Thursday, October 19, 2017

Why I would leave Kuwait

I've been in Kuwait for 22 years this past month.

In 1990/91, I volunteered with Citizens For a Free Kuwait in Washington, DC and ran a not-for-profit organization called Kuwait Link to try to assist in any way I could towards the liberation of Kuwait and the assistance of the Kuwaiti people.  When the 100-hour war took place in 1991 to liberate Kuwait, I struggled to go along with my Kuwaiti friends. I wanted to fight.  But I couldn't; I was the only American with the group of Kuwaiti female interpreters that were going to basic training and then on to Kuwait. I was a liability as an American. So I stayed.  And Kuwait was liberated in a blink of an eye.

I came here first in 1993, to look around and then I settled here in 1996. There were very few single American professional working women.  I knew of only one other and learned about her only much later.  Most American women were married to Kuwaitis.  In the States, I had been engaged to a very nice Kuwaiti man, but I knew we just weren't meant for each other. (We are still friends after 33 years.)  He wasn't the reason I came here:  I came here because I honestly fell in love with Kuwait and Kuwaiti people on my visit (I sobbed most of that first plane ride back to the States.  The BA air hostess hugged me and comforted me!).  The people were kind and hospitable and caring.  I had a cold, one of my friends would rush over to take me to the hospital.  Literally.  I was alone, they would come pick me up for family lunches.  I needed something, my Kuwaiti friends were always there.  Always.  They never asked for anything in return and they did it out of kindness and love.  The expression was, "they have a white heart."

I found a job before I came here.  I worked at a subsidiary of an Islamic bank which asked me to wear hijab in the office.  It was a unique insight into the lives of ladies who do choose to cover.  I learned quite a bit about their decision and I respected them and the dignity they held.  Of course, my wearing of the hijab was forced and so my heart was never in it; but I did try to be modest and respectful; even waiting an appropriate amount of time in my red sports car to pull it off at the end of the day and drive home.  I'm glad I had the experience.

In the 90's, people in Kuwait still had time.  You had time to meet your friends; share a stikana of tea or a plate of foul for breakfast at the beginning of the work day.  You had time to meet for weekend lunches.  No one had smart phones.  The few who did have cell phones had Alcatels and Nokias or more likely, pagers.  We weren't on them all the time because calls were expensive.  It was cheaper to get paged and stop by Sultan Center to use their free public phone.  Family meals with Kuwaitis were loud and festive with kids running in and out.  It was a time to tell stories and share laughs.  Everyone paid attention to each other.  There normally wasn't even a television on (as at the time, Showtime and Orbit were the 2 satellite providers and not only did most people not have them - it was considered expensive at that time - but their programs were limited).  KTV wasn't great and and they weren't on all the time.  So you were forced to talk to each other.  And it was nice.

In the 90's as a Westerner, you could walk down the street and people would stop to chat with you; maybe ask you where  you are from and what you are doing in Kuwait.  They were kind and friendly.

As the years passed, things started to change. In the early 2000's - particularly after 2003 when the US went into Iraq and Saddam was ousted - being a Westerner (especially an American) wasn't such a great thing.  Teenaged kids hadn't been taught much about the Gulf War and how the Allied forces had worked with Kuwait towards liberation.  People hadn't wanted to relive the past by talking about it, so when 2003 rolled around, America was frowned upon for "invading a neighboring Islamic country," Iraq.  Iraqi music was played again throughout Kuwait.  US and British flags were no longer sold on Liberation and National Days as they had been in the past.  Time had quickly moved on.

Now we all have smart phones.  Everyone is too busy to see each other and when we do, we all bow our heads to the Smart Phone Gods and spend far too much time in the cyber world than we do finding out what is happening in each other's lives.  My lunches at Kuwaiti friends' homes are pretty much along the same lines. Kids no longer run through the rooms, laughing.  They are too busy on their phones.  We are all too busy at work to stop and chat over tea in the morning and God forbid someone should bring in breakfast; it might be seen as the end of our work ethics.

Note:   back in the 90's and the early 2000's - there were only a handful of Kuwaiti restaurants.  Now Kuwait is flooded with them.  Both parents work these days and it is much easier to order than to spend time cooking. 

When I see old friends, many want to talk about business.  What we can do to make money.  What other people are doing to make money, etc.  On the rare occasions when I receive invitations these days, I always have to stop to question the motives.  Why do they want me there?  What will the discussion turn to?  Who wants to do business with me/US?  Rent their house to a Westerner?  Import a car from the States?   What will the pitch be?  I can't just relax and let my guard down.  It can't be about having fun and catching up (for the most part.  I'm speaking in generalities.  I know my closest friends and they are without ulterior motives; which is why I have limited myself to a tight-knit inner circle.)

