July 31, 2016
Kuwait for It… An Unlikely Metamorphosis of Business into Pleasure
Somehow, I find myself here once again. Feeling like a giant, I saunter off the 747, down the narrow corridor and out into my very own first-class fantasy. Once past Kuwaiti Customs, the anxiety subsides as I evade having to explain the concept of pre-workout supplements in Arabic to any suspicious authorities (something I had lost sleep over the night before as Middle Eastern customs officials are notoriously curious, to say the least). Still a little uneasy due to the unsettling attention while simply walking through the airport, I pretend not to notice the strangers’ stares. Nerves aside, resisting the urge to make eye contact and smile at the world (as I do elsewhere) is harder than I remember. As soon as I see impatient toddlers, clinging to the partitions lining the exit walkway, eagerly awaiting the return of loved ones, I regain my usual sense of calm. Then, I spy my black-suited driver and my pulse begins to race once again, this time from sheer elation. It’s really happening, my first proper business trip was officially underway. “Finally,” I think (and all but shout) to myself, overwhelmed with excitement. Somehow, I manage to play it cool. Finally. Waiting for me, to escort me to my noble Lincoln chariot. Holding the laminated sign. Finally. Bearing my name… I don’t dare carry my own luggage.
The striking contrast of extreme heat as I exit the airport (a solid 96 degrees, hours after sunset), is enough to bring anyone back down to earth. I am briefed on the local news as we make our way to the hotel. Nodding along, feigning interest, my focus lies solely on the familiarity of that dialect; I’ve missed it so much, even these words of unrest are a welcomed symphony to my ears. Sensing my visibly waning attention span, the mild-mannered man breaks out a wavering right hand, raised above the wheel, with his thumb meeting the four fingers in the middle of his hand, gesturing his comedic disapproval for the passing driver.
“Haatha mejshnoon,” he jests.
He attempts to lighten the mood by poking fun at another driver’s excessive speed, hauling a small flock of lambs bouncing erratically in the bed of his dilapidated truck. He quickly returns his hand to the wheel and looks over anxiously to see if I was in agreement that the other driver was, indeed, “crazy,” but I’m a tough crowd after a flight like that. Excessive speeds and seemingly reckless driving is somewhat the norm throughout this magic kingdom, so one tends not to pay special attention to these instances, even when livestock rushes by, leaving only a sandy, cartoonish cloud of smoke.
As we approach the hotel, I begin to feel the stiffening effects of the last flight from Heathrow (taking up nine of the 21 hours I spent in the air to get here). Growing up with an American mother, whose family was in the States, and a Kuwaiti father, whose family lived in Kuwait, I was no stranger to jet-lag of that trans-Atlantic flight. The armed hotel guards performing under-car inspections with their magical mirrored wands remind me of my childhood, much of which was spent in this occasional War Zone. Soon we are whisked through the palatial gates of the Rotana. Clearly the only bombs in this car were the driver’s jokes.
Something stirs inside me as, once again, all heads turn, as I brazenly sashay through the hotel lobby with exposed hair and bare wrists; independent and blatantly Western.
My suite, larger than the apartment I left behind, is well-equip for a professional such as myself, with all the wired amenities one could require; including a personalized in-room greeting on the massive HD flat-screen for “Mr. Sara.” Surely this sort of executive success could only be achieved by someone with a Y chromosome.
Before it all has a chance to sink in, I’ve already sunken myself into a deep AC-induced sleep coma.
I awaken to a sunrise like no other; I didn’t recall the sun ever having seemed so close. Granted, come high noon, when it’s 110 F in October, one certainly feels like they’re close to the sun, but truly, it’s an uplifting experience. Ready to take on the world, I arm myself with my technical mastery of all things oil-related, don my most conservative pantsuit, gather my presentation materials, and rush to the lobby so as not to keep the company driver waiting.
A different driver has come for me this time, I assume, as a strangely familiar face greets me upon exiting the hotel. He introduces himself as a representative from the oil company and escorts me to a modest white E-class. Of course, being such a small country, I come to find he knows my family well and soon learn he will become my most trusted ally in this weeks’ epic journey.
