Kuwait expat life isn’t what you might think. There are positives and negatives, and I’ve mentioned some of them in my other Kuwait posts. This top 10 list is a compilation of things you might not have considered or known before moving here, and some things most people wouldn’t bother to tell you. Some expats may not agree with me on some of these, especially #6, but after living here for eight years, I think I’m right, of course. These are all based on my experience and I hope you find them helpful. If not, I hope you at least find them interesting.
15 Things to Know about Expat Life in Kuwait
#1 I’ll start with one of my favorite subjects. Food. There is a lot of good food in Kuwait and a truly international selection to choose from. I love Middle Eastern and Arabic food. It’s fresh, healthy, well-seasoned, and there are lots of great places here. Italian, American, French, bakeries, desserts, even fish and chips, it’s all here.
But one unique eatery I just discovered really blew me away, and I have to mention it specifically here. Actually, I think Oak and Smoke might deserve their own post! I’m from Kentucky in the US, and we love our bbq. I’ve had bbq in the southern US, midwest, Texas, and even out west. I love it. Oak and Smoke here in Kuwait has REAL TEXAS BBQ and it is OUTSTANDING!
I just discovered it, thanks to Adrian Miller, an American author and bbq judge, who came to speak to my students. Adrian is the author of Soul Food and The President’s Kitchen Cabinet, both excellent books proving he knows his bbq. Someone in Kuwait told him about Oak and Smoke, and he told me. This weekend I finally ordered a pound of beef brisket, two sauces, and the cowboy slaw. It. Was. So. Good! It’s the real deal, and I’m so sad I didn’t know about it earlier. It took every ounce of will power I had not to eat the entire pound of brisket in one sitting. The cowboy slaw is also so good. I love slaw, so I knew before I ordered to order the County (2 generous portions) of that. I resisted ordering the potato salad, but I will next time. I’ll be sure to get pictures next time too.
Oak and Smoke is the creation of Mubarak Al-Razouki, who has an interesting story. How does a Kuwaiti become a bbq expert? American style bbq isn’t common anywhere in the world, much less in the Middle East, and it’s not often done right outside the US. How did he learn how to bbq and do it well? You can read Mubarak’s story here Oak and Smoke – Mubarak’s Story. Check out the menu here Oak and Smoke Menu.
You need to order at least a day in advance. Mubarak hasn’t opened a brick and mortar store yet, so the bbq is available for pickup in Adeliyah or he will deliver for a fee via whatsapp. Either way, you need to place your order for brisket or ribs a day in advance, maybe more if it is for a large group. It’s a small operation with high demand, serving from 6PM to supply finished. The menu link I provided has his number so you can order on whatsapp.
#2 Don’t like perfume in your lotions and cosmetics? Don’t want to go to bed smelling like the entrance of a department store? Well, you’ll be s*** out of luck here. Everything has perfume in it, and a lot of it. Even brands in the West that are fragrance free, like Eucerin, put perfume in their products to appeal to customers in this part of the world. If you prefer or require fragrance free, bring enough with you from home to sustain you until you go home again, because you won’t find it here. I use Rubbermaid tubs with lids to pack my toiletries from home, tape it up, print out my address and tape that to the lid, and check it in as an extra bag. Remember, Ziplocs are your friend. It’s totally worth it. I don’t like going to sleep smelling like a, well, you know.
#3 Kuwait has loads of great grocery stores, like The Sultan Center, Lulu Hypermarket, SaveCo, Carrefour, with lots of imported foods. While these imported foods are a bit expensive, most aren’t ridiculously priced like they were in China. Here you can get a box of Cheerios for about 7-8 USD, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or Haagen Dazs for about 7 USD (limited flavors), and really good chocolate bars, like Lindt, Green & Black’s, and others from Europe for about 3 USD each. There are no taxes here, so this keeps the price in check for most items, not all. In China, a box of Cheerios was 15 USD and a pint of Haagen Dazs was 17 USD! I wouldn’t pay that. The one thing I refuse to buy here is fresh berries. A half pint (smallest box possible!) of blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries costs about 12 USD. That’s only a handful of berries. Buy frozen.
