I was in 5th grade when I first heard about Kuwait. It was 1991. I was at the age when I was just beginning to understand the world around me on a global scale. I watched Yugoslavia and Russia break up as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall two years earlier. I didn’t understand what was going on exactly, but I watched it and tried to piece it together in my 11-year-old head. This was the year the US entered Kuwait to fight against the Iraqi occupation and annexation of Kuwait. I can distinctively remember the night-vision videos of the scud missiles, green streaks across a blackened screen.
The name Kuwait is stemmed from a diminutive form of the word kut or kout, which means “fortress on the water.” The country was named after the capital city of the same name. Kuwait’s strategic location on the Persian Gulf has been beneficial throughout its history. This small country is located at the head of the Persian Gulf, surrounded by Saudi Arabia and Iraq. It also includes nine islands, eight of which are uninhabited. During the summers in Kuwait, the temperatures are very hot (I just looked the other day, and it was 109ºF.), and they are often subject to dust storms during this season. Their winters are still moderately warm with the average daytime temperatures in the 50-60s and lows in the 20-30s.
The ancient Mesopotamians first settled on the island of Failaka (the only inhabited island). The ancient Greeks eventually started moving into this area, and Alexander the Great took the area in the name of Greece. Then the Sassanid Empire moved in and took over, calling the place Meshan. By the 1500s, the Portuguese moved into this area and built a fortress settlement. A small fishing village called Kuwait was built on the bay during the 1600s. Although it changed hands many times, it quickly grew to be a major port city for the shipping industry. In fact, the city of Kuwait was one of the major stops for goods and spices from Southeast Asia to enter the Middle East and Europe. Likewise, it was also an important city for the boat-building industry as well. Because of all of this trade, the city was booming and built a reputation for being a very wealthy city. However, this all changed with WWI: Britain imposed a sanction on the country because of their support for the Ottoman Empire, which had a crippling effect on its economy. Their once-revered pearling industry also collapsed at the same time. During much of the 1920s-1930s, Saudi Arabia placed economic and military actions against Kuwait, eventually taking much of their land for themselves. Luckily for its impoverished citizens, oil was discovered. From the time after WWII to the early 1980s, Kuwait saw immense growth in the public and private sector, mostly driven by its investments in oil. The country developed in areas reflective of Western countries; they enjoyed a free press, a thriving theatre arts scene, Western style clothing, and a high quality of life. Although Kuwait supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein later claimed that Kuwait was a province of the country as a means to invade (although during his last days, Saddam claims that Kuwaiti officials insulted and threatened his family and that’s why he acted as he did. Who knows how much truth is in any of this?). After the U.S. got involved, the Iraqis did retreat but not before they lit hundreds of oil fields on fire as they were leaving. Today, Kuwait is still a freer country in comparison with some of its neighbors in the region and enjoys a comfortable quality of life for most people.
Kuwait City is the capital city and largest city in Kuwait. The city has a little over 2 million people in its metro area, making it about the same size as Houston, Texas or Havana, Cuba. Lying on the Kuwait Bay, it serves as a major port in the Persian Gulf. Kuwait City is not only the center of the government, but it’s also the cultural, financial, and educational capital of the country as well. Roughly 98% of Kuwaitis live in the urban areas. When the Iraqis burned many of the oil fields in the early 1990s, it left large sections of land unusable due to soil contamination. However, Kuwait has taken many of its oil dollars and put it back into its country, its people, and its infrastructure. This city is very much a modern oasis in the desert. It’s known for its space-age-looking buildings, towers, and technology.
Because of Kuwait’s oil being a driving factor in its economy, its currency, the Kuwaiti dinar, is the most valuable currency in the world. Nearly 94% of their exports are in petroleum-based products. Kuwait is also seeing a rise in young entrepreneurs. Real estate is prime and can be very expensive, and many of these young entrepreneurs are often technologically savvy when it comes to marketing, often utilizing Instagram to advertise their businesses. I think this is great. (I have two Instagram accounts: for this blog, I post to @kayosmada, and I have one called @indyinblackandwhite where I take photos of areas in and around Indianapolis in black and white.) Because Kuwait practically has no agriculture of its own other than some fishing, it must import almost all of its food from other countries. It is also the leader of the Arab-region countries in foreign investments.
The vast majority of Kuwaitis are Muslim (mostly Sunni). There are also significant pockets of Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, Bahá’í, and Christians.
The official language in Kuwait is Arabic, and more specifically Kuwaiti Arabic. They also have their own version of sign language. However, English is often understood by many people and is often used in business.
Several years ago, Oprah did a special on “Women at 30,” highlighting how 30-year-old women live around the world. One of her guests was a woman from Kuwait. She made waves because her great-uncle was the Emir, and she chose to marry outside of royalty. But she also highlighted several things about Kuwait that surprised me: when Kuwaitis marry, the Emir gives them $12,000 to get started on their lives. They also get free education (including college), free medical care, and no one pays taxes (I believe they use the revenues from oil to fund projects we would normally pay for in tax dollars—how different than how it works in the US where the CEOs of the oil companies pocket the majority of these dollars and don’t spread it out. If trickle down economics worked like they say it does, then gas station employees should be making $22/hour or something). People live fairly comfortable lives here, and unemployment is around 3.5%. However, even as one of the most democratic countries in the Middle East, women still don’t have the right to vote here. But what they do have are some tasty recipes, many of which are inspired from all over the Arab world and Asia, and I can’t wait to try them out.
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