Saturday, December 1, 2007

Glancing at Societal Decay

I do not often leave my abode less it be to complete some task or affair. In fact, I disdain driving through the streets of Kuwait or even when I was living in Atlanta through its streets during the two popular nights of the days at the end of the week, that being Friday and Saturday in the US or Thursday and Friday in Kuwait.

Yet tonight I had remembered at the last moment that I needed to purchase a gift for an individual’s birthday tomorrow that I was forced to leave in the midst of the evening revelry to depart my home for the 3-4 mile trip to Marina Mall primely located on Gulf Road which unfortunately is often filled with vagabond youth cruising on it aimlessly and recklessly.

This brief excursion lasted 1 hour from the time I left until I returned. The normally 5 minute trip to Marina Mall lasted on this night for 20 minute for I left at the peak of the cruising rush hour. To my amazement, in these brief moments I witnessed what could be described no less as the decay of society.

In learning about the cultural norms and practices of the youth, I’ve been told by several sources that a popular way for young men and women to meet in pursuance of romantic intimate relationships with each other is through the car chasing method. I was struck by the primeval cave-man like nature of the practice that I found it very difficult to believe that such a thing occurred save but with perhaps a fringe and desperate element of society. Though not more than a week ago did I receive the same reply to this question.

Yet as I drove on what little stretch of road was necessary to arrive at my destination did I find to my great astonishment that what I had been hearing was the clear truth. I recall the silver sleek mustang with the lone male youth driver cruising parallel through the slow moving traffic to a car full of young women. In front of me, I could see him with his head cocked to the side transfixed on his prey and as though with the growling of the car’s engine I could hear the rapacity of his desires. There appeared to be some communication and then in a sudden spurt of speed he cut in front of them while I had to drive by unable to continue observing the outcome of the incident. I then began noticing the other male youth aimlessly and at times recklessly driving in the street looking at the various cars with young women judging who would be most pliable for their desires. I passed by a car standing in a turn lane where a male youth had perched his upper body fully out of the window cavorting himself in a manner unsettling. Likewise did it seem that the type of car was a telling sign of the character of the individual driving it. The red hot but compact Mercedes convertible with its lone forlorn driver indicated a withdrawn figure who was searching for a materialistic ideal of love while the muscular SUVs and Hummers with their added artistic details to provide a seemingly unique and fresh element of sophistication matched the cavorting drivers wild and erratic behaviors both in their driving and the manner to which they seemed to be writhing to and fro to the music, which from time to time was either Arabic or the latest imported hip hop or rap song.

It seems those that spoke of the changes that have taken place in the past 5 years with regards to the loosening morals and decaying manners of the youth in Kuwait were conscious and aware as I was reminded of their words in this brief but telling outing. Not coincidentally have the recent years when these changes occurred overlap at the same time the rise and spread of the internet; and who else to have learned its uses better than the youth, specifically my generation of 20-30 year olds. The two phenomena are undoubtedly linked and result from the introduction of unlimited and free means of communication and information through the internet in circumventing traditional barriers and institutions that monitored and constrained the behavior of youth.

As I drove further along to my destination I came up a clouded scene of smoke and two cars on the left side of the road along the pavement as though the two had narrowly missed a terrifying accident through a screeching of their brakes. A car pulled to the side to provide assistance as I continued to my destination.

Finally I arrived and strolled through the mall in wonder of the youth who busy themselves with the adornments of their appearance, though it be inwardly the mud and clay of this world, and who come not for any specific task save to fritter away the precious days of their youth in mindless affairs. I then settle on a store and purchase my gift. As I return home I find the drive to be quicker though I pass a second accident where a car hit the one in front of it that was standing at a stop at a red light. I arrive home safe, thankful, and a little bit wiser.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Social Justice for Migrant Workers

The abuse of migrant workers and domestic servants is often a prevalent topic of discussion in reference to the Persian Gulf countries. While physical abuse occurs in the worst cases, it is often the cheating of these workers of their salary and benefits that is more wide-spread. Domestic servants who work in the private homes of Arabs and expats are female migrant workers from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, or the Philippines. Their tasks range from cleaning and cooking to childcare. Although they are involved intimately in maintaining the affairs of house, they are often ignored and treated and not given due consideration as full human beings. There is even a website offering domestic labor service that allows a person to search for a suitable servant based on nationality and religion

Domestic servants are brought to Kuwait from their home countries on a certain type of visa that only permits them to work as domestic servants. Agencies act as the middle-men to bring the workers and arrange their visas and to find them employers. Normally, the domestic servant signs for a two-year contract to work in a person’s home at a salary of about $160 with food and clothing paid for by the employer. After the two years she is entitled for a paid airline ticket by her employer to return to her home country for a vacation.

One particular story I heard recently smacked of avarice. A non-Kuwaiti Arab couple both of whom were doctors had been nice to their maid. Yet as the two year mark approached and the maid wanted to travel, the employers began changing their attitude towards her and telling her that she could only travel for less than the normally granted time. Also, the maid was seeking to be released by her employers so that she could find more profitable work in a store or restaurant. A release requires the employers to sign a document releasing the domestic servant from their employment in order for her to change her visa status so that she may work in more well-paid jobs in a store or restaurant. However, the employers of this maid, who lived a comfortable life and were well-off, attempted to extort money from her by demanding that she pay them an exorbitant amount such as a $1,000 for them to sign the release paper. She refused and was returned to the agency before her two year contract ended allowing her employers to forego the expenditure of her rightfully deserved plane ticket per the stipulations of the contract.

Though it is unfortunate that such incidents occur and there is little recourse for justice for the domestic servants, even in the extreme cases of violence and rape (see this Al-Jazeera English news report that highlights two Indonesian servants that were abused by their sponsors in Kuwait), there is hope that there is a growing awareness among Kuwaitis for the need to redress these abuses and promote social justice. The granddaughter of the current Amir of Kuwait, Bibi Nasser al-Sabah, is involved in the Social Work Society of Kuwait which provides various forms of assistance to migrant workers such as helping detained workers return to their home countries, helping them get medical care, and promoting reforms in the labor laws. She runs a blog promoting social justice for migrant workers.

It is important to note that the problem of domestic worker abuse is not restricted to the Gulf Arabs but is rather a widespread problem stretching from Africa to India to East Asia the roots of which lie in a traditional mentality veiled from the light of education. I remember watching a program in the US that documented abuse of African domestic servants in the US by their African immigrant employers. Though seemingly slow, but yet surely, the light of education will pierce the veils of ignorance as humanity acknowledges the oneness of mankind and the implications thereof.

The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.” –Baha’u’llah

Friday, November 9, 2007

Islamist Member of Parliament visits AUK

The American University in Kuwait is viewed as a bastion of liberalism that attracts the most liberal-minded and the children of some of the wealthiest Kuwaitis. There you will find male and female students sporting the latest styles at what seems to be almost any expense. Thus, when Kuwait’s probably most well-known conservative Islamist Member of Parliament, Dr. Walid Tabtabaie, came to AUK on Sunday, 4 Nov, to speak about the Kuwaiti constitution on the pretense of a lecture entitled “Serving the Community,” it was a surprise to many.

Dr. Tabtabaie seems to be a young looking man in his forties. He sports a jet black beard and noticeably short dishdasha (the white dress of local men), both signs of a strict fundamentalist or literal understanding of Islam. He received his PhD in Islamic Law from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the leading bastion of Sunni Islam education. Al-Azhar has been in operation for a little over a thousand years but ironically it started out as a Shi’ite institution under the Fatimids.

The session started out politely with an explanation of the verities and virtues of the Kuwaiti constitution. But after Tabtabaie had finished his talk, the session was opened to the real and unofficial topic of discussion which was the lack of exercise of personal freedoms such as freedom of press, the view that women should not be playing football, and the preoccupation with separating boys and girls in universities and schools. Students were allowed to ask questions and I was surprised by the number that were out-spoken. There was especially one student who seemed to give his own speech in railing against the state for I think the detention of two journalists recently before asking his question. The problem of listening to conversations in Arabic is that I understand the main point but don’t often pick up on the details.

It was certainly an interesting session and an illustration of the main tension in the Middle East, tradition versus modernity which in this case was played out by the actors of Islam and liberalism.

There were a few questions to Tabtabaie about why women shouldn’t be playing football by some of the AUK female players as he is against that. It came to the point where he said that his reasoning was because women’s uniforms was too light, meaning that it was too revealing, and that that was simply his opinion.

But the most interesting scene was at the end when the organizer of the session shared that her favorite section of the constitution was freedom of thought or belief at which one point someone commented how can that be when the parliament wants to limit people's freedom, with the example given of Tabtabaie’s opinion that women playing football is immoral. Then Tabtabaie asked for the constitution, turn a few pages and read the section that stated that the state of Kuwait is based on Islam and Sharia which he explained meant freedom of thought was bound within that stricture. It was a nice encapsulation of the tension in Kuwaiti and Arab society between tradition and progress, religion and modernity.

The Persian Gulf and the Environment

I recently just watched the documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” by Al Gore and found it quite moving and well-produced. He brings together various pieces of evidences for global warming into a stunning and compelling presentation. As a Fulbrighter living in Kuwait, I wonder if the message of the film, that global warming is a serious and real phenomenon that requires immediate attention, is understood by the people of the Gulf Arab states.

