Kuwait | Bridging the Gulf

The Persian Gulf (or the Arab Gulf) has half a dozen airports that are regularly used as stopovers between Asia and Europe. Once upon a time, they were a necessity – aircraft didn’t have the range to fly from, say, London to Singapore nonstop, and those Gulf airports were a vital refuelling stop. Today, they’ve become hubs for flights all over the region and farther afield. Dubai claims that you can fly from there nonstop to just about anywhere on earth and Emirates has set out to prove it with an amazingly intensive route network. Many Gulf centres have become stopovers in their own right, and, in recent years, I’ve stopped in at most of them to sample what they have on offer.

Recently – flying from London to Mumbai – I dropped into Kuwait for a couple of days. Now, Kuwait is definitely an also-ran in the Gulf stopover stakes. Perhaps it’s because Kuwait Airways is not as up-tothe- minute as Emirates (Dubai), Etihad (Abu Dhabi) or Qatar (Qatar, of course). Perhaps it’s because of the ‘no-alcohol’ rule on Kuwait Airways, or anywhere in Kuwait. Or, is it because, perhaps, there doesn’t seem to be much to do in Kuwait?

Well, surprise, I found plenty to keep me busy on a twoday stopover, starting with museums. And since so much of the Kuwait story is tied up with Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1990, you might as well start with the oddlynamed Kuwait House of National Works Memorial Museum, which could have been better off named the ‘Iraqi Invasion Museum’. It’s essentially a sustained rant about ‘those horrible Iraqis’, their assault on Kuwait and the subsequent Desert Storm expulsion in 1991. It’s not a pretty story, and much of it is illustrated by models of parts of Kuwait City with Iraqis demolishing things. The tour concludes at a giant Saddam Hussein head, salvaged from one of the statues that got pulled down during his downfall. Finding the museum is hard – get specific directions or you’ll end up going round in circles.

Sadly, you could skip the National Museum. They’ve had over 20 years to put it back together after the Iraqis did their steal-and-wreck act, but although parts of the reconstituted collection have gone to the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Kuwaitis haven’t got around to making their own museum a must-see. Sadu House, which is right next to the museum, is a traditional Kuwaiti house now used as weaving museum that’s worth a look though.

Ditto for Beit Dickson. Also on the waterfront corniche, it was the home of British political agent Colonel Harold Dickson and his wife Violet. The famous explorer Freya Stark stayed here for a spell in 1937, and the house is a rare example of colonial architecture. Much of it is furnished as it was during the Dicksons’ long stay – Violet was a real Kuwait enthusiast.

Kuwait’s museum highlight is the privately-owned Tareq Rajab Museum. The owners hid their marvellous collection from the Iraqis by bricking up the entrance to the basement display area and scattering rubbish down the stairs to disguise its presence. There are ceramics, manuscripts, weird and wonderful old guns, costumes, miniatures and a stunning collection of folk jewellery from across the Middle East and Asia, up into the Himalayas and down into Southeast Asia.

Then, explore the souq, investigate the history of dhowbuilding and the pearl diving era at the Maritime Museum, have a quick glance at the Museum of Modern Art, visit the Kuwait Towers and the Liberation Tower, walk the corniche (though temperatures were sailing well past 40°C during my visit) and go to the Al-Qurain Martyrs’ Museum for more on ‘those horrible Iraqis’. Or, you can just admire the city skyline. Lots of oil money has been spent on some very flashy architecture.

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