Based solely on outward appearances, the incurious traveler might find the countries of the Persian Gulf coast fairly nondescript, if not downright generic. All boast drab yellow or white rectilinear low-rises alongside twisting steel-and-glass skyscrapers, old city cores increasingly surrounded by Western-style malls and chain restaurants, sizable immigrant populations, plenty of sand, smokers, and shawarma stands. I’d decided as much on previous visits to Oman and the UAE, and the hour-long ride from the airport through Kuwait City in a third-generation Toyota Hi-Ace simply confirmed my suspicions.
But there’s more to Kuwait than its built environment, its oil production, or even the fact that it was on the business end of an Iraqi invasion in 1990. Fashionistas, for example, might notice the ubiquity of skinny jeans and striped hoodies over traditional thawbs, and of keffiyehs as fashion accessories rather than utility wear. But clothes, geopolitics, and petrochemicals only get at the surface of Kuwait. The quickest way to understand it, I’m convinced, is to understand its relationship with cars.
Kuwait City is a car enthusiast’s dreamland. In a country of 3.4 million, there are 1.8 million cars, gas is 60 fils to a liter (about 80 cents per gallon), and monster SUVs from the Big Three prowl the streets as if it was still the late nineties. Nowhere else in the Middle East are you likely to find almost every car on the road, from Hummer H2s to Daewoo minibuses, as spotless as the day they rolled off the lot. Car salesmen don’t even need to advertise; they just leave their wares—entire lots full of them—with their engines idling and their hazards on, and the buyers start swarming. Even billboards depict cars and soccer balls more often than children and soccer balls.
Most long-term visitors to Kuwait will tell you that the country is “pretty laid back,” at least officially, and no place is this more evident than on the city’s roads. Traffic laws are, as far as I can tell, merely notional; most intersections don’t have stop signs, and Kuwaiti drivers will make full use of side streets and parking areas just to avoid waiting for a minute or two at a red light. Lane markings disappear completely at roundabouts and are generally ignored when convenient, as are speed limits. In no other country in the world have I regularly had to dodge cars driving 35 miles an hour down the sidewalk. Even Boston drivers, whose favorite targets are pedestrians in crosswalks, at least have the decency to keep to the actual roads. But the traffic system, such as it is, gets people from point A to point B, even if the process is more than a little hair-raising.
Still, Kuwait’s libertarian—cavalier, even—attitude toward driving extends to trash disposal as well. Like many cities, discarded cigarette containers, glass shards, and broken masonry litter the streets and back lots, and there are very few public trash cans or dumpsters in Kuwait. The apartment where I stayed overlooked Kuwait’s “Restaurant Street” (exactly what it sounds like), which at 11 p.m. is overrun with crowds, and by 6:30 a.m. is a landfill. Sidewalk and street alike are littered not only with paper trash, but also with food scraps that feed wave after wave of seagulls until the public street sweepers come by around 7.
As with fast food wrappers, so too with cars. I’d already noticed how quickly luxury cars sold, just by observing the used car lot up the street. A yellow Lamborghini Murciélago took a week to sell; a turquoise Camaro, three days; a black GMC Yukon, five. Then, about a week into my trip, I came across a dusty lot full of abandoned cars, from chunky late-nineties SUVs to a slightly-crumpled BMW Z3. Many had only minor defects or damage, nothing that a body shop couldn’t fix with minimal effort, but there were none in the whole of the Salmiya district where I was staying. Most, however, were just plain obsolete, a little too old-fashioned for the streets of Kuwait. I asked one person, who had just traded in his Ford Taurus, a reliable if unglamorous car, for a much flashier Land Cruiser Prado, why he had decided to upgrade. He shrugged. “Why not?”
But the status that your car exudes depends as much on its cleanliness as its make and model, and when all the other cars on the road look fresh from the dealer (because they are), you’d better get your own ride in similar shape. In maybe only one out of every twenty cars on Kuwait City roads could you find enough dust in which to leave a fingerprint, and this is no small feat in a country where even the greenery can look pretty dusty on most days.
Before I got over my jet lag, I would spend most nights watching the crowds descend on Restaurant Street, and this more than anything made me realize how much Kuwait and its cars are inextricably bound. It’s sort of like a combination Sonic drive-in and football tailgate. The cars pull up and honk their horn twice, then someone comes and takes their order and delivers the food. Solo diners are rare; pairs, after ordering their food, will usually stay in the cab and eat, while larger groups will crowd into the trunk of their SUV or onto the back of their car, sit, shove, chase each other around, and turn a take-out meal into a half-hour-long social activity.
Mostly, it reminded me of many a high school weekend night spent at the Shari’s diner in McMinnville, Oregon. Here, halfway across the world, the local greasy spoon is BYO seating, but the experience is not that much different. In a place where life is so variegated and daily existence so overwhelming, where the relative cost of living is so high and personal space and comfort are so rare, finding a few minutes for any sort of cheap and relatively private social activity is precious. Since alcohol is forbidden, there are no bars; while coffee shops and Krispy Kremes are popular date places for younger Kuwaitis, most of the time couples will camp out in front of a shawarma stand for fifteen or twenty minutes, brief and furtive meetings in a legally free but still relatively socially conservative country.
Then again, maybe my take on Kuwait and its cars would have been a lot different had I had one at my disposal. After all, bus rides, long walks, and sleepless nights thanks to squealing tires and blaring horns give you plenty of time to think about exactly what you’re missing—maybe a little too much.