I remember being shocked and appalled by the blatant wasteful consumerism when first arriving to Kuwait. I think it would be safe to say that just by observing the types of cars on the roads that Kuwaitis have any other country beat for the highest per capita ownership of Hummers. It is disgraceful and quite frankly revolting that the people in the Gulf in general wastefully spend their money to the detriment of the environment at this critical hour on large, bulky vehicles that are unnecessary and consume large amounts of gas. Yes, gasoline is cheap in the Gulf, but that should not be an excuse to buy a Hummer or SUV. In Syria, a much poorer country where I was studying Arabic, I was told there were only 4 Hummers in the entire city of 6 million whereas in Kuwait with a population of 3 million you will see just driving through the streets on a normal day at least 4 hummers.

While most of the pollution contributing to global warming is undoubtedly from the US, the recent development in the Middle East means that this region in the future will have a larger share in the pollution as new high rise buildings and luxury hotels are built, more cars are added to the streets, and new desalination and power plants are built to run the redeveloped and expanded cities. Indeed, already global warming has had its effects in Kuwait. When my mother was growing up in Kuwait 50 years ago, the weather was much cooler and some people used to sleep on the roofs of their houses in the summer. However today, average temperatures are higher during the day and evening so that it would not be as comfortable sleeping outside on a summer night. I read that average temperatures in May this year were the highest on record.

It does not surprise me considering how much heat is being produced by the power and desalination plants, the AC units and cars. I remember standing in a building overlooking a desalination plant and noticed that so much heat was coming out of one of the exhaust towers which I could tell from the air above it that was superheated giving a hazy, blurry image when looking at it. Additionally, because power is so cheap in Kuwait due to government subsidization, some homes and buildings are so cooled in summer that it is cold inside and require the wearing of a light jacket when temperatures outside are between 45-50C. Thus, due to the wasteful use of electricity on AC, Kuwait has experienced brownouts and this summer the government organized a massive campaign to make people aware to conserve electricity. There were electric meters displayed during programs on TV indicating the percentage of output being consumed and signs along the streets, especially very large ones on the way to the airport, reminding people to conserve electricity and lower the AC and turn off the lights before traveling.

It seems Arabs are unaware of the seriousness of global warming. The marine ecosystems of the Gulf have already been ravaged and coral communities destroyed. Diving in one particular area I saw a sea of sea urchins that had destroyed the coral in the area. Additionally, in speaking to a professor in Bahrain focusing on the marine life, he frankly stated that financial interests grossly outweigh a desire to preserve and protect environment. Hence the leaders of the Gulf countries are so quick to reclaim land such as for new business and luxury housing developments in Bahrain and the Emirates.

It’s safe to say that the people here and in other Arab countries rarely think about environmental interests. I wonder if they are simply are not conscious of it. People are so easy to throw their refuse into the streets. In Damascus and Aleppo when I went to sightseeing points to take in city views, there were piles of trash below where people would sit. I remember clearly in Aleppo a group of two or three adolescent girls sitting to the right of where I was standing throwing their empty soda cans and a plastic bag of trash on to the slight drop off in front of them. I do not understand why there such little respect among Arabs for the environment. Why is it so difficult for them to throw their trash in marked receptacles?

In Kuwait, the lack of car for the environment is on display when one goes to some of the beaches. One can often find plastic bags, bottles, cans, batteries, and once I found a small piece of carpet. Even when I went on a boating trip to a popular island of the mainland were there numerous clearly marked receptacles not far from the beach, I still found refuse along the beach and floating in the water. It seems it was too inconvenient for the Kuwaitis to gather their refuse and walk the 10 meters to deposit it in the waste bin. Such is the environmental degradation and apathy that I no longer desire to go to the beaches in Kuwait and witness their spoilage. Of course there are private, well-kept beaches but they are not as easy to access. Additionally, what is ironic is that a Kuwaiti I spoke with working as a director in one of the government departments tasked with monitoring fishing noted that Kuwaitis when they travel to Europe are aware of the rules against littering and abide them whereas the same person is more likely to litter in their country when they return home.

Another sign that today’s Gulf Arab leaders do not give sufficient consideration to the environment is the wasteful manner in which they spend their resources. Take for example the Emirates. The emirate of Dubai already has a large, established international airline. However, the rulers of neighboring emirates felt the need to start their own airlines to spur economic growth in their emirates which is understandable since you want airlines to bring tourists. Yet wouldn’t a much cheaper, more effective, and environmentally friendly solution be to develop high speed rail service between the major cities of the emirates. After all, when Dubai is only a 20 min drive to Sharjah, an hour drive to Abu Dhabi, and a 45 min drive to Ras Al-Khaimah, a high speed rail service connecting Dubai’s airport with the other emirates would be the ideal and practical solution rather than to have a country with 4 national airlines. While Dubai established Emirates Airways in 1985, Abu Dhabi started Etihad airways in 2003, Air Arabia was founded in Sharjah in 2003, and Ras Al-Khaimah’s RAK Airways is set to launch later this year.

Does a country as small as the Emirates with a population of 4.5-5 million people in real need of 4 airlines based in 4 separate emirates with the associated redundancy in infrastructure (i.e. airports) needed to support them? Is it greed that is driving the leaders of the emirates to establish unnecessary airlines while a rail system would be just as sufficient and with the added benefit of reducing traffic on the Emirates jammed roads, a growing problem?

I hope that the next generation of Gulf Arabs will be more conscious in their planning and preservation of the environment and not succumb to greed and materialism for the Earth is groaning under the oppression of the negligent and unconcsious.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The First Lady of the US, Laura Bush, Visits Kuwait

It was Tuesday, Oct 23 when I received a text message stating that a meeting I was to attend the following day was canceled because Laura Bush was to visit the US embassy in Kuwait. That was the first intimation I received that the First Lady was coming for a visit. The following day when I was having a previously scheduled lunch with another Fulbrighter and a past Fulbrighter to Kuwait who remained around after her Fulbright to work at the AUK (the American University in Kuwait), the AUK employee received a phone call from the cultural attaché at the embassy, who is in charge of overseeing the Fulbrighter program, inviting her and the Fulbrighters to come to a meeting that afternoon to a meeting that Laura Bush was to attend. It was 12:30 pm and we were told to show up at 3:00 pm at the venue. There was a bit of excitement amongst us that we would be meeting the First Lady and speculation as to whether we would be personally introduced to her. But we were still left in the dark as to the purpose and nature of the meeting.

After lunch I went home and changed into something smarter looking; though suit and tie wasn’t required. I then met up with the other Fulbrighters and AUK employee at AUK at 2:30 pm. We drove to the venue which was located in an area of Kuwait called Jabriya and held in a building belonging to the Kuwait Education Ministry. We arrived at 3 pm and were among the first to enter the auditorium.

It was quite a spectacle in itself to see the preparations that went into securing the facility. By chance I had just watched a portion of a documentary on the National Geographic Channel days before about the preparations that the Secret Service make to secure a facility where the president is to make an appearance. The documentary featured the operation of securing a covered arena at Louisiana State University where President George W. Bush gave a commencement speech. I was surprised the Secret Service would allow National Geographic the chance to detail their security procedures to the degree that they did. When I attended the meeting with the First Lady, I noted many similarities between the security that went into protecting her husband and her.

After we entered the doors the security was completely handled by the Secret Service that had accompanied the First Lady in her Middle East tour. The metal detector looked just like the one in the documentary that travels with the Secret Service. We then walked into the relatively small auditorium and grabbed some excellent seats near the front and center. Inside, positioned around the stage, there were more Secret Service agents monitoring the crowd coming in. But one thing that surprised me was the lack of a guest list of approved attendees. Anyone who walked in off the street could have entered the venue. Most of those attending seemed to be Kuwaiti of a liberal persuasion and some Americans. There were a handful of the fully veiled women. I wonder what must be the thoughts of the First Lady and the Americans traveling with her about the women wearing headscarves and some face veils. This was Laura Bushes second visit to Kuwait, her first being with her father-in-law George Bush Sr. in 1993.

We had to wait some time until the program started. Although we arrived at 3 pm, the program didn’t start until 4 pm. But then the auditorium quieted down as the First Lady entered the auditorium with the Education Minister, Nouriya Al-Sabeeh who is the only female minister in the government. They first went and sat down in the center front row. One had to have been there to experience the thirsty hound of press photographers and cameramen who were busy craning for the perfect shot. They certainly seemed to be the most excited group of people in the auditorium at the presence of the First Lady, but I suppose that is due to the dependence of their salaries on these types of occasions. I felt it to be such a waste of resources to have what seemed to be about the 20 press photographers and cameramen taking repetitive shots and footage. I wonder if it would be possible to choose a few photographers and cameramen at these official occasions and distribute the photos and footage to whoever desires.

But as to the nature of the meeting, we were still uninformed. I thought surely the First Lady who had traveled so far to Kuwait from the US on a Mid East tour with what appeared to consist of a small plane load of people including aids and Secret Service agents at significant expense would surely have something important to say. But the meeting was not what I expected since it was not intended to be a forum for her to speak. Instead the director of the Kuwait chapter of AMIDEAST (America Mid-East Educational and Training Services Inc.) hosted the event which focused on the importance of English language education and the opportunities provided by new English language scholarships from the US Department of State. The director, an American woman, first went up to the podium and began the presentation. She then spoke about the various opportunities offered by AMIDEAST to Kuwaiti high school students studying English and the effect of their experiences traveling to the US. It was an excellent example of an exercise in soft power and the lustrous attraction the US still maintains in the eyes of the Arabs. For after the director’s introduction, she invited 3 Kuwaiti high school students one after the other to the stage to read what they wrote about their experiences.

