by Patrick Nohrden
This article first published in the summer of 2010. Since then, world political and financial situations may have changed. But some things never change.
Author’s Note: Since I last wrote about Kuwait, several Kuwaiti journalists have been jailed, fined, and ordered to pay civil judgments for insulting government officials, and in particular the Amir (monarch), members of the royal family, or causing harm to the reputation of the state. After I last wrote, I received a call on my cell phone from a purported fellow journalist who wanted my address. My cell phone number is not listed on any internet posting, directory service, or government document. In light of the fact that I wanted to leave Kuwait at the end of my contract, I will not be posting this article until after I safely arrive in America.
Kuwait hit 126 degrees Fahrenheit today (52 C) two days before I started writing this article. Kuwait has had 100+ degree weather since before May. People have been asking me what it is like in Kuwait. It’s hot. Damn hot. One would think that being right next to the Persian Gulf, the water would have a calming effect on the heat. It only makes it humid, not tropical humidity, but around 25-30 percent. That is enough to keep it from being a dry heat.
This kind of heat causes one to question certain habits. Normally, I walk to the dry cleaners, which is two blocks away. But when it is 120 degrees, I consider driving there. I do not even need to get out of my car. Nearly every business in Kuwait offers curbside service. Restaurants, pharmacies, dry cleaners, hardware stores, vegetable stores all will send a worker outside to a honking car. Many people will not leave their car for their purchases no matter what the weather. They are just very lazy. And Kuwaitis are accustomed to being waited on hand and foot.
Just going from my apartment to my car is an exercise in misery. If it is 120 degrees outside, it must be pushing 180 inside my car. I cannot tough the steering wheel and I have to make sure that no exposed skin touches the dashboard, gearshift, door panel, or any other surface of the car. I received first degree burns to my hands today taking some lamps out of my trunk, which had been in the car for about an hour.
Recently, Kuwait passed a law which prohibits anybody from working outdoors from noon until 4:00 p.m. after June 1. Any worker caught outside will be arrested and his employer will be fined 500 Kuwaiti Dinars ($1,750). The employer cannot have his worker back until the fine is paid. Of course, in Kuwait, no worker will tell his employer that he will not go outside until after 4:00. He will be fired, and that means losing his residency. In Kuwait, workers are not Kuwaitis.
One lady I know from Sri Lanka, a house cleaner, was recently fired. She is frantically looking for another job. She earned about 85 KD per month ($300) for a 50 hour workweek. Her mother died, so she asked for some time off. Her employer reluctantly agreed to allow her to take two days off to travel to Sri Lanka to attend the funeral. Sri Lanka is a six hour trip by air. It cost the lady a month’s wages to go. When she returned after two days, she had no job. Her sister, who works as a live-in maid for a Kuwaiti household earning 45 KD per month was not allowed to go. By comparison, as a high school teacher at a school for Kuwaiti students, I often had students who were absent for several days in a row when an uncle or a favorite aunt’s husband died. Kuwaitis take mourning seriously, just as long as it is their own mourning. But this is not about weather.
Sometimes we get a little wind. On hot days, that would be a good thing, as it could cool things down about ten to fifteen degrees. That would be alright if we were not surrounded on three sides by thousands of square miles of sand. Within seconds of being outside, your skin is glistening with sweat. The wind will kick up a bit, then suddenly your face, neck, and arms are coated in a fine grit, taking on the texture of sandpaper. You hope the wind dies down, because if it keeps up, visibility will be reduced greatly, and driving home becomes substantially more hazardous.
It does not take a strong wind to create a sandstorm. When atmospheric conditions are right, fine silt migrates into the air, turning it into a brown haze, which can linger for two or three days. The dirt hangs in the air in a celluloid state until it rains or a wind blows it away. This past April 17, I awoke early because I did not have my bedroom drapes closed tightly, and the bright morning sun was beaming through my window, carried on the off-key prayer call of the neighborhood mosque. Because it was only 6:30 on a Saturday, I closed my drapes and put a pillow over my head to blot out the sound of the mosque. I awoke again at 8:00 and it was pitch black. I thought I had slept all day, something I have not done since I was in high school. I confirmed that it was only 8:00 in the morning and stared with amazement at the scene outside my 8th floor window. It was like 3:00 in the morning. I could see no cars driving, no pedestrians walking, and the troves of feral cats that usually inhabit the dumpster across the street were nowhere to be seen.
