Culture Shock Kuwait
“….if you go to Kuwait you will be exposed to a myriad of things that may upset you
and you have no power to change or help. This article is meant to be a ‘heads-up’ for
Western teachers considering teaching in Kuwait.”
InternationalSchoolsReview.com has placed much focus on Kuwait. I think this is because of some serious problems that have arisen for teachers and administrators in this small, wealthy Arabian Gulf country. Having recently taught in Kuwait for three years, these problems are no surprise to me. I count myself one of the lucky ones, however, who had good experiences at my school. I was at an American school with a good reputation that it deserved. It was run by an administration that cared for its teachers, held us to high standards, ran a clean ship, didn’t allow itself to be bullied by overbearing parents trying to use their “wasta,” and would stand up for its teachers when problems with Kuwaiti parents and children with powerful last names invariably arose.
If you Google American, British, or English private schools in Kuwait, about twenty-five schools will pop up. Kuwait must have the most private schools with English instruction based on American and British models and curriculum on the international schools circuit per capita. This is in part because of their wealth and the fact Kuwaitis can afford private education for their children. Children of the workers in Kuwait –Indians, Palestinians, Egyptians, Lebanese, etc.– go to public schools. Many of the private schools operate below-board and deserve their bad reputations. But generally, I think a school with American or British in its name will be a better choice than others.
In this article I’d like to talk about Living in Kuwaiti society and the culture of class and “wasta This is something t haven’t seen addressed in ISR. There are a lot of teaching opportunities in Kuwait and this article is meant to be a ‘heads-up’ for Western teachers considering teaching in Kuwait. Knowing what your committing to in advance can be a great help in making the transition and overcoming culture shock.
Kuwait is a class oriented society with the lines clearly drawn and understood. There are four tiers: The Kuwaitis are far and away at the top of the social system, wealthy and powerful if for no other reason than they are Kuwaiti, and seemingly able to get away with anything, including breaking laws meant for everyone else. Then there are the professional ex-pats, including Western teachers, Egyptian, Palestinian, Lebanese and other mostly Middle Eastern nationalities who manage businesses or are in a profession requiring a college education. Third is the labor and service force. The labor force is made up of Egyptians, Pakistanis and Indians doing manual labor and the ubiquitous construction and building. On the same level is the service force which is mostly Filipinas and Chinese working as cashiers, waitresses, sales clerks, fast food workers, salon and hair professionals. Included in this class are the tens of thousands of Lebanese and Egyptian taxi drivers, etc. At the bottom of the ladder is the domestic help, mostly Sri Lankan, Filipina, and Indonesian ladies who clean, cook, and care for Kuwaiti children as live-in servants. Some people, however, would say it’s more accurate to call the domestics workers house slaves, as they are utterly powerless. I would also include in this group the family drivers/gophers (errand runners), whose lives are a bit easier than the “maids” they live with in a Kuwaiti household. It should be noted that speaking English seems to be a requisite for the professionals and service folks, and most Kuwaitis speak English to some degree or another, many quite fluently. English is widely spoken.
When I was in Kuwait, 36% of the people living there were Kuwaitis, a minority in their own country, and should one morning all the ex-pats disappear and leave Kuwait to the Kuwaitis, the country would fold immediately because there would be no one to do the actual work that makes Kuwait function. It is rare indeed to see a Kuwaiti working in any capacity at all, as the tons of money they receive from the government and their savvy investing gives most Kuwaiti families enough wealth to live in opulence, although many seem to go through life without a purpose other than filling their time with the most entertaining leisure activities they can find.
Conversations with taxi drivers sometimes turn to discussing Kuwaitis, and they will often say Kuwaitis are like lions. You’ll think they’re anything but lions, until the driver says, “Sleeping, eating, laying around, and having sex…that’s all they do.” I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s not much of an exaggeration for describing many Kuwaiti men. As class and appearances matter so much in Kuwait, it is humiliating and degrading for a Kuwaiti to be seen doing any work that requires any degree of time and effort apart from stopping in to dish out orders to the managers of their businesses, high level wheeling-and-dealing, or checking on their holdings. It should be also noted that you are only Kuwaiti by law if one of your direct forefathers were born Kuwait before 1920. Those born in Kuwait to Palestinian, Egyptian or Lebanese parents are not Kuwaiti and live their entire lives contributing to the country, never getting any of the wide-range of benefits Kuwaitis receive.