There seemed to include some editing of their work, which was expected, so that they all thanked the US Dept of State at the beginning of their speeches for the opportunity to study English and visit the US, but there was still a refreshing quality of originality that gleamed from their happy hearts as they spoke about the impact of the program in terms of helping them to learn how to express themselves, opening their eyes to America and the educational opportunities it offered, and the joy they had in learning English.

After their speeches it came time to call the First Lady to the stage along with the Education Minister. Laura Bush appeared to me as she did in television. The two Secret Service agents stationed by the stage were constantly searching the crowds with their expressionless faces for anything out of the ordinary just as it was shown in the National Geographic documentary. The Education Minister introduced Mrs. Bush with an official statement of welcome and hospitality in Arabic that was translated into English. Afterwards Mrs. Bush spoke for a short while about the MEPI (Middle East Partnership Initiative) program and fostering democratic values through English Education. She also included a blurb about breast cancer awareness which was the purpose of her trip in other countries that she visited. Apparently, Kuwait had not signed onto the US-Middle East partnership for breast cancer awareness and research and so she focused mostly on the importance of education. Yet still, she had not spoken more than 15 minutes before returning to her seat and allowing one more Kuwaiti student to recount their experience learning English. Afterwards, she left the auditorium to depart, but the presentation hosted by AMIDEAST was still to continue. Seeing though that it was now late in the afternoon, around 4:45 pm, we departed as well. Yet we couldn’t leave immediately as per the security regulations the First Lady had to leave first before we could. We loitered in the welcome area with others until we could leave at 5 pm. I saw the First Lady’s entourage leaving the area which included two limousines, some black SUVs, and one SUV with tall antennas perched on the roof of the car the use of which I could only guess.

I then returned home by 5:30 pm about 3 hours later from when I left. Unfortunately I had to skip the Arabic lesson I intended to have that evening. Was it worth the 3 hours to go see the First Lady and hear her speak for only 15 minutes? Probably not, but since this was my first time to these kinds of official events I can say it was worth the experience which leaves me sufficiently satisfied from wanting to attend a similar event in the future.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Visit to Faylaka Island and a Chat with Kuwaiti Soldiers

On Oct 7, 2007, I visited Faylaka Island off the coast of Kuwait City. A Canadian couple who both teach at an American School picked me up at 7 am after which we drove to the port in Salmiya to catch the government ferry to the island. The ferry was scheduled to depart at 8:30 am, but my hosts wanted to get there sufficiently early to ensure that they and the car we were taking would get a spot on the ferry. Fortunately traffic during the month of Ramadan to Faylaka is much less than usual and there was plenty of space on the ferry. We drove onto the ferry, which had room for about only 15 cars, hence the reason to come early if a person plans on taking his car during the normal crowd.

The Canadian couple were staying at a hotel on the island in the style of an Arabic home with a courtyard for 3 nights during their Eid holiday. They were joined by another car of their friends who were also teachers in the same school as them. But I was going just for a day visit to have a look around. The journey to Faylaka lasted about an hour and a half.

When we arrived, there wasn't much to welcome us save a ghost town in the most literal sense of the word. Prior to the Iraqi invasion in 1990, Faylaka was inhabited by Kuwaitis living in modern neighborhoods with schools, shops, and other supporting infrastructre. When the Iraqis came, they evicted everyone off of the island onto the mainland to use Faylaka as a defensive outpost against the UN coalition. Saddam at the time thought that the US would launch a Normandy style invasion by beach. After the war, the former residents’ properties were purchased by the amir, save for a handful that refused, and resettled on the mainland. The island was left closed off to the public and has been used as a military base by Kuwaitis and previously though not any longer by Americans.

The city of Faylaka stood as though frozen in time from the first Gulf War. The houses, now empty and dilapidated, remained standing in their neat rows along the streets and surrounding cul-de-sacs. There was an empty playground here and there as well as an abandoned school. Some of the buildings bore the scars of war such as bullet holes pockmarking their facades. It has been 16 years since Kuwait’s liberation and I was surprised to find the city of Faylaka seemingly unchanged since then. It appeared as though the Kuwaiti government had not decided what to do with the empty buildings and houses, whether to demolish or refurbish them. Perhaps that was due to the uncertainty that always seemed to pervade the area regarding the possible machinations of Saddam Hussein. I am told that since Saddam’s departure from power, real estate prices in Kuwait have risen reflecting a new sense of optimism. However, that optimism is dampened by the tempestuous situation nearby in Iran which fuels the prospect of another war in the area between the US and Iran. It is a fear that grips other Gulf Kingdoms as well such as Bahrain, Qatar, and Dubai. Should such a war occur, the economies of the Gulf will undoubtedly take a severe plunge simply due to the fearful nature of investors. But for the time being, life has never been better in the Gulf and I return to my trip to Faylaka.

After we drove around the ghost town a bit, we then went further out into the desert where we passed a refuse dump and waste metal compacting machinery. Further along we saw some leftover aging Iraqi armaments from the first Gulf War such as tanks and artillery. Then we came upon a train of camels moving through the desert, a very iconic image. We came near them and the breeze brought their scent with it. I took a few pictures and then we were off again for I had to make it back to the port to catch the noon government ferry back to the Kuwaiti mainland. There was supposed to be a private faster ferry running later in the day but it wasn’t operating during Ramadan due to the decrease in traffic and so my time was cut short. But in reality the few hours I spent that morning on Faylaka was sufficient to see all that it had to boast.

I managed to squeeze a visit to the archeological ruins of a supposed Greek temple and settlement dating from the time when Alexander the Great and his army moved through the area when they were conquering the known world. Instead of going through the main gate to visit the site, which was located near the beach, we parked the car near the beach adjacent to the site and walked into the premises to visit. My Canadian hosts told me that last time they tried to visit the site they were arbitrarily told it was closed to the public. Nevertheless, there wasn’t much to see and I wouldn’t recommend anyone to make the trip to Faylaka Island just to visit it. I couldn’t see the semblance of a temple instead beheld some simple rooms that had been unearthed. Apparently all the interesting finds were moved to a museum. However, just as we were about to walk back to the car, the guard at the main building noticed us and began to walk toward us. We then made our way in the direction of the car. Seeing this, the guard picked up his pace and started calling out to us. Eventually he ran towards us and we stopped and turned to him. He tried to get us to go back with him to the main building and told us we weren’t allowed near the site. He spoke very poor and broken English and only knew Arabic. I didn’t say anything and let my Canadian host handle the situation. He had visited the site surreptitiously before and experienced a similar run-in but with a different guard who was calmer and more relaxed. My friend made it clear that we just came to take pictures and that we were going back. The guard, who was Egyptian, seeing that we weren’t going to submit to him, became angry and said in broken English, “You make big problem for me!”

After we left, my hosts then dropped me off back at the port to catch the ferry. I could see there were many soldiers embarking along with me, and I noticed them on the morning ride to the island as well. I resolved, since I would be alone on the ferry, to pass the time by making conversation with them. After calling and arranging for a taxi to pick me up at the port in Salmiya when I arrived, I ascended the stairs to the seating area and found a place near the soldiers. I began chatting with them in standard versus Kuwaiti Arabic, as I always speak in standard Arabic out of principle. They were very easy to talk to and of course they were interested to learn more about me, a half-Kuwaiti half-American student who spoke standard Arabic which is considered strange and unusual. Yet as the conversation developed, a man to my back interjected and I turned to find that it was the guard that had confronted us at the site of the ruins. What a coincidence! I didn’t expect to see him again and wondered why his work shift ended so early before noon. But there he was exclaiming to his surprise that I was now speaking fairly fluent Arabic whilst a short while before I had remained silent when he struggled to communicate with my Canadian friend in English. I was slightly embarrassed and returned to speaking with the soldiers. At the end of the ferry trip I approached the guard and apologized in Arabic for any trouble we had given him. He said it wasn’t a big deal, which he was probably right and made me wonder why he made such a big deal in the first place.

But back to the soldiers, they were an interesting bunch of about 6, but I spoke mainly with three of them: Fahd, Suleiman, and Khalid. Their ages were between 24 to 27 and all were married save Fahd who was divorced. They were all high school dropouts and told me that they receive a monthly salary of 1000 KD or $3,550, which is too high to believe. But it is still undoubted that a high school dropout in Kuwait does much better than an equivalent person in any other country for Kuwait provides plenty of artificial jobs that require very little or no work with artificially high salaries to its citizens. When I asked them if they were in the military to do their obligatory service, they replied that about 10 years ago the government stopped requiring male Kuwaitis to serve for a year in the military as the demand to join was high. They told me that they ‘work’ 2 days a week at an air defense station on Faylaka Island. However, when I inquired about the nature of the work, they said their superiors usually allow them to go swimming in the ocean. So I wouldn’t depend on Kuwaitis to protect Kuwait. But then again I don’t think the average Kuwaiti does either after the US was given the responsibility of Kuwait’s defense after the Iraqi invasion.