At first I thought that somebody had set the oil wells on fire again as the fleeing Iraqi army had done during the Gulf War. For a good idea of how suddenly day can turn into night, check out this video I found that shows the same sandstorm I mentioned above at http://www.youtube.com/watch#!v=YcJR1EFKNq4&feature=relatedhttp://www.youtube.com/watch#!v=YcJR1EFKNq4&feature=related. For some really good still photos of the sandstorm entering the city, look at this web site: http://projektcyan.com/?p=5525. The sandstorm came to an end when it rained. But you know what happens when you mix dirt and water. The cars in the parking lot all were coated in mud. A few times, when the dirt was just hanging in the air and had not yet settled, it rained. The cars were not even coated with dirt; then suddenly they were covered in mud.
Summer in Kuwait is long, lasting from early February until the middle of November. Winter is sometimes cold, and I was warned to bring a heavy coat. I never needed it, though, as this past winter never saw temperatures below 45 degrees.
Since coming to Kuwait, I have not seen a single rodent. I know there must be mice, because the principle at our school ordered a moratorium on food in the classrooms because she found a dead mouse in her office. That is the only mouse ever seen at our school, and no mice or other vermin have been found in the classrooms.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous animal, which is seen more often than birds, is the common alley cat. There are dumpsters all over my neighborhood, all inhabited by feral cats. This might explain the lack of rodents. The cats fight all night long, copulate in the middle of the street, and feed off of whatever rots in the dumpsters. They live their entire life outdoors and have never known human companionship. Some Kuwaitis keep cats, but they never leave the house. They would not survive long with the other cats. Every neighborhood is plagued by cats, like squirrels in Ohio or rats in Bombay.
Some people keep dogs, but not like they do in America or Europe. All animals, including dogs, are seen by Muslims as dirty and should not be with humans. In fact, it is considered a great insult to compare a person to an animal. I made the mistake of telling a student that it was easier to house train a dog than it was to keep her in her seat. This is not a direct comparison, but was enough irk the parents of the student who sent her big brother to the school to talk to me. He reminded me that I was merely a visitor to his country and that I should learn the culture better. I reminded him that until Kuwaitis wanted to bother to teach their own children, they would simply have to put up with an occasional cultural fax pas. Besides, I was teaching at the American Bilingual School, so some Americanisms should be allowed from time to time. Read more about this in the section on Schools below.
Kuwait has two different school systems, government schools, which are the free public schools, and private schools, which are controlled by a separate division of the Ministry of Education. Only Kuwait citizens may attend government schools, despite the fact that 65% of the people in Kuwait are not citizens. Furthermore, fewer than half the Kuwaiti children attend government schools, making the public schools a rare sight. Children of Indian workers attend Indian schools. Likewise, there are schools for Filipinos, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis. The Ministry of Education sets salary caps for teachers at the various schools, and Indian schools are allowed to pay their teachers the least, where their salaries are capped at 250 KD per month ($535). Private schools for Kuwaiti children, such as American Bilingual School, are allowed to pay their teachers up 1,000 KD per month ($3,500). However, if the teacher is from an Arabic speaking country, the salary will be about half that. I know of only one Kuwaiti teacher at American Bilingual School, who happens to be a U.S. citizen.
Two things make schools in Kuwait different from their American counterparts: the boys are separated from the girls beginning in the sixth grade, and there are very many custodians. Last semester, I taught three boys’ classes (two classes of 12th grade British Literature, and one class of 11th grade Speech) and two girls classes (one each of 12th grade British Literature and 11th grade Speech). I had to walk between the boys’ campus and the girls’ campus to teach these classes. The girls seemed glad to be separated from the boys, while the boys could talk about little else than the fact that they had no consortium with girls.
On the boys’ campus, there were four male custodians, who worked from 7:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. six days a week. They each earn 85 KD per month ($300) for their 72-hour weeks, and they were forced to live in shared housing with four or more men to a room. Often, they were not paid for several months at a time, and their electricity in their home was often out of service. The women on the girls’ campus are paid much less than the men, but they only work eight-hour days. The custodians are constantly busy cleaning up after the students, as the students think nothing of throwing trash on the floor or the ground outside. The girl who I could not keep in her seat once spent the entire class period cutting up paper into tiny bits and scattering them on the floor. I told her to clean up her mess before she left the classroom. Instead, she went out into the hall to fetch two female custodians to clean up her mess for her. The lady did it without complaining. I should have known better, as fewer than half of my students have ever made their own bed or cleaned up their bedrooms.
