Welfare State to Failed State [Part I]

On Collective Depression,
Creative Repression,
Broken Systems &
Desert Elephants

Kuwait Oil Fires Smoke Plumes, Image via NASA

Growing up in post-Gulf War Kuwait was like growing up with 2 elephants in the room. Late 80s and early 90s babies fall in the predicament of being too young to remember the invasion calamities but unconsciously internalized the collective trauma growing up. The Gulf War took place only 7 years after the Souk al-Manakh (unregulated) market crash of 1982, pulling the nation from one depression into another—in less than a decade. This tiny nation endured one of the worst financial bubbles, neighbor invasions and environmental disasters in history, in too short a timeframe to properly digest the psychological aftershocks. Even after global environmental efforts to clean up the oil fires disaster, a dark cloud still loomed over the seafaring State of Kuwait and its inhabitants.

Kuwaitis are notoriously business savvy, and have cultivated an entrepreneurial spirit long before the discovery of oil and the first official export of 1946. Fast forwarding through the 1961 independence, and the oil boom of the 70s and 80s, Kuwaitis that lived in the ‘Golden Era’ experienced the world at a faster and more intense rate. Picture a new kids on the block nation with unprecedented wealth, quickly moving from mud houses to 1000m sq fully staffed villas. Upon closer examination of the nation, it is clear that there is a quantum jump from modest tribes and villagers to direct awareness with the modern outside world. Modernizing the Kuwaiti psyche, meant that the locals had to mentally update their world view, beliefs, ideologies and myths. We are talking about people forced to undergo complete psychological recalibration to fit in the current (at the time) world economy, to exercise their new GDP privileges. This means that in less than a generation, Kuwaitis had to go through an industrial revolution, an economic revolution, a social revolution, a political revolution and a psychological revolution, to be able to function at the speed of the world. This is like forcing pre-Napoleonic France to abide by the 2020 Paris Agreement on climate change. A national learning curve must be factored in and considered.

In recent years there’s been an influx of GCC cash (privately and publicly) being spent on original art, historic artifacts and monolithic museums to house these cultural symbols. The irony is that, the same countries buying nude sculptures, biblical busts, and outrageously expensive oil on canvas, have put restraints on what kind of art is allowed to be created and displayed by local Arab artists. Kuwait was a rich and free inspirational haven for artists before the 1990 Gulf War but has been creatively sabotaged since—mostly from a wave of ultraconservatism. We cannot blame outside forces for cultural self-sabotage, especially when we had more than two decades to socially and politically restructure. Some pseudo-mullas have been vocal about the ‘sacrilegious’ art that is apparently challenging the creator. In the same tone, putting restrictions on the creative process is a kind of blasphemy in one’s own right. So for fear of being shunned or prosecuted, some artists prefer private viewings or underground pop-up galleries, which robs the work of the reception it actually deserves. But not to worry, we can just buy international art as an investment and keep it locked away in a museum basement where it won’t offend the hypersensitive creativity frowners. So is it better to be guilty of materialism than creative expression, that could startle sheepish minds? Money sometimes blinds developing countries from the fact that before there was oil, there was culture. And culture that is suppressed from expression can manifest itself in mangled and dysfunctional ways. We know that a culture is fractured when even at death it is customary to divide citizens in isolated cemeteries (by walls and a road: literally a Sunni-Shia divide) based on flawed interpretations of Islamic burial rituals.

Drastic changes over a short period of time can shock the culture and psychologically stress and displace the youth. As much as old school Kuwaitis want to maintain the cultural identity, they bury their heads in the sand when it comes to acknowledging the diversity of groups and sub-cultures that give Kuwait its local flavor. Today, we see a lot gender issues, identity crisis issues, quarter life crisis issues and the classic midlife crisis issues. Strangely enough, Kuwait is indexed as being one of the most obese countries in the world but is also home to some of the most obsessively fit groups I have ever seen; with some practicing yoga, running, and attending PT sessions, all in one day.