I’m about to say some not-too-flattering things about Kuwaitis and their country, but let me preface these comments by saying that I was a single male teacher in Kuwait and got out quite a bit, not limiting my social circle to fellow teachers. I made Kuwaiti friends who treated me with the greatest hospitality and kindness and even used their “wasta” to get me a few privileges. For example, I once had a Kuwait Supreme Court Judge who struck up a conversation with me in Starbucks (saying he wanted to practice his English) walk into a car rental shop with me to straighten out some folks trying to screw me. As a result, they apologized profusely and offered me a week free rental for my troubles, at the judge’s suggestion. I also made a lot of friends in the Filipina, Sri Lankan, and Chinese communities and heard their stories of life for them in Kuwait. As a little side note here: Single men who may be thinking that working in an Islamic country may mean the end to your love life, no worries; there are plenty of opportunities to meet women outside of your school in Kuwait.
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. Westerners are also accustomed to common courtesies that make life run smoother for everybody. For example: simple things, like people getting at the end of a line at the cashier or slowing down to let a person crossing the street get across safely. For people accustomed to such a way of life, Kuwait will be culture shock. It was for me.
There is a saying in Kuwait: “The only thing wrong with Kuwait is…there are Kuwaitis here.” Sadly, I found some truth in that. The Kuwaiti sense of entitlement and their own station in life, coupled with the fact that it IS their country and they can get away with anything, including, many believe, murder–more on that later–can make their arrogance and self importance almost unbearable for the other 64% of the population. As a Western professional, Kuwaitis will generally treat you with much more respect than your Filipina or Sri Lankan friends, or the school workers/maintenance crew, or those people who you’ll see abused and berated in public stores or on the streets. One of the problems is that non-Westerners accept this behavior from the Kuwaitis and bow or apologize or hang their heads and take it, which I think only exasperates the problem. But, these folks are really powerless, and they know that all it takes is a phone call by a Kuwaiti to the police, or his or her “sponsor,” or demands to management by a Kuwaiti, and these people will be in more trouble than was worth their dignity and self respect.
Clerks and cashiers are regular targets for Kuwaitis, in more ways than one. From long conversations with my Filipina friends, who generally work in retail sales and restaurants, and from my own observations, Kuwaiti women can be the most brutal towards these girls, who are usually young and attractive. It’s not an uncommon thing to see a Kuwaiti ripping into a sales clerk, cashier, or waitress. They get away with it, of course, as embarrassing as it is for the rest of us who witness it. But interestingly, from the Filipina prospective, there is an underlying reason for the hatred Kuwaiti women hold for the thousands of Filipinas working in the stores and restaurants. The fact is, Kuwaiti men have a particular ‘thing’ for Filipinas, and thousands of Filipinas, in Kuwait making a lot more money than they could in the Philippines and supporting their family back home, are living rent-free and getting money doled out to them from their Kuwaiti Sugar Daddy–for certain regular “favors,” of course.
This particular sort of arrangement is no big secret in Kuwait, and I think Kuwaiti women cannot walk into a store or restaurant without being reminded that the sales clerk they’re dealing with just might be one of their husband’s, or son’s, or brother’s little extra-curricular activities. I was taken to one apartment to pick up a Filipina friend’s coworker and there were three women living there, rent-free, all of them young and attractive, all of them at the beck-and-call of the same man. These women came to Kuwaiti poor and susceptible to these predators who have more money and time than they know what to do with. Each girl was supplied with a mobile phone and must, at a moment’s notice, become available for a visit upon request.
Of course, most Filipinas, I’m sure, reject the ubiquitous offers that come their way. A good friend of mine who worked in one of the big department stores in Salmiya told me that rarely does a day go by that at least one Kuwaiti man, often no more than a teenager, sometimes a much older man, will approach with a “Is somebody taking care of you here?” or “Is there any way I can help you?” If you’re a single man and having good fun bantering with a Filipina waitress or sales clerk–they are some of the nicest people you’ll meet–and you ask her out, she may suddenly turn sad-looking, and tell you she wishes she could but she could get in too much trouble if she did and got caught, you’ll know what that means.