The middle school/high school section of the American Bilingual School had perhaps forty teachers, about half of whom are from Arabic speaking countries, usually Egypt or Lebanon. The other half were made up from teachers from America, with a handful from the United Kingdom, one from South Africa, and one, for a while, from Australia. Most teachers sign a two-year contract when they come, although the lucky ones sign for only one year. Very few teachers renew their contracts.
The first three months of the school year has a very high turnover rate for teachers. Some quit shortly after arriving in Kuwait, and many do not make it past the three-month probationary period. The typical complaint for the teachers is the lack of support from the school, the fact that they are treated more as workers than as professional editors, and the lack of respect from the students. The facilities at the school where I taught lacked basic classroom design. The rooms had no acoustical consideration at all. They echoed. I doubt that any person reading this email can ever remember being in a classroom that echoed. As far back as I remember, as far back as my kindergarten class in 1961, at least the ceilings had acoustical tiles. But in an echoing classroom full of students, simply hearing paper rustle is enough to keep other students from hearing what the teacher is saying.
The biggest problem the school and the teachers have is maintaining classroom discipline. The school’s website, teacher’s contract, and teacher’s manual made this a big issue. Teachers were required to maintain classroom discipline or they get the boot. Most teachers already know how to do this well, but it is no easy task in Kuwait. Because the students rarely, if ever, have a teacher from Kuwait, every teacher is a foreigner, just like their maids, drivers, gardeners, nannies, and other workers that Kuwaiti youth see every day. Many Kuwaiti children are accustomed to disciplining their domestic staff, treating them as slaves, which they are according to Kuwait law. A teacher is just another foreign worker, so earning the respect of the students is a real challenge. My 12th grade girls told me that last year they had seven English teachers and eleven math teachers. What makes matters worse is that the administration encourages students to call teachers by their first name, such as Mr. Rick or Ms. Susan. I did not allow students to call me by my first name. In fact, on the first day of class, I told all of my students that I spent six years in the Army and that I had been trained to kill with my bare hands.
The school does not help either. Teaching for my school had the same feeling as working in a fast food restaurant. Classes started at 7:30, so every teacher must clock in by 7:10; otherwise the teacher could lose a half a day’s pay. Classes end at 2:30, but teachers must stick around until 3:30, regardless of whether they had any work to do. The last week of work was the most ludicrous; although the students last day of school was the week before, teachers still had to clock in every day by 7:10 and out by 3:30. What made the week even more strange was that we signed out of our classrooms on the first day of the week, so we had no place to rest, except in the lobby of the office or the students’ computer lab. Few things make going to work least exciting than the prospect of having to find something to do in borrowed space.
We were entitled to six sick days during the school year, which is not adequate for most teachers, especially in light of the fact that the first quarter was highlighted by a swine flu epidemic. However, to be excused on any day that a teacher is sick, the teacher must produce a note from a doctor, even if it is for the common flu. Getting to the doctor on a day where one is too sick to go to work is not an easy thing. And even with insurance, teachers found that they had a 20 KD ($70) co-pay. Nor were teachers allowed to be out on sick on the first or last day of a work week, or any day that abutted a holiday. During the last month of school, to ensure that teachers were not abusing the “sick privilege,” no teacher was allowed to call in sick, doctor’s note or otherwise.
Kuwait is a Muslim country, governed by Shari ‘a law. Only one country is more strictly Muslim, and that Saudi Arabia. Because Islam is the state religion, many normal activities are affected by it. The work week is Sunday through Thursday, because Friday is the official day of worship. There are six calls to prayers everyday, which are broadcast asynchronously from the rooftop loudspeakers of every mosque, of which there are several in every neighborhood. The first call to prayer is an hour before sunrise, which puts it around 3:20 a.m. in the summer. The cacophony will startle any newcomer from the soundest of sleeps.
Activities associated with western vice are strictly prohibited. There is no liquor allowed in Kuwait, not even at the international hotels as in Dubai or Bahrain. Dealing and possession of alcohol is a major offense, as well as a major underground industry. Dealing in illegal drugs, though, is a capital offense.