My long-time non-Kuwaiti friends (Western professionals) are all but gone now.  A few still remain, but are planning to leave.  My best friend left Kuwait this year after 30 years here.  Her Kuwaiti son is a diplomat and has no plans to ever return to Kuwait.


I can't say that there is just one reason, but a collection:   It is just uncomfortable here now.  It is as if the Sword of Damocles hangs above your head and you are in constant anxiety that something bad is about to happen (not terrorism or DAESH or any of that):  Expat anxiety.   People used to have parties or gatherings and be happy. There was a quality of life.  You used to be able to go for a walk or leave your house to go to the grocery store without being anxious as to if you forgot your ID and may be sent to a deportation center for not having it with you.  Deport, deport, deport.  For everything from a traffic violation to (it seems recently) jay walking.

You can't own property as a foreigner in Kuwait, so you spend decades on what could have been mortgage payments.  There are plans to limit the amount of time foreigners can live here to 10 years.  For those of us who love Kuwait as a second home (and have even fought for the country in various ways), this is insult AND injury. Every non-Kuwaiti person must leave Kuwait eventually.

People have been willing to leave their own countries to come to live in Kuwait and we are blamed for many problems that would exist here with or without us. Like traffic.  If I had an extra few billion dinars right now, I would create safe public mass transportation (where women wouldn't be groped and hoodlems wouldn't be allowed on to throw rocks at passengers for fun).  I would even use it to get to/from work (as I use it in Dubai).  I would create toll lanes on the highways (for all - not just for "expats").  But, it isn't my money and I'm not a decision maker.  Why should I, as a foreign resident in Kuwait,  be blamed for a failing system that could have/should have been fixed decades ago?

Foreign workers did not miraculously appear out of thin air:  we were all brought here to work.  We all go through a rigorous visa process.  Someone at some time wanted us here (and as long as your visa is valid - they still must).  (Illegal visa traders, of course, are the exception.  They don't care as long as they are making a profit from selling visas  They are the same breed as coyotes who leave Mexican illegal immigrants in the desert for their own profit.  We all know who the Kuwaiti coyotes are, but little or nothing is being done to stop their illegal human trade.)

I'm not a guest in this country.  That term is belittling and I refuse to use or respect it.  If you are a guest, someone picks you up a the airport, takes you home (free of charge), feeds you, gives you some clean towels and shows you where your bed and the bathroom is.  Maybe gives you a glass of water before saying goodnight.  They probably cook your meals and give you desert after dinner.  I'm not a guest.  I get none of that.

I'm a resident of Kuwait. I make my own living and my own dinner.   I add to the economy of this country.  I have bought several cars while in Kuwait, paying interest (or "profit" in one case to an Islamic lending bank).  I have leased cars. I bought furniture and goods in the local market (often paying much higher prices than I would in my own country).  I pay my rent on time to my Kuwaiti landlord (for the past 22 years).  I pay my electric bill.  I pay for satellite TV. The list goes on and on. Who benefits from that?  Kuwaiti merchants.  Not foreign merchants:  KUWAITI.  Take away the foreign residents and you take away from the economy of the country and fellow Kuwaiti country men/women.

This is why the xenophobic politicians spouting expat hatred these days infuriate me so much.  They seek their 15 minutes of political fame, but at what price?  To the cost of the Kuwaiti economy.  Citizens might agree to the ideology in the short term (Kuwait for Kuwaitis), but when the economy begins to wane and the thousands of new tiny apartments remain empty and no one is spending on services or products, the tide may quickly turn.  (I just learned that Audi sales, for example, are down by 30% over last year. Granted, that is a luxury brand, but I wonder what other auto brands are suffering.  The political instability for expats is creating spending fears.)

One of the biggest issues today in Kuwait is the over-extended Kuwaiti healthcare system.  I love it that Kuwait has had virtually free healthcare, but I have used it only twice in 22 years.  Once was not by choice:  I didn't want to be transported to a government hospital when a young man on drugs crashed into my car.  I would have preferred a private hospital.  For that matter, I would have preferred that I would be allowed to donate my portion of the free health care to someone in need of it.  My employer pays 100 KD/yr in my name for something I refuse to use as I get private insurance through that very same employer. It is wasteful and unnecessary.   Further, it disgusts me to see law makers differentiating between ill patients via their nationality.  I always firmly believed that Islam doesn't differentiate between humans by color or country or religion.

