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Last weekend saw my monthly requirement to leave the KSA and re-enter to maintain the terms of my business visa. As Ramadan was in full swing, I decided to go to another "dry" country, the Emirate of Kuwait. Kuwait sits at the top end of the Persian Gulf, bordering not only with KSA but with Iraq too.

In terms of size, it is less than 6,800 square miles. That is the size of 10 South Lanarkshires, or about half of Highland Council. It is 90% desert and 10% city. The free flowing river water there would fit into Dingwall's swimming pool. It is however close to the point where the two great Middle East rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates flow into the Gulf. The population is over 4 million, living mostly in Kuwait City or its suburbs which stretch along the Gulf coast.

I took political and security advice before going there, as the proximity to Iraq, one of the world's most unstable nations was in my mind. You will recall the first Gulf War after Saddam Hussein's Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, when his tanks rolled into town and he annexed Kuwait as a part of Iraq. In 1991 the USA-led coalition chased the Iraqis out and restored the state. The Iraqi border is about 50 miles north of Kuwait City, and the city of Basrah just over the border. Fortunately Kuwait is peaceful and advice was OK to go.

The country is again a major oil producer with huge reserves. Remember the petrol stations called Q8? Yep, Kuwait. It has a very strong economy, and its Dinar is a very strong currency. It has a high unit rate - 1 KD is worth £ 2.50. As our pound is a relatively high unit currency (visited prior to the Brexit vote), it takes some getting used to that prices in Kuwait are higher than they look, rather than lower than they seem nearly everywhere else we go. To the unwary this could lead to being ripped off. On arrival at Kuwait airport on Thursday evening, there was no obvious public transport to the city. It was taxis or walk. After negotiation with several taxi drivers, they would not budge from a fixed price - unmetered - of 8 KD (that’s £ 20). It was a 20 minute drive to my hotel, which was on the airport side of the city. To put the taxi cost into perspective, I took a public bus on my return on Saturday pm from the city to the airport and paid a fare of KD 0.25 = 63p. Like KSA most of the currency in Kuwait is banknotes. Coins are less common, so there are small denomination banknotes. There are 1/2 KD and 1/4 KD notes. The currency notes ae quite colourful, so for reasons of prettiness and value, the KD 1/4 note has become one of my favourites - alongside the Cuban 3 peso note.

I had booked my hotel via the internet and seemed to  have secured a good rate for a 2 room apart-hotel suite near the Corniche (seafront road). On checking in, the receptionist said "ah - you're the lucky one" and went on to explain that this was the first time their new sales manager had uploaded prices to the internet, and that I had been given the price of a one night stay for my two nights. She said as it was their mistake, they would honour the sale. Very nice! I went up to my rooms but struggled to get the aircon controls to work. I asked for assistance, and after the staff member had looked at it and declared it defective, I was given an upgrade to a 3 room suite with a sea view. Bargain! 

Being Ramadan, daytime fasting was in force and by the time I had settled, it was dusk. So I set out for a walk along the seafront to find somewhere to eat. The hotel wasn't in the main downtown area so restaurant density was sparser than I expected. I came across a Pizza Hut and went in and ate there. Never before have I been so glad to have their help-yourself salad, definitely something missing in KSA. The pizza was nice too. I noticed the restaurant had a drive-through section, but did not see anyone using it. I wonder what the waiting time is for one's order to be prepared. Maybe you have to phone up 15 minutes before arrival and it is a drive-past delivery point. Interesting business model anyway.

Talking of business models, us Brits in the compound were talking about where one can eat during daylight in KSA during Ramadan. We reckoned the only place is in airport departure lounges, as these do have open food outlets. I have come up with the brilliant idea (he said modestly) of creating a virtual airline. This would be marketed only at ex-pats in the KSA as EasyVisaRenew. One would buy a ticket on-line, turn up at the airport at a time of one's choosing, go through emigration, eat what one likes in the departure lounge, shop in the duty free, and board a bus on the tarmac which drives straight to international arrivals and then allows the occupants to re-enter the country. Some practical and legal issues to resolve, but maybe possible. Simples!   

