Since Saddam’s invasion and quick defeat back in 1990, Kuwait has undergone the arduous task of rebuilding a nation devastated by war. Things are looking kind of like they used to, as the oil trade once again operates at a blistering profit. But landmines still hide under the surface, making Kuwait a place where one ought to tread lightly and cautiously.
Kuwait City has undergone serious reconstruction since the war. Though a large collection of important Islamic art was destroyed by the Iraqis, the city still affords some nice treats for visitors. The contrast between the city’s Grand Mosque and its iconic Kuwait Towers reveals the story of a conservative Muslim nation inheriting a billion dollar oil industry. A short trip from Kuwait City is Failaka Island, an ancient settlement which thrived under Greek occupation and is now Kuwait’s best archeological site.
Kuwait’s recent history and devout Islamic tradition makes it a fascinating introduction to the Middle East
In 3rd century BC, the Ancient Greeks colonized the island, Failaka, on today’s Kuwait coast under Alexander the Great and named it “Ikaros”. In 127 BC out of the ruins of the Seleucid Greek Empire, Characene was founded at the head of the Persian Gulf in borders similar to present day Kuwait. Its capital was Charax Spasinou, “The Fort of Hyspaosines”. The city was an important port in the trade from Mesopotamia to India and provided port facilities for the great city of Susa, further up the Tigris River.
Kuwait was founded in the early eighteenth century by members of the Bani Utbah tribe in the year 1705. Kuwait was then known as Guraine; the Bani Utbah established the town and port of Guraine and called it Kuwait.
In the 1870s, Ottoman officials were reasserting their presence in the Persian Gulf, with a military intervention in 1871 – which was not effectively pursued – where family rivalries in Kuwait and Qatar were breeding chaos. The Ottomans were bankrupt, and when the European banks took control of the Ottoman budget in 1881, additional income was required from Kuwait and the Arabian peninsula. As the influence of the Ottoman Empire increased in the region, Kuwait was assigned the status of a caza of the Ottomans. After the signing of the Anglo-Ottoman Convention of 1913, then Amir of Kuwait, Mubarak Al-Sabah, was diplomatically recognized by both the Ottomans and British as the ruler of the autonomous caza of the city of Kuwait and the hinterlands
Oil was first discovered in Kuwait in the 1930s and the government became more proactive in establishing internationally recognized boundaries. After World War I, the Ottoman Empire was defeated and the British invalidated the Anglo-Ottoman Convention, declaring Kuwait to be an “independent sheikhdom under British protectorate.”
On 19 June 1961, Kuwait became fully independent following an exchange of notes between the United Kingdom and the then Amir of Kuwait, Abdullah Al-Salim Al-Sabah. The Gulf rupee, issued by the Reserve Bank of India, was replaced by the Kuwaiti dinar. The discovery of large oil fields, such as the Burgan field, triggered a large influx of foreign investments into Kuwait. The massive growth of the petroleum industry transformed Kuwait into one of the richest countries in the Arabian Peninsula and by 1952, the country became the largest exporter of oil in the Persian Gulf region. This massive growth attracted many foreign workers, especially from Egypt and India.
On 2 August, 1990 Iraqi forces invaded and annexed Kuwait. Saddam Hussein, then President of Iraq, deposed the Amir of Kuwait, Jaber Al-Sabah, and installed Ali Hassan al-Majid as the new governor of Kuwait. After a series of failed diplomatic negotiations, the United States-led coalition of thirty-four nations fought the Persian Gulf War to remove the Iraqi forces from Kuwait. On February 26, 1991, the coalition succeeded in driving out the Iraqi forces, restoring the Kuwaiti Amir to power. In November 1994, Iraq formally accepted the UN-demarcated border with Kuwait and the country has spent more than five billion dollars to repair oil infrastructure damaged during 1990–1991. Kuwait has since largely recovered from the socio-economic, environmental, and public health effects of the Persian Gulf War.
In 2003, Kuwait served as the major staging base for the coalition forces in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Sabah Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah became the Emir of Kuwait in January 18, 2006.
Kuwait is mostly a desert country that hugs the Persian Gulf. Kuwait shares international borders with Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Although Kuwait is close to Iran they do not share any physical border. Located in the northeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Kuwait is one of the smallest countries in the world in terms of land area. It lies between latitudes 28° and 31° N, and longitudes 46° and 49° E. The flat, sandy Arabian Desert covers most of Kuwait. The country is generally low lying, with the highest point being 306 metres above sea-level. It has nine islands, all of which, with the exception of Failaka Island, are uninhabited. With an area of 860 km2, the Bubiyan is the largest island in Kuwait and is connected to the rest of the country by a 2,380-metre long bridge. The land area is considered arable and sparse vegetation is found along its 499-kilometre long coastline. Kuwait City is located on Kuwait Bay, a natural deep-water harbor.