I enjoyed speaking to the guys. It was an ideal example of cross-cultural communication as there were many differences that we helped each other understand. Khalid began by first asking why in America two guys holding hands are considered homosexual since it is an accepted custom in the Middle East for men to hold hands while walking. I explained to him that I understand what he was talking about and that in America it is not an accepted custom for heterosexual men to hold hands since it is not a sign of close friendship but rather a romantic and intimate relationship between two people.

Seeing that they were open to questions, I asked them about their beliefs and customs regarding marriage. All of them told me that they had never seen their wives until the day they got married. It was very hard for me imagine that two people who would be meeting each other for the first time would be expected to get married and engage in intercourse, the most intimate of physical acts, on the same day. I explained to them that this was incomprehensible to me as I and others consider compatibility and the building of a spiritual relationship of prime importance prior to marriage and intimacy. Yet they all told me that their parents had arranged their marriages or had a hand in choosing their brides. In the case of Khalid, he had followed the most traditional custom of marrying his first cousin. It was very common not too long ago and is still prevalent in the most traditional areas for siblings to promise their children in marriage to each other. The purpose was to preserve family unity and keep the wealth within the family. I mentioned that this custom led to the appearance and recurrence of genetic diseases. Khalid replied that Arabs aren’t dumb and for that reason he and his wife had visited a doctor and had a genetic screening prior to getting married.

I asked though what happens if a young couple is not compatible and bicker and fight. They told me that because marriages are often within the family, there is often a strong incentive for the young bride and groom to be accommodating to each other so as not to involve the parents into the dispute. However divorces due still occur as exemplified by Fahd, who seemed to be the most materialistic of the bunch interested in drinking and womanizing. He mentioned to me how he would go to bars in London and party, a quite ordinary thing for a Gulf Arab youth visiting the West.

Then I turned to the question of the hijab. I asked them if their brides where hijabs, the head scarf covering only the hair and ears of a woman, or the niqab, which also covers the face of a woman save the eyes. Khalid said that his wife wears a niqab and had asked him when they got married whether he wanted her to also wear a niqab in front of his brothers. He said he permitted her to wear the hijab in front of them. Suleiman said his wife wears only the hijab. He also showed me a picture of his toddler daughter.

I found it quite peculiar how these young men and their wives were so acquiescent in the roles they were groomed to fulfill. It seem as if they were actors in a play and they all knew their lines and didn’t venture to stray a centimeter from what was expected. The men were the head of their families. They expected their wives to have complete responsibility in raising the children and caring for the home and the woman were raised to believe and accept that. They were even briefed by the older men to expect blood during the wedding night when they first or soon after have intercourse with their wives and told the reason for its occurrence; for it was humorous and awkward at the time to hear this explained in Arabic. Yet it is no wonder change seems to happen so slow in a region where family relations are so strong.

But I delighted in speaking to the young men and we exchanged phone numbers at the end of the trip to meet up again. They had offered to take me out two days later, but not surprisingly as the young lads became occupied with other things they soon forgot their previous intention save for Suleiman who did call to ask me how I was doing and if I needed anything from the supermarket. The latter wasn’t a serious question of course but a courtesy offered after stating he would be going to the supermarket.

The young soldiers were also impressed with respect to my focus on learning and reading and lack of attention paid to frivolous activities of drinking and womanizing normally associated with western youth.

The encounter was a wonderful example of cross cultural interaction from a segment of the Kuwaiti population that probably makes up the traditional minded masses.

As we arrived closer to the port, two Kuwaitis on jet skis pulled up close to the ship and started jerking and twisting their crafts from side to side to try and splash the lower decks. Kuwaitis as a people have a lot of disposable income to spend on recreational activities like jet skiing, joy riding in expensive cars, etc.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Pleasant Discussions at a Diwaniya

I went today to a diwaniya which is the Kuwaiti custom of men gathering in a certain parlour room of a house or a tent. I had a pleasant evening filled with thoughtful and stimulating discussion. The parlor room for the diwaniya was decorated in a very elegant and refined manner. When I first entered, my friend Badr was not at the moment present which was a little unusual since I didn’t know anyone else there. But shortly later Badr came and introduced me to those others sitting and explained that I was here in Kuwait on a scholarship to do research. It seems when I explained to him that that Fulbright Scholarship was funded from US State Dept he took it to mean that it was somehow connected politically with the US government for he stated or implied a few times that evening that my interlocutors ought to be giving me an idealized image of Kuwait as I am here as researcher for the US government. I should make a greater emphasis that there is no political connection with my research, perhaps stating next time when asked that the Fulbright scholarship is awarded from a the International Institute of Education.
Nevertheless, I struck up a conversation with an educated man who appeared to be in his 30s. He had a very clean-cut dark black beard on his rather white complexion. It was correct to presume by his appearance that he was an Islamist or a strong Muslim. He studied Sharia and Islam and was currently doing his PhD in Morocco. He spoke excellent Arabic which I wished everyone else could speak. It was very noticeable the drop in the eloquence of speech when someone else spoke.
When we spoke about the topic of women’s rights, he immediately asked me if I was judging the situation in Kuwait based on a western or eastern viewpoint. He of course took the notion that the women in Kuwait do not want to imitate women as in the West with regard to the women’s rights movement, because women in Kuwait have their rights as Muslims and Islam guarantees them that. In that regard he truly spoke from an Islamic perspective on the issue. He believed that, as according to Islam, men and women had their proper roles in societies. It is for women to stay home and raise children and men to be the breadwinners and provide for their families. He mentioned how in the West women who are independent and working are seen in a more respectful light than women who remain homemakers because the working women are seen as having greater influence in trying to contribute to and improve society. He countered this notion with the argument that women at home are likewise having an important role in the shaping of society in her work to raise children with good characters and an education.
He also noted the irony that after women in Kuwait were given the right to vote, in the subsequent parliamentary election most of the women’s vote went to the very same Islamist candidates who had opposed giving them the right to vote. His other arguments against women entering into politics other than that her primary role is the raising of children, is that she lacks the mental constitution and qualities to be a leader. He said that a woman is more emotive than a man and is indecisive.
However, when asked what I thought of women entering into politics in America, I mentioned that according to his logic, that women should not enter into politics because that would distract from their role as caretakers, that if a woman in the US after having raised her children and they have left the house, there would be no harm in her choosing to use her experience and education to want to aid in the ruling and improvement of her society. I was simply trying to argue that women should have a welcomed voice in government in principle. I also noted that women, in general, have different priorities than men. They emphasize issues such as healthcare and education while men focus on national security and military spending. Thus, to have women in parliament advocating these issues would be a positive thing. It was at this point that it was fortunate that another person should criticize the US that although women have had the right to vote for 80 years, the healthcare system is in a poor condition as based on the movie Sicko by Michael Moore. I easily used this point to my advantage by stating that the major figure at the moment in American politics who wants to correct this issue of unequal access to healthcare is a woman, Hillary Clinton, and that is this woman who is renowned for seeking reforms to address this issue.
Throughout the course of the evening, a few other issues were treated as well. I was asked about how life is in Kuwait and my thoughts on the country. Rather than give the usual positive and reassuring answer. I highlighted two issues that were pressing on my mind these past few days. One was the lack of literacy or reading in Kuwait. I mentioned that if the reading level of an average American child and average Kuwait child from the same grade level were compared, it is undoubted that the American child would read with much greater fluency and understanding than the Kuwaiti child or any other Arab child for that matter. Literacy is of great importance as books are the preservers of mankind’s accumulated knowledge from thousands of generations. Reading is the keys into these portals of education and to be without this skill or deficient in it is to be deficient in the ability to improve and develop oneself, society, or civilization. The next major issue I took aim at was the manner in which Kuwait’s oil wealth was distributed amongst its citizens by creating unnecessary government jobs for them and providing for the material needs of their citizens to the extent that their motivation to work is absent or very weak. I mentioned the statistic that 90% of Kuwaiti’s in the workforce are employed in the government leaving the majority in the private sector to be foreign workers which does not lend itself to a sound and healthy society. Although my Islamist interlocutor agreed with my observations on these points, I fear they did not make me popular with my host who seemed indignant and the pride in country hurt. I often ask myself if it is I who focuses too much on the negative aspects of Kuwaiti society and not enough on the positive. I feel often challenged to raise these issues in a delicate and dignified manner.
All in all, it was a wonderful and stimulating evening and one of the better diwaniyas that I’ve been to.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Enhancing Investment Opportunities in the Persian Gulf

From an email that was sent to me:

New economic strategies to enhance your investment opportunities in 2007

You have two cows. You create a website for them and advertise in all magazines and Cable TV. You create a Cow City or Milk Town. You sell off their milk before the cows are milked, to both legit and shady investors, who hope to resell the non-existent milk for a 100% profit in two month time. You bring Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods to milk the cows to attract attention.

You have two cows. They've been sitting there for decades and no one realizes that cows can produce milk. You see what Dubai is doing; you go crazy and start milking the heck out of the cows, in the shortest time possible. Then you realize no one wanted the milk in the first place.

Since milking the cow involves nipples, the gov't decides to ban all cows in public. The only method to milk a cow is to have the cow at one side of the curtain and the guy milking the cow on the other side; or to hire females and train them to milk the cows ... the debate is still going on.

