POPULATION: 3.2 million (30% of whom are Kuwaiti citizens)
LANGUAGE: Arabic (official); English
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni, 70%; Shi'ite, 30%)
Kuwait has one of the world's largest proven oil fields, an oil field that the Iraqis did their best to control and later attempted to destroy in their 1990-91 invasion and occupation of Kuwait. One of the wealthiest nations in the world before the invasion, Kuwait has undergone a significant recovery from the widespread infrastructural and cultural destruction inflicted on the country by six months of Iraqi occupation.
Archaeological study shows evidence of human settlements in Kuwait dating back to 5000 BC. The Dilmun civilization occupied the area from 4000 to 2000 BC, controlling the trade route to India. The Babylonians took over, then the Persians; after this, the Greeks established a colony on Falaika Island and then expanded inland around 300 BC. Greek rule lasted about 200 years, after which the Romans entered. The Islamic revolution swept through the area during the 7th century AD. Not much is known about Kuwait from the time of the Islamic revolution until the 18th century.
Modern-day Kuwait was founded in 1722 by the Utub tribe of Arabs, who moved there to flee the drought across the inland Arabian Peninsula at that time. The name Kuwait is the diminutive form of the Arabic word kut, meaning "a fortress built near water." The few native inhabitants already there mingled with the Utub, and they all made their living by trading, fishing, and pearling. Sabah bin Jabir was elected sheikh (leader) of the Kuwaiti Utub in 1756, and the Sabah family has ruled Kuwait ever since.
Kuwait has a history of friendly relations with Britain, and it became a British-protected state in 1899. Kuwait was granted self-rule in 1914, but it remained a British protectorate until 19 June 1961, when it became officially independent. The Kuwaiti government is a constitutional monarchy that has a provision for an elected parliamentary body, the National Assembly, but the monarchy has rarely allowed it to exist. In 1992, elections were held for a new Assembly, and a majority of those elected are considered to be in opposition to the monarchy.
A small but wealthy state, Kuwait has suffered continual conflicts with its larger neighbors, Iraq and Iran. On 2 August 1990, Saddam Hussein led an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, occupying the country until 26 February 1991. Relations between the two nations had soured some months prior to the invasion over disputed border oilfields and growing Iraqi discontentment with an economically-crippling military debt to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia amassed during Iraq's eight-year war with Iran. During the occupation, Iraqi soldiers ravaged the country, and much of the nation's wealth was looted and transferred to Iraq. There are conflicting accounts regarding the extent of the human rights violations committed by the Iraqi military invasion, with Kuwait claiming that the arbitrary arrest, beating, torture, rape, and murder of Kuwaiti citizens was widespread. Iraqis have contested this and argued that these claims were exaggerated by the Kuwaiti regime in exile to make a more compelling and emotionally-appealing case for UN-backed military intervention. Following the passing of a landmark resolution in the Security Council, a United Nations coalition force from 38 nations (including eight Arab countries) came to Kuwait's defense on 16 January 1991 and drove out the Iraqis a month later. On their way out, the Iraqis conducted a scorched earth campaign, bombing and burning Kuwait's oil wells, roads, buildings—virtually everything in their path. Most of Kuwait's oilfields were set ablaze and took months to extinguish. This has had a severe toll on the Kuwaiti environmental conditions, both marine and terrestrial. Since the invasion, Kuwait has made a significant leap forward and recovered from all but one of the traumas of the invasion—the emotional one. Kuwait's currency stands unrivaled as one of the strongest in the world, the nation's population has swelled to twice its size two decades ago, and with souring oil prices, the country has been experiencing an economic renaissance.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Kuwait is located in the desert on the northwestern coast of the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf. It is bordered to the north and west by Iraq, to the south and southwest by Saudi Arabia, and to the east by the Gulf. Directly across the Gulf is Iran. Kuwait's total land area is about 17,820 sq km (6,880 sq mi), just slightly smaller than that of the U.S. state of New Jersey. Several islands are included within Kuwait's borders; the island of Failaka is the most densely populated. The largest island is Bubiyan, but it is uninhabited because it is low-lying and marshy. Kuwait Bay is a protected harbor on the Gulf that has been much used for millennia. Kuwait's capital city, Al-Kuwait, is located at the harbor. The rest of Kuwait is flat desert, with a couple of low ridges (about 122 m, or 400 ft above sea level) where the oil is located. Because the oil is in ground that is higher than the rest of the country, it does not have to be pumped, but simply flows with the force of gravity into collecting tanks.