Kuwait is organised into 6 governorates (muhafazat)
- Al Ahmadi
- Al Farwaniyah
- Al Asimah
- Al Jahra
- Mubarak Al-Kabeer
Sights and Activities
White sand beaches cover the coast of Kuwait that are extremely inviting. Coral reefs are now being restored in order to encourage better diving. These beaches do not come cheap. The resorts and private beaches are extremely expensive but the brave traveller may be able to find some free beaches more off the beaten track.
View from Inside Kuwait Towers
The three concrete reinforced Kuwait Towers dominates the skyline of Kuwait City. The principle tower is 187 metres high, has a restaurant, a viewing area at 123 metres and can move around doing a full rotation every 30 minutes. The second tallest tower is used to store water and can hold over one million gallons of water. The third tower controls the flow of electricity to the suburbs of Kuwait City. Opening to the public in 1979 it became a big tourist sight very quickly. The towers were heavily damaged during the war and were restored afterwards. Although a careful eye can still see some damage to the exterior of the towers.
Go spend some money at some of the flashiest shopping areas in the world. Start in the Salmiya area of Kuwait City with its new shopping malls and walking streets. Then move onto smaller boutiques, with much higher price tags.
Although some areas are still off limits for security reasons, Kuwait has some amazing desert to explore. Tall sand dunes go on for miles that beckoned to be climbed are easy to spot. Also look out for some cool domesticated and wild animals like lizards, snakes, birds and camels walking around in the sand.
Other Sights and Activities
- The Science Center – Located on the water front in the Salmiya area of Kuwait City, this is a great place to have fun and learn. There are also some cool boats to see.
- Jal Az-Zor – Near to Kuwait City, go to this preserve to watch many migratory birds including the elusive Black Vulture.
- Bird Watching – Go watch protected bird habitats along the coast at place like Dawhat Kazima, Ad-Doha Nature Reserve, Sulaibikhat Bay, Al-Jahra Pools Nature Reserve and Coral Islets.
Events and Festivals
New Year’s Day
As with the rest of the world, Kuwaitis celebrate the Gregorian New Year with midnight gatherings, fireworks and feasting, either at home or in restaurants. It’s a popular time for visitors, with hotels hosting special events, sumptuous meals and cultural displays of all kinds.
The national holiday celebrated on February 26 marks the liberation of Kuwait via Operation Desert Storm at the end of the First Gulf War. Patriotism is shown by rejoicing in public buildings, parties, street parades and dancing, and the joyous waving of the flag. It’s a time of remembrance for the thousands who lost their lives during the Iraqi invasion, and for those who were captured and imprisoned.
Celebrated in February on the day before Liberation Day, National Day marks the final emergence of Kuwait from Ottoman rule and its transformation into an independent country. National dress is worn and it’s a time for family, parties and feasting.
The Hala Festival in February is a celebration of springtime, with the parched desert land alive with lush greenery and vibrantly colored flowers. Migratory birds arrive by the million, and cultural events, street parades, and carnivals are held throughout the month. Shops and stores hold their annual sales, drawing visitors from Arab countries and beyond.
The most important religious festival in Kuwait is the holy month of Ramadan in August/September, celebrated as the time when the Prophet Muhammad revealed the Koran to his followers. From sunrise to sunset, Muslims abstain from eating and drinking and pray five times a day instead of the usual four. The month begins with the viewing of the new moon, and evenings during the festival are spent eating, talking and celebrating life with friends and family.
The most joyous of all Kuwait’s festivals is Eid el-Fitr, the end of Ramadan. The festivities last for several days, and include visits with friends and family, gift exchanges and feasts. Eid is a time of peace, forgiveness, merry-making, and massive celebrations.
This October religious festival remembers Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, and is commemorated with visits to mosques, family meals, new clothes and the giving of money and gifts to children. In rural areas, a sheep or goat may be sacrificed.
Islamic New Year
The Islamic New Year falls on the first day of the first month of Muharram in October, November or December, depending on the Islamic calendar. Kuwaitis watch the new moon in the early evening as days begin at sunset. Cards wishing health and wealth are exchanged along with gifts, and New Year resolutions are set. It’s a low-key event, centered on the family.
Kuwait has an arid climate with warm to hot weather. There is no rain whatsoever from June to August. From October to May, there are about 3 to 8 days a month with some rainfall, totalling less than 100mm of rain a year. Temperatures are pleasant from November to April. January is the coldest month with average maximum temperatures of 18 °C, dropping to 8 °C at night. From June to September have daytime temperatures averaging 40 °C to 44 °C and nights still around 30 °C! Temperatures over 50 °C are not uncommon during summer and together with sometimes humid conditions makes this time almost unbearable.
Roads in Kuwait are mostly tarred and in a good condition. You can rent cars at the international airport or in Kuwait City. You need an international driving permit or you national driver’s licence and you also need to buy local insurance. Traffic drives on the right and can be hectic in some places. Also, Kuwaitis are not known for the best driving skills so pay attention!
Several companies, including the Kuwait Transport Company, offer cheap and extensive bus connections in and between the major cities and towns. Services are aircon and frequent, but avoid rush-hour as the roads are packed with traffic during these hours.