You have two cows. Some high gov't official steals one, milks it, sells the milk and pockets the profit. The gov't tells you there is just one cow and not enough milk for the people. The people riot and scream death to the govt and carry Iranian flags. The Parliament, after thinking for 11 months, decide to employ ten Bahrainis to milk the remaining cow at the same time to cut back on unemployment.

You have two cows. One is owned by Syria, the other by the Lebanese gov't, both are milked by Syrian Laborers during their free time as informers.

You have two cows. Both vote for Mubarak!

You have two cows. You sell one, and force the other to produce the milk of four cows. Later, you hire a consultant to analyze why the cow dropped dead.

You have two cows and have no idea what to do with them. It doesn't really matter, you go on strike anyway because you feel you need three cows.

You have two cows. You count them and find out you have five cows. You count again and find out you have eight cows. You count again and out you have 20 cows. You are so happy, you stop counting and open another bottle of Vodka.

You have two cows. Both are mad

You have two cows and you realize you need someone else to milk them for you so you move them to Dubai where you organize the greatest event ever promoting the two cow's milk, hire a Lebanese to sell the product, an Indian to design the company's website and Some Saudi investors to pay for it all!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why I want to learn Arabic

It seems that throughout my time in the Middle East Arabs are surprised by my desire to learn Arabic and often ask me, “Why do you want to learn Arabic.” I’ve answered this question in Egypt, Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, almost wherever I go in the Arab world. Arabs are so surprised by my desire and motivation to learn Arabic that I’ve decided to answer this question thoroughly and set it down in writing.

I can understand why I am questioned about my reasons for learning Arabic. In the Middle East and perhaps most of the developing world, English language skills are highly prized as they allow people to advance in the job market. One example will suffice. I met a Syrian woman who was born and raised in Damascus. With proficiency in English, she was able to obtain a job in the Four Seasons Hotel at the reception desk where English was necessary to communicate to guests. From there she moved up through different positions until she was finally offered the opportunity to transfer to work in Dubai in the Emirates, a much richer city with more opportunities compared to Damascus. Thus, when English is the international language of trade, and I possess native fluency in it, Arabs wonder why I would want to learn their language when they desire so much for economic reasons to learn mine.

The first two of three reasons, which are the foremost and primary, for why I desire to learn Arabic is due to family and religion. I will discuss family first. I was born in Kuwait and lived there close to five years until I moved to the US where I spent the rest of my childhood, graduating from high school and university. My mother was Kuwaiti and spoke to me in the Kuwaiti dialect of Arabic. Hence, the first language I learned to speak was Arabic. I even attended the first year of kindergarten in Kuwait where I was just beginning to learn how to read and write. I still remember sitting at a desk bathed in the desert sunshine streaming through the windows learning how to write my name and a few other words such as ‘camel.’ Additionally, much of my childhood in Kuwait was spent with my grandparents, aunts, and uncles with whom I spoke Arabic. Of course I learned English as well to communicate with my father, but Arabic was my first and primary language. Consequently, when I moved to the US I was an Arab and considered myself a Kuwaiti.

Though I may have left my birth country, my mother insured that we kept our link with our family in Kuwait by traveling to Kuwait almost ever two years for a period of one to two months. However, I experienced a dramatic decline in my Arabic proficiency. My mother told me that my brother, who is a year and a half younger than me, and I switched to speaking in English 6 months after moving to the US. Although every trip to Kuwait would result in a little gain in Arabic, the overall trend was a loss in proficiency to the point that when I was 14 and visiting Kuwait when my grandfather was visibly dying, I could not communicate with him as he didn’t know English. That was the last time I was to see my grandfather as he passed away about three months later.

My grandfather was the strongest male figure in my family who had the greatest influence on me. He was born a Sunni Muslim in the south of Iran where he attended an Islamic school and studied the Quran. He moved from his small village in Bandar Lengeh to Bahrain and then Kuwait. In his youth in Iran he heard about the Baha’i Faith which he investigated before converting to it. He was a Muslim who was willing to choose the path of faith rather than comfort and ease, for he investigated Baha’u’llah’s claim to be a new messenger of God and accepted it regardless of the consequences which at that time in Iran could have been fatal. He was the only one in his family to become a Baha’i and his new faith strained relations with some members of his family. Nevertheless, he did not choose to simply follow the religion of his forefathers.

They say: “We found Our fathers following a certain religion, and We do guide ourselves by their footsteps.” Just in the same way, whenever We sent a Warner before thee to any people, the wealthy ones among them said: “We found Our fathers following a certain religion, and We will certainly follow in their footsteps.”
He said: “What! even if I brought you better guidance than that which ye found your fathers following?” They said: "For us, We deny that ye (prophets) are sent (on a mission at all)."
So We exacted retribution from them: now see what was the end of those who rejected (Truth)!
(The Qur’an, Surah 43:22-5)

My grandfather was an embodiment of the following verse from Baha’u’llah’s writings:

Abandon not the everlasting beauty for a beauty that must die, and set not your affections on this mortal world of dust.
(Baha'u'llah, The Hidden Words)

Thus, at the age of 14 when I was entering into adolescence and becoming more conscious of the world, I sought during my last visit with my grandfather that fateful summer to know more about his life and upbringing. I wanted to know about his childhood, the things he enjoyed, the sufferings he endured, and most importantly, I wanted him to share with me the pearls of wisdom that he accumulated over a lifetime with regards to life and religion. Yet my wish was not to be granted for my time with my grandfather was limited as he was too weak and my Arabic nonexistent. My last memory of my grandfather was of him lying on his bed, slowly dying, with a great stack of books in Arabic opposite to him, all of which he had read. He was an avid reader who built a dedicated personal library in a room of his house with books neatly stacked in cupboards and bookcases from the bottom of the room to the ceiling. In the end, my grandfather had grown tired of this mortal realm and sought the eternal life of the world beyond. He had lived a poor and hard life and sought his rest from it.

A few years later, my aunt recounted to me how my grandfather wished for me to become a bridge between the East and the West, as I am born of both worlds. As a result, the impression left on me by my grandfather; my desire to speak Arabic again with my family in Kuwait and Arabs; and the chance and hope to become a bridge between two worlds, East and West; from these was instilled within me a burning motivation to learn and study Arabic that would compel me to undergo the hours necessary to strive for proficiency.

Yet, religion is probably a stronger motivator in my study of Arabic for it is the language of revelation in which the Quran and the majority of the Bahá’í Writings have been revealed. Baha’u’llah refers to Arabic as the eloquent tongue. Growing up I learned that no translation can truly render the full and entire meaning from the original revelation in Arabic to English or any other language for that matter. And after studying Arabic I can agree with this statement since for any language some words can be used with dual meanings that when translated one of the meanings is lost or obscured. Translators may likewise err in their translations as they may translate a word with multiple meanings using an unintended meaning. I also noticed that those who read the original religious scriptures in Arabic were accorded a greater share of credibility and authority, especially in Muslim communities, when explaining certain verses since their understanding was not obscured by any translation.

Thus, as I seek to know the truth unobscured and clear, perhaps a trait from my grandfather, I desire to learn Arabic to gain greater religious truth by reading the original revelations of the Bahá’í Writings and the Quran. Additionally, I noticed that the Bahá’í Faith is in need of skilled translators between Arabic and English and this may be a way I can serve my faith when I advance in Arabic.

My third and final reason I wish to learn Arabic is for career purposes which also ties into my desire to be a bridge between the West and the East. Arabic is spoken to varying degrees and abilities from Morocco to Iraq making the Arab world a large cultural center. Knowing Arabic, especially since the demand for Arabic speakers after the terrorist attacks of September 11 has risen, will make me a more marketable worker, especially among governments and international organizations such as the UN. Thus, I hope learning Arabic will provide me with more career opportunities and allow me to be a positive force of communication and understanding between East and West.

These are the ideals that I aspire to and God willing I will be made successful.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Doing business in the Middle East: Can I get some customer service please???

From my time in Kuwait, I’ve come to realize that there is a very weak customer service ethos in the private sector versus what is commonly found in the US. The customer service experience is often ruder and likely to leave you feeling angry and embittered at such appalling treatment which can include long wait times until your served, disorganization, disinformation, and just plain incompetence. I’m not referring to restaurants or shops at the traditional market. In fact, most modern western restaurants tend to be staffed by Filipino expatriate workers who in my view provide excellent service. Instead I am referring to more complex businesses, like the airline or cell phone industries from which I draw my experiences.

It’s important to note the structure of the Kuwaiti economy before further explanation. Although the number of Kuwaitis working in the private sector has been increasing rapidly in the past few years, 80% of the workers are still expatriates, mostly from other poorer Arab countries and south Asia. Thus, in the private sector, a person mostly deals with a non-Kuwaiti. However, laws in Kuwait make sure that the owners are Kuwaiti, as every business in Kuwait requires a Kuwaiti sponsor. So the customer service experience is born from this hybrid environment. This is sort of my disclaimer in saying that I’m not blaming anyone, only describing my following experiences with three companies: Jazeera Airways, Kuwait Airways, and the mobile phone service provider MTC Vodafone.

Jazeera Airways
In January, two friends that were visiting Kuwait purchased 3 tickets from Jazeera Airways for three of us to go to Dubai for the coming weekend. Jazeera Airways is a new budget airline that is based in Kuwait and started flying in October 2005. As it turned out, one of the two friends and I became very sick with flu and decided that we couldn’t go. So we called up Jazeera Airways and asked them what to do. The customer service agent said that refunds can’t be issued, but if a doctor’s note is provided, the tickets can be changed to fly on a later date without penalty. So we went ahead and changed two of the tickets to fly two weeks later. The third friend went ahead to Dubai by himself. My friend and I then went to the local clinic and received a doctor’s not saying we were sick.