What little plant and animal life there was before the Iraqi invasion is now almost totally destroyed. Military vehicles churned up the delicate desert soil, and oil flooding from bombed wells and spreading in a slick on the Gulf waters has killed most wild sea, land, and air life. Recovery efforts are slow, and some damage may never be repaired. Oil spills, significant percentages of acid precipitation, widespread ordinances, and residues of the war arms continue to pose significant threats for the revival of the country's terrestrial and marine flora and fauna.
The climate in Kuwait is hot and humid, with summer temperatures reaching as high as 49°C (120°F) or more. Frequent sandstorms occur from May to July, and August and September are extremely humid. Winters are cooler, with temperatures ranging from 10° to 16°C (50°–60°F). Average rainfall is only 2.5 to 18 cm (1–7 in) yearly, all of which falls during the winter months, from October through April.
Kuwait's total population, based on a 1999 census, is 2,273,842 persons, of whom only 792,000 are Kuwaiti citizens. The rest are foreign workers in the oil, medical, educational, and construction industries, as well as significant numbers in skilled labor. Foreign workers are not allowed citizenship, even if they work in Kuwait all their adult lives. Even children born in Kuwait to foreign workers are not granted Kuwaiti citizenship. After a career of service in Kuwait, a foreign worker is asked to leave the country immediately after retiring or upon the expiration of their work permits. Of the foreigners, about 35% are Arab; 10% are Iranian; 10% are Indian; 15% are Bangladeshi and Pakistani; and 10% are Egyptian, 10% are Palestinian (numbers halved following the liberation due to political reasons); and the remaining 10% are from a variety of countries. In May 1991, following liberation from the Iraqi invasion, it was reported that 900 persons were being investigated for their activities during the Iraqi invasion. The Kuwaiti prime minister acknowledged that non-Kuwaitis had been abducted and tortured. Some were arrested and tried as collaborators with the Iraqis; many were forced to leave the country.
Most of the Kuwaiti population is urban, with estimates reaching 96%. According to the 1999 census, 30,958 people live in the capital, Kuwait City. The largest town is Salmiyya, with a population of 150,452. Jalib al-Shuyukh has 160,289 persons, and Hawalli has 93,000. Before the Iraqi occupation, new towns were being built to house the growing population. Since the liberation, reconstruction has rebuilt much of the country's destroyed areas and new residential areas, both urban and suburban enclaves have emerged throughout. The demographic distribution of the country shows a geographic and socioeconomic disparity between residential areas for Kuwaitis and those for expatriates, with the latter occupying smaller urban apartments whilst the prior live in luxurious suburban property.
Arabic is the official language of Kuwait and is the language spoken by all Kuwaiti citizens. Kuwaiti students are taught English as a second language. Arabic, spoken by 422 million people worldwide, has many distinct dialects, so that people living as few as 500 km (about 310 mi) apart may not be able to understand one another. The written form of Arabic is called Classical Arabic, or, for today's literature and press, Modern Standard Arabic. It is the same for all literate Arabs, regardless of how different their spoken dialects are. Arabic is written from right to left in a unique alphabet that makes no distinction between capital and lower-case letters. It is not necessary for the letters to be written in a straight line, as English letters must be. Punctuation rules are also quite different from those of English.
"Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are As-salam 'alaykum, "Peace be with you," with the reply of Wa 'alaykum as-salam, "and to you peace." Ma'assalama means "Goodbye." "Thank you" is Shukran, and "You're welcome" is 'Afwan; "yes" is na'am and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are wahad, ithnayn, thalatha, arba'a, khamsa, sitta, saba'a, thamanya, tisa'a, and 'ashara.
Arab names consist of their first name, their father's name, and their paternal grandfather's name. Women do not take their husband's name when they marry but rather keep their father's family name as a sign of respect for their family of origin. First names usually indicate an Arab's religious affiliation: Muslims often use names with Islamic religious significance, such as Muhammad and Fatima, while Christians often use Western names, as well as Arabic Christian names, such as Elias and Butrus.
Kuwaitis speak a dialect of Arabic known as Khaleeji (Gulf Arabic) that is spoken with some variation throughout the Gulf countries including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Khaleeji dialects are comprehensible to all their speakers but may not be understood completely in other regions of the Arab world, such as the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine) or the North Africa region. These dialects are spoken rather than written although there is a move towards textually documenting these oral languages in the form of literature and poetry for fear of their loss due increased reliance on foreign-produced media content.