I have been here over two decades now.  I haven't seen many changes in healthcare.  Why aren't there more qualified Kuwaiti doctors?  Is it that the system isn't retaining them?   Is the country not educating young people or helping them to become doctors?  Are they leaving?  Why are Kuwaitis still being sent to Europe and the US for specialized healthcare?  This isn't a new subject. I don't see the now-empty hospital waiting rooms as a good thing for anyone.   If the fees are increased so much that poor sick expat people can't afford to go to the hospital, doesn't that actually put more Kuwaitis at risk for catching communicable diseases?  The sick aren't going to hospitals for fun or because it is low-cost.   If you're sick and can't afford to go to a doctor, you are more than likely to suffer in silence.  Why did they put the cart before the horse?  Devise a low cost insurance alternative first; or force employers (sponsors) to pay increased public insurance fees. 

Let me get off politics and get back to my story.

I think what really changed my attitude about living here was what happened to me in 2015.  You can read the full story in older posts here, but I was living in a house that was owned by Kuwaitis. They were so inhumane to me that I started to loose faith in Kuwaiti people all together.  I never knew that there could be Kuwaitis that were so full of hate.   I now chose my circle of friends with a lot more scrutiny.  I have been very selective about what personal information I give out.  I reference check landlords and even people I do business with.  I never would have considered doing that when I first came here.  I had such faith in the society.  ... It's gone.

It seems that the joy has left the country.  The activities that I used to find peaceful and relaxing have been ruined by internal invaders:   Go to the desert and pick out a completely isolated spot, only to have people roll up in 4x's, pitch a tent right next to yours and put on loud music all night.  Go to the beach in an isolated spot (even if it is by boat) and you will find people show up next to you and put on a show to attract attention.  Where has the decency gone?  What about privacy?  Respect?  Even the quiet things have been ruined. Cultural mores are a thing of the past.  Everything and everyone is fair game for entertainment and self-gratification.

For years, I have helped promote Kuwait to people (mostly Westerners)  transitioning to life here.  I've made a lot of friends and answered a lot of e-mails:  I've posted about the attractions, things to do, places to see.  Where to go to find a home, where to go to buy or have furniture made. Where to buy a car.  Where to send your kids to school.  What doctors, dentists, mechanics, hair salons I would recommend.   All of this amounts to promoting the local economy; of helping Kuwaiti businesses that I like and believe in.  I have taken great pride in it, but recently I have found it more difficult to maintain my positive outlook.  And to respond to queries for recommendations.

Its hard to stay positive and to help others when the same people that you are promoting could potentially be lumping you, a foreign resident, into a singular "expat" group that they may secretly desire to be expunged from the country. The recent political climate has polarized the country and created divisions and suspicions and questions.   Unless I have a personal connection to businesses or services, I am now reluctant to promote them.  How do they really feel about expat-me?  Is that "deport" word in the back of their mind?  Do they feel the right to be in line first because of the differences in our nationalities?  I question if I should help or not.  Part of me says, 'Stay true to yourself and believe in the good in all people," but every day a new expat law or proposal becomes part of our lives, limiting personal freedoms and rights; bringing my morale down a notch or two.  Am I promoting the same people who stand behind that type of discriminatory behavior (and sadly, I have found that some of my dear Kuwaiti friends actually harbor that type of mentality)?  Should I just remain quiet and stop assisting?

I don't even want to go out anymore because of the amount of road rage (and NOT by foreign residents).  And construction that will lead each of us to road rage (no signage/no warning of changes in routes, for example).  People no longer look with kind eyes.  People no longer want to help each other.  I've always believed that what you give out is what you get back; smile and a smile is returned.  Not now.  Smile and you receive a scowl.  People will just wonder what you want from them. 

So all this, and with all my friends leaving or gone, these are the reasons why I would leave Kuwait should the day ever come. And that is tremendously saddening to me as I have loved this little country for over three decades; the country that used to have a white heart towards all the people within its borders.

Disclaimer:  I don't publish hateful comments (and in the past few years, I unfortunately receive more and more of these).  The comment that is the most concerning to me is, "Go back to your country."  This is a statement made by people without the intellectual capacity to make any other remark or have any valid reasoning.  They are the type of person harboring the hatred and discrimination that I have just posted about above -  and I choose not to further promote their ideology by publishing it.


xmido said...

I was born in Kuwait, I loved Kuwait. Kuwait wasn't my second home. It was my home home. I was a foreigner in my country. I always boasted about Kuwait. My love for Kuwait was total and clear, but Kuwait didn't love me back. Didn't acknowledge all the years I lived here. I was treated like someone who came from a boat yesterday. A refugee not a resident. I had to fight to find a job, I had to fight to make a driving license like if I am gonna drive a plane. I have always lived my life proud but now I am less than human in their eye. I have less rights. I am the cause of all their problems. Their traffic, their unemployment, their queue in the hospital. They forget the doctor who treats them is a foreigner. The person who cleans their road is a foreigner. The people who pay rent and buy things and eat in nice places are foreigners. We contribute to the economy, not just with money but with effort and our time. I grown with kuwait and I feel betrayed. Because I loved Kuwait. But it couldn't even acknowledge me as a human.