But, I realized we forgot to ask to whom to present the doctor’s note. When I checked the reservation online, it showed that I was charged the booking change fee. I waited a week later after I got better to take care of this. I first began by calling the Jazeera Airways customer service number but their network was constantly busy. I called in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Sometimes I would connect and the line would just be cut off After 3 days of trying I finally was connected and allowed to carry an uninterrupted conversation with the agent. He informed me that I would have to pay the booking change fee. I was surprised as I was initially told otherwise by the very first agent my friends and I spoke with. Realizing that’s its always best to deal with this kind of situation in person, I asked where to go to speak to someone in person.

I was directed to head Jazeera Airways office at the airport. They don’t take customer inquiries after 2 pm so I went at around 11 am. I walked into the reception and was handed a ticket number for my turn in line. I sat down and looked around the room whose seats were all full and realized that about 15 people were in front of me. After about 30-45 minutes, my turn was called and I was ushered into the customer service room with my doctor’s note. The setting was unprofessional. The room was as bare as can be with only a desk and some chairs. Two employees sat with laptops on side of the desk and customers on the other side. No wonder it was such a long wait to get in, there were only two people serving customers.

I sat down and explained my story to the employee. In short, he told me that I should not have changed the booking until I came to their office with the doctors’ note. He said that because I already made the change in their system there was nothing he could do about it and that I would have to pay the booking change fee. When I tried to reason with him that most probably the customer service agent who I spoke with provided incorrect information, he wouldn’t budge and said that it was too late to do anything because the change was already recorded in the system. He did make a small offer to cancel the entire reservation after I pay the booking change fee and apply the entire amount paid for the fee plus the airline tickets as credit with the airline to be used at a later date. That sounded okay to me for the time being. But in order to pay the booking change fee, I would have to go up two levels to the Jazeera Airways desk in the airport, pay, and then return with the receipt. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t pay at their headquarters. After about 15 minutes, I was back in the reception only to be prevented by the security guard from going back to the customer service room even though the agent made clear to him and the receptionist to let me back immediately when I return. After 10 minutes of silent indignation, I was allowed back to complete the process.

I still had every intention of flying to Dubai so I asked him to make new reservations for me. Low and behold, because the dates I intended to fly on were in a few days, the ticket prices had almost doubled so that I was nearly spending all the credit granted to me. I still made the new reservation. However, when I went home to check the ticket prices again, I realized that on the day I was leaving there were two flights to Dubai both in the morning, yet the customer service agent decided to put me on the more expensive flight. Talk about adding insult to injury. In the end, I spent an hour and 45 minutes at the Jazeera airways office. I realized I could only have done this because I didn’t have a job. A working person would have had to take a half day off to take care of something like this. I was furious at the time at the horrible customer service meted out by Jazeera Airways. Yet I would still fly Jazeera Airways again because their ticket prices are the cheapest and most often the other alternative is the equally if not more dysfunctional Kuwait Airways. Jazeera has nice website which allows you to purchase tickets without ever having to deal with an employee which is great. So I just hope I don’t ever have to make a change again.

Kuwait Airways
Later that January, I was searching for airline tickets to go to the US for a brief visit with a week long stop on the way going in London. Kuwait Airways reportedly had the cheapest tickets going to Atlanta, my home city, non-stop via NYC and using Delta to connect to Atlanta. However, I wanted to know if it was feasible to fly on Kuwait Airways to London, connect to Atlanta with Delta, and then return via NYC the normal route that I have taken before. It seemed to me like a straightforward question that required a straightforward answer. Yet little did I know of the dysfunctional system into which I was plunging to get my answer. But to use an analogy from Alice in Wonderland, I wanted to know how deep the rabbit hole went.

My journey begins with a simple phone call to the Kuwait Airways reservation numbers. I’m often connected right away. Checking the flight schedules and finding open seats was an easy matter. But when I asked him the simple matter of the price, after all, that was the deterministic factor as to whether I purchase a ticket with Kuwait Airways, he replied that he can’t give me a price. Instead, he told me that I needed to call the sales office at a different number and ask them for the price. That seemed very odd to me. I have to call one number to make a reservation and then another number to inquire about the price. I asked him what kind of system is this, but my question was of no avail. He and most of the operators I spoke to were Indians. They had no fault as to the disorganization of the company. That instead most likely fell on the shoulders of higher up managers who were Kuwaiti and oversaw the operations of the entire company.

So I called the sales office to see if I could get my answer. But the lines were so busy that I could never get through. When I called back the reservation number since I knew I could get through to them, I was told that sales office network is often times flooded with calls because it is the number for the Kuwait Airways headquarters in downtown Kuwait. I was advised to go to the headquarters in person to get a straight answer to my question of how much the itinerary would cost. I also realized that the times I called back the reservation number to make changes to the reservation, I was receiving different answers. One person gave me a ballpark figure while another two did not. Also, during this time I went to a travel agent to see if he could get a price for me. It turned out the travel agent was ripping me off by charging a considerable amount more than if I had made the reservation with Kuwait Airways myself. I found this out from when I called the reservation number and the operator informed me of the reservation made by the travel agent.

As a result, I decided to go to the Kuwait Airways headquarters. I knew from my experience with Jazeera Airways that I would probably be waiting a while before I was served. So I grabbed a book I was reading and headed off in the evening. I found the place without difficulty. Yet when I entered the fairly large customer service room, I was struck by the aura of shabby professionalism. I grabbed a ticket number to wait for my turn to be served. As I found a place to sit down in the almost entirely South Asian crowd, I realized that I held ticket number 73 yet they were still serving something like ticket number 48. I gasped as I realized I was in for quite a wait before I could see how far the rabbit hole went.

I read and counted the minutes until about an hour and 15 minutes had elapsed and my number was called. By that time the room had largely emptied itself of customers. The employee I spoke with was Indian. I explained to her my proposed itinerary of flying to London with Kuwait Airways and then to Atlanta with Delta and then returning via NYC with Kuwait Airways. When I asked her for the price, which was the entire purpose of my coming to the main office, she responded that she didn’t know. She said that it wasn’t clear how much the portion of the trip from London to Atlanta with Delta would cost. She then gave me the phone number of the Delta representative in Kuwait and asked me to call them to see how much they would charge for the ticket with Kuwait Airways. I was puzzled and appalled at such a request. “Isn’t that your job,” I replied. She answered with an insufficient answer that I no longer recall. In the end she then transferred me to the manager who sat a few desks down from her.

The manager was Kuwaiti and was busy handling referrals from other employees. I waited my turn for about 15 minutes and then presented him with my itinerary. He finally provided a price that was uncompetitively high. Even though I asked him a few more questions afterwards, he was no longer attentive to me and began dealing with another customer’s request. He muttered some responses and I realized that I had my key piece of information. By the time I left the main office I had spent a little more than 2 hours. In the end, the journey into the rabbit hole required dealing with an incompetently disorganized reservation system that provided exceptionally poor service with long wait times.

I was beginning to understand a key quality to doing business in the Middle East: patience, lots and lots of patience.

MTC Vodafone
I can easily say that I bestow upon MTC Vodafone the title of the worst business that I have ever had to deal with. I have never left feeing so aggravated and embittered from such sheer incompetence an utter lack of service.

My unfortunate relationship with MTC began when I arrived to Kuwait. I immediately sought a SIM card to gain service. I was taken to a shop and purchased a MTC SIM card with the pre paid deal where I would buy purchase credit before use. There are only two cell phone providers in Kuwait, MTC and Wataniya. I didn’t think much of which carrier to choose since I was new to using a cell phone in Kuwait.

After a month I realized that a pre paid plan was much more expensive than a post paid one. So I went to the MTC headquarters at the beginning of March and checked out the services they offered. Their plans were not as competitive as Wataniya, but I didn’t want to switch companies and get a new number and the cheapest post paid plan Wataniya offered was more than I would use in terms of minutes versus. I went to the MTC headquarters and asked to switch to a post paid plan. I was told that I would need to have a civil ID, which is issued by the state of Kuwait to residents, and that my passport would not suffice. Because I have Kuwaiti family members, this didn’t pose a problem. One of them could be the account holder. So I returned a few days later with my cousin but was told that I could not switch to post paid. My cousin was 18 years old and was too young to be the account holder. I would need to come back with someone 21 or older. I was annoyed why this wasn’t explained to me on my first visit. Then, finally, on my third visit with my uncle, I switched to a post paid plan. Of course, it wasn’t explained to me before the different costs for switching and changing the name of the account holder. Before I knew it, I was being nickel-and-dimed. Additionally, I was given a SIM card with same phone number which was a hassle because I had to re-input the phone numbers from my old SIM card onto the new one; something that I had hoped to avoid by not changing companies. I also requested for international roaming service, which, although expensive, would be useful since there would be times I would travel outside of Kuwait. In order to do so I had to pay a $345 deposit which was very annoying and not required by Wataniya.