Kuwaiti folk beliefs and rituals are strongly linked to Islam, to which Kuwaitis turn for daily guidance, as well as explanations for many aspects of their current lives and past history. Prior to the discovery of oil, the people of Kuwait relied primarily on desert herding and fishing for sustenance. These have had a substantial impact on the country's folklore and culture with many songs, theatrical performance, literature, and poetry and musical compositions and often serve as inspiration for the stories in these artistic expressions. Bedouin and desert nomadic culture has also left its mark in the traditional garb worn by men and women both casually and on special occasions including weddings, funerals, ceremonies, celebrations and formal meetings.
The original inhabitants of Kuwait were pantheistic, worshiping various goddesses and gods. A temple to Artemis, the Greek virgin moon goddess of the hunt, was located on the island of Falaika. In AD 313, the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, of which Kuwait was then a part, so Kuwait became a Christian state. When the Islamic revolution swept through the area in the 7th century AD, virtually all Kuwaitis converted to Islam. Today, about 70% of Kuwaiti citizens are Sunni Muslims, while 30% are Shi'ite Muslims.
Islam is the youngest of the world's three Abrahamic religions, having begun in the early 7th century AD when the prophet Muhammad received his revelations from Allah (God). Within just a few years of Muhammad's death in AD 632, Islam had spread through the entire Middle East, gaining converts at a dynamic rate.
Born into the Koreish tribe of Mecca (c. AD 570), in what is now Saudi Arabia, Muhammad was later driven from the city because of his vigorous denunciation of the pagan idols worshiped there (idols that attracted a profitable pilgrim trade). The year of Muhammad's flight from Mecca, AD 622 (July 16), called the Hijra, is counted as the year one in the Muslim calendar. Muhammad fled to the city now known as Medina, another of the holy sites of modern-day Saudi Arabia. Eventually, Muhammad returned to Mecca as a triumphant religious and political leader, destroyed the idols (saving the Black Stone, an ancient meteorite housed in the Kaaba, or Cube, building, which has become a focal point of Muslim worship), and established Mecca as the spiritual center of Islam.
The Islamic religion has five so-called "pillars": (1) Muslims must pray five times a day; (2) Muslims must give alms, or zakat, to the poor; (3) Muslims must fast during the month of Ramadan; (4) Muslims must make the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca; and (5) each Muslim must recite the shahada: "ashhadu an la illah ila Allah wa ashhadu an Muhammadu rasul Allah," which means "I witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah." Muslims say all their prayers facing in the direction of Mecca. Both men and women are expected, and greatly desire, to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, during which Muhammad received his first revelations, is observed by complete fasting from dusk until dawn each day of the entire month.
Islam is a simple, straightforward faith with clear rules for correct living; it is a total way of life, inseparable from the rest of one's daily concerns. Therefore, religion and politics and faith and culture, are one and the same for Muslims. There is no such thing as the separation of church and state. In theory, there should be no distinction between private religious values and public cultural norms in an Islamic country; in actuality, history, geography, and daily life have influenced the cultures of Islamic countries, resulting in standards of social behavior and interaction that are not always in agreement with religious codes of conduct.
The difference between the Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, which has played such an important part in Arab history, has to do with the early history of the religion. After Muhammad's death, the entire Muslim community recognized the legitimacy of the next three successors, or caliphs. The fourth caliph was 'Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. His legitimacy was challenged by Mu'awiyah, the governor of Syria, and after the Battle of Siffin in 657, 'Ali was forced to withdraw. He moved his capital to Iraq and was murdered shortly thereafter. His followers refused to recognize the legitimacy of Mu'awiyah's caliphate and established the Shi'ite sect. Although there are doctrinal differences, the fundamental difference between the sects, therefore, is an argument about authority, not doctrine: the Shi'ites believe that caliphs must be direct descendants of Muhammad and that 'Ali was the legitimate fourth successor, while the Sunnis believe that caliphs should be elected by the people and therefore that Mu'awiyah and his successors were legitimate. Because there are more Sunnis than Shi'ites worldwide, the Sunnis refer to themselves as the orthodox sect.
Secular holidays in Kuwait include New Year's Day (January 1) and National Day (February 25). Liberation Day (February 26), commemorating the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, is not recognized as an official holiday, but Kuwaitis seem to treat it as one. In deference to Kuwaitis still missing in Iraq after the occupation and to their families, no ceremonies or celebrations are held to mark the National Day or the Liberation Day.
