“Driving can be dangerous in Kuwait,” proclaimed a safety bulletin at the security entrance of Camp Arifjan located deep in the southern Kuwaiti desert. Having just arrived after a nail biting 50 minute ride down Hwy 40, the words seemed to somewhat understate the risk. It would have actually been more accurate to say, “Driving in Kuwait will challenge your continence.” Highway 40 runs from the north to the south of this tiny emirate, and serves as a major transportation corridor between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The right two lanes are full of oil, gas, and utility trucks lumbering between refineries. The right lane is full of large BMWs, Mercedes, and GMC Tahoe SUVs traveling at somewhere near the speed of light. The middle lane is somewhat of a transitional space where the BMWs slow down to Mach 1 as they jump between trucks to reach their exits at the last second. Needless to say, when the BMWs meet up with the lorries, you have something of a physics problem. As those tense few seconds unfold mere inches in front of your front bumper, it really can have a fiber-like effect on one’s gastrointestinal system. It is also interesting to note that, unlike the US, texting while driving seems to be encouraged here. The first couple of times we successfully completed this trip, my team and I had to go to the base cafe and do Turkish coffee shooters until we calmed down. By the end of the week however, we were in the fast lane with all the other insane Kuwaitis pushing our 2009 Suburban well into the 100’s. After a few days, we actually made it into somewhat of a sport, keeping score of how many “beemers’ we were able to cut off. Why not cheat death? After all – we paid for the damage liability insurance!
Kuwait is an interesting place. It is currently ranked as the 5th richest country on earth, it has an average per-capita income of over 60 thousand dollars per year, and the Kuwaiti Dinar (KD) is the highest valued currency in the world. Kuwait is classified as a “constitutional monarchy” and actually elects its National Assembly every four years. Kuwaiti citizenship is a rare thing though. According to the latest statistics two thirds of Kuwaiti residents neither have their citizenship nor can vote. So despite its democratic underpinnings, the majority of people here go unrepresented. It is really more like a club, where the oil wealth is carefully distributed based on your status. For all of its political shortcomings however, Kuwait is a staunch ally of the the United States and serves as one of our most important logistics hubs in the war against terror. I do not want to make this post about the war however. Rather, I would like to offer some observations on the city and its people.
First and foremost Kuwait is all about oil. The Kuwaiti people sit on about 10% of the world’s crude oil reserves and they are intent upon pumping every drop of it out of the ground. The Kuwaiti constitution specifies that all petroleum-based natural resources are property of the state and the Kuwait National Petroleum Corporation (KNPC) is the organization in charge of keeping the crude (and cash) flowing.
Kuwaiti Refining Towers
Miles of Crude Storage
Super Tanker at Pumping Port
One benefit of their massive oil wealth is that Kuwait is a tax-free state. Remarkably, they are ranked as being one of the “most free” free enterprise systems in the world. If you make money here, unlike the US, you pretty much get to keep it. Another benefit is that regular gas at a full service gas station will run you about 80 cents per gallon, while supreme peaks at about $1.20 per gallon. When we pulled up to the pump with our rented GMC Suburban, I was sure that it would cost an arm and a leg, in reality it barely cost a pinky finger.
I think the thing that fascinates me the most about this part of the world is the collision between the old and the new. In countries like Korea and Japan old and new blend seamlessly, often imperceptibility into the fabric of their culture. Here in Kuwait though it seems as if they are locked in mortal combat, pushing at each other’s lines in an effort to reclaim and defeat. Opulent high rises meet ancient souks full of gold. Four star hotels tower against dusty brown neighborhoods and 300 year old mosques. When you see it, you have no choice but to believe that it is a temporary arrangement. It is just unclear which side will endure.
Arabian Sea Drive Kuwait
Kuwaiti High Rise
Ruins from Iraqi War
The people here are polite but distant. It is clear, as you awakened by the dawn call to prayer, that there are invisible walls between our cultures. At the airport they check my suitcase for alcohol, because I am white. There are no churches, and no Christmas tunes in the malls. Our cultures certainly coexist after a fashion, but they are undeniably separate. The Kuwaitis need us and they know it, however it is clear that they are uneasy with the potential consequences. As an Army First Sergeant told me, “The Kuwaitis have this gentleman’s agreement with Al Qaeda right now. You don’t bomb me, and I will keep the status quo.” One wrong move however, and this fragile truce could crumble into catastrophe. Just a few years ago, if you had looked out across the waters of the Persian Gulf, you would have seen the distant silhouettes of warships in the sunset. You would have seen the smoke from burning cargo ships and demolished oil platforms. If you had looked north into the desert you would have seen hundreds of oil wells ablaze beneath a black blanket of smoke and ash. The Kuwaitis remember these days, and know that it could happen again if they are not vigilant.
Kuwait Oil Fields Burn
Aegis Cruiser Off Kuwait
I think that if I had to describe Kuwait in one word, I would say that it was “functional.” It is not an especially beautiful place, nor is it a center for art and culture. The air is dirty with petro-carbons from nearby refineries, and people drive as if they were escaping a nuclear attack. But somehow amidst all the commotion and contradiction, it manages to work. And despite our cultural differences, Kuwait and the United States share a strong bond. This bond, though often overlooked, is clearly evident as you drive down Cairo Street, look over the rooftops, and see a tall slender needle rising against the afternoon sun. It is the tallest structure in Kuwait City and is named simply – “Liberation Tower.” It symbolizes the resolve of this little nation to endure and, frankly speaking, I would not bet against them.
The single most inspirational thing in Kuwait however, cannot be found in the city’s monuments or on its emerald green coastline. To find this thing, you have to drive miles into the barren Kuwaiti desert, and pass through several heavily armed checkpoints. When you finally arrive however, you will find thousands of young professional American Soldiers working tirelessly in sandy, hot, inhospitable conditions. They are separated from their families, their friends, and their lives in order to be there. They understand their mission and carry it out with pride and integrity. Put simply, it is their job to ensure that Liberation Tower never again falls.
Liberation Tower in Distance
Liberation Tower from Below