After that, things were okay for a while. When I received my first bill for March, I tried paying online. However, every time that I tried, my credit card was rejected. So I called the customer service number to inquire. I was informed that only credit cards issued by a bank in Kuwait could be used to pay online. That was odd. I had used my credit card without difficulty at the MTC main office. I asked them why I could use my credit card at the main office in person, but not online. It was explained to me that in the past they did accept payment by foreign credit cards, but due to a reason with the way the transaction was processed and payment transferred to MTC, the service was cancelled. The customer service agent placed the blame on the US side, saying that the credit card companies took to long to process the transaction. I responded that there are hundreds of companies around the world who accept credit cards online which indicates to me that the system on the US side of things are handled just fine. By this point, I had a growing realization of the incompetence of MTC and figured this was some way of theirs to deflect blame onto another person or entity. In the end, I went down to the main office and paid my bill in person with the same credit card that was rejected online. But the trouble did not stop there. The post paid I had accepted advertised the cost per minute for calling phones within Kuwait during the day versus night. Nowhere was it mentioned the price of receiving calls and that is because, as in Egypt and Syria where I had cell phone previously and many countries around the world, there is no cost for receiving phone calls. The cost is born only the person making the phone call. That is why there is a custom for a cheap person to leave missed calls. But I digress.

At one point I had received a call from a close friend in England and we spoke for about an hour. I did not think it was costing me anything since I had received the call. However, when I went to check my account online, I discovered I had used most of my credit for the month yet only the first week of the month had passed. I guessed it had something to do with receiving the international call from England. When I called the customer service number to inquire I was informed that in fact I am charged a fee for receiving international calls which is equivalent to the fee for calling a phone in Kuwait. I was furious. No where on the advertisement for the post paid plan I had subscribed to, and which was still lying around my room at the time, was it stated that there is a cost for receiving international calls. Thus, at the time when I went to pay my first bill, I asked the employee I was dealing with for a written piece of paper where it stated that there was a cost for receiving international phone calls. After some searching, the only thing he could find was a webpage he pulled up from the company intranet, which means that it is only available to someone on the company network, where it stated the cost for receiving international phone calls. I asked him if he thought this kind of information should be available to customers and whether he thought it was wrong for the company to hide it like that. He passively agreed and mentioned this is something that should be changed. I asked him for a copy of the contract to see where I could find the clause about pricing. I read that the charges would be set according to published prices. While the price of receiving international costs may not have been published to the public, I suppose in the mind of the company’s managers, it is sufficient to publish it on their company’s intranet pages.

What lack of justice! In the US there are consumer and government organizations where a person can file a complaint about such kinds of dishonest business practices or even resort to the courts. But I despaired that such avenues were unavailable in Kuwait. I left MTC feeling extremely frustrated once again. Afterwards, I felt I had to accept the fact that I would endure lying, deception, and corruption when living in the developing world. Kuwait may have the material manifestations of a developed country, but it is lacking the spiritual foundations for one; including honesty and respect for the law. But I later found out that it is known among people here that receiving international calls is not free. So perhaps MTC, thinking it was presumed knowledge, did not bother to publish their cost.

At least I hoped that perhaps now there would be no more surprises as my phone plan was set and I knew to go pay in person. I had been annoyed once by MTC when I changed from pre to post paid and twice when I paid my first bill. I could not, however, have been more completely wrong in my expectation. The worst episode of utter incompetence that I have ever dealt with was coming up next a month later when I had to pay my second bill in May.

I went down to the MTC headquarters in the evening to pay my bill. I was told the balance and immediately paid first. Then I asked for a breakdown and a copy of the bill. I probably should have asked to see the details of the bill first, but I assumed it to be correct and wanted to pay it first before entering into further affairs. When I received a copy of the bill, I saw that there were three sub-items: the amount owed for March, April, and May. The amount from March immediately aroused my suspicions. It was May and I had already paid my bill for March last month in April. How is it that I was still being charged for March expenditures in May? Although the amount for March was trivial, 0.185 KD = $0.65, I was still concerned about what seemed to me to be an error. So I asked the employee to explain to me how this cost was derived. He tried to explain and searched through my account records to find an answer but couldn’t. So he called a co-worker who had more experience to find an answer. After some looking through the account and printing out details of past expenditures, her conclusion was that it was a mistake and I should file a complaint. I said ok, let me file it now. But the catch was that I needed my uncle, the owner of the account, and his civil ID and I had to come tomorrow to do it. Now I didn’t want to bother my uncle with wasting his time to come to MTC to fight over $0.65, so I said that was unacceptable solution. I asked, “Why do I need my uncle to file a complaint so that an accountant can explain my bill to me and correct whatever mistake there is?” I asked her if I could speak to the manager.

A few minutes later, the manager came and asked what the problem is. I told him that all I want is an explanation of my bill, an explanation of where the cost from March came from. After looking through my account, he said that there was no mistake, disagreeing with the previous co-worker. However, he wasn’t able to explain me where the $0.65 came from. Was it for text messaging or for going over my monthly credit? By this point, the place was empty and had closed for the evening. A fourth employee, aroused by the commotion and curious as to why I had not left yet, asked me what the problem was. I explained for the fourth time that all I want is an explanation of my bill. After looking around she was able to give me a sufficient answer, finally. She explained that the bill I owed in March was 20.185 KD but when I came to pay it in April, the agent I dealt with rounded down and charged me only 20 KD, leaving the remaining 0.185 KD to roll over to the subsequent month and hence appearing on my bill in May. She explained to me rounding down a bill is a common practice among the employees and that she does it herself as well. The reason: it makes for easier paying. That is because most customers pay in cash, unlike me, and therefore not dealing in coins is easier. Nevertheless, I found this custom to be a great annoyance as I wasn’t asked if I wanted to round down my bill in addition to the fact I was paying by credit card and hence I wouldn’t deal with coins anyway.

In the end, it took one hour and 45 minutes, 16 print outs detailing different aspects of my account history, and 4 different employees to finally get an explanation for the charge of $0.65. What complete and utter incompetence! I was no longer frustrated and angry at the employees. Rather I truly felt sorry for them, for their lack of intelligence and inadequate training.

I was beginning to see how these inconveniences and annoyances that occur when dealing with businesses and even bureaucracies in the Middle East was a larger symptom of the dysfunctions of a culture, a culture whose work ethic did not call people to the highest standards of service, and a mentality that seemed stuck in a system where takes knowing someone to get things done.

Thus, when I remember passing through the Qatar Airport in May and the American middle-aged gentleman with military cropped hair sternly but clearing stating, “That is dishonest,” to the cashier at a bookshop, when he saw the price of the book he wished to purchase rung up for a much higher price than what was on the price tag, I could empathize with those same feelings of aggravation. When will the situation improve? I hope sooner than later.

Monday, June 4, 2007

An Odd Encounter

It was around 8:20 pm when I left my house to get in my car to go to the gym. As I closed the gate behind me, I looked about the street before hopping into my car and reversing into the street from the pavement. Just as I was about to put the car in drive, a car approaches me from the left and flashes its light. It was a modest white car with a Saudi license plate. Many Saudis like coming to Kuwait or any easily accessible neighboring country for that matter, as a chance for many them to flee the strictures of their Wahhabi state.

I paused as the Saudi man, the only person in the car and the driver, came out to walk towards me. He appeared to be a youth in his mid 20s. I stepped out of my car and met him. I expected him to ask for directions or the house of so and so, but instead he started talking to me as if he knew me. He quickly picked up that I’m not a Kuwaiti from lack of use of the dialect. I asked him who he was looking for, but it turned out he was looking for me.

He said he wanted to ask me something but I didn’t catch at the time what he said was the reason for his hesitation as I didn’t know the Arabic verb he was using at the time. However, I looked up the word later and he was saying that he wasn’t sure if he could advance his proposal with me. After beating around the bush and telling him to just ask me what was in his mind. I wondered what it could be. Was it something illicit? He said that he is from the Saudi Kingdom and his father was sick at which point he made an indication to his stomach. He said he needed some help and wondered if I could be of some assistance.

I found this to be a very odd request. The young man was neatly dressed in the typical national dress of the dishdasha and associated headgear. He had a thin moustache and was polite. His car was modest, but there was nothing about him to indicate a lack of material goods or poverty. So I couldn’t understand why he was in essence begging me for money. I quickly replied that I was sorry and could not help him.

He then uttered a few sentences praising America and how he would like to travel there because the atmosphere or situation there is good. After that we departed and I continued to the gym. I wondered if his father was really sick why he would be coming to Kuwait to beg for money. Saudi Arabia has hospitals and a fairly decent health care system. But at the same time, I felt it was more likely to be a ploy or scam to perhaps obtain money for drugs.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Kuwait Ministry of Communications Cracks down on Internet Telephony

There are some things in Kuwait that I don’t understand. And one of them is the mentality at the Ministry of Communications (MOC) with regards to internet telephony and cheap international calling cards. Whereas before the advent of the internet, poorly paid expatriate workers were forced to use the services of the MOC to call home at expensive rates to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines to name a few places, they now have the opportunity to use cheap internet telephony such as Net2Phone or international calling cards that connect through the internet. However, the MOC has criminalized the use of such services and blocked access to websites of internet telephone services.