No scheduled services exist, but traditional dhows can be chartered for trips to offshore islands or to go out snorkelling, diving and fishing.
Visa Restrictions: Entry will be refused to citizens of Israel and to those who show stamps and/or visas from Israel.
The nationals of 54 countries are eligible of visas on arrival at Kuwait’s airport and land borders. The on-arrival visa is valid for a single entry of up to 3 months and costs KD 3, plus KD 3 for a “stamping” fee (visa and stamping fee not required for nationals Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States of America). Those 54 nations are: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bhutan, Brunei, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Eswatini, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Laos, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States of America, Vatican City and Vietnam.
All other nationals need advance visas, which require an invitation from a sponsor in Kuwait. Kuwait Airways offices and major hotels can provide invitations, but the process can take up to a week and may require a fee. The Embassy of Kuwait in Japan has some information.
Import restrictions: Alcohol and pork are not legal and may not be imported into the country. If you bring either in, it will be confiscated at the airport and you may be subjected to fines for attempting to import these banned goods. Your bags will be X-rayed and/or hand-searched on arrival.
See also Money Matters
The national currency is the Kuwaiti dinar (KD, KWD).
The dinar is divided into 1000 fils. Notes are available in denominations of KD 20, 10, 5, 1, ½ and ¼, while 100, 50, 20, 10 and 5 fils coins are also available. Notes are Arabic in the front and English in the back, with Arabic numerals (the numerals used in English) on both sides.
Bear in mind that the Kuwaiti Dinar ranks among the strongest currencies in the world with an exchange rate of 1KD usually hovering at or about US$3.50, making that oh-so-affordable-seeming 3KD burger a little more shocking when it sinks in that it’s more like $10.50!
There are many full service office providers available to businesses within Kuwait. These businesses are normally owned by a Kuwaiti and staffed by Middle Easterners or Asians and don’t normally hire nationals of western descent. If you plan to work in Kuwait, be sure to check the academic requirements of desired positions as in most cases, the Kuwaiti government insists on degrees from accredited universities.
Expect to be paid anywhere from 400 KD – 800 KD for average middle range positions to 1,000 KD – 1,500 KD for higher positions such as teaching or consulting.
Arabic is official language. Although in schools the classical version of Arabic is taught; and just like everywhere in the Arab world, Kuwaiti’s use the Kuwaiti dialect in everyday conversation. English is widely used and spoken. Most of the traffic signs in Kuwait are bilingual. English is taught as a second language in schools in Kuwait beginning at the first grade. Many Kuwaitis speak English fluently as there are lots of private English and American schools and universities where all subjects are taught in English and Arabic is taken as a subject. A lot of Kuwaitis are enrolling their children in these schools.
There is a huge array of restaurants in Kuwait. Because nightlife is virtually non-existent, most people go out to restaurants and malls. A wide variety of international cuisines is available in high-end restaurants, although some heavily pork-based cuisines (German, e.g.) are conspicuously absent. Kuwait is known for its culinary specialties and catering services. Restaurants can be found in food courts in malls, and alternatively many international restaurants are grouped together in certain areas in Kuwait.
Hotels in Kuwait are expensive, but major Western chains are well represented. Chalets and other weekend accommodation can be rented in many places along the southern part of the coast.
Alcohol is strictly illegal in Kuwait: it may not be imported, manufactured or served, and newspapers regularly report busts of illegal distilleries. Unlike in Bahrain, Qatar and UAE, alcohol cannot be even served at hotels or to permit holders.
Tap water is drinkable, although most of it is desalinated and not particularly tasty, and in summertime, you may have a hard time telling apart the hot and cold taps. Bottled water is available everywhere for a few hundred fils.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Kuwait. It’s a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Kuwait. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid. Vaccination against hepatitis B and rabies are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers’ diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
The crime threat in Kuwait is assessed as low. Violent crimes against foreigners are rare, but do occur. Physical and verbal harassment of women are continuing problems. Kuwaiti drivers can also be quite reckless.
There are several internet and telecom service providers in Kuwait. The media in Kuwait is among the most outspoken in the Gulf states, journalists self-censor on issues related to royal family. Kuwait is one of the fastest growing ICT markets in the region. Majority of the Kuwaiti population can afford to have Internet services at home, the reason the country has fewer Internet cafes than other Gulf countries.
See also International Telephone Calls
The country code for Kuwait is 965. Local phone numbers are 8 digits long. Numbers starting with 2 are landline telephones, while numbers starting with 5,6 or 9 are mobile telephones numbers and numbers starting with 1 are service numbers. there are no area code and dialing within Kuwait will never require an additional 0 in the beginning.
Kuwait uses GSM and mobile phones are widely available. The operators are Zain, Wataniya Telecom (Ooredoo), and Viva. As roaming charges can be very steep, it makes sense to get a local SIM card. a new SIM can be obtained from any of the official branches. A SIM can be bought from most telephone stores, and doesn’t require registration. Registration requires the passport of the one who’s applying. The prices for a new SIM card are very low.