Please ignore the previous paragraph. The heat is getting to me here.

Back to Kuwait. I had a good sleep on the world's hardest bed - so hard, I actually checked there was a mattress. Next day, I ate my sandwiches and made tea in the room for breakfast (hotels don't do food after 05.30 during Ramadan). I wandered downstairs and asked the receptionist what there was to do. Basically nothing, as places did not open until late afternoon. She was Egyptian, and spoke reasonable English and was very curious as to why a Brit would go to Kuwait for a weekend during Ramadan. When I explained I was working in Riyadh and had to go somewhere to renew the visa, she gave a very understanding response. 

I went for a walk along the seafront in the direction of Kuwait City. Stopping every now and then for a rest in the shade and for a drink from my water bottle, I made good progress in the direction of my target, the Kuwait Towers. These towers (see picture below) are the city's signature skyline landmarks. They consist of three huge spikes, each the size of the one in Dublin's O'Connell Street, but with two of them appearing to have large spheres impaled on them. They are in fact part of Kuwait's water storage system. All water here is desalinated (apart from drinking water which is imported). Kuwait is quite lucky with the desalination as the waters at the head of the Persian Gulf are low salt content as the big rivers empty into the Gulf just around the corner, and the Gulf water flow is anti-clockwise which is in Kuwait's favour. I suspect getting all the pollutants out is more challenging. Dusk arrived as I neared the towers and being hungry and parched I went into the first place I saw open, a TGI Friday's restaurant. The inside of the restaurant was extremely dark - and I had to use the torch on my mobile phone to see the menu. (And yes I had taken my sunglasses off). After the meal I completed my journey to the Towers and then took a taxi back to the hotel. It was 10km on the taxi's odometer, a good days walk in the heat. My Panama hat earned its keep that day.

Next I went out to the Science Centre near to the hotel and at 11pm it was buzzing with people. There was even a kids' birthday party in full swing in one of the rooms. As well as the party leader singing "Happy Birthday" to the celebrant, she also tried to get the kids to say "Hooray" after her "Hip-Hips". Clearly a new concept  to these kids, the Hoorays were as lacklustre as a day-old pizza. I went into the Aquarium at the centre and whilst it wasn't as impressive as Dubai's, it was still pretty good. They also had a section devoted to small desert animals, and here was an indoor mini zoo with desert cats, scorpions, snakes etc, and a new animal I took an immediate liking to, jerboas. These are small rodents with large ears that have tiny front legs and big strong hind legs. The look cute and hop around at high speed, there was a 50 foot long sand tank for them. Next time an advertising agency is looking for something to replace meerkats, these are the very chaps they should look at. On my way out I bought a small pizza to keep for breakfast.

Next morning the pizza didn't look so appetising, but as nothing else was available, in it went. After checking out, on the receptionist's advice I took a taxi to the central souk. This was open and was one of the old arabic trading centres selling everything from needles to anchors (Kuwaitis have a strong sailing and trading tradition). After a good wander about here (fascinating), I went in search of the ice rink. I found it about a mile inland from the seafront, and much as I expected it was closed. The front door however was slightly ajar and I went in, passing the sleeping security guard. Inside I found a full sized hockey rink, with markings painted but no sign of paraphanalia such as goals or the side netting. I may be wrong, but I guess ice hockey isn't played there now. There was a sign for "Family only" skating, so I had a nosey in there, and found through the back a smaller rink which looked the perfect size for a 3 lane curling sheet. No curling stuff there though (obviously). I wanted to get contact details for the manager, so made enough noise on my way out to arouse the watchman, but he was no help at all. We had no language in common, I am guessing he had a minor Bangladeshi dialect. All he could do was point at his watch and hold eight fingers up which I suspect meant come back at 8pm.

8pm was no good for me, as I was due back at the airport then. So, I headed off, wandered around for a bit, and came across the old city fort. One of the doors led to an unusual Government department, one that I suspect Donald Trump or Nigel Farage might approve of - see the second photo, below. 

So, back to Riyadh. Would I go back to Kuwait? Possibly yes, however not in full summer and not during Ramadan.

 Kuwait Towers


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