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Saturday , February 22 2020

Kuwait then and now … a Paris of the Gulf again

Equipped with a mechanical engineering degree and a few years of work experience in India, I arrived in Kuwait over 41 years ago. Today, I feel an integral part of the country having witnessed Kuwait’s growth and progress. In the mid-1970s Kuwait was developing at a fast pace due to the rise in oil prices. With a total population of 1.1 million it had ambitious projects in its plans but was never in a hurry to speed its development and growth. Life was simple and relaxed. It was a large family of people living together drawn from various nationalities. There were no ring roads and highways. Salmiya was the most active and glamorous suburb. It would take an hour or longer to reach Salmiya from Sief Palace. Travelling to Fahaheel was a long journey. Although designated taxi and bus services existed they were very basic and by no means very convenient. Decent restaurants for families were rare. For expatriates entertainment consisted of watching one or at most two hours of English serials aired on Kuwait TV on Fridays. There was only one TV channel that broadcast from 4 pm until 11pm mostly showing Arabic programs and news. Picnics in Ahmadi gardens or the renamed Al Shaheed Park in the city or outings at the sea front were the main spots for family get-togethers. Al Hamra cinema occasionally played Hindi and English movies on the week-ends. Arabic plays and musical concerts were held but rarely.

Music was played at home and restaurants on record-players and LPs, EPs or cassettes. The advent of videos and video players brought a revolution in the entertainment arena. Video record players were very pricey and unaffordable for the majority. Rental shops sprouted all over Kuwait and it became a lucrative business. One could rent a video record player and one video for overnight use for a sum of six to seven dinars. A day more would double the charges. Then emerged the famed Sony Walkman which revolutionized the musical experience as it became portal.

Fahad Al Salem Street was the Champs Elysees of Kuwait and had three-star hotels located on it. These were popular with business visitors to Kuwait from Iraq and it was rather difficult to get a room without using the influence of a Kuwait business house. KAC corporate head office on Fahad Al Salem Street was the tallest building in town with a restaurant on the top floor which was considered an elite place for the well to do. Salem Al Mubarak in Salmiya was another street known for its shops and a couple of fast food restaurants. Strolling on this street on the week-ends and having a meal in one of these places was another form of outing and entertainment. It is amazing to note that a falafel sandwich then and now costs 100 fils and Lebanese khuboos the same at 10 fils each. Bottled water was not commonly used.

Mubarakiya souk was the main marketplace for fresh vegetables, fruits, dry fruits, groceries, garments, foot wear and of course the well known and glittering gold souk and a number of casual open air restaurants serving fish and barbecued meats. Many of us would drive from the suburbs to Mubarakiya for a week-end of shopping and casual dining.

Each area had cooperative stores but they were rather basic and variety was limited. Kuwaitis and expatriates held ration cards and one could buy basic items like rice, oil, sugar, flour at subsidized rates from government controlled outlets.

In later years, two multi-story car parks, Souk Al Kuwait and Souk Al Kabeer were built. These had shops on the lower levels and were the first of their kind in Kuwait. This was the first step to a modern parking and shopping experience — all under one roof. With the construction of Salhiya Complex and the attached 5-star Le Meridien Hotel, Kuwait had acquired the mall concept, the first of its kind in the city. Visitors to Kuwait were given the rounds of Salhiya to appreciate Kuwait’s modern and rich shopping experience. Following Salhiya, the Muthanna shopping and residential complex was built and soon became a prestigious place in which to live.

In the 1970s and mid-1980s Kuwait Airways was considered the best airline and Kuwait the most modern, progressive and generous state in the Arabian Gulf. To other GCC residents Kuwait was the “Paris of the Gulf” with an excellent lifestyle and safety. Iraq’s brutal invasion in 1990 was a shock to the world and Kuwait suffered heavy casualties. The destruction of oil wells, damage to government and commercial buildings, infrastructure and private property was a very painful experience for Kuwaitis and expatriates alike. Upon liberation and under the able leadership of the ruling family, reconstruction and repairs were planned on a war-footing and at an unprecedented scale which continued for years. Post liberation Kuwait witnessed rapid growth and there was an abundance of work for everyone with more job opportunities in the construction industry. Traders and businessmen from overseas flocked to Kuwait. The overall population soared. A decline in oil prices prompted other GCC countries to stop or postpone their existing developmental plans but Kuwait continues with its projects for development of infrastructure, hospitals, educational institutions, modern shopping malls. It can boast of having the best in each category including live entertainment with the inauguration of the state of the art Opera Complex, perhaps the best in the GCC. Kuwait has slowly and steadily transformed itself and will regain its lost glory of being the “Paris of the Gulf.” Surely, slow and steady wins the race.

By Anant Kapadiya



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