Saturday, 3 May 2014

My Problems with Being an Expat in Kuwait

I have held off on writing a post that focuses primarily on the negative aspects of being an expat in Kuwait because I haven’t wanted to shed an unfavourable light on the place I have called “home” for about two years. However, as a former ex-expat, I feel that people who are considering moving to the Gulf, and to Kuwait in particular, should be well-informed before making the decision of whether or not to relocate there.

I want to pre-empt this post by saying that in spite of what I write, I will be eternally grateful to both companies I worked for for the opportunities that they have given me. Although I would never recommend working at the uni to anyone, the second company I worked for is a corporation that is, albeit marginally at times, a better company to work for. If you are a qualified and experienced EFL instructor seeking employment in the Middle East, it's a very good place to start your journey.

I’m also extremely grateful that Kuwait has allowed me, as a foreigner, to earn an income that, in view of today’s global economic state, is difficult (and freakin’ impossible at times) to find/make in most countries—including mine: Canada and Japan (thank you taxes, the top 1% and wage inequality between men and women).

#1—Firstly, I’d like to state that Filipinos/as, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Indonesians and Malaysians (amongst others) are treated despicably here; they are the bottom tier of a clear caste system based on ethnicity and salary. Coming from Canada where citizens are taught to respect and welcome diversity, seeing the abhorrent treatment of people every day left a very bad taste in my mouth.

The second tier of lower class citizens are other Arab nationalities and Muslims: Iraqis, Egyptians, Moroccans, Sudanese, Persians or Iranians (many of whom refuse to even identify themselves as Arabs), Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Yemenis, etc. These nationals are never seen as equal to Kuwaitis. The next two tiers are almost equal. On one hand you have people from the Gulf States: Saudis, Qataris, Emiratis, Bahrainis and Omanis. On the other hand you have westerners, but specifically Caucasian westerners and even more specifically, the English/British and the Americans. Of course, the top tier is reserved for Kuwaitis. Now who buys into this hierarchy? Well, certainly many Kuwaitis do. By the way, the love/hate relationship between Kuwaitis and Saudis is similar to that of any two neighbouring countries.

What's worse is that I’ve witnessed expats here treat each other just as poorly as Kuwaitis treat them. Yay for perpetuating the cycle! For me, this obvious racism is the most repulsive and unattractive feature of Kuwait. I don’t know how to behave in this society: ignorant—the belief that I’m “better” than others here (but not always, of course! I DO look Filipino), or patronizing—this displayed in my attempt to sympathize and empathize with people who are lower in the social structure than I am.

#2—Secondly, I have no idea why Kuwaitis behave like this, but I feel like there is no pride when it comes to their country. People will go to the park and leave their rubbish on the ground for the garbage men to pick-up. Now, in all fairness, I’ve been told that Kuwaitis do this because they believe that they’re actions result in people having jobs. If you clean-up after yourself, then you won’t need a garbage man and you’re depriving someone of a job. Fair enough, but the irony is, as Kuwait Times (newspaper) frequently reminds me, according to many Kuwaitis expats are annoying, tolerated (only slightly) and most often, unwelcome. Only a bit of a contradiction there, eh? Where I come from, if you have pride in your country, then you show it by respecting the environment, the people, culture, traditions, laws, etc…Which many Kuwaitis don’t. Just look at the amount of traffic accidents, which brings me to my next point: the blame game.

#3—For some reason, almost ALL of the problems in Kuwait tend to be blamed on expats. The obscene amount of car accidents? Blame the expats. The reason money is not being re-invested in Kuwait’s economy? Expats aren’t re-investing it. The overcrowding? Too many expats. Corruption of the Kuwaiti (Islamic) culture? Expats. The illegal smuggling of foreigners into Kuwait? Well that has to be expats even though I don’t know a single expat who has the wasta (influence/power/connections with the government/police force/military/etc.) to smuggle in hundreds workers illegally, but hey, it must be our fault because we’re expats.