Because Kuwait is an Islamic state, its official religious holidays are Muslim ones. Muslim holidays follow the lunar calendar, moving back by eleven days each Western year, so their dates are not fixed on the standard Gregorian calendar. The main Muslim holidays are Eid Al-Fitr, a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan; Eid Al-Adha, a three-day feast of sacrifice at the end of the month of pilgrimage to Mecca, during which families who can afford it slaughter a lamb and share the meat with poorer Muslims; the First of Muharram, or the Muslim New Year; al-Mawlid An Nabawi, the prophet Muhammad's birthday; and Eid Al-Isra' wa Al-Mi'raj, a feast celebrating Muhammad's nocturnal visit to heaven. Friday is the Islamic day of rest, so most businesses and services are closed on Fridays. All government offices, private businesses, and schools are closed also during Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Births are the occasion for celebration, particularly if the child is a boy. Kuwaiti boys are circumcised on the seventh day after their birth. This is usually accompanied by a banquet (Aqiq), for which sheep are slaughtered and relatives and friends are invited in for a festive meal. After giving birth, a mother is expected to stay in bed for 40 days (nifas), to recuperate and regain her strength.
Weddings are perhaps the most elaborately celebrated occasions, with great feasts and dancing. In the past, girls could be betrothed at the age of 14. Today, the average age for marriage is 20 to 25. There are two rituals in the marital tradition, the milka, or marriage contract, and the 'urs, or marriage ceremony. Kuwaiti society is built on the importance of the family, and marriages are often arranged between families with long-established ties.
Respect toward the dead is also an important ritual. The burial takes place on the same day as the death. The body is washed and wrapped in a white shroud and then taken to a nearby mosque, where special prayers (Salat al-Janaza) are recited. After the burial, the relatives, friends, and acquaintances gather at the home of the grieving family to pay their respects and read aloud parts of the Quran. Mourning lasts for three days.
During the Iraqi invasion and occupation (1990–91), the usual social barriers and divisions, such as age, religious differences, and gender segregation, disappeared as Kuwaitis banded together to resist and/or survive. During more peaceful times, men and women do not mix socially, except in family groups, and Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims keep their distance from each other.
The diwaniyas, private clubs for men, played an important role during the Iraqi occupation. Traditionally, functioning as meeting places where men sit and talk over coffee or tea, making business contacts, discussing government policy with influential persons who can then make the suggested changes, and making deals with each other, the diwaniyas became the hub of the resistance movement. Men gathered there (as well as in mosques) and organized their resistance efforts against the Iraqis. In post-liberation Kuwait, these congregations have become a forum for political organizing that has led to recent crackdowns on some of the diwaniyas that reflect opposition to the Al-Sabah family rule.
In general, Arab hospitality reigns in Kuwait. When talking, Arabs touch each other much more often, and stand much closer together, than Westerners do. People of the same sex will often hold hands while talking or walking. (In earlier days, members of the opposite sex, even married couples, never touched in public; this is changing today.) Arabs tend to be social, gregarious, highly conversant, and insistent and have different conversational and interpersonal rules than Westerners. Interrupting a person speaking is not seen as offensive, and speaking with a high volume is acceptable. Most conversations appear to involve emotion and are replete with non-verbal gestures.
With a new generation of Kuwaiti youth being influenced by foreign travel and exposure to international media, there is greater mixing between males and females, with a growing number of private co-ed British and American schools and universities setting the standards in education and creating an environment where popular cultural youth trends are explored. Large shopping centers have become a place where youth meet, congregate, or simply people watch and now serve as some of the most public spaces for socialization.
Given the high income levels in Kuwait, the country has a very hierarchical system of socioeconomic classes, which affects interpersonal relations. Interactions between Kuwaiti and other nationalities are governed by this hierarchy. Domestic workers are common in Kuwait, and most citizens have several employees in the household who are expatriate laborers sponsored by the host/employer family. Most such workers are citizens of countries in South Asia, East and North Africa, or the Philippines. With more than half the population of the country being comprised of non-Kuwaitis, communication between various ethnic, national, and racial communities makes for an intriguing intercultural interpersonal environment.