I begin my week by visiting the project managers and team leaders, meeting the engineers and researchers with whom I have been interacting for months via email. Many are shocked to discover the person with whom they’ve been dealing from a distance is not a man (this is very much a male-dominated industry), others are simply perplexed, but all are warm and welcoming. Every meeting involves lengthy discussions about nothing having anything to do with business; tea, weather, family, travels, more about family, food, smartphones, fashion, and even more about family – which soon becomes the topic of the week… It takes me only a short time to reacquaint myself with what an independent soul such as myself may consider to be a downright fanatical emphasis on family togetherness. It is common for large, extended families to live in the same household here, regardless of Kuwaitis having one of the highest per capita incomes globally, and there is an enormous sense of brotherhood and kinship. Unless you are wed, it is expected that you live with your family, regardless of your age. And, even if you are wed, it’s not uncommon to live with either set of parents, sometimes both if there are multiple wives in the equation (Kuwait’s current legal limit on the number of wives one man may have is four). With some marriages being arranged at birth, and elaborate weddings often taking place in the teens, my being clearly unwed at this stage in my life is a visible concern of nearly all I encounter.
Back to business, I soon learn some colleagues traveling from Shanghai have encountered a typical visa issue involving their own wives, who had planned to come along for a visit while they worked. Kuwait has rigid (and sometimes arbitrary) visa restrictions for non GCC citizens (those whose native country is not Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, or UAE). In this instance, my male colleagues were able to obtain visas quickly, but their wives could not on such short-notice. While it is typically simple for US, UK or Canadian residents to obtain Visas, careful advanced planning is a must before visiting Kuwait in order to alleviate issues of this nature.
Another Kuwaiti caveat is business in general. Here, getting things done is often nothing short of an odyssey. Anything and everything from selling a multi-million-dinar rig to picking out a handful of spices in the souk can be an adventure. Be prepared to speak to multiple people about the same item, be sincere, be patient, and always be prepared to negotiate.
There is an unspoken motto, of sorts, here which sounds like “bautcher inshallah” (sometimes “bokra inshallah”), which literally translates to “tomorrow, god willing.”
Most commonly, you will hear “insh-allah” in business, or any time there is a deadline of sorts. If something needs done in a rush, multiple royal ministries and, inevitably, God will have something to do with it. Patience here is key.
The saying itself is simultaneously both a blessing and a curse; this unconventionally slow pace conveniently forces one to enjoy what would otherwise be time lost working or immersed in other seemingly-productive endeavors, this creates a special space and time for one to simply ‘be.’ Between the dry, draining heat, and the sluggish pace, my enthusiasm for any sort of deal-making dwindles, and I embrace the proposed decrease in productivity. I extend my stay another six days to accommodate the visa complication in Shanghai and assist my colleagues with making the appropriate connections when they arrive. Doing business with another Arab, particularly a Kuwaiti, is practically the only way to do business in Kuwait. So, extending my stay is a must if we are to proceed.
With the stress of business somewhat ‘on hold’ and the major pressures behind me, I am re-energized, feeling a resurgence of interest in my exotic surroundings. The beaming sunshine heavenly beckons through the windows of the lobby and I set off on an aimless mission to explore the surrounding areas. It only takes a matter of moments for me to realize I want nothing to do with even a leisurely wandering in this heat, however. In fact, the dizzying discomfort forbids me from even returning the three blocks back to the hotel for a driver, so I hail what appears to be an off-white cab without a fare.
As I timidly raise my arm towards the vehicle, not recalling if that was how it was done there or not, the driver swiftly proceeds to cut off multiple lanes of traffic between us, screeching to a halt just footsteps away. I instinctively let myself into the back seat, voice my desire to visit the Fahaheel souk, and begin making small talk as I ask for recommendations on local shopping. He repeats my desired destination, issues a stoic nod of understanding, and begins to drive. I begin to wonder if this is some version of impeccable service, a few loose screws, or possibly both. A mindful glance at the interior of the vehicle lends a vexatious confirmation the latter. There appears to be a splattering of blood along the lining of the hood that stretches across the entire back seat, into the front seat; I discretely snap a few photos of the possible crime scene for social media, and another of the driver’s laminated credentials, for the police report. As curious as I was about whatever went down back there, I resist the urge to investigate and found peace in knowing that the souk wasn’t far. After what felt like the taxicab equivalent of The Green Mile, the vehicle stops, I hand over a wad of small bills and make my exit. There was no meter and I don’t know if I’m where I had intended to be, but none of my blood was splattered in the back seat, so life is good.