Excessive exercise is one of the main frustration outputs in Kuwait, with a thriving primary and secondary market. Gyms—in all categories—have created a profitable model where they sell memberships, merchandise, protein shakes and sports gear all under one roof. Smart entrepreneurs quickly move-in next door with a hipsterish coffee shop or a clean food grab and go concept. These spaces work as an economic ecosystem and gentrify the road or block within a short time, sometimes less than a year. Inevitably, the frustration of the young business owners spreads to the merchants who have rented the shops consistently (and cheaply) for decades but are now forced to move out because of increased rents from entitled and eager SMEs.

“Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” —Albert Einstein

The freshly graduated new working class and young business owners now want to relax, after a stressful week of working nonstop. They are upbeat, full of positive energy, and fill up public spaces with their lively vibe. But wait, most public places in Kuwait are designed for families, with no young adult planning in mind. This is especially true when a weary petroleum engineer wants to book a nice room at a resort and enjoy the view of the beach, but he can’t! Because he is a bachelor and unable to produce a marriage certificate at the check-in desk. Kuwait is a funny nation where the ‘rules’ work against the locals. That’s why there has always been a large number of companies exiting the local economy and diversifying outside of Kuwait in the form of foreign direct investments. And that’s why there’s a designated terminal, separate from the main international airport just as a weekend exit strategy—for destinations like Dubai. What the narrow-minded architects of this idea fail to realize is that this is a direct cash injection out of the country and is bad for the economy (the real economy, not the speculative virtual economy), let alone the angry people boarding the planes—for both business and leisure. If you’re not leaving, enjoy retail therapy in over air conditioned malls or go back to the gym and work on your core.

Reference stories:

1. A few years ago, I was invited to attend a hotel think tank, to brainstorm ideas for a local boutique hotel concept. When I pointed out that the dozen or so people feeding the market research wouldn’t be able to check-in the planned hotels, nobody seemed to realize it was a problem except myself. It’s very concerning when your peers don’t realize they’re living in a mismanaged societal bubble that they are actually helping, to work against their own interests.

2. I was stopped at the gate of a beach hotel once and instructed to let my guest walk to the lobby, and turn my car around. When I asked why, I was bluntly told because I was local, I wasn’t allowed inside the hotel. I called management and asked to see that ‘rule’ on paper, then made sure I personally dropped my guest safely to the lobby door. They never produced the paper.

3. We were a group of men in one of the hotel lobbies in Kuwait. We were waiting to enter the ballroom for a friend’s wedding but we were very early. We politely asked if we could check-in one of the suites instead of clustering all around the limited lobby tables. They denied us access—once again—because we were local. One of us was conveniently carrying a North American passport and tried to use it to check-in. He was also denied because he seemed to “look Kuwaiti”—and if granted a room none of us would be allowed to enter.

4. A new hotel opened in Kuwait City and I wanted to prove to my guests the above. I nicely asked the lady at the marble reception desk “can I check-in too?” she laughed and said “no sir, you are Kuwaiti!”

The resort restrictions imposed on locals could be a cautionary market action because of a few bad actors. A handful of bad incidents can damage a hotel’s brand image or property. Here we are talking about guest behavioral problems, and how to hedge against these problems. The main problem, is an out of control young population, with too much misguided and misused energy.

