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48 hrs in Kuwait City

Best known around the world for the aggressions it suffered at the hands of its northern neighbour, Kuwait shows it can keep weekend visitors busy

Located at the northern end of the Persian Gulf, Kuwait City, according to those living there, used to be at the centre of expat life in the region. Not so any more, partly due to the efforts of one Saddam Hussein in 1990, who left the country labelled with the unfortunate ‘Potential for War’ tag, which is only starting to fade now — years after the Iraqi leader’s death by hanging in 2006.

            To visit Kuwait City (KC) is easy from the UAE — merely a 100-minute flight from Dubai — but most UAE residents never make the journey, even though it’s relatively cheap (only Dh365 on flydubai). For those willing to travel northwards, what lies at the furthest tip of the Persian Gulf is a land of similarities, yet some stark differences, to the UAE. The heat is there, only add about eight degrees in the summer and drop the same in the winter. The dust is there; the sand storms; the shopping malls and golf courses, fast-driven 4x4s and blend of nationalities, but you’ll never pass by a faded sign painted on a domestic wall in the UAE that reads: ‘Thank You Allies.’ It’s a stark reminder of what took place here, but there’s little else to remind travellers of the six-month Iraqi occupation that ended over 19 years ago.

Kuwait, in turbulent times (1991) (Picture by Jonas Jordan, United States Army Corps of Engineers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Kuwait, in turbulent times (1991)

(Picture by Jonas Jordan, United States Army Corps of Engineers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

            What you will find is a city growing out of the desert like so many Gulf hubs. If you have just one weekend to explore KC, the first thing you’ll need to know is that it’s probably a bit bigger than you’d imagine. Kuwait City is home to about 2.4 million people spread out over an area bigger than Dubai. It’s certainly no backwater. Base yourself in a central district from where you can visit the main sights. The Courtyard by Marriott is a comfortable option and its security system should calm the most nervous of travellers — to enter the hotel you drive up to a large bomb blast concrete barricade; cars are searched inside and out, then a vast steel barrier lowers into the road allowing you to pass. Once inside, visitors are checked, airport security-style, so that within the hotel you’ll feel safe to relax, refresh and prepare for some sightseeing.

            The most famous sight in the city is the Kuwait Towers. Built in 1979 they are a collection of three towers that serve as a water storage facility, restaurant, café and revolving lookout point. They were badly damaged during the Gulf War, but have been fixed up, with high food and drinks prices to match. The views may be worth it — looking out over the Persian Gulf and downtown Kuwait City — but eat your lunch at a cheaper location. Don’t be confused by the lifts on the way down. You’re not jumping from the 85th to 17th floors in a matter of seconds — they mark off the height of each floor, not the floor number.

Kuwait Towers: sort of like two intercontinental ballistic missiles suffering from tonsillitis (Picture by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Deepak_gupta [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Kuwait Towers: sort of like two intercontinental ballistic missiles suffering from tonsillitis

(Picture by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Deepak_gupta [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons)

            A massive contrast to the shiny, well maintained but slightly stuffy Kuwait Towers, is the Friday Market in Jahra. A taxi will eagerly take you on the 20-minute journey, but be careful about the pricing structure. It’s difficult to know exactly what to pay without having a local help you, but in general it appears that the meter is ignored and people pay about two-thirds of whatever the driver quotes. As a tourist, just haggle and then haggle some more.

            The Friday Market is a literal ‘Everything For Sale’ place. Sprawling over a vast area in a dusty corner of Kuwait, thick with traffic, limited parking and aggressive drivers, the arrival seems to herald an unpleasant experience, but once out of the taxi an endless array of shopping entertainment awaits. Not shopping, as in bland mall shopping, but shopping as in wandering through endless ailes of wonder and rubbish. In one section stunning fabrics can be bought for a fraction of their mall prices; another section sees seemingly useless electronic discardables given a new lease of life, a price and the glint of hope and a new home, whilst another offers empty jars of coffee sold for Dh3. As they say, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, and the Friday Market is a true mix of both.

            In the evening, take a walk along the Corniche, probably Kuwait’s most upmarket, well-kept area, but still cracked and crumbling in places, gleaming and polished in others — a reflection of the city in general. American chain restaurants rub shoulders with Arabic cafés and juice stands; kids play in the car parks, 4x4s shoot past on the highways flashing their lights at each other — a game, possibly, or a local way of communicating; it’s never made clear.

            A trip to any Gulf state wouldn’t be complete without visiting the ubiquitous mall, so in brief, two of the best in KC — 360° Mall and The Avenues. The former is chic, has bowling and looks slick, whilst the latter is a massive centre of commerce; one that takes about 20 minutes just to drive its full length (although traffic, as ever, means it’s a slow journey). This is where the local young hang out, but if you’re from the UAE, you’re probably familiar with the concept.

            Outside of the malls, walking around the city is not easy or advisable — due to patchy pavements and fast traffic — so for a more enjoyable walk, take a trip to the Sahara Club, which is Kuwait’s original golf club. It’s set beside the city’s horse racing track, but visits are best saved for the cooler months, unless you take a buggy.

            For those not interested in golf, there are other trips that can taken, such as to the War Museum (for a Kuwaiti take on the Gulf War), the Liberation Tower (which was started before the war, but completed — and renamed — afterwards), or to Aqua Park to cool off in the summer. But, you may find yourself running out of time with the airport beckoning as the weekend draws to a close.

            Spending 48 hours in Kuwait City is worth it. The dry city means that nightlife is different to Dubai or Doha, but there is plenty to keep keen travellers entertained. If for nothing else, it’s fascinating to see the differences between the various Gulf nations, and important to have any misconceptions adjusted.

Travel Essential

Go with www.flydubai.com for the cheapest rates, starting at Dh365 return, for their regular daily flights. From the airport your hotel should have a pick up service, or taxis are readily available (KD5 is the standard rate).

Stay

The Courtyard by Marriott is the best option for weekenders. Rates start at approx. Dh950 per night. The hotel is secure and central.

Best time to visit

The summer is scorching, so visit after temperatures have cooled down — from mid-October until late-May.

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FIRST PRINTED IN 2011 (Khaleej Times)