During the Iraqi invasion and occupation (1990–91), conditions in Kuwait were horrendous. During the incredibly hot summer months, most of Kuwait's citizen population is given extended leaves from work and permitted to travel to more temperate climates. With a high GDP, most Kuwaiti citizens own property or second homes outside of their country that serve as places of summer vacation. The Iraqi invasion occurred during the summer of 1990 when the population of Kuwait had shrunk to half its size. For the small numbers of Kuwaitis and the remaining expatriate population that remained and had not fled, life was extremely difficult and dangerous. There was little food and no running water. Utilities (electricity, gas, water, and so forth) were cut off and other services closed down. The Iraqis stole everything that could be hauled away—from homes, stores, offices, even hospitals. Kuwaitis and anyone deemed suspicious were arrested arbitrarily with many cases of rape, torture, or murder reported. When the UN forces drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait, the Iraqis conducted a scorched earth campaign: they bombed and/or burned everything in their path as they were leaving. Kuwait was left in flaming rubble. In the years since, a massive rebuilding effort has brought Kuwait back to its modern, well-developed, pre-invasion state.
Health care and education through the university level are free to all Kuwaiti citizens. Foreign workers are entitled to most of the benefits but are restricted from admission to some programs. The infant mortality rate is low; life expectancy is high: 73 years for men, and 77 years for women. Modern health-care centers are conveniently located throughout the country and tend to be of high quality. Several exceptional medical research and service facilities have emerged in the last quarter century including a world-class medical genetics center, a top cancer treatment center, and a network of rehabilitation and support agencies for those with mental and physical disabilities.
The government sponsors social welfare programs for disabled persons, the elderly, students' families, widows, unmarried women over 18, orphans, the poor, and prisoners' families. Housing is subsidized, as are utilities. Telephone services are free. TV broadcasting began in 1961, with satellite communications established in 1969.
Kuwaitis' per capita (per person) income is one of the highest in the world. About one-fourth of all Kuwaitis own a car, usually an expensive one. On the other end of the economic scale, some laborers receive small earnings and live in dormitory-like apartments, sending most of their incomes as remittances to their families in their home countries.
Kuwait has an advanced highway system that connects all corners of the country but tends to be dangerous with high frequencies of accidents due to reckless driving. However, as the population of Kuwait continues to swell, the government is considering building a rail system within the capital city of Al-Kuwait and its suburbs to alleviate traffic congestion.
The press is censored less in Kuwait than in other Arab countries, but it is still controlled by the government. Kuwait has a ministry of information that monitors, advises and occasionally censors all forms of media in the country although the print press tends to be independent both in ownership and in coverage with several daily newspapers espousing clear oppositional views to the government. Recently, Kuwait was ranked the freest of all Arab media systems but remains hopelessly behind many countries in the world. Nonetheless, Kuwait has made a name for itself in the Arab digital and video media industry, producing several cutting-edge animation television series, producing high-end children's programming and leading the dubbing industry along with Jordan and Lebanon.
The family unit is more important to Kuwaitis than the individual, the larger community, or the state. Families tend to be large; the government encourages large families in its effort to increase the percentage of native Kuwaitis in the overall population. The government even pays over $7,000.00 to each couple at the time of their marriage and offers child support to families for every child born, with a sliding scale if the child has a disability or is in need of special medical care.
Extended families usually live together, except in some urban areas where the houses are too small. In this case, relatives live near each other. A typical Kuwaiti household consists of a husband, his parents, his wife, his sons and their wives and children, and his unmarried sons and daughters. Parents arrange marriages, usually between extended-family members. First cousins are an acceptable match among urban Kuwaitis and preferred among Bedouin Kuwaitis. Marrying and having children, particularly sons, increases a woman's status in society. Most girls marry young; 29% of Kuwaiti women are married by the time they are 20 years old.
In Kuwait's urban centers, Western-style clothing is becoming popular, particularly with young people. However, many Kuwaitis still wear traditional Arab clothing, such as the dish-dasha (ankle-length robe) with a ghutra (head scarf), usually white, worn over a skull cap and held in place with an 'aqal (wool rope) for men. Women are veiled according to Islamic law, with the covering being of varying degrees, from hair-covering, to the niqab (showing only the eyes), to the burqa' (full face and head-cover). Kuwaiti men and women are very fond of luxury products and commodities, often preferring the most expensive western designer accessories for watches, sunglasses, perfume, etc. Today, Kuwaitis comfortably and delicately balance the complexities of traditional attire with high-end western style in an often unique amalgam.