A drive down Arabian Gulf Street or the 2nd ring road (a road between residential areas nicknamed ‘Love Street’) has shocked many foreigners—to which I had the embarrassment of explaining the phenomenon. The scene consists of youths parading up and down the road, in loud SUVs, sports cars and speed bikes. Spoiled teenagers and desperate young adults have normalized what in most countries would be charged as sexual harassment or stalking, in not only shopping malls but highways and residential roads. Harassing girls and trying to attract attention (and phone numbers) is a daily ritual for the degenerates that sometimes end up causing traffic accidents and fatalities. Clearly, there’s an overlooked deep rooted psychological problem that spans over generations, which includes a mix of: loneliness, undiagnosed depression, suppression, egotism, narcissism, inferiority complex, Madonna-whore complex, status anxiety and probably much more. In Kuwait, Dante’s Inferno has been refashioned into Dante’s Road, and instead of Virgil we have the vulgar Marina FM 88.8 as a guide through the Second Circle. When showy overcompensation doesn’t attract the desired results in public spaces, we get local spillover into foreign countries, but in a more destructive demeanor. Local frustration ends up as international incident, that sometimes goes viral over social media and attracts even more negativity and outrage. Kuwait has a growing number of Instagram and Twitter accounts that document (by public submission of photos and videos) racism, corruption, collusion, pollution, animal cruelty, public property destruction, etc. The idea is not so much about spreading a negative image — which none of us needs everyday — but spreading awareness about toxic behavior and injustice that is happening in plain sight. Unlike their neighbors, Kuwaiti citizens are very vocal and direct about things that are hurting the community. A way to solve this social disease is through education, self-awareness and offline community activities—that help people connect with others outside their social circles. Planting a seed of understanding, like the law of cause and effect, empathy and harassment awareness, could go along way with adolescence that are affected by social media and negative influences.

“Everything popular is wrong.” —Oscar Wilde

Before there was such thing as a notification filled iPhone, we had cameraless and colorless, indestructible Nokia phones. The first internet cafe in Kuwait opened in 1996, making the small country even smaller. Speeding past IRC and MSN Messenger, a new generation of Kuwaitis were being cybernetically groomed to power future startups that would interconnect physical brick and mortar stores to easy access digital platforms. Proving themselves in the social media world and later the application industry, Kuwaiti companies have showcased their ability to compete in the information age. Kuwaiti apps range from games to logistics solutions, online stores, payment platforms and beauty bookings. Modernization has revamped physical infrastructure and introduced digital infrastructure to the desert land. The new market gaps are now any sectors or services that have not been digitally disrupted by innovative groups of young Kuwaiti entrepreneurs.

A few levels deeper from the startup SME surface, we find the infamous local hamours, and deeper still, we find the multinational corporate sharks. This is where business gets murky and some of those who make it, find themselves in the legally sound but morally corrupt zone. Public and private enterprises in the depths are sometimes laced with nepotism and payroll cronies that will do any job for some cake crumbs. The big payoffs are in government tenders, that are controlled by local mafias who are quick to inject cash out of Kuwait and into offshore bank accounts. So in the game of how low can you go, whoever stoops the lowest, wins the contract.

With so many games and so many players in such a small nation, we are at the culmination point. We can tip to the left and fall back to repeat past mistakes or tip right, pay our dues and play our cards right, for national future growth. Veteran investors may describe the startup scene as delusional and oblivious to the most pressing business issues. Bystander employees see a nation divided by extremes, dirty business practices on one hand and detached hippies with no measurable impact on the other. At these crossroad we can find the epitome of the tech savvy, environmentally aware, driven yet grounded, business leaders that are lacking in the region.

“If it lasted for others, it wouldn’t have reached you.” — Arabic proverb

The culture has been slowly simmering with frustration and the results are daily public aggression cases, road rage, domestic violence, college association outbreaks, and even assaults on doctors in hospitals and police officers on duty. This is all a result of a broken system that has reached the boiling point and is spilling over in a way that is harmful to society. In order to heal present and past national trauma, the people have to talk freely and connect on what’s wrong. By talking honestly and publicly about the elephants in the national room, things that are hidden in the sludgy dark, bubble up and come to the surface. Once internal affairs issues come to light in the open, finger pointing ceases and real problem solving can begin, collectively.

Who will save us? Fashionistas on social media spearheading misleading marketing campaigns? No. It’s people like you, who got this far.

flâneur | seafarer among seafarers | all Medium writing is experimental, opinion or abstract creative expression.