POPULATION: 1.6 million (40 percent of whom are Kuwaiti citizens)
LANGUAGE: Arabic (official); English
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim, 70 percent; Shi'ah Muslim, 30 percent)
People have lived in present-day Kuwait for thousands of years. Modern Kuwait was founded in 1722 by the Utub tribe. The name Kuwait is a form of the Arabic word for "fortress built near water."
A small but wealthy state, Kuwait has suffered continual conflicts with its larger neighbors, Iraq and Iran. On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein led an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, occupying the country until February 26, 1991. Other countries, including the United States, responded militarily to the invasion, sparking the Persian Gulf War. The war ended with Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.
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. It is just slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey.
The climate in Kuwait is hot and humid, with summer temperatures reaching as high as 120° F (49° C ) or more. Frequent sandstorms occur from May to July, and August and September are extremely humid. Winters are cooler, with temperatures ranging from 50° to 60° F (10° to 16° C ).
Kuwait's total population is about 1.6 million people, of whom only 656,000 are Kuwaiti citizens. The rest are foreign workers, mostly in the oil industry. Foreign workers are not allowed citizenship, even if they work in Kuwait all their adult lives.
Arabic is the official language of Kuwait. Kuwaiti students are taught English as a second language.
"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 naam 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.
Kuwaiti folk beliefs and rituals are strongly linked to Islam. Kuwaitis turn to Islam for daily guidance, as well as for explanations for many aspects of their current lives and past history.
When the Islamic revolution swept through the Middle East in the seventh century AD , virtually all Kuwaitis converted to Islam. Today, about 70 percent of Kuwaiti citizens are Sunni Muslim. Thirty percent are Shi'ah Muslim.
Secular holidays in Kuwait include New Year's Day (January 1) and National Day (February 25). Liberation Day (February 26) commemorates the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It is not recognized as an official holiday, but Kuwaitis treat it as one.
The main holidays in Kuwait are Muslim religious holidays. Eid al-Fitr is a three-day festival at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Eid al-Adha is a three-day feast of sacrifice at the end of the month of pilgrimage to Mecca ( hajj ). During this feast families who can afford it slaughter a lamb and share the meat with poorer Muslims. The First of Muharram is the Muslim New Year. Al-Mawlid An Nabawi is the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. Eid al-Isra wa Al-Miraj is a feast celebrating Muhammad's nocturnal visit to heaven.
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. Sheep are slaughtered, and relatives and friends are invited. After giving birth, a mother is expected to stay in bed for forty days 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 married at the age of fourteen. Today, the typical age for marriage is twenty to twenty-five. Kuwaiti society is built on the importance of the family. Marriages are often arranged between families with long-established ties.
Respect toward the dead is very important. Burial takes place on the same day as the death. The body is washed and wrapped in a white shroud. It is then taken to a nearby mosque, where special prayers (Salat al-Janaza) are recited. After the burial, relatives, friends, and acquaintances gather at the home of the grieving family to pay their respects. They also read aloud parts of the Koran (the sacred text of Islam). Mourning lasts for three days
Men and women do not mix socially, except in family groups. Shi'ah and Sunni Muslims also have little to do with each other.
Diwaniyas are private clubs for men. They function as meeting places where men sit and talk while drinking coffee or tea. Discussion topics include business and government policy. During the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, the diwaniyas became the hub of the resistance movement. Men gathered there (and in mosques) and organized their resistance efforts against the Iraqis.
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 talk a great deal. They talk loudly, repeat themselves often, and interrupt each other constantly. Conversations are highly emotional and full of gestures.
Kuwaitis are among the richest people in the world. About one-fourth of all Kuwaitis own a car, usually an expensive one. Housing for ethnic Kuwaitis is partially or completely paid for by the government. Many families have maids.
Health care and education—through the university level—are free to all Kuwaiti citizens. Foreign workers are entitled to some of the benefits but are restricted from receiving to others. The government sponsors social welfare programs for disabled persons, the elderly, students' families, widows, unmarried women over eighteen, orphans, the poor, and prisoners' families. Telephone services are free. Television broadcasting began in 1961, with satellite communications established in 1969.
During the Iraqi invasion and occupation (1990–91), conditions in Kuwait were terrible. For those who remained in Kuwait (many, including the royal family, fled when they had the chance), life was extremely difficult and dangerous.
The family unit is more important to Kuwaitis than is the individual, the larger community, or the government. Families tend to be large. The government encourages large families in its effort to increase the percentage of ethnic Kuwaitis (they make up less than half the people in the country). The government pays more than $7,000 to couples who marry.
Extended families usually live together, except in some urban areas where the houses are too small. 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 the preferred match. Marrying and having children, particularly sons, increases a woman's status in society.