As a wealthy country, Kuwait is able to import foods from all over the world. Their desert climate supports almost no agriculture, making importation absolutely necessary. As Muslims, Kuwaitis cannot eat pork or drink alcohol, and all meats must be slaughtered according to Islamic tradition to ensure purity and cleanliness, which is known as halal (meaning permitted). Coffee and tea are the most popular beverages and are often mixed with spices, coffee with cardamom and tea with saffron or mint. Food and drink are always taken with the right hand. Etiquette of hospitality requires that hosts continue offering refills on drinks and food regardless of the guest's wishes.
The Kuwaiti cuisine offers a variety of dishes that reflect the country's Bedouin traditions and long history of contacts with other cultures, such as those of India, Iraq, and Iran. In addition to the simple Bedouin meals of dates and yogurt, Kuwaitis favor meat, fish, and rice. Spices are an essential part of the Kuwaiti cuisine. Among the most commonly used spices are coriander, cardamom, saffron, and turmeric. Most Kuwaitis eat in large groups and enjoy entertaining others including neighbors, extended families and clans. In the household and for traditional meals, Kuwaitis share food from a colossal single serving plate and customarily prefer using their bare hands over utensils.
When it comes to non-traditional foods, Kuwaitis' hefty budgets have led to discerning palates. As they prefer only the best of world fare, restaurants in Kuwait are exceptional compared to their counterparts elsewhere in the world.
Education is a primary focus of the Kuwaiti government. It puts a tremendous amount of money into providing good, free education for all its citizens. Because of this emphasis, the literacy rate in Kuwait is quite high compared to those of other Arab countries: 74% of Kuwaitis are literate. The percentage is significantly lower for older women who grew up during a time when girls were not encouraged to obtain a formal education. The literacy rate is higher for young Kuwaitis: 87% of Kuwaiti children age 10 to 14 can read and write.
Education is compulsory for all Kuwaiti children 6 to 14 years of age. Schools teach in Arabic, and English is taught as a second language to all students 10 years of age and older. Boys and girls attend separate schools. Every child is trained to become computer-literate in primary and early secondary school. Since the mid 1970s the number of English language private all-grade schools has grown exponentially. These institutions differ from public schools in being co-ed and multinational in composition as they attract many children of expatriates. They also follow the British or American school curricula rather than that of the state's Ministry of Education.
Education is free through the university level; the government also pays for students to study abroad. All expenses, including books, tuition, transportation, uniforms, and meals, are paid by the government. The government also pays families of students an allowance to help cover any other education-related expenses. This has led to an explosion in the number of Kuwaitis with graduate degrees and upper-level qualifications in all industries and supported the government's campaign of takweet (Kuwaitization) of all sectors to ensure that reliance on expatriate expertise declines.
A law passed in 1981 in Kuwait requires all adults who cannot read to attend literacy classes. To round out Kuwaitis' education, the government has put in place a strong arts program.
To help promote and encourage the arts in Kuwait, the Kuwaiti government founded the National Council for Culture, Arts, and Letters in 1974. Painting and sculpture are relatively recent developments on Kuwait's cultural scene. The National Museum building formerly contained the Al-Sabah Collection, which was considered one of the most important collections of Islamic arts in the world. During the Iraqi invasion, however, the entire museum was looted by the occupying forces.
The Sadu House is a cultural foundation and a museum that is entirely dedicated to the preservation of Bedouin art heritage, particularly weaving. In all other respects, Kuwait shares the cultural heritage of other Arab countries generally.
Arab music is rich and diverse. The oud, a popular instrument, is an ancient stringed instrument that is the ancestor of the European lute. Another traditional instrument originally from southern Egypt is the rebaba, a one-stringed instrument. The sea chantey is the most distinctive Kuwaiti folk song; chanteys were traditionally sung as work songs on pearling ships.
A traditional Arab dance is the ardha, or men's sword dance. Men carrying swords stand shoulder to shoulder and move forward and to the sides together to the rhythm of drums, while verses are sung by a poet. From among them a poet sings verses while drummers beat out a rhythm. Traditional Bedouin dances performed by men and women in national attire incorporate sheep and camel-skin drums, elaborate rhythmic clapping, various unique dance movements including the swinging of Kuwaiti women's long black hair from side to side to the beat of the music. Most nationalistic songs proclaim reverence to the ancestors of Kuwait and their minimalistic lifestyle, love and commitment to the nation and its sovereignty, and loyalty to its royal family, while proclaiming a desire to develop and progress.
Compared to that of other Gulf states, the Kuwaiti theater is highly professional.
