Perhaps it’s becoming a postgrad. Possibly it’s my sparse CV. Maybe it’s just a phase. I don’t know what’s responsible, but I think I’m having a mid-life-crisis. Well, academic-life anyway. I’ve looked at what I could have done, and what I have done, and I’m a little depressed about the result. Sure I’ve made plenty of friends over the last four years, and had a great time too, but what’s happened to all that crap you only do when you’re a student? You know, the lacrosse and the tiddlywinks. It’s all been there, and I haven’t done any of it. What a fool I’ve been. Well, no more! I’ve only got one year left, so I’ve got to do something about it. NOW.
Maybe that’s a bit melodramatic, but you get the idea. Anyway, I’ve decided to have a go at everything that comes my way this year. So now, if a promising opportunity presents itself, I say yes to it. At least I’ll apply… I suppose it’s lucky that I made this decision after the fresher’s fair. But instead of prating on about the virtues of ‘grasping the nettle by the horns’ or whatever, and boring you to death with all the little things I’ve been doing, I’ll tell you about one experience I had just before Christmas. Hopefully then you’ll see that saying yes can be a good thing.
At the end of November last year, around the time above crisis was at its peak, I received this Facebook message from Emma, a friend on my course:
Free trip to KUWAIT!
This really is a fantastic opportunity; the embassy of Kuwait run a cultural exchange programme, which someone has had to drop out of. They’ve asked me to fill the spot, so if you are male, of British origin and free on 16th-23rd December, read on!
Basically, the successful applicant will get:
- FREE return flights to Kuwait
- FREE accommodation
- FREE meals
- FREE sightseeing in Kuwait!
If this sounds like you or one of your friends, send a copy of your CV to Mr Saif Basheer…
Now, for someone thinking that they’d been missing out, this sounded like a genuine panacea. Within minutes I’d sent in my CV. Even if Emma had somewhat over-egged the custard, it would still be a great trip. Hell, I’d even pay for it. Within hours, I got this reply:
I am writing on behalf of the Cultural Attaché, Dr. Fayiz AlDhafeeri, to inform you that you have been selected to participate on Kuwait University’s Cultural Exchange Programme 2008, between 16th and 23rd December 2008…
“Bloody hell,” I thought. “I’m going to Kuwait.” How odd.
And it was quite odd. Over the next couple of weeks, whilst pushing through a thicket of deadlines, some sketchy details started to trickle in. I got my plane ticket. My Visa. A very rough itinerary. It all started to look very real. Very exciting. Very bizarre. We’d be staying in their university halls and every day was packed with meetings with high-profile members of Kuwaiti society (members of the government, heads of charities, community leaders etc.), loads of sightseeing, corporate visits and general cultural events. All that they wanted from us was that we’d immerse ourselves in Kuwaiti culture and society for a few days, and then come back and tell people about it. Could this be real? It was sounding better and better.
To me, at least.
Many of my friends and family that I told about the trip, after they’d gone a couple of rounds with the little green monster, put a bit of a downer it. “Are you sure it’s safe?” “Should you really be going there?” To be fair to them, they may have had a point.For those of you that have never heard of Kuwait, and haven’t yet Googled it, it’s a small country at the top of the Persian Gulf bordered by Iraq in the North and Saudi Arabia to the South. Indeed, the chances are that if you have heard of it (and you don’t work in the oil industry), it’s inexorably linked in your mind with Iraq. Kuwait was invaded and occupied by Saddam Hussein in 1990 until its liberation by the US and UK-led coalition in 1991 - the Gulf War. More recently, it was the main jumping off point for the current invasion and occupation of Iraq too. So really, I can see why people wouldn’t pick it as their top holiday destination. Nevertheless, I was going.
But Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy, just as we are. Ever since it gained independence from the UK in 1961 it has gone from strength to oil-fuelled strength as it sits on top of 7% of the world’s oil reserves. And, it has to be said, aside from Saddam’s invasion in 1990, all with remarkable stability. The end result is that Kuwait, a tiny country that’s substantially smaller than Wales, is the ninth richest in the world per capita. Also, in comparison to its neighbors, Kuwait is religiously liberal for the region. Although Islamic, segregation isn’t enforced, and women have equal rights to men. So, swings and roundabouts.
So it was that, excited, bemused, and filled with a little trepidation, we, the chosen five, met at the Heathrow at an ungodly time in the morning for our trip to Kuwait. None of us knew what to expect. We hadn’t had that many details from the embassy, and there’s only so much you can learn from Wikipedia. It was, if you’ll tolerate such banality, a real adventure! But, now, you’ll be glad to hear, I won’t give you a blow-by-blow account of the trip. It would be long, and you’d probably get bored. I think I’ll skip ahead to the conclusions. Let me assure you, though, that it was incredible. It actually was something of an adventure, and possibly one of the best things I’ve ever done. We went to a traditional Beduin weddings, sat in tents in the middle of dessert and smoked shisha long onto the night, sat it high powered meetings with government ministers, and even played football against a Kuwait university team, and won! It was an incredible experience. But, you know, that was only one of the things that I got from the exchange. The other was a bit of an eye-opener, literally.