I wasn’t where I thought I was. Or, perhaps, things had simply changes and the disorienting heat was getting the best of me. I find myself in an unfamiliar souk; hundreds upon hundreds of small kiosk-sized stores, no larger than your average broom closet, pieced together in spectacular labyrinth of treasure troves, selling absolutely everything under the sun- in one chaotic space.
The indistinct aromas of Near Eastern perfumes lure me down a particular corridor lined wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, with rich scented oils and dazzling perfume bottles and oil lamps of all shapes and sizes. I proceeded to sample scents reminiscent of sandalwood, patchouli, and musk, but am taken back by the frankincense, which somehow transports me to a place of calm amid the bustle of the souk. I know I should be negotiating, but any price seemed right for the peace of that moment, so I happily hand over my dinars to the shopkeeper and continue to marvel at the spectacle of his wares. He tells me of his home in Egypt and of the women in his village who paint the ornate golden trimmings on the glass perfume bottles by hand, and of his family – all of whom are far away from this souk. His tale meets me at the intersection of Courageous and Lonely; a bashful hush sinks in as we silently bond over his soulful story. Before we are caught speaking for any length of time, I swiftly carry on my way, through a jungle of knock-off Hermés Berkins that lead me to a gold-covered corridor. Windows and displays simply dripping in 21 and 22 karat gold, as far as the eyes can see. The sun’s rays are intensified by the glow and I begin to feel the effects of the intense heat once again. I retreat back to the hotel, this time after calling for one of their drivers- lesson learned.
Once back at the Rotana, I, again, stray from my mission to make it back to my room. Notorious for unparalleled service, like so many other hotels in oil-rich nations, the staff here insists on catering to my every non-alcoholic whim; this is a dry county after all, so why not indulge in a decadent camel’s milk banana shake, truffled pistachios, candied dates, or some fresh watermelon juice, chilled to perfection, perhaps? “Yes- min faDlik..”
After a healthy dose of intense Air Conditioning and 5-star lobby plushness, my curiosity leads me through the Al-Manshar shopping center, outside to the Bay of Kuwait.
I soon longed to relive moments I had once spent there so many years before… flawless topaz seas artfully mingled with glistening desert sands like something out of a mirage. Statuesque date palms lined the walkways and nearby roads. Intricate Islamic scripture, bold mosaics and delicate filigree grace the single minaret on the Sunni mosque nearby. Afternoon prayer brings a sudden stillness about the bustling streets of Mena Al-Ahmadi. A faint waft of diesel blows in with a sudden dusty gust of wind- a comfortable reminder of the nearby Fahaheel oil refineries.
Having always been allergic to anything resembling an inorganic regulation, I had never covered my hair in Kuwait, nor had I considered it disrespectful; it was simply a matter of preference as I had grown up there in a time when “things were changing”. But, today is different.
Embracing the curiosity stirring inside, I pull the neatly folded hijab from my purse like a magician pulling scarves from a hat, and for the first time in my life I cover my hair, while also conveniently shielding some of my face from the winds in the process. I feel as though I’ve discovered a cloak of invincibility.
I abandon my mission, drawn to the docks of the bay in the distance. Mid-century wooden ships (Kuwaiti dohws) momentarily hijack my focus as my gaze is fixated upon the man-made rainbows, dancing between the jets of gulf H2O. Fishermen from the nearby docks haul the day’s catch and bare their souls with only a glance; life is hard. Work (whatever it may be) is never easy, and we all show signs in our own way; in this case, weathered hands, sun-drenched skin, kind eyes, and a wary walk. I wonder what my own blood-shot, jet-lagged stare reveals about me as I swiftly look away. People-watching or not, eye-contact (or any contact really) with a stranger of the opposite sex is still forbidden.