Islam forbids the depiction of the human form, so Kuwaiti Islamic art is based on geometric and abstract shapes. Contemporary art in Kuwait has recently flourished with a growing faculty of fine arts at the country's national university. Traditional Islamic calligraphy is a sacred art, with passages from the Quran being the primary subject matter. Muslim visual art finds its greatest expression in the adornment of mosques.
The Islamic reverence for poetry and the poetic richness of the Arabic language inform much of Kuwait's cultural heritage.
The main source of employment and income in Kuwait is the oil industry. At the current rate of production, proven reserves are expected to last another 250 years. Kuwait was the first OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) nation to explore outside its national boundaries for oil. Along with the oil are huge reserves of natural gas.
Even with these sources of substantial guaranteed income for perhaps another two centuries, Kuwait is trying to encourage the development of other industries so that it will not remain entirely dependent on oil and natural gas. The government offers low-interest loans, tax breaks, and subsidies for electricity and water to businesses that are starting out. Other industries remain small, however. Fishing is one of the oldest industries in Kuwait, as are pearling and shipbuilding.
Trade unions are not permitted in Kuwait, and the oil industry is totally government-run. In the 1990s over 43% of non-Kuwaiti women in Kuwait worked outside the home, while fewer than 14% of native Kuwaiti women did. Recent changes in Kuwaiti society have transformed these numbers completely and now qualified Kuwaiti women are represented in almost every industry.
Soccer is the most popular sport in Kuwait. The National Soccer Team has won both Arab and international competitions including a notable appearance in the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Kuwait has also had international success in the traditional sport of horse racing. Other traditional sports include falconry and camel racing. Water sports are popular in the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf, although jellyfish prevent swimming there. Kuwaitis tend to enjoy summer months by the many pools in their homes or public clubs. These government-run sports clubs have facilities for swimming, tennis, equestrian and other sports.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Kuwaitis, as well as tourists to Kuwait, spend a great deal of time relaxing on the beaches along the Gulf coast. Water sports are a popular form of recreation. One of the biggest attractions in Kuwait is Entertainment City, modeled after Disneyland in the United States and several other theme parks of comparable quality service every part of the country. These tend to house recreational and educational facilities as well as exhibits. There are several movie theaters in Kuwait cities, which show Arab, Indian, Pakistani, and English-language films, although most of these Hollywood and Bollywood films are heavily edited for anything deemed offensive to Islam or local culture by the state's censorship office.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
The best-known folk art in Kuwait is that of the Bedu (or Bedouins—seeBedu ), particularly weavings done with brightly colored wool on a loom called a sadu. Other popular artifacts, ornaments and gifts include the argila (waterpipe used to smoke flavored tobacco), traditional engraved incense burners, miniatures of wooden fishing boats (boom), and elaborate fragrant and scented extracts forms of herbs and plants.
Even before the massive, widespread destruction caused by the Iraqi invasion and occupation (1990–91), Kuwait suffered from severe ecological problems caused by human population growth, industrialization, and especially the oil industry, which has leaked about 250,000 barrels' worth of oil into the Gulf each year. Only 3 out of 27 species of mammals in Kuwait are not endangered. They are the house rat, brown rat, and house mouse.
Following the scorched earth campaign accompanying the Iraqi retreat from Kuwait in 1991, the ecological catastrophe has worsened greatly. The Iraqis deliberately spilled four to six million barrels of oil into the Gulf, creating the largest oil slick ever on the planet. The slick covered about 1,550 sq km (about 600 sq mi) of sea surface and coated about 480 km (about 300 mi) of coastline. The Iraqis also bombed 749 oil wells, many of which caught fire. It took almost a year to put out the flames. The plume of oil smoke from the burning wells rose over 6,700 m (about 22,000 ft) into the air and spread for more than 2,400 km (1,500 mi), dropping soot and oil in its path. When the fires were still burning, everything in Kuwait was covered with oil and soot, including the people. Children who played outside became black with grime. It was impossible to keep clean.
The sulfur dioxide released in the smoke is a major component of acid rain. The blasted wells also leaked oil into lakes on the desert surface. At least 20,000 wild birds were killed by the oily lakes and the oil slick on the Gulf (when birds become coated with oil, they cannot fly and are no longer able to take care of themselves). The lakes of oil also killed all plant and animal life beneath them, and it is feared the oil may have seeped into the groundwater, allowing toxic metals to enter the food chain. These toxic metals can cause brain damage, cancer, and cardiac problems in humans and other animals. Medical research in Kuwait's centers has confirmed a significant and alarming rise in all these conditions in the past 17 years.
