Kuwait is not exactly a tourism hotspot. As one taxi driver told me, everyone in the country is there to work, not to enjoy him- or herself. After all, those with deep pockets and a taste for a country with a male to female ratio slightly lower than 2:1 tend toward Bahrain, Qatar, or the UAE, Kuwait’s more glamorous neighbors. With few other sightseeing options, sooner or later every tourist ends up visiting the country’s only truly iconic structures, the Kuwait Towers.
The main tower is Kuwait’s answer to the Space Needle: its upper sphere is a restaurant, and its lower sphere is a rotating viewing platform. From it, you can see the entire city, and on an exceptionally clear day, I’m told you can see all the way across the Persian Gulf.
But even more interesting than the view (which is marred by the dust-coated glass anyway) is the decor. The entire lower level commemorates the 1990-91 Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait. Pictures of the main tower, wrecked by shell and RPG fire, cover the walls, with slightly mistranslated—but very antagonistic—captions such as “Tanks and light missiles fired the towers because they want it to destroy Kuwait symbol” and “The barbaric destruction of Horizon Restaurant by the Iraqi invaders in 1990″ underneath.
If landmarks really do represent a nation’s character, then the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait continues to define the country. Apart from the gallery inside the Kuwait Towers, two other places serve as memorials to the invasion and the First Gulf War. Downtown is the tallest building in the country, the “Liberation Tower,” which is featured on the five dinar note (the Kuwait Towers are on the one dinar note). Two hours’ drive north of the city is the “Highway of Death,” a major road that runs between Kuwait City and Basra, which still features the wreckage of thousands of Iraqi military vehicles.
It’s no coincidence, however, that the only people who regularly visit these places are tourists. The intervening twenty years have all but erased any similarity between the Kuwait of the early ’90s and the Kuwait of today. Iraq is no longer a looming regional threat but a failed state, struggling toward peace and stability. Americans are welcomed as liberators no more; instead, they are advised by the U.S. State Department to keep their heads down and avoid drawing attention to themselves. Some commentators and agitators focus on Iran and Palestine, and criticize the United States and Israel; others complain about the illiberal tendencies of the government.
The government publicly touts the country’s economic development and diversification plans, and quietly deals with extremist militants. That is, anyone who pays attention to Middle Eastern politics can understand the story, because it seems to be playing out in Kuwait just like it does in almost every other Gulf state.
Except that satellite news agencies and international newspapers ignore most of what’s happening on the ground. The laborers who spend their shifts welding steel re-bar without eye protection and the taxi drivers who shuttle tourists around for sixteen hours a day barely get noticed. Many of these people, overwhelmingly poor immigrants, live in tenements or shabby apartment buildings and send the majority of their paychecks back home to families that they see a few times a year. But they get mentioned only when they break the law, for example in the regional newspapers’ crime blotters, which identify criminals based on their nationality. Even though it might be tempting to imagine the entire Middle East as a powder keg ready to burst into chants of “Death to America” at a moment’s notice, it’s hard to imagine that the currents of foreign affairs dominate the lives of many Kuwaitis.
In other words, Kuwait does not fall into neat little categories. It’s not defined by the aftermath of the Gulf War, nor is it bursting with anti-American sentiment. The country is staking its economic future on tourism and finance, like Dubai, as much as on oil, its traditional source of wealth. It’s also trying to balance the preservation of its cultural heritage while embracing the generic, but distinctly Westernized, trappings of globalization. In order to do that, it relies on a largely invisible class of foreigners to build, drive, greet, serve, and wait.
As the tagline to this series says, tensions in the Persian Gulf abound, whether ideological, economic, racial, or cultural—exactly what someone might expect in a nation of immigrants. And if these issues sound familiar, they should. At their core, Kuwait’s problems are simply a regional variant of the exact same ones facing every country and every individual: at what cost, globalism and growth?
Since 1945, we’ve thought about our world mostly in economic terms (now more than ever, thanks to the global recession), but that doesn’t mean that economic concerns have completely displaced political, cultural, or social ones; economic self-interest is hardly personal self-fulfillment. We’ve all seen in the past six months that unchecked economic self-interest and indefinite economic growth are not necessarily public goods. It looks like the idea of the benign invisible hand, the belief that material progress automatically equals human progress, is no more credible than all the other ideologies that have come crashing down since I’ve been alive (I’ll be 24 in July), from Marxism-Leninism to the Bush Doctrine. If we have indeed lost our faith in modernist political and economic philosophies, where do we go from here, and how do we make sense of the world?
The answer, I hope, isn’t the substitution of one version of political tribalism for another, whereby we pit Western liberalism against “Islamofascism” or the “Axis of Evil” instead of Western democracy against communism, for example. Nor is it the blind embrace of multiculturalism and political correctness, which is its own form of anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism. But every time we conflate newsworthy events (which invariably tend toward the sensational and radical) with a place’s day-to-day existence, and every time a commentator or blogger tries to pass an ideology off as a reality-based worldview, we back away from real prosperity, real fulfillment, and—ironically—real security. It seems to me that the best protection against this intellectual and ideological regression is some combination of simple curiosity and informed, thoughtful reflection.
Incidentally, it’s easier to come by this sort of thing when you’re in an unfamiliar place, among unfamiliar people. Four years ago, I thought of the Middle East as a dangerous, hostile place full of die-hard sectarians and political extremists. Even now, I know that they’re out there. But during my time in the region, I’ve found so many things that annoyed, bemused, exasperated, outraged, captivated, and awed me that I couldn’t possibly put the whole region into a neat mental “box.” If I hadn’t bothered to really experience the place, then my impression of the Middle East would be still colored entirely by a terrorist attack and a few wars, just like it is for so many other Americans. That doesn’t sound very enlightened to me.
Maybe I’d heard that op-ed-column-turned-Baz-Luhrmann-song on the local ’90s station one too many times, but so much of what I did while I was in the Middle East was new and (to one degree or another) scary. Yet up there in the Kuwait Towers, looking out one moment over the water and toward the coastline of Iraq and Iran, and the next over the skyscrapers of the city of Kuwait, I also knew that I’d barely begun to experience and understand the Gulf.