Other crimes may be classified as immoral conduct, or the less sever indecent behavior. An example of indecent behavior that could cost a 100 KD fine and cause you to spend the night in jail might be kissing a member of the opposite sex in public. However, men may kiss men, and women may kiss women, which is a common form of greeting. An example of immoral conduct might be having sexual intercourse with a person to whom you are not married. It is the same crime and punishment whether or not it involves two people in love with one another or sex with a prostitute. The punishment is more severe if it is a homosexual relationship. Even cross dressing is illegal, although it happens frequently.
During Ramadan, Islam’s holy month, people are not allowed to eat or drink during daylight hours, nor may the smoke in public. For most Kuwaitis, this is not a problem, because very few of them are in Kuwait during Ramadan. The rules do not apply if a Muslim is “traveling.” Traveling is loosely defined as being away from one’s regular home. Many leave the country. Others stay in their “chalets” along coast. During Ramadan last year, a Filipino man was caught smoking outdoors during daylight when he was on a break from work. He was jailed and subsequently deported, despite the fact that he was not Muslim.
Getting married in Kuwait is easy for Muslims and is a religious affair. Non-Muslims require stack of paperwork and a civil ceremony. Nevertheless, the only people who can get married in Kuwait are “people of the Book,” which means Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and others may not. But try finding a Jew in Kuwait.
A few months ago, a headline on the front page of one of the English daily newspapers proclaimed that there were 1,800 Jewish maids living in Kuwait. The surprised tone of the article indicated that it is believed that many of these Jews have ties to Israel. I am sure that is true, just as all Catholics can be said to have ties to Rome. These Jews hailed from Bangladesh, India, and Ethiopia. All of the Ethiopian Jews were expelled from their home country about twenty years ago, many of them taking refuge in Israel, who welcomes any Jew. Some of them had relatives who ended up in Kuwait.
Jews, and especially Israel, are publicly hated in Kuwait and other Gulf states. It is obvious from reading the newspapers and listening to the rhetoric of Kuwait’s members of parliament. Rarely does a legislative session go by without some kind of condemnation of the Zionist state. In school, any mention of Israel or the Holocaust by teachers is absolutely forbidden. Any book containing any reference to Jews or the Holocaust is banned, whereas, books with references to Jesus, sex, kissing, gratuitous violence, or pigs, are simply censored. One of the lucky duties of all English teachers at American Bilingual School is to censor new books in the library. I supposed the administrators think that only English teachers can read and can detect such complex words as “sex,” kiss,” “Jesus,” or “Piglet.” But if you ask me, English teachers are the wrong ones to have censoring books. It is not unlike asking an art history teacher to through paint on the Mona Lisa.
Because Kuwaitis only make up about 35% of the population of Kuwait, there is bound to be many Christians. Nobody knows for sure, but there are about 770,000 Christians living in Kuwait, all of whom share three churches. These churches share their facilities with various denominations. Although the Kuwaiti constitution guarantees everybody’s right to practice their own religion without government interference, so long as it is according to law, the Kuwait government has refused to issue any new building permits for churches, or even renovation permits, in the last ten years. Many congregations meet in large houses clandestinely converted for that purpose. Sunday service is every Friday, except for the Seventh Day Adventists, whose holy day falls on a weekend. The Catholic and Anglican churches have masses on Sundays in the evenings, but the turnout is small due to the fact that people are working that day.
Kuwaitis are guaranteed a job in government. This has presented itself to be a huge problem, because there are not enough jobs for every Kuwaiti male citizen. Most Kuwaiti women do not work, but they too are guaranteed a job if they want one. Although government offices are over-staffed, it is not easy to get things done. That is because people are rarely at work. Nearly all government offices close at 1:00 p.m., so any business must be conducted before then. Few Kuwaitis are competent in their job, because there is no reason to be. They get the job no matter what, and not showing up for work will not cost anybody their job. Sometimes they come in, kiss and hug their fellow workers, order some poor sap cleaning the floor to do something, and then take off again.
I once walked into the post office in Salmiya. The doors were all unlocked, the lights were on, computer monitors were flickering, including the one at the security desk, and ceiling fans were slowly revolving. Nobody was there. I went from unlocked room to unlocked room looking for somebody to help me mail a letter. I walked by desks scattered with daily detritus, security monitors, and even the bathrooms. Everybody had gone home and nobody bothered to turn off the lights and lock the doors. I thought I was in a scene for Outer Limits.