Most girls marry young. Almost a third of Kuwaiti women are married by the time they are twenty years old. Women are more independent in Kuwait than in most other Arab countries. However, they are still usually segregated from men and are not allowed to vote.
In Kuwait's urban centers, Western-style clothing is becoming popular, particularly with young people. However, many Kuwaitis still wear traditional Arab clothing. This includes the dishdasha (anklelength robe) with a ghutra (head scarf). It is 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. Both men and women love perfume and wear it most of the time.
Kuwaiti cuisine offers a variety of dishes that reflect its Bedu (also called Bedouin) tradition (the Bedu are the traditional Arab nomadic desert herders), as well as its long history of contacts with other cultures such as those of India, Iraq, and Iran. In addition to the simple Bedu meals of dates and yogurt, Kuwaitis favor meat, fish, and rice. Spices are an essential part of the Kuwaiti diet. Among the most commonly used spices are coriander, cardamom, saffron, and turmeric.
Coffee and tea are the most popular beverages and are often mixed with spices. Coffee is mixed with cardamom, and tea with saffron or mint. Food and drink are always taken with the right hand.
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.
Education is required for all Kuwaiti children six to fourteen years of age. Schools teach in Arabic. English is taught as a second language to all students ten years of age and older. Boys and girls attend separate schools. Girls receive training in homemaking and child care, as well as vocational training for jobs considered "acceptable" for women. These include secretary, receptionist, teacher, and so forth. Women are not encouraged to take engineering or mechanical courses, but they may become medical doctors. About one-third of all Kuwaiti doctors are women. Every child is trained to become computer-literate in primary and early secondary school.
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.
To help promote and encourage the arts in Kuwait, the government founded the National Council for Culture, Arts, and Letters in 1974. Painting and sculpture are relatively recent developments on Kuwait's cultural scene. Compared to that of other Gulf states, the Kuwaiti theater is highly professional.
The National Museum building used to contain the Al-Sabah Collection. Named for the ruling family, it 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.
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 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.
Islam forbids the depiction of the human form, so Kuwaiti art is based on geometric and abstract shapes. Calligraphy is a sacred art, with passages from the Koran being the primary subject matter. Muslim visual art finds its greatest expression in the decoration of mosques.
The Islamic reverence for poetry and the poetic richness of the Arabic language shape 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. Along with the oil are huge reserves of natural gas.
Even with these sources of substantial guaranteed income, Kuwait is trying to encourage the development of other industries. The government offers low-interest loans, tax breaks, and subsidies for electricity and water to new businesses. 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. While over 40 percent of non-Kuwaiti women in Kuwait work outside the home, fewer than 15 percent of native Kuwaiti women do. Islamic traditions and restrictions prevent most native Kuwaiti women from having outside employment.
Football (what Americans call soccer) is the most popular sport in Kuwait. The national team has won both Arab and international competitions. 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 Persian Gulf, although jellyfish prevent swimming there. Kuwaitis swim in pools. Government-run sports clubs have facilities for swimming, tennis, and other sports.
Kuwaitis, as well as tourists to Kuwait, spend a great deal of time relaxing on the beaches along the gulf coast. Water sports (except for swimming, because of the jellyfish) are a popular form of recreation.
One of the biggest attractions in Kuwait is Entertainment City, modeled after Disneyland in the United States. It houses both recreational and educational facilities and exhibits. There are several movie theaters in Kuwait cities, which show Arab, Indian, Pakistani, and English-language films.
The best-known folk art in Kuwait is that of the Bedu (or Bedouins), particularly weavings done with brightly colored wool on a loom called a sadu .
Even before the destruction caused by the Iraqi invasion and occupation (1990–91), Kuwait suffered from severe ecological problems. These were caused by human population growth and industrialization. But the most damage has been done by the oil industry. About 250,000 barrels' worth of oil spills into the Persian Gulf each year. Only three out of twenty-seven species of mammals in Kuwait are not endangered, and they are the house rat, brown rat, and house mouse.
Since the Iraqi retreat from Kuwait in 1991, the ecological problems have worsened greatly. The Iraqis deliberately spilled 4 to 6 million barrels of oil into the gulf. This was the largest oil slick ever on the planet. 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 about 22,000 feet (over 6,700 meters) into the air. 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.
Since the Iraqi invasion, another division has occurred in Kuwaiti society. This division is 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 are reluctant 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.
Canby, Thomas Y. "After the Storm." National Geographic 180, no. 2 (August 1991): 2–32.
Kuwait in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1989.
Sluglett, Peter, and Marion Farouk-Sluglett. Tuttle Guide to the Middle East . Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1992.
Vine, Peter, and Paula Casey. Kuwait: A Nation's Story . London: Immel Publishing, 1992.