Gideon’s Journeys In Kuwait — The Middle East’s ‘Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’

Day 1 — Kuwait City

Kuwait City is a treasure chest — a flower of glass, lights and luxury that gets watered by a well of petroleum. Roughly 80 million petrodollars are pulled out of the ground each day, although I’m not sure if it’s just the money that accounts for this oasis’ love affair with Western culture. The muezzins [Muslim prayer callers] may cry in the morning moonlight and stucco mosques may hug the seaside, but the city itself could easily be Phoenix, Miami or Palm Springs. Starbucks, Spago, McDonald’s … they’re all at the mall, of course, with logos in Arabic. (Click for pictures of Gideon’s Kuwait photo diaries .)

If I am reeling from any culture shock it’s a lack of culture shock. The night before I flew out, I got farewell phone calls from my family and friends … as if I had bought a one-way ticket to some bullet-ridden republic and was never coming back. Hardly. The biggest danger for me here is getting gouged by the 3:1 dinar-to- dollar exchange rate and the jacked-up prices (copy of Newsweek — $7 bucks; clean socks — $25 bucks for a pair of three; being in a rich oil potentate at a time when war clouds are on the horizon — priceless). Well, that’s not entirely true. British Airways (our carrier in) has suspended flights to Kuwait City for the time being and our hotel is running evacuation drills for its guests. The American and British embassies have encouraged all American and British families to leave, but that all seems secondary to the lush life led by the Kuwaitis. The young Kuwaitis we have spoken to seem unperturbed. After all, 13 years ago, when Iraq invaded, Kuwait City was unprotected. Today, American forces are setting up camp in the entire northern part of the country. For that the Kuwaitis express tons of gratitude. “We really feel for the Americans who come here,” said Feras, a 25-year-old Kuwaiti whose father is still a POW from the first Gulf War. “They come [from] way across the world. We don’t pay for them to come here. They live in the desert without their families and that sucks. So when [the shooting of a Marine outside of Camp Doha] happened, that was a psychopath. Most Kuwaitis love the U.S.”

Standing on a street corner for five minutes it becomes crystal-clear why Saddam Hussein broke this bank in 1991. Rows of Jaguars, Mercedes, BMWs, Rolls Royces and Porsches ride past, one pearly, well-waxed whip after another. On Thursday night, our new Kuwaiti friends (interview subjects we picked up chilling at a local Starbucks) will take us to watch the luxury car drag races that run each week. It’s one of the few kicks the locals can get in a country where alcohol is illegal.

If I could draw one analogy between Kuwait City and any place, it would be Kuwait City and Vice City — as in “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.” My producer Megan gives me a lot of crap for the number of times I bring this up in any given day but she’s never played the game and it’s god’s honest truth if I’ve ever uttered one. The sweet beachfront property and the rough ghettos, the sports boats and helicopters, palms and jet skis, huge artillery and pop radio stations. They’re even roughly the same size. Admittedly the vices of Vice City — the narcotics and prostitution — are frowned upon and punishable by death in KC., but otherwise I think it’s a fair comparison.

Kuwait City is dominated by portraits of its shiek, Jaber Al-Sabah, on banks and hotels and in shopping malls. His royal palace is about three times the size of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and it makes Puffy’s crib in the Hamptons look like my dilapidated Lower East Side apartment. Sheik Jaber and the Al-Sabah family are the monarchy that rules all of Kuwait. They seem to be genuinely loved by their citizens — every Kuwaiti citizen we’ve talked to has few complaints about their government, even though they aren’t guaranteed constitutional rights or given the ability to vote for a president. To tell you the truth, I find it hard to fault a government that provides thousands of dollars in stipends to its citizens simply for being citizens. Free money kind of puts that whole taxation thing we’ve got going in the U.S. in a fresh perspective. But it’s tough to get Kuwaiti citizenship and the bulk of the work in Kuwait City is done by a caste of foreign nationals from the Philippines and India who come here looking for jobs. If they want to open a business, they need to get a Kuwaiti citizen to sponsor them.

The latest wave of immigration, however, is the journalists who have descended on this city en masse, looking for a good vantage point of history from the frontlines of our seemingly impending war with Iraq. They’re impossible to miss, in their polo shirts and running shoes — whether English, American, Danish, French or Australian. All of them run on similar schedules, moving in coordination with satellite feeds and evening news broadcasts, flanked by a phalanx of translators, drivers and fixers — the makeshift economy that sprung up around this potential war.

Our job here is a basic one — take the pulse here in Kuwait City from the youngest minds and get their points of view, then cruise north to the Marine bases near the Iraqi border and find out who is preparing to fight. Basic, but not simple. The more we dig, the simpler questions we ask, the more we get very complex answers. I am looking forward to my time here. I hope all of my preconceptions about Kuwait, war, and life on the Gulf will be undone.

Gideon Yago

Read Day 2: Meeting Survivors Of The Gulf War

Read Day 3: ‘Get Right With God’ And Other Advice

Read Day 4: Gideon’s Journeys In Kuwait — Fighting For Democracy

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