#4—That, interestingly, brings me to my next—and paradoxical—point: How can I invest??? When I first came to Kuwait in 2012, I was very enthusiastic about developing a community service program at the uni which was immediately squashed. I tried to get involved with charitable organizations here, but was discouraged. It was only when I was roaming around 360º Mall recently with the Georgian Lady that I encountered Kuwaitis who had developed organizations that supported the environment, community service and monetary donation. It was too late. I was already jaded and demotivated. I wanted to do good here and it was always unappreciated and rejected. I’ve heard that you can volunteer to do clean-ups around the country…Ummm, you mean clean the garbage that Kuwaitis throw on the ground instead of throwing into the waste bin??? Yeah…No. Expats can’t obtain property or ever get Kuwaiti citizenship. So, why should expats invest in a country that so clearly doesn’t offer any perks to people who would like to permanently settle there?

Want me to reinvest in Kuwait? Then Kuwait has to invest in me, too. What does that mean? Well, ironically, another complaint about expats is that they only come to Kuwait to make money and then leave. I would love to see the government invest in expats and then maybe expats would be motivated to invest in Kuwait (think Dubai, which to me is what Kuwait had the potential to be). Treat me like I’m no better than the garbage you throw on the ground (and I was made to feel like that a lot, especially because to many Arabs I look Filipino), and I’ll absolutely bypass any type of investment towards the betterment of the country.

#5—Lastly, Kuwait lacks a strong culture and therefore you will find it difficult to really embrace doing cultural activities. In addition, Kuwait is a very small country and there isn’t a lot to do. Yes, you can go to the Kuwait Towers, but if you’ve gone to the CN Tower (Toronto, Canada), the Sears Building (Chicago, USA) or even the Tokyo Tower (Tokyo, Japan), then this isn’t a thrill. Half the time it’s too dusty to see anything. The aquarium is a place where penguins have been described as depressed-looking. You don’t say. I’d be depressed if I was a penguin and I was captive in a country where summer temperatures can reach 50ºC (122ºF), too. Apparently there is a science centre, but I have been told it’s meant for kids, not adults (You can confirm this for me, folks). You can go to the National Museum, but—sadly—even the Lonely Planet doesn’t rate it highly:

Once the pride of Kuwait, the National Museum remains a shadow of its former self. The centrepiece of the museum, the Al-Sabah collection, was one of the most important collections of Islamic art in the world. During the Iraqi occupation, however, the exhibition halls were systematically looted, damaged or set fire to.

Of course, there were a lot of Kuwaitis I met who never behaved in the manner that I’ve discussed. They are brilliant, funny and liberal; they welcome the inevitable changes that are occurring and they were a breath of fresh air to me! They are happy to speak with expats and interact with them. To those amazing people, I thank you personally because you inspired me and made this experience a valuable one. I hope that those people succeed in making Kuwait a better country because it would be a shame if their efforts were for nothing.

I hope that if Kuwaitis ever want to travel to Canada and/or Japan that Canadians and/or the Japanese show them hospitality, kindness and acceptance. Mostly I hope that Kuwait continues to grow and develop in a positive manner.

1These are my opinions about the worst things about Kuwait. I know others complain about the lack of alcohol and no nightlife, etc., but these aren’t my major complaints. 

2Please respect the country and protect yourself by doing your homework and reading up about Kuwait’s laws before moving and/or travelling there.


  1. Oh, I hate the way I'm looked at/treated/spoken to sometimes just because I'm originally from India. Its only when I open my mouth to talk and they hear another accent that I get a little respect which is so disgusting!

    Having said that though, most of the Kuwaitis who I work with are amazing and recognize that I'm just as qualified and "worthy".. lol.. There was one incident where a Dean of another Faculty told a group of us girls to get out in Hindi as if we were maids when we had gone to that particular office to enquire about something. Luckily I don't speak Hindi and so didn't realize how insulting it was until a friend translated it for me later on.

    I also hate how everything is blamed on us! Argh, but the thing that people tell me when I start complaining is that no one's forcing me to stay here in Kuwait and that if I'm not happy, I'm more than welcome to move to another country. I guess that is true.. :-(

    1. Hi Layla!!! Long time no chat. So happy to hear from you (^ - ^ )

      Congratulations on the birth of your (second) daughter! I hope that you, the new baby and your family are all healthy and well adjusted.