Crimes and Police
Kuwait has its share of crime, just as any populated region in the world would have. One can get a sense of what crimes are popular by reading the three daily English newspapers, Kuwait Times, Arab Times, or Watan Daily. Most of these papers are what some would call “flack” journalism, periodicals that have a certain bent and are controlled to make certain that all things are good, such as you might find in China. There is more journalistic freedom, however, and no newspaper would be worth reading if there were not some juicy crime stories. Kuwait has them.
Most crimes reported in the newspapers involve theft, alcohol, drugs, or sex, although there was a fairly good share of stories associated with Kuwaitis embezzling their employers or money fraud cases. The most common crime seems to involve alcohol and drugs. Kuwaitis were often being arrested for being drunk in public, driving while intoxicated, or merely possessing alcohol or drugs, usually hashish or heroin. The suppliers of these illegal products were commonly identified in the newspapers as Asian (usually Indian), who were often caught with large caches of Johnny Walker Red Label or moonshine. The drugs were usually distributed by Syrians, Egyptian, Arabs from other Gulf countries, or Iranians, although there were some Kuwaitis busted for that, too.
Crimes involving sex were nearly as common as drug and alcohol crimes. Of these, rape was the most popular crime. Typically, a Filipina would be walking home alone at night and would be kidnapped by being dragged into a car that might have anywhere between one and four male occupants. They would rape her then let drop her off in a remote area. Often, they took the woman to a rented apartment. Kuwaiti men rented apartments for the purpose of having parties away from their home. Many stories appeared in the newspaper where male youths would sexually assault or rape their male friends in order to settle a score for a past argument.
Often the rapes involved a male sponsor raping his Filipina housemaid. If given a chance to report the crime, the newspaper merely indicated that an investigation was opened. However, if a non-Kuwaiti was accused of the same crime, the accused would be immediately imprisoned pending trial. Filipinas seemed to be the most common rape victim. This is likely due to the fact that most maids, fast food workers, store clerks, waitresses, baristas, and other retail industries are mostly employed by people from the Philippines.
An increasing common crime is kidnapping for the sex trade. A young woman walking alone at night, or sometimes in the day time, is offered a ride. She is then driven to a seedy neighborhood where she is sold to a brothel for about $700. She is required to work in the brothel as a prostitute against her will. Some of the customers will pay more for her if she is reluctant due to the added excitement. The rape scene is played at many times over in the brothel. If she is married, the brothel may attempt to ransom her to her husband for three to four times what they paid for her. If the victims are rescued by the police, their photographs appear in the newspaper in the same group photo as her captors.
Gang violence is increasing in Kuwait. Groups of youths armed with knives, crow bars, and the occasional sidearm often lay in wait for rival gangs. Melees involving gangs occur about once or twice a week and usually happen around popular shopping centers.
An extremely common lesser crime is called Eve Teasing. This is when a male offers his telephone number to a female. It is illegal in Kuwait. About three weeks ago the police rounded up 27 youths at a large mall in Salmiya for Eve Teasing. The police took them to the police station and cut all their hair off.
I had my own run-in with the police one evening. I had parked my car on a side street around the corner from a Lebanese restaurant where I was dining that evening. When I came out, I found that my car, along with four others, had been “booted” and ticketed for parking in a no parking zone. However, the street was not marked for no parking. I called the police and informed them that the police officer who booted my car had made a mistake. The person at the other end of the phone told me that there was nothing I could do except to go to the traffic police headquarters the next day to pay a fine ($17.50), after which the boot would be removed. I was livid.
I noticed a Kuwaiti man standing next to his BMW which was also booted. He was talking to the police. When he got off the phone, he told me that the police would arrive shortly to remove the boot from his car. I struck up a conversation with this man, asking if the police in Kuwait were all as stupid as the one who booted our cars. I asked him if it was true what my students told me, that students who do not graduate high school become police officers. He did not respond. When the police officer showed up to remove the boots, my car was ignored. I asked the man with the BMW why his boot was removed but mine was not. The man responded that it was because he was a police officer. There is a lesson there.
I became increasingly nervous as I neared the end of my contract. That is because I heard so many stories about people being prevented from leaving Kuwait. If there is any pending controversy, such as an unresolved civil dispute, one of the parties can place a travel ban on the other party. All it takes is to fill out a form and file it, and the name of the other person goes on a list of people prohibited from leaving the country. Furthermore, if somebody claims that another person owes money, the claimant can swear out an arrest warrant, and the debtor can be held in prison until the dispute is resolved.