Overwhelmed with uncertainty about what feels right and what is right here, I retreat to my hotel gym to clear my head the best way I know how. I’m stunned to find an only moderately-edited episode of Dr. 90210 is airing on the personal monitor of the elliptical next to me. I vividly recalled times when buying a Vogue was near-futile as all pages of scantily-clad models or cleavage were literally blacked out with Sharpies, if not completely torn from the magazine prior to it making its way to the shelf. Numb to the changes, I begin to feel a longing to be here for reasons other than business. What good is business? Busy-ness. Is not love why we breathe and experience, why we exist? That seemingly cliché realization changes something in me. Unbeknownst to me at this time, a seed is planted that will grow into an insatiable desire for unconventionality and an escape from ‘business’ altogether. How was I to know that years from now, I’d be anxiously squirming to escape the clutches of self-imposed corporate cuffs?
Looking back, Kuwait business travel was all I had imagined and it wasn’t drive or passion I lacked then, but somewhere along the way, my heart began to grow cold. I started to sense my own predictability, and depressed myself to sickness on many an occasion with my blatant disregard for that which brought me true happiness.
Having only recently embarked on my corporate journey at the time, I wrestled with the concept of leaping from the ladder up which I so tenaciously advanced. I continued my week’s work and made the most of meeting those magnificent people, embracing the experience for what it truly was. My presentations were made, and my colleagues finally arrived from Shanghai, although their wives decided to stay behind as they would not have made it in time to travel with their husbands.
Something about this land will forever remain a fantasy to me. There’s something very surreal about the union of decadent modernism and tribal hospitality. Even the native dress speaks volumes about the ancient soul of this land; when our eyes are confined to a ‘uniform’ (of sorts) for men and women, the usual Western embellishments and assessments are removed from the equation. One must then develop a certain sixth sense, if you will, that is a very powerful element of human interaction here in Kuwait. A certain warmth, glow, or essence about one person and how it varies to the next lends a near-psychic element to first impressions that can only be understood as it is experienced first-hand.
Reflecting on the vivid memories of this adventure, my heart smiles with each recollection of my unique experiences. So many will never see or feel these sensations, and my appreciation is overwhelming. For those who are blessed with the opportunity to visit, wherever you are on your ‘journey,’ if you come for business, stay for pleasure, and go home grateful for whatever treasures you find veiled in the riches of Kuwaiti culture, you will surely have discovered success.
These moments were part of a significant series of extremely catalytic events in my life. The path I had begun to follow was not my own; after all, it was a “path” because someone else had already been, I needed to find my own way and create something more personally meaningful.
And, I suppose I needed to return to where I took my first breath, to realize who I want to be when I take my last.
Where to Stay?
Al Manshar Rotana – Fahaheel – Kuwait
Hamad Nayif Al Dabous Street, Kuwait
+965 2393 1000
Especially ideal for business travelers who will be working near the oil districts, prices range about $260 – $580 USD p/ night for basic rooms and suites.
Hilton Kuwait Resort – Mangaf – Kuwait
Salem Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah St, Mangaf, Kuwait City, Kuwait
+965 222 56222
Stylish ocean-front classic, with multiple private beach access, in the quieter Mangaf district of Ahmadi, prices range about $280 – $2,600. USD p/ night for basic rooms and beach villas
Symphony Style Hotel – Central – Kuwait
Arabian Gulf Road, Symphony Center, Salmiya, Symphony Al Blajat Street, 22012, Kuwait
+965 2577 0000
One of the finest and most centrally located hotels in Kuwait, Prices range from about $307-$512 USD p/ night for basic rooms and suites.
Notable Layovers: There are a handful of routes to Kuwait, but typically British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, and Emirates Air have the most direct routes. If possible, get the most direct route on Emirates Air and finagle a night or two in Dubai, if time permits. Otherwise, an overnight layover in London or Frankfurt is nearly enviable given the inconsistency of available flights to Kuwait. Either of which should prove to be beyond entertaining.
What to do? Dining (Al Boom, Maiz Al-Ghanim, etc.), shopping (gold souks, spice markets, eclectic designer fashions), Falconry, Camel Races, desert dune sports, water skiing, exploration of Bedouin tribal territory (incl. lessons in ‘saadew’ weaving and ancient pearl diving – both common past times of the ancient tribes).