Statements attributed to MOC officials with regards to the matter are found quoted in different Kuwaiti newspapers. In the May 28, 2007 issue of the Daily Star Kuwait Edition, a small article appeared stating that the MOC had “blocked 67 websites being used to make ‘illegal’ online international phone transactions,” and one high official said that such transactions “waste public funds, as well as create social and security menaces in the country.” That is quite a loaded statement without any explanation. In what possible way could using much cheaper internet telephony services create a social and security menace? The MOC went on to say that they are recording names of customers of such services for easy tracking of violators, reminiscent of an Orwellian world. It is difficult to imagine the underpaid Indian or Bangladeshi who perhaps works at slightly above subsistence levels of $200 a month being called a criminal violator because he tries to save money on calling home. It is also more puzzling to read in the government newspaper that “brave” police officers arrested these violators and the people running such internet telephony “dens.”

But the Kuwait MOC is not alone in its actions. The UAE also joined Kuwait in this move, even to the point of blocking Skype. Bans on internet telephony services are also reported to extend to other countries in the region. But at least in Kuwait, Skype is not banned, which is great as I use it to call family and friends at home.

The reasons for the ban are economic and perhaps political as well. When the ministries of communication or government owned phone companies began seeing a drop in revenues, they quickly banned internet telephony in a move to force migrant workers, who are largely from Asia, to try and force them to continue calling home at expensive rates with the government’s telephone company. Yet I can’t understand why oil rich states such as the UAE and Kuwait, which is currently making record level profits from oil sales and recently decided to provide all Kuwaiti university students with $1000/month salary, is squeezing money from its migrant workers. The political reason behind banning internet telephony may be due to the increased difficulty or lack of possibility with tapping phone conversations since some internet services such as Skype automatically encrypt phone calls.

How long can Kuwait’s MOC swim upstream the river of time before they concede to modernization, the new possibilities of the internet, and the new role to which they must adapt as a MOC? On the homepage of the MOC’s website (, the MOC proclaims that “The State of Kuwait is considered a pioneer among the Gulf countries in the field of modern means of communication.” Unfortunately it seems this claim applies to a pre-internet era.
Below is a good newspaper article detailing the MOC’s difficulty to accept internet telephony and globalization.

By Amer Al-Hilal
From Arab Times (10th March, 2007)

The Kuwait Ministry of Communications apparently is not familiar with globalization, the shrinking 'world village' and the communications revolution sweeping the world. The bureaucratic, backward MOC mentality is stuck in a 1985 time warp. As reported the last few days, the Ministry of Communications has blocked Internet Telephony Services. One could see this particular train wreck coming ever since one of the MOC Under-Secretaries complained a few months ago of losing "20 million KD" in revenue per year due to the Net services.

But let us ponder the issue at hand what is KD 20 million to the MOC? Is this amount more important than allowing our expatriates and businesses to communicate in a swifter, less expensive manner via the net? The majority of citizens in Kuwait are expatriates, and many of them rely on services like Net To Phone because they cannot pay the exorbitant prices by the MOC. These tactics by the MOC are akin to Mafia extortion tactics (arrests, intimidation, blocked sites), forcing citizens to use high cost, sub par services. We are dealing with basic human rights here, the right to communicate with family and friends and not pay outrageous prices.

I am positive tens of millions more get wasted due to corruption and mismanagement at the MOC. The Kuwait international rates are among the highest in the Middle East and the world, technology is catching up; internet telephony services are one day going to make charges obsolete, so the MOC needs to 'get with the program' : preparing itself for its essential and eventual transformation from a traditional, bloated, pedantic government bureaucracy to an "Authority" that provides services and quality control.
Thousands of people are moving away from landlines (part of a global trend) and obtaining mobile numbers (they are the real MOC revenue-killer) - does the MOC intend to sue Wataniya and MTC as well?

The Former MOC Minister should have spent more time attempting to 'fix' Kuwait Airways (which is now being sued by 17 stranded passengers in Thailand) than trying to milk every last cent out of poor expatriates and citizens attempting to communicate with others via the Net . I also hope expatriates and their representatives in Kuwait help pressure the MOC to revers its course.

For a ministry that has proclaimed its willingness to 'reform,' 'modernize' and avail Kuwait of the latest technological developments in the Communications field, it has failed miserably to keep up with modern trends, limit ISP charges and upgrade its digital and broadband services to be on par with most modern states. The MOC needs to move away from its bureaucratic, inefficient and intrusive Orwellian world into the 21st century.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Kuwait Changes to Friday-Saturday Weekend

The Kuwaiti government recently announced that it will change the official weekend from the current Thursday-Friday to Friday-Saturday starting Sept 1 of this year. Friday is the day of worship to Muslims equivalent to Sunday for Christians. In Egypt and the Levantine countries (Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan), the weekend has long been on Friday and Saturday. However, the Persian Gulf countries followed a Thursday-Friday weekend. Yet, as the economies of these countries grow and businesses become more interrelated with their trading partners in Europe and the United States, the fact that the Thursday-Friday weekend meant there were only three shared business days between East and West became a hindrance to doing business. Thus, it is all the more economically feasible solution to institute a Friday-Saturday weekend and private business were the first to follow suit. With time however, the lack of a unified weekend became disruptive as families may have one spouse working for the government with a Thursday-Friday weekend and another spouse in private business with a Friday-Saturday weekend.

Hence, it was only a matter of time before a Friday-Saturday weekend was instituted in the public sector to unify it with the private sector. Yet, the move was not without its societal grumblings, with some Islamists yelping against the change since it was an imitation of the West and pointing out that Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath day. The point about imitating the West refers to a Hadith or saying by the Prophet Muhammad which says: “He who imitates a people is one of them.” And as in the Islamist view, Christians are not on the right path whereas Muslims are, Muslims should not imitate Christians. However, this is simply another example of poor interpretation as these sayings are quoted out of context, thereby losing the general meaning or purpose of the saying. For there is another Hadith that states: “Seek after knowledge, even unto China.” And during the time of the Prophet (600 AD) the Chinese had a lower rank as idol worshippers than Christians who were at least “People of the Book.” Thus, one can see the difficulty of Hadith quoting without a proper understanding of context or principle.

Nevertheless, the argument against a Friday-Saturday weekend because Saturday is a Jewish holiday sheds light on the rather absurd fear, hatred, and misunderstanding of Jews in Islamic, especially Arabic, societies. Teachers, especially those of religion, tend to preach the most irrational conspiracy theories about Jews that inculcate a generally poor view of Jews as a people from childhood.

Be that as it may, Persian Gulf countries have recently changed to Friday-Saturday weekends. Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE have already done so, with the UAE changing in fall of 2006. The only countries left on the Thursday-Friday schedule are Saudi Arabia and Oman. Saudi is reported as currently studying the issue of a change. Below is an article from Kuwait Times highlighting the weekend switch in Kuwait.

Title: Public reaction to Friday-Saturday weekend switch
Published Date: May 28, 2007
By Ahmad Al-Khaled, Staff Writer, Kuwait Times

KUWAIT: Kuwait's Cabinet yesterday issued an administrative decision to officially change the state's weekends from Thursday and Friday to Friday and Saturday. "I think the change will help in the development of Kuwait in international businesses, as by changing the second day off to Saturday we will only lose one business day with our international counterparts." said Jassem Ali, a banking sector employee who went on to add, "we in the banking sector have already been on such a schedule for years -- it only makes sense to initiate the change in the rest of the state as well."

The Gulf States of Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have already switched to a Friday-Saturday weekend while Saudi Arabia has stated it is currently studying the issue. While there had been a parliamentarian Islamist outcry in previous discussions of such a change, the parliament's hands are tied in what is a Cabinet administrative decision. Should MPs seek to change the decision they may enact a law of their own - declaring weekends to be on Thursdays and Fridays but with 16 voting Cabinet members favoring the new weekend and perhaps 16 or 17 Islamist MPs against the change, Islamist MPs do not have the numbers to support any counterattack on the new weekend.

Local Islamic NGO the Thawabet Al-Ummah Convention came out vocally against the move saying the change would align Muslims with the Saturday Jewish holy day of worship. "I am no fanatic, but I prefer to keep our weekends the way they have always been and not change our lives to mesh with the West," said Ibrahim Muhamed. "Why do we as a state have to change ourselves for the sake of the West," said Khaled Jassem. But many in the financial world believe the move will allow Kuwait to procure more businesses with the international world. "With this change we will be on the same page as the western world with whom we do business and of course we would never give away our Friday for business. It is only Thursday we are trading for Saturday - those two days mean nothing to us is only Friday that we should cherish - and we do," said Hussein Muhamed.

"It seems silly to fuss over Thursday versus Saturday when we should be thinking in terms of Kuwait's future," said Ghadha Ahmad. The change, which will be initiated on September 1, 2007, coincides with the first day of school in many areas. "As a mother who works in a bank, I will be so happy to see my children on weekends. With this school year their weekends were Thursday and Friday and mine on Saturday so we had only one day together as a family," said Layla Faisal.

"I think the start date for the change is perfect in that nobody's summer holidays will be affected and the school year will only have just begun so we can all get used to the new day offs together," said Daoud Yusef. "As an oil sector employee, I only spend time with my wife and children on Fridays because they have Thursday and Friday weekends - I am 100 percent in favor of the change to bring my family together," said Waleed Muhamed. Omar Abdulrahman took a different view of the forthcoming change saying, "I used to dread Fridays because I was due back at work on Saturdays but now Friday will hold the place it should, as a day for praying...I can learn to hate Saturdays."