A person who claims that an arrest warrant or travel ban is was improper can file for relief from the court, but there are many instances where travel bans and confinement orders remained in effect even after the court issued an order lifting it. It depends on how much wasta a person has.
Kuwaitis measure their status not with just money and possessions, but with wasta. Wasta simply means “connection.” Nothing much happens in Kuwait without wasta. Getting building permits, business licenses, visas, or just about anything that requires the assistance of a government agency requires wasta. You can buy wasta, but it is usually something that is cultivated.
Some people are born with wasta, such as anybody whose last name is Al Sabah, which is the name of the ruling family. That name gives you the right to park in fire lanes, to avoid traffic tickets, to get better seats in restaurants, to get a driver’s license without taking a test, to get preferential job placement, etc.
Three of my students were named Al Sabah. Two were great students, only one of which took advantage of the name to avoid trouble with the police, usually traffic related. Those two both received good grades in my classes. The third was the grandson of the Emir of Kuwait (king). He wore that status on his shoulder. He would threaten other students with arrest and imprisonment for insulting him, because insulting him was insulting the royal family, which is a crime. I often saw him bully other students into giving him their homework so he could copy it. He tried to bribe me several times to get out of more difficult assignments. He offered me money, a Mercedes for the weekend, women. He was not the brightest of students. He offered me slightly more than $10,000 for a copy of the final exam in my speech class. Earlier in the same class I informed my speech students that they would not have a final exam. I should have taken the money.
The United Nations listed Kuwait as the 67th most corrupt nation on Earth. This does not seem bad, but it is ahead of every western European nation, North America, most Asian countries, and some African countries. Of all Arab countries, it is the second most corrupt. This corruption is due in part to the system of wasta.
The United States, the European Union, and the United Nations have listed Kuwait on all of their watch lists for human trafficking. There is no law in Kuwait that prohibits human trafficking. Every these lists come out, or if there is a lot of publicity about it in the international press, the Kuwaiti parliament makes some noise about creating a committee to examine the possibility of enacting law to prevent human trafficking and other human rights abuses. But Kuwait will never get rid of slavery. Kuwait depends upon its slaves.
A slave is any person who is held against his or her will and is forced to do labor for little or no money. The most common slave is the housemaid or nanny. These are women from various third world countries, often the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Pakistan, or Bangladesh, but other countries too. They are “recruited” in their home countries by unscrupulous agents who promise them large salaries and posh working environments. They are told that they can return home whenever they like if things do not work out.
The women then arrange for their passports and both their visas and airfare are arranged by the agency. Once they arrive in Kuwait, they are offered a contract on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. If they refuse to sign the contract, they must reimburse the agency for their airfare and pay for their own way back home. This, of course, is impossible, as these luckless ladies do not have two cents to rub together.
The contract requires that they work for a minimum of five years at usually 45 Kuwait dinars per month. They work from before the first household member arises in the morning until after the last one retires for the evening. They get one day off a week if they are lucky, but employers often withhold the day off as punishment of because there are household chores to do. They get very little sleep, work constantly, and are often victims of sexual abuse by their male employers. They are physically punished by both the adults and the children in the household, and they are not allowed to protect themselves.
Many run away, but they cannot go far. Their employers hold their passports hostage, and they usually have a travel ban. If they are caught, they get six months in jail. Some have run away after having been raped by their sponsors. Some are raped by their sponsors but still do not run away for fear. If they become pregnant, the sponsor simply takes the maid to the police station and reports her for having run away. She gets six months in jail, and once the pregnancy is known, gets more time added on for immoral activities.
You can see these maids at the shopping malls with the women who own them. They are easy to recognize by the way they dress, as they all wear sexless, maids’ clothes. I have seen as many as three maids or nannies accompanying a single Kuwaiti housewife, who uses them to carry her parcels, tend to her children, and to show off to her Kuwaiti friends. A common sight is three or four Kuwait women at a coffee shop shooting the breeze while their maids or nannies stand nearby. The maids are not allowed to sit, nor will they enjoy a beverage while at the coffee shop. The maids or nannies will attend to the needs of any children present, such as diaper changing, feeding, or chasing. Families out to dinner for the evening will likely bring their maids and nannies, who are required to stand nearby the table while the family eats. At the mall, maids and nannies will gather in certain areas tending to children and packages while their masters shop.
