileges at the expense of those in other countries who suffer under the facade of democracy and freedom. I am no different. I am blessed.
Lest we forget what we came from? Take off your western judgment glasses and see the world for what it was, how it is and what it could be. Sure, Kuwait has its issues but don’t forget how 2 great North American countries were founded. Under a similar pattern that eventually decayed.
To the author of the Culture Shock Kuwait: you admitted to benefiting from local wasta. Well, you too made a choice to benefit, at the expense of an oppressed human being. That fact that you did that only propagates the issue. You could have walked away and or even not accepted a free week rental. If you were all that bothered by the Kuwait culture, why didn’t you advocate for more rights for foreigner labor? Or, not buddy up to the–wasta–Kuwait’s, who you tore strips off in your essay.
That’s the thing about being an Expat. No matter where we go, we always get the best. The Kuwait’s who helped you are likely sitting around, sipping tea, smoking shisha and saying, “Ya, see, the westerners. Sure they pass judgment, but they’re just like us. They like the good life.”
I too am passing judgment, dang; I just can’t get past it.
We all want the good life, don’t we?
I lived in Kuwait with my family for a very long time. I, too, taught at an “American School” and my husband worked for the KAF. Yes there are things that you’ll see and hear that are shocking but I feel his opinions are some what dramatic.
A lot of the things that are written here can be carbon copied to Doha, Qatar. Working in an international school will shelter westerners from some of these realities but working for the Qatari’s will be very similar to what has been written here. It is not for those who have a clear sense of right and wrong and who do not suffer many disappointments easily. Please proceed to Doha, Qatar with caution.
Why on earth would someone want to teach there? There are so many places to experience that have something of value to offer. Are other Arab countries this extreme as far as class is concerned? As a woman, I´m afraid I wouldn´t be able to accept their despicable behavior toward me, or toward others. To turn a blind eye, to be able to teach there, certainly doesn´t seem like it would be an acceptable choice for a self respecting female. Kathryn Sandoval
I taught in Kuwait for five years and agree with most of what was written in this article. It is sad and troubling. I am glad that this article was written and am sorry that I did not write one myself.
Great article. Not a week goes by and a Maid isn’t shagged senseless in the desert. Very, very sick.
This article provides a great opportunity to say this: renewable energy is needed badly in the world.
Very well written and very true.
The two countries I would not work in the Middle East are Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The men behave equally badly when they go on holiday to Damascus, Cairo or Beirut. Simply fellaheen with oil.
This is a fantastic and very sympathetic article and shows that you have a greater insight into what it is really like to live in the tax free havens of the Gulf. I really don’t think that it is much different for the same kinds of people who live in Dubai/Abu Dhabi, etc etc. It is a very sad state of affairs and it is very important to be aware of your standing, and the expectations heaped upon you when working in the Gulf.
However, there is one line in it which I sort of disagree with: “Americans and Canadians are accustomed to seeing all people treated with dignity and respect and they expect to see the laws of the land applied to the poor and powerless as equally as to the rich and powerful”.
The reason I mention this is that I had the same ideas when living abroad but when I came back to the “egalitarian UK” I soon realized that things were pretty much the same over here to over there… just better hidden. Its a mistake that we all fall into and one of the reasons why living abroad is not for even some of the most “open minded and liberal” of people.
The extremes in culture clash will often get you thinking along the lines of “we don’t do that back home” when the reality is that for the first time in one’s life you are not in the majority and so the imbalance of another society becomes more obvious as you are exposed to a greater extent to it.
This does not mean that you have to agree with what is going on but you have to understand that in some respects there is not a lot that you as an individual or as a foreigner can do about it.
Excellent article, very interesting read. Thank you to whoever wrote this.
Good Day! I am a Filipina living here in the Philippines. I’m wondering why you are being so racist about us Filipinas. It is not our problem if the Kuwaiti men find us attractive. Please don’t generalize Filipinas because if you found faults from the Filipinas working there, it doesn’t follow that the rest of the Filipinas working there have the same attitude. I have a job offer in Kuwait but as a professional because I am a Registered Nurse. If I would have a chance to meet you there, I would orient you more about our culture. Thank You.
I’m a Kuwaiti (unfortunately) and sadly some of these things are really true–that’s why I’m not proud of Kuwait. Thank God I’m living outside Kuwait but I have also seen bad attitudes towards maids and other non-Kuwaitis that work in restaurant or other stores which are treated really bad. I’m glad that I never treat my maid badly and give them lots of freedom and I would never do the things they do to waitress’ and western people in a line of cashier or any restaurant. I hope Kuwaiti people can change, but I don’t think so. However, I think for Western teachers it won’t be that bad especially working in a private school.
I think it’s significantly better here in Bahrain. People only complain about the Saudis who come over for fun on Thursday nights. There are only slightly more foreigners than Bahrainis and Bahrainis seem pleasant, polite and good-natured. I’ve been here 6 months and don’t get out to the malls and cafes much.
This was an excellent description of life as a western expat in Kuwait. Our family lived in Saudi Arabia for 12 years and this could very well be used to describe the expat experience in KSA as well.
This could be a description of any gulf country. I lived in the UAE for 8 years and it was the same exact thing. – I’m sure anyone working in Qatar would have an identical description.
dude, have you ever heard of the word “some” i.e. “some kuwaitis”? i’m half kuwaiti, half american and so i know how both worlds are. although a lot of what you said is true, it’s also too general to be considered completely valid.
Having visited Kuwait frequently since 1983, as well as living and working (in a very senior MoH position) in Kuwait for a five year period, I concur with what is written in the Culture Shock: Kuwait ISR article. I have seen and experienced the same situations, many times over – the good and the bad. I was very fortunate to meet and be welcomed into one of Kuwait’s senior families (there is a very strong pecking order amongst Kuwait’s tribal community) and given an Arabic name by the female head of the family. I was also fortunate to be able to avail myself of the family’s powerful “wasta” (influence) on several occasions when I ran into the seemingly impassable Kuwaiti bureaucracy (visits to 13 offices over a two week period and nonsensical submission of over 20 photographs to get my Kuwaiti driver’s license – which was then denied with no explanation). One phone call from my Kuwaiti family friends, and I was recalled that day to the office of the head of the licensing bureau, received with tea and cake, had my driver’s license issued immediately and told that I should have gone straight to that office when I started the process. The same nonsense happened when I applied for a long distance telephone line and a satellite internet connection. I was also told that I would have to surrender my passport and apply for an exit visa any time I wanted to leave Kuwait on vacation or for business travel. Again, “wasta” took care of that situation with one phone call I retained my passport and was able to leave Kuwait at will. On several occasions, I also witnessed extreme physical and psychological abuse of expat staff working in service roles. On an occasion when I did interfere with the situation, I was called into the office of the Deputy Minister to whom I reported, and given a verbal “hand slap” and advised to back off and not interfere as “someone” could issue a formal complaint about my behavior! A great country to visit and experience if one is a Westerner in a comfortable position. A horrible country in which to live and work as a service worker.