#4 There is no alcohol in Kuwait. Actually, that’s a lie. There’s lots of home brew here, both beer, wine, and even vodka. I’ll just have water, thanks. However, you can buy black market Johnny Walker and possibly other liquors, if you know the right people. I don’t. I don’t care because on the black market, a liter of JW or anything else will run you about 150 USD. Yes, there is a “1” at the front of that number. This is highly illegal. If you get caught with it, you’ll likely go to jail and possibly be deported. Most people who buy the real stuff, or even the home brews, won’t reveal their source. They won’t “pick up a liter” for you, so good luck with that. People find a way. I just haven’t bothered because it’s not important to me. I did find these quite useful and easy to transport while traveling…
#5 Another myth is that it is easy to get a driver’s license here, especially if you are American. Bulls***. If you don’t have the help of a major company with a “mandoob” (local Arabic speaking errand runner with connections), good luck getting your license! It requires a stack of papers you’ll need an accordion file to organize. No one seems to be able to tell you what they are. It requires going to your embassy here in Kuwait with a copy of your driver’s license from home, stamps of all sorts from your home country on your master’s diploma if you’re a teacher, or other documents showing you are qualified to do the job you were hired to do. You’ll need an eye test in a neighborhood no one has ever heard of, and multiple trips to the DMV. If you have the right help, it can be done. I had no help from my work, so I gave up after spending 350 USD and getting no license.
#6 Tap water is safe to drink in Kuwait. It doesn’t taste good, but it is safe. Even Kuwaitis will tell you it isn’t. It is. They and the doctors here will tell you it causes kidney stones, but I don’t believe that. I have friends who lived here for ten years, drank tap water, unfiltered the entire time, and never had a problem. I drink tap water filtered with the equivalent of a Brita pitcher so it tastes good. You can’t find Brita here, but you can find Culligan. I bought a pitcher and filters at ACE Hardware. I also bring filters from home because as much as I love ACE, it’s a pain to get there sometimes because of traffic. A box of three filters is about 8KD, or 26 USD. Three will last 6 months for a family, longer if just one person, like me. That’s a lot less than you’ll spend on bottled water, and you won’t have to lug heavy bottles home from the store. Water here is desalinated sea water, so it’s actually very clean when it comes through the tap, although I’m not sure about what’s in the pipes of older buildings.
#7 Apartment deposits are often not refunded, even if the building owner/manager says they will be. I did have one refunded without a problem. When I signed the lease, I was given a very official looking document with the terms of the deposit explained. The building manager said as long as I had that paper and left the apartment in good condition, I would get my deposit back. I did. If you are not given any documentation at the time you pay the deposit, insist on getting that paperwork AT THE TIME you give them the deposit money. If you notify the landlord that you are leaving a few months before you go, and are told you’re not getting the deposit back, or it seems like something shady is going on, subtract the amount of the deposit from your last month’s rent. Pay your last month’s rent, minus your deposit, at the last moment. Two can play this game.
#8 Kuwait is a great home base for exploring the world. If you love to travel, like I do, Kuwait is about as central a location as you can get for flights to Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and even Australia and NZ. There are loads of direct flights to these locations. If your flight isn’t direct, you’ll probably only have one stopover in another Gulf country before heading straight to your destination. Flights from Kuwait can be expensive, but they don’t have to be. I know lots of people here who wait until the last minute to book flights, or even worse, use a travel agent. Who does that anymore? I don’t know, but travel agencies are thriving in Kuwait. Book early and book online and you’ll save money and get the flights you actually want. It just requires a bit of time and effort.
#9 Kuwait is a safe country for both expats and locals. Some people at home worry about me because I live in the Middle East, but I feel safer here in Kuwait than I do in the States where so many people believe they need to carry a gun everywhere they go. There are areas of Kuwait where I won’t go at all, but most of the country is open to foreigners and safe to walk (not always pleasant or easy walking, but safe), shop, visit restaurants, sit in a cafe, etc. Traffic here is hectic, and there are lots of unsafe drivers on the road, people looking at their phones while driving, showing off, doing stupid things. But this is probably the most dangerous aspect of living here. If you drive safe, or use a reputable taxi service like I do, you should be fine. In eight years I’ve been in one small accident in a taxi that was not my driver’s fault, and one minor bus accident. That’s a story for another time.