What is most amazing is that these maids and nannies are forced to leave their own children behind in their home countries, often with relatives, to take care of other people’s children for five years. Kuwaitis do not know household chores. Most of my 12th grade students never made their own bed in their entire life, have never had to clean up their room, and often have their Filipina or Indian maids do their homework for them. Sometimes these maids even attend parent-teacher conferences at school, although it is more common for the parents to send a big brother.
Although a Kuwaiti is paying the maid, chump change by average standards, and the maids are set free after five years, this form of slavery is far cheaper than the type America had before the Civil War. In the early 1800’s, a slave could be purchased for about $600, roughly the cost of an average house at the time. Only wealthy landowners could afford slaves, so very few people owned them. The cost of Kuwait’s slaves is so cheap, that many households have several slaves, often one for each of the household members, as well as a driver, a gardener, and a chef.
It is cheaper still when a sponsor does not pay his slave. Of course, the slaves have recourse in the courts, but they are not entitled to legal representation, and no slave can afford an attorney. Sponsors, being Kuwaiti, have immediate wasta, and the slave has none whatsoever. Court’s are likely to take the word of a Kuwaiti over an expatriate, especially a slave. The result is that many slaves receive no compensation for sometimes years at a time. To make matters worse, before a slave can leave at the end of his or her five-year contract, the sponsor must agree to it by signing a release.
Most Kuwaitis consider themselves to be good citizens and Muslims, and many pay as much as 80 dinars per month for their slaves, give them regular days off, and do not beat them. But the system does nothing to discourage abuse, and too often slaves are forced to run away and to go underground, contributing to the crime rate in Kuwait.
A sponsor is required to give the slave an end-of-contract bonus and pay their way back to the slave’s home country. Too often, to save money, a sponsor might wait until near the end of the contract period and report the slave to the police for absconding. This takes the Kuwaiti off the hook for both the bonus and the return airfare. After spending six months in jail, the slave is turned over to their home country’s embassy who arranges for repatriation.
Why Should We Care About Kuwait?
In late 1990, jealous of its oil-infused wealth, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Suddam Hussein ordered his army to take whatever wealth it could get its hands on, luxury automobiles, airplanes, valuable artifacts, etc. America, leading a coalition of other countries, led the rescue of Kuwait, repatriating much of its wealth and restoring a lifestyle that only its vast oil resources could produce. China provided financial assistance to Iraq, a decision that has lingering affects today. America is Kuwait’s biggest customer. America has enabled Kuwait to maintain a lifestyle that promotes slavery and a system that routinely violates human rights.
Americans enjoy a special status, slightly above the British, but still under the Kuwaitis. Kuwaitis acknowledge Americans as being better than the other servants in Kuwait, but we are still expatriates, simply expatriates with special status. The next generation of Kuwaitis is already losing their regard for Americans. None of my 12th grade students experience the Gulf War, as they were all born a year after it ended. They only have stories of the bravery of their relatives and knowledge that many Kuwaitis that are still missing nineteen years after the war’s end.
What if we never helped Kuwait? Iraq has no slaves, nor did it have any before the fall of Suddam Hussein in the second war. America would not be the preferred customer for Kuwait oil, and much of it would now be flowing to China. This may have sped up the development of green technology and a quicker shift to gasoline-free automobiles in America. But it may have also increased the burden on the planet by populating our oceans with deep-water oil rigs, the result of which is being witnessed on the shores of America’s Gulf Coast.
One thing is for certain, however, is that Kuwait needs America now as it did then. We maintain bases in Kuwait to support our operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This helps keep Iran at bay, which is a constant source of concern for Kuwait. Too often Iranians are caught infiltrating Kuwait and smuggling Kuwait army uniforms to Iran. But as the number one customer for Kuwait, certainly the United States has some leverage in Kuwait. For so long as we are protecting Kuwait from its neighbors, Kuwait should pay greater respect to human rights within its own borders. There is no room in today’s world for slavery. America, who knows better than most, should do what it can to prevent slavery. Maybe that means threatening to go elsewhere for our oil. Let China have Kuwait’s oil. If nothing else, the price will only go down and the money available for slavery will likewise go down.