In restaurants you’ll notice Kuwaitis literally snapping their fingers and motioning waitresses away from an ex-pat, fully expecting that waitress to stop helping you in order to come and serve him or her. She’ll feel obliged to help the Kuwaiti directly, and, if like me, you politely remind the waitress that you’re in the middle of giving an order and anyone else will just have to wait a minute to be helped, you’ll see that you’ve put her in a situation that could turn ugly for her. Many Kuwaitis have no shame in berating a lowly waitress for not attending to them immediately upon request. If, like me, you may yourself tell the table of Kuwaitis that YOU are currently being helped and the girl will be just a minute, you’ll see the sneers and will be able to tell the comments in Arabic are none too nice. Likewise, if you frequent fast food places from time-to-time, you’ll certainly experience a Kuwaiti just blatantly stepping right up to the front of the line bypassing the non-Kuwaitis who’ve been waiting there. What I find even worse is that if the people waiting in line are Indians, Sri Lankans, Filipinas or almost anyone but Westerners, nothing will be said and the cashier will take the Kuwaiti’s order. I’m one of those who would say, “Excuse me, the rest of us have been patiently waiting here in line and maybe you didn’t notice that, but the end of the line is behind me.” You may get the “shoo-away” gesture and ignored. On another note regarding service for Kuwaitis, you’ll probably be quite disgusted at the way so many Kuwaitis speak to cashiers, waitresses, and service people in general. There is a tone and attitude that I’ve never seen before. Even the children show a disrespect and attitude toward these people that I found really shameful. (I shouldn’t put all Kuwaitis in the same box, but it is prevalent.) But again, the workers just take it, though not with a smile on their faces. Inversely, when you, as a Westerner, are polite, friendly, respectful, even asking how they are and smiling, your waitress or cashier will beam at having a customer who is nice and respectful.
You’ll notice in Kuwait the construction workers that are all over the place. These workers are from many different nationalities, but Egyptians and Pakistanis seem to be prevalent. My friends back home were amazed at the pictures I’d send them of these workers several stories up working on the flimsiest of scaffolds, in sandals, no hard hats, and in heat that you can’t imagine. You may walk by a site on a Friday (the Arab world’s equivalent to our Sunday) at 6 am and then later that night on your way to dinner and see the same crew still working thirteen or fourteen hours later. These people are abused, and apparently there are no labor laws to protect them. But no big deal; it’s not Kuwaitis up there working under horrible and dangerous conditions. In fact, as many as a few times a week you’ll read in one of the English version newspapers of a worker who has fallen to his death or had some sort of fatal construction accident. If the Kuwaitis cared at all they could easily remedy this problem, but they don’t. It doesn’t take long to realize that the only lives worth anything in Kuwaiti are Kuwaiti lives. This manifests itself in many ways, from hit-and-run deaths on the streets, to the all-too-common “suicides” of the domestic help.
Let’s talk about the horrific situation of the domestic help, the poor ladies that sever as maids. Surely these mostly country girls from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, or Indonesia, had no idea what they were getting into when they came to Kuwait. First of all, as a Westerner who’ll want and easily be able to afford a “maid”. Your maid will be the most grateful person in the world to be working for someone who treats her with dignity, as part of your family (if you have one), and someone who’ll recognize her basic human rights, who’ll have her sit with you at dinner and show interest in her family back home, and who let’s her go out and live her life when she’s done with her work, meet and be with friends, or have a boyfriend, and get days off. You’ll probably pay her more than she expected to get, and you’ll actually pay her for the work she’s done. She’ll of course keep her passport and have access to communication with her family back home.
For a maid in Kuwait, getting a Western family is like hitting the jackpot. Unfortunately, the vast majority of maids end up with a Kuwaiti family where their life is probably going to be a living hell, really no more than a slave, and possibly in real danger. This, too, is common knowledge in Kuwait, though things don’t change and (most) Kuwaitis apparently have no shame at treating fellow human beings so terribly. When I was vacationing a few years back in Sri Lanka, a beautiful country blessed by nature and wonderfully friendly and welcoming people, I saw an infomercial warning Sri Lankan girls not to go to work in Saudi Arabia, where no money is worth the abuse they may suffer there. They should have included Kuwait in the infomercial.
I took an interest in this aspect of Kuwait culture, mostly because my own maid actively did, and I learned much from her, though there’s no big secret of these horrors in Kuwait. My own maid was a Sri Lankan who spoke English well and knew other Sri Lankan maids, though it was impossible to get close to any working for Kuwaiti families. I met some of Marlia’s (not her real name) friends who worked for other teachers, and the horror stories they had of their compatriots, and the concern they had for them was heart-wrenching. In malls or restaurants or fast food places, when maids are shucked off to the side or a wall to await orders from their masters, they’ll sometimes be in groups, talking. Marlia and her friends often spoke with them at these times, blending in as just another Kuwaiti family’s maid. Nearly all of these poor ladies had similar stories, and too extensive to get into here–but horrible. You’ll see them in public with their masters, never smiling, always looking sad and depressed, and for good reason. There didn’t seem to be a religious component to it, as Muslims from Indonesia are apparently treated no differently than the Catholic Filipina or the Buddhist Sri Lankan.