The embassy’s primary objective was to smash our preconceptions about the gulf: the stereotypes that we very easily fall into because of what we hear in the news. One day its car bombs in Baghdad, the next its human rights violations in Tehran. It’s not surprising that most of us “westerners” believe terrorism, violence and reactionary religious politics well out of the region just as readily as the oil that keeps their economies afloat. The embassy wanted to show us that this is emphatically not the case in Kuwait. By taking us on a whirlwind tour of the country, meeting as many Kuwaitis as possible, they wanted us to see that a traditional Islamic society could sit comfortably alongside a modern oil-based economy.
What we found, I think, is a country in the midst of an attempted reinvention. It’s not only still coming to terms with the Iraqi invasion and occupation, nearly 20 year afterwards, but it’s also trying to make the most of it’s oil money, while it still has it. Projected to run out in around 90 years, Kuwait’s oil is its economy. Without it, they won’t be able to even afford to run the expensive desalination plants that provide their water, or the costs of importing the bulk of their food. They know that if they do not invest the money wisely now, then they will regret it sorely when it’s gone. So they’re trying to do the same trick that countries like Britain have more or less pulled off which is to reinvent itself as a service economy. So, much as with Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the Kuwait city skyline is now dotted with shining new skyscrapers and cranes throwing up more. But they’re doing it with an important difference to their near neighbours – they want to keep their culture in tact.
Dubai, especially, is often criticised for being a faceless, characterless metropolis in the desert. Kuwaitis see it no differently - in fact, they see it as a warning. Kuwaiti culture, which is incredibly cohesive, is centred around the Diwaniya - essentially a large reception room in most houses where friends and family get together regularly to talk politics, gossip, or just play a bit of Playstation. Essentially, as long as you’re willing to talk, you’re welcome to stay. We spent hours at various ones across Kuwait city, and it’s a great way to spend time. The fear is, though, that if Kuwait follows Dubai, flinging money at development projects and opening its doors to the ‘western’ way of life, this incredibly welcoming culture will be lost. They’re scared of this, and rightly so. It would be a real shame to lose it. So they’re developing, but trying to do it sympathetically. Of course there’s the skyscrapers and massive shopping malls, but they’re limiting the number of jobs that ex-pats can take, trying to keep Kuwait as Kuwaiti as possible, and still include the Arabic and Islamic way of life. From what we saw, it seems to be working.
Now I wouldn’t say that I ever really believed the stereotypes of the region. Wholeheartedly, at least. I guess that I just sort of assumed that it was all a bit of a mess. Of course, I knew that anomalies exist - Dubai and Abu Dhabi being a case in point - but I think that it was easy to write them off as exceptions that proved the rule. It’s hard not to do when you’re faced with the deluge of bad news that seems to flow out of the region every day. I’m not suggesting that it’s the media’s fault that this stereotype exists. Negative events are newsworthy. They’re only doing their job in reporting them. I think that the fault really lies with lazy media consumption - failing to recognise that newspapers and TV stations have only so many column inches, only so much air-time to spare to cover everything that happens in the world. It’s not surprising, therefore, that we only hear about the negatives. I know that I’m definitely guilty of this. But I’m extremely glad to say that I can now add at least one more anomaly to the list, and approach any news story about the middle east with, I hope, a good degree more understanding about Arabic culture.
So, have I fallen for what the embassy is selling? Yes, there’s no doubt about it. I really liked Kuwait. All of the Kuwaiti’s we met were incredibly warm and open, welcoming you into their homes just so long as you were willing to sit a talk with them. The country itself, although still recovering from the ravages of Saddam’s invasion, is a wonderful place. I will definitely be more balanced in my thinking about the region. However, this has not been a hook-line-and-sinker deal. Obviously we only really saw the best that Kuwait has to offer. After all, you wouldn’t try and impress someone with British Culture by showing them Luton or Milton Keynes, would you? There were sides to Kuwait that I did not like. Sides that came uncomfortably close to reaffirming the seemingly naïve, media-driven image of the region.
For instance, I didn’t like the way that the Kuwaitis treated the non-Kuwaitis who worked for them. The way that they bossed them around or ignored them was quite unpleasant. The contradiction it offered in a Diwaniya when a Kuwaiti would be at their most relaxed one second, and then fuming the next over some minor oversight by one of the staff, was quite unsettling to say the least. Equally, I did not like the increasing levels of Islamic conservatism within the society. I am not one for religion, but I have no problem with it in society, even with its involvement with politics to a certain degree. However, in a relatively liberal country like Kuwait, I thought it was a great shame that there are plans afoot to segregate the new university campus by essentially building two of everything. Aside from being an enormous waste of Kuwait’s all too precious oil money, this is something that the students didn’t seem to want, and I felt was a real shame. If there’s any time in the world where people should intermingle freely, its university, and I don’t think the religion-influenced politics should get in the way of that.
But, in the end, even the best of picnics are occasionally afflicted by wasps. It certainly was an incredible trip, and, as I’ve said, it was a real eye-opener. I’m indebted to the Kuwait Embassy in London and the University of Kuwait for organising this trip and giving me such an amazing oppertunity. I’ll say it here publicly, as well as the million times we all told you in person; thank you! And for anyone considering it next year, as it is happening again, you simply have to go! Or at least apply…
So, what do you think? Is it worth saying yes to the opportunities that University can throw up? In this case, I’d suggest that it certainly was. But then, that’s just me. Opportunities like this don’t come up everyday, but when they do, I think that it’s best that you’re be prepared to jump on them. I’ve learnt that now, probably a bit too late, but at least I had an incredible time doing it.