Another casualty of the war with Iraq was the fragile desert soil, churned up by the heavy military vehicles. It may take centuries for the soil structure to repair itself—if it can. This damage may lead to drifting sand dunes and more severe sand-storms. What little agriculture the desert land could support before the war has been made nearly impossible now. In other places, oil and soot dropped by the plume of smoke from the burning oil wells turned the desert surface into a blackened, brittle crust. Where the oil slick washed ashore, entire beaches turned black and grimy.
Before the Iraqi invasion, there was a sharp division between Kuwaiti citizens (the minority) and foreign workers (the majority). After the war, those tensions increased. The Kuwaiti government rounded up many foreign workers and forced them to leave the country. Those who remain still cannot become citizens, even children born in Kuwait to foreign workers. After a lifetime of working in Kuwait, a foreigner is asked to leave the country immediately upon retiring. This creates a great deal of ill will among the long-term foreign workers in Kuwait.
Since the Iraqi invasion, another division has occurred in Kuwaiti society, between the "insiders"—those who stayed in Kuwait during the occupation—and the "outsiders"—those who fled the country and have since returned. Insiders feel that they should have more say in the running of the country now, since they stayed to defend their homes. Outsiders include the royal family and ruling members of the government, who hesitate to give up much of their power. The government did finally allow elections for a new National Assembly in 1992, giving the people a greater say in their governance.
One of the most difficult social problems in Kuwait is the emotional and psychological scarring from the horrors of the Iraqi invasion and occupation. At least 100,000 persons—Kuwaitis and others—died in the war, and another 300,000 were wounded. Many Kuwaitis were kidnapped and taken to Iraq. Others were arrested, tortured, raped, killed, or forced to watch members of their family being raped or killed. Some Kuwaitis simply "disappeared," never to be seen again. Most of the reconstruction effort in Kuwait has focused on physical and industrial reconstruction, ignoring people's emotional wounds. These wounds will take far longer to heal, and no amount of money will cure them.
However, the most complicated of all social problems in Kuwait has been the perennial condition of a subset of Kuwaitis who have been denied citizenship. Known commonly as the Bidoon (the withouts), they are descendents of tribes that have lived and roamed the land that is Kuwait for decades, if not centuries. While numbers vary, estimates are often listed around 120,000 persons. The Bidoon receive few of the privileges afforded to citizens and have been increasingly vocal in their protests of this disparity. During the Iraqi invasion, their loyalty to the sovereignty of the Kuwaiti state and its independence was called into question as some chose to align themselves with the Iraqis at the expense of the Kuwaiti royal family, which they hold reservations about. In the post-liberation period, the government has adopted various measures to try and integrate this population and allowed a small proportion to become citizens. Despite this, the issue remains a sore often aggravated by various issues.
For decades, girls received training in home and child care as well as vocational training for jobs considered acceptable for women: secretary, receptionist, teacher, and so forth. If they continued through to a college education, they were not encouraged to take engineering courses and other vocations perceived as masculine, but they were able to become medical doctors. This resulted in an upsurge of women doctors, with about one-third of all Kuwaiti doctors being women. Interestingly, Kuwaiti women exceed men in every faculty at Kuwait University and at several new private accredited American and British universities. Women have attained some of the top professional positions in the country including judges, deans, engineers, and notable literary figures.
Women are more independent in Kuwait than in most other Arab countries, but they are still usually segregated from men and were not allowed to vote until 2005. In a recent upsurge of gender equality, suffrage and candidacy were decreed universal for all able eligible Kuwaiti citizens of age. This resulted in several Kuwaiti women running in the first parliamentary elections in 2008. Although none secured a seat in the all-male parliament, it led to wide-ranging debates in the country about the role of women in a rapidly-modernizing Kuwait, with support from progressive citizens and sharp criticism from traditionalists and Islamists. Today, women have also built networks of solidarity in the form of diwaniyas, which are increasingly popular and common given the growing influence of women in the Gulf emirate. Recently, the emir of Kuwait appointed to his cabinet two women ministers, which was considered a significant move towards incorporating women into the political system.
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Farag, Talaat I. "Community Genetics in Kuwait: A 25-Years Experience." Ambassadors Online Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 2: July 2006
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—reviewed by S. Abed-Kotob; reviewed by Adel Iskandar