With their passports taken from them by their masters, they cannot even run away and escape back home. Any sign of defiance will end up with a vicious beating or a raging verbal assault with threats. I actually saw a woman physically beat down her maid in a crowded food court of a big mall and I was the only one who went to the poor lady’s assistance; stepping between them was just a natural and instinctive reaction …and I was of course screamed at in Arabic as I made a hasty exit when I felt she was safe…for the moment, anyway. It’s not uncommon for each Kuwaiti child to have his or her own personal maid, and these children learn from an early age how to order adults around and treat fellow human beings with the worst kind of disrespect. You’ll sadly even see it from some of your young students, who seem so nice and fun-loving with you in class, but turn into little monsters when their maids and drivers show up after school to pick them up. You’ll take care of this in your own way, as I did, though you know when they get home things will be back to normal. I’d heard stories from Marlia about maids being forced into sex with teenaged boys and their friends who’d often take film or pictures to show their other friends. The maids would often be made to do humiliating things, in tears, sexual or otherwise, seemingly just to prove to them how powerless they were.
And then there are the “suicides” and “disappearances” of maids you’ll read about in the papers with some frequency. Surely most–maybe all–of these are actual suicides by women who could not spend another day under such abuse and had no way of escaping it. But – again speculation – some of these “suicides” are not actually suicides. You’ll read of a maid who jumped off a balcony to her death, or a maid who drowned in the pool or bathtub, who was found hanged, or who has simply “disappeared” with a request for anyone to report seeing the lady in the picture as if she’s still alive. Well, maybe. But there’s a chance she would be one of the poor souls who ended up pregnant by the father of a household who could not let her reach the stage where she shows, or maybe it was the eighteen year old boy who gone to his dad with a “problem” about the maid that needs to be taken care of soon. Maybe the maid has become defiant, taken her beatings, not changing her ways, or maybe she stole something of worth, some jewelry or something. Of course a police report will be filed, and whatever the Kuwaiti family says is taken as gospel truth and no further investigation is needed. I realize it is a serious accusation to make, that maids are being murdered in Kuwait, however limited and in small numbers it may be (if at all). But there are few thinking people whose eyes are open to Kuwaiti culture and society who believe it never happens. There are stories. It’s my opinion, and I believe, that Kuwaitis can, and do, get away with murder. I know I’m far from the only one who believes this to be so.
I do need to say that I know many Kuwaiti families are good and humane to their domestic help. They honor their basic human rights and show respect to all people whether they are domestic help or cashiers in a food court. Many Kuwaiti children are taught to respect adults no matter their station in life. These are families I can only assume have been educated in the West or spent a good deal of time in North America or Europe. Many, if not most, of your students´ parents will fall into this category. But, anyone who has lived in Kuwait with their eyes and ears open know there are too many people on the lower tiers of Kuwait society whose lives are Hell because of the treatment they receive at the hands of a particular group.
I don’t regret a minute I spent in Kuwait. It was a great learning experience and helped me to appreciate my own country and culture much more. I made a lot of friends there and enjoyed life in Kuwait for the most part. The shopping is amazing, there is great infrastructure, you’ll be close to the water, and most of the people you meet will not be Kuwaitis but other nationalities there like you are, working. As an American man with youth, size and fitness, I probably appeared to many Kuwaiti males that I may not be the best person to mess with. It wasn’t often that a Kuwaiti just cut in front of me in line as if he was entitled to be helped immediately, though everyone else had been waiting. Kuwaitis understand Western men are bound to tap them on the shoulder, as I had to do a few times, and remind him the line forms at the rear and my time was as important as his, or even more since his time is probably all at his leisure. But it’ll happen. When I’d come out from a store and find a new Mercedes 500 SL or Jaguar parked behind me blocking my way out because the driver couldn’t bother themselves walking an extra fifty yards, forcing me to wait for the person to return, they’d usually apologize in their convincing and charming way, offer me a card with their name and number on it, and offer to help any way they could if I ever had a problem in their country. No thanks, keep your stupid card for the Filipinas.
The Kuwaiti kids, spoiled rotten as can be, can actually be very fun and a joy to spend your days with, and they enjoy learning and have fun doing it. But know that if you go to Kuwait you will be exposed to a myriad of things that upset you and you have no power to change or help. And though your kids’ parents will be charming and nice to you, it doesn’t mean they’re charming and/or nice people. They may be, but they may not be. Like I said at the beginning, I had Kuwaiti friends whose company I enjoyed and who enriched my experience in Kuwait, who were very generous and displayed the famous Arab hospitality, and most of the parents were very nice and easy to get along with. But whether they were a part of the seedy culture we’re not supposed to talk about…I liked to think they weren’t, but they probably were.