#10 Do not even bother with online check in for your flight. The Kuwait airport is STILL not equipped to read a boarding pass on your phone and they don’t accept printed ones either. It’s not a safety issue. It’s a lack-of-technology issue. You will receive the emails urging you to use online check in, and when you don’t do it, you’ll get another email and another from big name airlines like Emirates, Turkish Airlines, Gulf Air. Not one of them will tell you what I’m telling you now. Don’t bother with online check in. You’ll still have to wait in line at the airport and get a printed boarding pass from the airline.
#11 I am guilty of saying there is nothing to do in Kuwait and that it is boring. Sometimes I think that’s more my fault than any fault of the country. There is no shortage of good food and good coffee in nice cafes here. I just don’t always enjoy the atmosphere in the restaurants and cafes, and people still smoke in some of the cafes.
There are numerous clubs, groups, and organizations here you can be a member of, and a network of people who connect on Facebook and organize things to do around town. I just don’t join them. My friend goes on boat trips to Kuber Island, and you can also visit Falika Island and see ruins from the Gulf War. I think that these are one-time outings to enjoy, but I know people who love these boat trips and will pay to do them a few times a year.
There’s a group of industrious Kuwaitis that formed their own tour company offering different tours of Kuwait for educational or entertainment purposes. They are Madeenah Tours. I took their architectural tour of Kuwait City with a group of university students, and it was really interesting. I could actually see the different decades when things were built. These tours are not free, but the cost isn’t on their website. Two years ago, I paid between 7-10KD for the tour I went on, but I am not sure what it costs now. They offer many tours and each one revolves around a story or theme.
Another great and free tour is a tour of the Arab Fund Building in Kuwait City. This beautiful building was a joint effort between several Arab nations to provide a meeting place for visitors and government officials, but also to showcase the architecture, artifacts, and unification of the region. A lot of thought and planning went into this building. I would rate this as the top thing to do and see in Kuwait.
I checked out Tripadvisor’s Top 10 list of things to do, and other than the mention of several shopping malls you can visit (I don’t enjoy the malls anywhere, and in Kuwait they are very crowded) I have done everything on their list. It’s a good list. But these are things you would do one time if you lived here, not things that would attract tourists. If you want a social life and want to be active in your community, joining groups and organizations is the way to go. You can find several on Facebook. There are several churches here, which is also a great way to meet people.
#12 Don’t use VIVA Internet service. They block sites that other providers don’t and their service stops working, for no reason, several times a day. At least, that’s my experience. Apparently VIVA’s theory is that they want to get young subscribers, so they block any content they deem inappropriate for young people. Seems to me that’s probably going to work against them. The censorship doesn’t affect me really, but when I lose service 5 times a day, but my router says I’m still connected, I get pretty ticked off. I switched to Zain and did not have these issues.
#13 It is possible to access Netflix and Hulu here using . You don’t even need a VPN or a fancy router. I use a mini router, and a service to change my DNS. There are many services you can use, but I use Unblock-Us. It can’t be that difficult to figure out, because I did it by myself.
#14 My war on plastic bags continues, but it is a losing battle here. I don’t know who teaches bag boys here to put one item in each bag, but that’s exactly what they do. Most people, including Western expats, just go along with it. I carry cloth bags and they act like they’ve never seen them before. Sometimes they put them aside and start bagging my stuff in plastic bags before putting it in the cloth one. So what I’m getting at is, if you have any environmental concerns, please don’t leave them on the plane when you get here just because other people do. The amount of waste here is incredible, and some Western expats contribute to it just as much as anyone else.
#15 It is possible to spend everything you make just living here and not save anything. People come here and make more money than they ever have, but not nearly as much as they think. I don’t make as much money as people at home think I do. People come here and rent a fancy apartment and a big SUV, eat out all the time, hire maids and nannies, get an expensive phone and data plan. It is expensive to live here and there isn’t a lot to do besides eat out, drink coffee, and shop. However, it is possible to save a ton of money here so that you can live a better life outside of Kuwait once you return home or move on to your next destination. Some people don’t plan to ever leave, but once you turn a certain age, you might be asked to. Westerners have been denied visa renewal simply because of their age.