Saturday, October 20, 2012

Kuwait vs. Saudi Arabia: what's the difference?

Over the course of the past few months the Mister and I have been asked several times if living in Kuwait is all that different from living in Saudi Arabia. The short answer is YES! A THOUSAND TIMES YES!

There are the obvious differences like the fact that I can drive, don't have to wear the abaya or hijab at all, can go out with my male friends sans Tyler and without paranoia, don't have to deal with compound security offices any time I want to visit with friends, and LORD the availability of familiar products in the grocery stores is SOOO much better!

Here are a few of the more peculiar differences:

1. There is a LOT less Islam here. That sounds silly, and some of the more conservative Kuwaitis (and most of my colleagues) would probably disagree, but as an outside observer, this country just feels like a hotter, less architecturally attractive version of Arizona-- but with signs in Arabic.

Ok, that's a bit of an oversimplification. We still hear the call to prayer from time to time, but they usually do not broadcast the prayers or Friday "sermons" over the loudspeakers like they do in Saudi Arabia. None of the stores or businesses close for prayer time. There is a marked decrease in the use of "Inshallah" and all the other "Allah" phrases. We hardly see any mash'allah stickers here! Significantly less women wear the niqab or even cover at all. My students get confused whenever they hear me say "hamdilallah" ("thank God" or "praise God"), although that's probably because they're not used to their American teachers throwing Allah into the conversation so casually.

In Saudi Arabia, my students and colleagues would frantically tell me to say "mash'allah" if I ever forgot after I gave them a compliment or praise. The Mister and I were always hearing a pitch for why we should convert to Islam (I was already so comfortable in the hijab, why not adopt the rest of the lifestyle? ...someone literally said that to me once).

What I'm trying to say is that, while the majority of the Kuwaitis are Muslims, the presence of Islam is a lot less in-your-face in Kuwait. As expats, we're still restricted on the things we can do and eat (no pork or booze here, either), but we will be able to buy Thanksgiving turkeys and hang up Christmas lights without having to worry about offending our neighbors. The Kuwaitis seem to be more tolerant of other religions.

2. There are significantly less privacy walls here. On one of the first days of our orientation with our new school, a group of the new teachers were loaded up on the bus and as we circled around the back side of the building, one of the veteran teachers serving as our guide said, "There's the school!" A fellow newbie muttered quietly, "It looks like a maximum security prison!"

Yes, our school building--and all of the school buildings from what I've seen--have very tall walls topped by very tall fences. I think they're there more as a preventative measure to keep stray kickballs from being launched into the traffic outside as opposed to why we had the walls in Saudi Arabia: to prevent prying eyes. Some of the residences have privacy walls, but the grand majority of the ones I have seen allow you to see straight from the street up to the front door. There's actual curb appeal here!

3. The roads are SO much better and it's SO much cleaner here!! It's ironic, really, that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are in the top 55 of several lists of the highest national GDPs in the world, and yet many of our friends at home assume that they are third world countries. This assumption is mostly because of people's exposure to war-zone news footage from the Middle East; they usually think all of the Middle East must be just like this: bullet riddled and crumbling. But in Saudi Arabia, the Western-perceived association with the developing world would be hard to argue with based on how poorly the roads were maintained and the amount of trash and rubbish on the side of the road.

In Saudi, the garbage bins were large orange barrels that could hold about one house's worth of trash. In Kuwait, they're larger dumpster type bins that can hold...about half and apartment building's worth of trash. Still overflowing, as you can see, but slightly less so. They also seem to be emptied more frequently.
Now, Kuwait doesn't have miraculously better roads or cleaner streets. There are still overflowing dumpsters that serve as a 24 hour buffet to all the stray cats. The streets are often too narrow for two SUVs to pass each other going in opposite directions. They often surprise you with deceptively deep pot holes. They also don't use stop signs, choosing instead to install ridiculously tall speed humps to force people to slow down through small intersections.

Exhibit A: speed bump during the day. Notice the remnants of the white reflective striping and the last hold-outs of the reflectors designed to catch your attention and warn you that you're about to go airborne. 

Exhibit B: can you see the speed hump? Yeah, we usually can't either. 

But the frequency of the chassis-shattering dips in the road or pipes that are just haphazardly covered with lumpy asphalt is greatly decreased here. There are actual shoulders on the roads, the lanes are painted on the highways or there are reflectors to indicate where cars should and shouldn't be. There are overpasses and cloverleafs that allow for easy on and off of the major roadways. I didn't get to experience driving first hand in Saudi Arabia, but I must say the experience is not all that un-enjoyable here--as the passenger or driver.

There are, of course, lots of similarities between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. I'll discuss those later. I figured it was appropriate to start with the more pressing question: They're like the same country, right?

Vicariously yours,


  1. I was wondering how life is up there. It was fun to read this post. Corryn and I have missed a few speed bumps ourselves as we've cruised around town and were nearly hit yesterday when someone flew through a stop sign. I'm looking forward to a post on differences between the student populations in the two countries.


  2. Wow, from your story, I rather be a Muslim in my own country than in SA. I lived in Kuala Lumpur btw.

    Good blog/stories though!