03 2017 | TIME OUT

 11 The 218.2 meter high Al Tijaria Tower is Kuwait’s sixth tallest building. © Sarah Alsayegh

Petrol, Pearls & Palaces

Sometimes Kuwait City bears some resemblance to an oyster with a pearl inside. It’s a little rough on the outside, but contains an unparalleled beauty on the inside. PIN spent a day with country consultant Samar Mushainish who showed us around the special places of the Kuwaiti capital.

Approaching Kuwait City by plane is really impressive on a clear day. Newly built skyscrapers, like the 413-meter-high Alhamra ­Tower, seem to glitter even brighter when seen against the backdrop of the dark blue sheet of the Persian Gulf on one side of this metropolis. The vast stretches of the famous Kuwait Bay, which is ­protecting Kuwait International Airport against the sea, seem to have an even greater ­attrac­tion as they are put against the oil well sprinkled, ­sand-colored vast­ness of the desert beginning on the other side of the city. From the plane, you get a good impres­sion of Kuwait’s landscape. With its 17,820 square kilo­meters, it is rather small, roughly triangular in shape and it borders on Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The majority of its territory is covered by desert, with little ­difference in elevation. Due to that almost all of its 4.2 million ­inhabitants live in urban areas – Kuwait City being the biggest and most vibrant one. 


»The Gaming market will be growing at high rates in Kuwait.«

- Samar Mushainish,
paysafecard’s country consultant for Kuwait

After a short ride into the city, we meet paysafecard’s country consultant, Samar Mushainish, in one of the many coffeeshops by international brands like ­Starbucks, Caribu or Costa, that seem to pop up on every corner downtown. “Gathering at the coffeshops is a favorite pastime for the people here,” Samar ­explains the buzz of young Kuwaitis with ­mobile phones and computers around us, having their first cup of coffee amongst the towering skyscrapers. 80% of the 2.2 ­million-strong ­population in the ­nation’s capital is ­under 35 years of age, with the ­majority of them being well-­educated. They're also ­internet-crazy. “Roughly 80% of the households in Kuwait have internet access and only gambling and adult sites are really restricted,” says Samar. That’s why gam­ing in particular is big in ­Kuwait: “This market is very strong and will be growing at high rates,” Samar explains.

We finish our coffee and are off to souq Al-Mubarakiya, one of the oldest bazars in the capital for a more traditional taste of daily life in this historic Arabic cultural center. Souq Al-Mubarakiya has been around for at least 200 years and was the ­center of trade ­prior to the discovery of oil in the 1930s. It is located between Abdullah Al-Mubarak, Abdullah Al-Salem and Palestine Streets and you can spend hours there strolling ­ar­ound and discovering reason­­able bar­­gains on ­heri­t­age goods such as ­Persian silk carpets, real Arab antiques, perfumes like musk and oud, and ­traditional costumes. “You should also ­taste the dates, honey, spices, sweets, ­vegetables, ­fruits, meat, and fish here,” Samar smiles, while we stroll the covered aisles. A short visit to a souq wouldn’t be complete ­without checking out the ­silver and gold ­jewelry-shops, however: “Kuwait is known for high quality ornaments,” says Samar. “But you have to ­haggle, if you want to buy. The gold is of a high standard but not really cheap here. No merchant will give you a bargain at less than market value. But the ­difference is the ­making charge. It ­depends on your negoti­ating skills, how much you’ll pay.” 


As we observe the happenings in one of the gold shops, we notice that paying in cash is still very ­common. “Only 10% of the Kuwaitis even own a credit card,” ­explains Samar. “Everything that can’t be paid in cash is paid via debit card.” Not having credit cards doesn’t mean the Kuwaitis are poor, however. According to the world bank, the country has the fourth highest per capita income in the world. “That’s true,” says Samar, “but also keep in mind that 500,000 of the 2.2 million inhabitants are housemaids and that there are still many expats living in Kuwait.” Walking the streets of Kuwait City, you can’t help but noticing that this still is a very affluent society, however. And the reason for that is not only the wealth bubbling from the oil wells.


We’ve changed the scenery from the souq to the seaside. Meanwhile, we're standing in front of one of the last big dhows in Kuwait City’s Dhow Harbour. ­“These traditional sailing ships were used for coastal ­trading, fishing, and pearl diving in the past,” ­explains our guide. Visitors can also get aboard the Fateh El-kheir (brings good fortune), which is the ­largest, and last surviving wooden Dhow. This ancient ship stands for a time when Kuwait was particularly famous for ­maritime business and selling the best quality pearls from the Arabian Gulf. The dhows used for pearl ­diving were called ghawas  and sanbouk, today this line of business remains a thing dearly remembered, but long gone. What stayed, however, is the Kuwaiti ­people’s strong business acumen.

Visitors who want to go scuba diving in the calm ­waters of the Persian Gulf should ask one of the local ­providers of diving equipment like ‘Kuwait ­Diving Team’ for tips,” ­Samar tells us. “Boating to small Kubbar Island, ­located a little off the coast, is particularly nice for a ­diving trip. But you have to go early. In the afternoon, it gets very crowded.” We embark on another boat trip instead and visit Failaka Island, which is among the best known tourist destinations in Kuwait. One reason being the archeological sites, some from the Bronze age and the Dilmun civilisation. Even the Greeks under Alexander the Great left their mark and built temples there. But especially in the spring, the gentle breeze, budding flowers and vibrant flora are worth the visit, as well.


Back in the city, it’s high time for some traditional Arabic food and Samar decides to get us a table at “Burj Al Hamam,” an unmissable waterfront restaurant. “This is a terrific place to sample Middle Eastern-cuisine,” boasts our guide. And she’s right: Grilled meat and seafood dominate, but how could anyone resist the hummus with lamb and pine nuts, drizzled with lamb fat? Delicious. While the sun sets over the sea, we ­decide to finish off the day in one of the many huge shopping malls. “Going night shopping is big over here. As alcohol is prohibited outside the western hotels, people seldom go to bars. They meet at the mall.” 


There are many malls to choose from – Sharq, Marina, Al Kout or Al Hamra Tower Mall. We decide to visit “The Avenues” today. Located in the Al-Rai Industrial Area and spread over an area of 301,000 square meters, the mall attracts more than 20 million visitors a year and a total business exceeding $1 billion. With 850 stores, 12 anchors and a parking capacity for 12,000 ­vehicles, it is the largest in Kuwait City. “The malls play a very ­important role for us at paysafecard, too,” ­Samar ­explains. “Our ­network of currently 3,000 points of sale relies strongly on mobile shops, self-service kiosks and ­hypermarkets, which are very often located in these big malls. This ­special take on distribution helps us reach the young digital natives, who love ­gaming and e-­commerce.” And now we notice. Here they are again: All those young, ­fashionably dressed Kuwaitis with their mobile ­phones and laptop cases, we already met in the morning at ­Starbucks. And as our day with ­Samar comes full circle we realise, Kuwait City is not only ­beautiful and a fun place to spend a day off, but it's also a very interesting market for doing ­business online.