      It's true, no one's forcing us to stay, but my problem with that comment (because I've heard it, too), is that there are better ways to sustain and develop Kuwait's society, including methods that are more efficient, humanitarian and smart/safe. These methods would not only benefit expats, but more importantly, Kuwaitis and the country itself. At the end of the day I'm more than aware that my efforts to improve Kuwait, the people living in Kuwait (Kuwaitis and expats), and the international relationships that Kuwait depends on are useless because they're not deemed significant to the growth of the country. There's no foresight and when I begin to wonder, "What's the point?" I feel depressed and demotivated.

      I've left Kuwait permanently at this point to return to Canada and open up my own business. I have loved what Kuwait offered me: a good-paying job, wonderful friends, AMAZING food and a safe haven from my ex.

      I will continue to blog :) Many, MANY thanks to you, Layla! I appreciate your comments and, as always, hope you enjoy!

      All the best to you as you continue your journey in Kuwait!

  2. Sorry, its been a while since I've been here (I had a beautiful baby girl in February, my second girl btw.. and have just joined back at work today). Are you leaving Kuwait for good? I hope you continue your blog even if the name no longer makes sense. Even if its just your food posts :) I love the way you ramble about your life and the different things you get up to.

  3. Kuwait lacks a strong culture? You are very ignorant.

  4. Most Kuwaitis don't believe in the ''racial hierarchy'' you mentioned. ''Kuwaiti'' isn't a race. Kuwaitis are diverse. There are many Kuwaitis of Persian ancestry, Indian ancestry, African ancestry and Kurdish ancestry.

    30% of Kuwaitis are Shia Muslims, most Shia Kuwaitis are of Persian ancestry.

    Kuwaitis aren't responsible for the salary system based on ethnicity. You do realize that most Kuwaitis aren't making the rules? Kuwait isn't a real democracy, we don't actually decide how much foreigners get paid based on ethnicity/nationality.

    You don't have any evidence that most Kuwaitis mistreat South Asians and Southeast Asians. Have you met most Kuwaitis? Just because some Kuwaitis mistreat South Asians and Southeast Asians, doesn't mean the majority of Kuwaitis do the same.

  5. Zainab, I’m very appreciative of your commentary! Unfortunately, your reading of my post is grossly misinterpreted.

    Firstly, I make no reference to the ethnic or racial make-up of Kuwaitis. My stance had to do with the way that Kuwaitis treat other nationalities/ethnicities/races. Nor did I ever equate culture with ancestry, so I apologize, but your first two paragraphs make no sense to me.

    In regards to salary, I am alluding to the Kuwait government. OBVIOUSLY the general populace does not determine the salary of expats working in Kuwait. Are Kuwaitis the only ones who determine earnings? Of course not. I do know for a fact that companies in Kuwait racially discriminated via wages based on ethnicity/nationality/race. In fact, that’s why I was somehow able to make more than my Egyptian, Georgian and Serbian co-workers. We were all EFL instructors doing the same job, working the same amount of hours, teaching the same number of students with the same credentials. By the way, if you know of an organization that’s been established by Kuwaitis which fights for (foreign) workers’ rights, please let me know; I’d be more than happy to support such a worthy cause :)

    Did I write that ALL Kuwaitis treat Asians poorly? No. Putting words in my mouth is not only rude, but it’s presumptuous. I am half Asian and therefore possess similar features to other Asians, and I experienced racism on a daily basis. If you’ve read my blog then you will know about the racist treatment that I have experienced. Do you know what has happened to Asians in Kuwait? Don’t answer that unless you have something intelligent to say, or I’ll simply delete your comment. If I am ignorant, then many expats in Kuwait must be ignorant because many of us have felt, seen and experienced the same things. Your gall is exactly what I was referring to in my post. Assuming I was indicting all Kuwaitis??? By the way, I have very good friends who are Kuwaiti and they’ve made the same comments I have.

    My response to your indignation is utter disappointment. I am proud of Canada and Japan, just as I hope you are proud of Kuwait, but only a fool would turn a blind eye to the complications that exist in their own country. If you haven’t read other entries in my blog, then do. I by no means believe either Canada or Japan are faultless. Maybe it’s time you thought critically about Kuwait (no, I didn’t write criticize). If you think I’m alone in my sentiments, then read the comments to a Kuwait Times article on fb. This is but one example out of many, and I’ve got lots: