Kuwaiti silence speaks volumes
The country needs constructive criticism to pull it out of its stasis. But who will speak up?
Reporting on Kuwait is a fraught exercise – a fact I was reminded of on my latest trip to the country in mid March.
Many bankers and business people have serious reservations, to say the least, about the direction taken by the emir since he took office over a decade ago. Many bemoan the slow pace at which his announced reforms get enacted, while few believe the country’s latest vision for change, called New Kuwait, will materialize.
Finding local sources willing to go on the record with these views is no easy task. They may despair of the government’s inaction, but are wary of ever voicing their concerns publicly. Kuwait may be, thanks to its parliament, the most democratic of the six Gulf Co-operation Council countries, but it is still, as one banker puts it, only “semi-democratic”. The ministry of information can be a heavy-handed censor.
Even a transparency advocate – of all people – tells me he doesn’t want his name attached to any comments, either positive or negative, about the emir. The source, who, incidentally, is a firm believer in New Kuwait, says that the ruler wishes to keep dissenting voices in check as he rolls out his strategy to transform the emirate by 2035. “The emir wants a controlled truth for now,” he says. “Nothing must hurt the image of Kuwait.”
But the image of Kuwait outside its own borders has suffered for years. Although few and far between, there are people willing to speak out about the problems that plague the country and the slow pace at which those problems are being addressed. One such is Juliet Dinkha, the chairwoman of the American Business Council Kuwait (ABCK).
ABCK, the organization she has headed since June last year, represents the interests of US corporate leaders – including Boeing, Microsoft, Chevron, consumer products conglomerate Honeywell and defence contractor Raytheon – that do business in the country. Founded in 1985, ABCK is the oldest foreign business lobby in Kuwait.
|Juliet Dinkha, ABCK
Dinkha, a Kuwait-born US citizen, is also, apart from her role at ABCK, a practising psychologist. She sits down for an interview with Euromoney just after her weekly talk about psychology on the morning show of a Kuwaiti radio station – topic of the day, anxiety disorder – with a breakfast picked up from Starbucks. “It’s mini-America here,” she says, adding that there are Starbucks stores all over Kuwait City. “In one mall, they have 20 of them.” But Dinkha says there are also ways in which US business people find themselves disorientated in Kuwait. Many foreign and Kuwaiti executives share her concerns.
One difficulty is to do with staffing. Dinkha says many Kuwaitis are unskilled, so foreign businesses are more likely to want to hire foreign staff. But foreigners struggle to obtain visas and residency permits, she says. Likewise, Kuwait’s ageing, one-terminal airport does little to attract business-minded expatriates.
She adds that foreign businesses need to enter into franchise agreements with Kuwaiti partners in order to be allowed into the country. One issue, she says, is that a very select group of Kuwaitis ends up acting as the partner in most franchise agreements. “That’s just the way things work out in Kuwait,” she says. “They don’t like competition here.”
Dinkha also criticizes the healthcare system in Kuwait, which has long paid for Kuwaitis to travel abroad for care, thereby funnelling state money into clinics abroad rather than into the country’s own doctors and hospitals. She says there have been so few checks on these medical trips that a number of people ended up using the money to pay for holidays instead. The more brash fraudsters would then post pictures of their vacation on Instagram, she says.
Dinkha also picks apart the culture of ‘Wasta’ (an Arabic word that can be loosely translated as nepotism), which permeates Kuwait and raises questions about the nature of many business dealings. Asked if employers trust applicants with a degree obtained at a Kuwaiti university, for example, she says: “Of course they don’t, because of Wasta. They think people passed because they gave the professor a bottle of wine.”
Wasta, she continues, slows down any attempt to reform the country.
She does not claim that western expats are badly treated, quite the contrary. “They love us,” Dinkha says of the way Kuwaitis treat foreign business people. But, because of all the difficulties of living and working in Kuwait, few expats see a future for themselves in the country.
Asked about New Kuwait, Dinkha says: “I don’t want to talk about 2035. I won’t be here!”