Omani Princess (not Omani...yet) said...

:( that is so sad. I hope you find enough good to stay, because going home would be so strange after so long loving and living in Kuwait.

Oman is changing a little too, we've always heard "expats go home" but usually not towards the Western ones so much. Omani families are still friendly.

Every time I leave here and go back to Canada I realize how hard it is for me to fit there, having lived here for so long, and changed so much to stay here... Allah help you, and move Kuwait past this phase, ameen.

AG said...

You really hit that nail on the head. By the time I arrived in Kuwait there was still some of that kindness and generosity taking place. By the time I left -- it was rare.

You already know I love the idea of you moving home. I see your beautiful existence and all you have to offer and I can't help but think you've become the abused child and Kuwait is your parent. You've adapted to all the changes, regardless of how negative they've been, but it's your comfort zone. I love that you can pinpoint all of the issues and changes, I just hope you're able to leave them behind. You would be so much more effective in a place where you're really valued.

Inrab70 said...

Most khaleejis have suffered because they simply took the value of their oil money for granted. They lived a very luxurious and relaxed lifestyle and only a few bothered to actually better them selves in order to contribute to the growth and development of "their nations". They all love their leaders and will do anything for them. But I guess if they had put some effort during the past 30 years on self development things wouldve been different for them. My point being that the expats wouldve been reduced and the locals would have been working efficiently much earlier. If would never have been the current scenario where the hate is so high. And more than anything its a blame game. The ques in hospital can also be due to an increase in the population where as the number of hospitals has renained the same or not increased at a rate to accommodate the growing population. Anyhow, I feel its a lost cause... talking about this and feeling hurt and upset about being treated this way. The locals have lived their lives feeling and being entitled. The current economic crisis have left countries unable to deal with this. Only time will tell. I love the middle east, lived here since I was a year old I have given up on gettin any kind of acknowledgement from the people here for any contributions and I can only feel hate from their end these days. But strangely I continue to wish only the best for them.

Jon Son said...

I hate to have to say it, but I expect that the worst may be yet to come as oil prices stay low and eventually decline even further. As benefits are forced to shrink and systemic visa misuse continues to swell the population beyond necessity (or so I've heard) even more locals may lean towards the right wing, making things more difficult for "those other people", ie, expats.

You were fortunate to have once experienced a more positive side of the native society, though. In my 18 years of growing up there as an expat, all I ever felt from the native citizens (with very few exceptions) was disdain, rudeness and contempt for no apparent reason, and a form of racism that seemed totally institutionalized. I didn't think too much about the causes back then, and just accepted it as the natural order of things for my community to be positioned at the third or fourth rung of the local class structure. I was too young to know any better. I just tried to enjoy myself within the protected confines of my social class, stayed out of the way of the rest, kept my nose clean, and loved the place most of the time. But even back then, an expat could get jailed or deported without due process anytime, although it sounds like the atmosphere is even more intimidating now. I can easily identify with xmido's comments even though I lived there in a different era. I feel bad that even with the increased development that's obviously happened since I was there, and even with rebuilding after the invasion, things seem to have become worse instead of better.

Some other countries in the GCC are at least trying to change themselves and adapt to a social and economic future in which oil isn't going to be as highly demanded as before. Dubai, for example, which was a near non-entity when I was growing up, is already there now in many ways. But Kuwait? I don't know if it's doing much about it. As oil exports slow down more in the coming years what else will the country's economy run on? The expat population will thin down to a minimum, and even if the natives are eager and waiting to pick up the slack I'm not sure what the alternative sectors of the economy are going to be. Some citizens may need to migrate in search of work and when that happens they just might realize that they should have earned a little more goodwill from some of their former expats when they had the chance.

abo-nasser said...

what you wrote is touchable last 6 or 7 years people have changed since android and ios devices have conquered our life we lost many beautiful things what you mentioned about heads down on the smartphones my professor in college talked about it back in 2011 and this is terrible fact

Karan said...

What a lost opportunity ! A great path would have been attract and retain the best and brightest and enable them to create industry and service which would remain relevant even when the world no longer needs fossil fuel. Respect is so ingrained in Arab culture , its quite perplexing that having naturalization for the real contributors is not on the agenda for any GCC nation.Carpe Diem, there is still a chance, as slice of a closing window.