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Arabian Adventures 2

Kuwait

Definitely somewhat less spectacular than Oman was Kuwait. I went there to visit an ex-colleague of mine and can safely say that of the countries I’ve been to it’s definitely one I would recommend that ‘you can skip’.
It was the first of the Gulf states to develop and the caricatures of sheikhs richer than Croesus buying up fleets of luxury cars they would never drive and London palaces they would never step foot in was largely due to the country’s rapid ascent to wealth in the 1950s, ‘60s and particularly after the oil crisis in the ‘70s. It was obviously hit very hard by the first Gulf War in 1990 and since then has almost tried it’s best to stay in the shadows of global events.
Whilst there are a few points of note such as the iconic Kuwait Towers and the 10km long corniche, as I returned to my hostel in my first evening there my overriding feeling was Christ (or Mohammed? )what a boring place! There’s no culture, no sporting events, no nature (it’s effectively a city state in the desert) and virtually nothing going on of any interest. Put it this way, the top rated thing to do in Kuwait according to Trip Advisor is visit a shopping mall, which sums up the country nicely.
Unlike in the UAE or Qatar the ruling royal family are seemingly disinterested in taking any part on the global stage and have struck an unwritten deal with the population where no one is expected to do any work but it doesn’t matter as they quietly sit back watching the petrodollars and returns from the very successful sovereign wealth fund roll in. The population are happy to pay South Asian migrants to do anything resembling hardwork as they live tax free, are granted free land to build houses and even foodstuffs like bread and eggs are subsidized. They’ll then take ample holidays shopping in London or Paris living the definition of a cosseted life.
Much of the infrastructure was built in the ‘80s and ‘90s and is starting to look very dated; as you walk past dusty playgrounds and abandoned theme parks it imbued the place with a deep sense of decadence tied in with a gradual sense of inertia. It’s difficult to see it changing any time soon and I would ultimately judge it as one of the least memorable countries in the world to visit.

Lebanon

From Kuwait I flew to Lebanon and even at the airport was hit by the contrast between the two countries. The space and ease of Kuwait’s airport was replaced in Beirut by overcrowding from refugees and strict security guards; something that would be a theme of visiting Lebanon. If Kuwait is lethargic and dull; Lebanon is intense and fascinating. Whilst it’s a tiny country there’s a huge amount to take in and trying to describe it coherently I found very difficult.
Beirut as a city was more pleasant than I expected; once known as Paris of the Mediterranean (or the East) the long running civil war in the ‘70s and ‘80s involved urban warfare and residential bombing raids and so coined the phrase beloved by Mums looking at children’s rooms worldwide of “It looks like Beirut in here”.
Much of the city has now been cleaned up and particularly in the city centre, it feels like you’re in a European city with clean streets flanked by gallerias selling high end brands bought by the very fashionable population milling around. In GDP terms it ranks second behind only Israel in the region and sun kissed by a glorious climate with outstanding cuisine, it could be a truly wonderful place to live.
However, you’re also very conscious that the quality of life is not shared by all and this is still a very divided city and country.
Demographically Lebanon would have to rank as one of the single most complicated countries in the world with the Islamic/Christian population roughly split 50/50 but also divided on ethnic, tribal and linguistic lines in a way that is very difficult for outsiders to fully comprehend. The civil war reflected these divisions but Lebanon’s situation is made even more complicated by ongoing external conflicts with Israel and the nearby wars in Syria and Iraq. Despite heavy military aid from the West to the army and a huge UN peacekeeping force trying to keep a lid on things, there is a definite air of tension everywhere in the country and the fear that an unexpected spark could kick off the tinder box again.
Whilst some parts of the city such as the Old French Christian quarters are very pleasant, in other areas such as the Barajhneh Palestinian refugee camp life is near unbearably hard as over 20,000 people cram into a space a little over 1km sq. Lebanon doesn’t really know what to do with it’s refugees from Palestine as around 500k have lived there since the Nakba in 1948. Lebanon doesn’t want to give them residency let alone citizenship as they would have to give them services and benefits that the Lebanese population are unwilling to grant. It could also destabilise the hard fought peace as the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians are Sunni Muslims and by granting them citizenship it would tilt the balance inexorably in favour of Muslims. Therefore they unfortunately stay in a limbo state where they’re crammed into permanent refugee camps, cannot get jobs or take part in Lebanese society and are supported by the UN at great expense. The situation has persisted for 70 years with no obvious solution and seeing the poverty and lack of basic sanitation or even hope in the refugee camps is a truly humbling experience.
Outside of Beirut, Lebanon is home to some outstanding sightseeing with the ancient Phoenician cities of Tripoli, Tyre and Sidon trumped only by the almighty Roman city of Baalbek in the North East. The huge Temple of Jupiter is the best preserved Roman temple anywhere and the 95m high columns and amazingly well preserved frescoes present one of the best architectural sights I’ve ever seen. I think only the location prevents it from being more famous internationally as it’s in a pretty dangerous location near the Syrian border with its endless rows of refugee tents and various army and Hezbollah checkpoints.
Hezbollah’s presence in the country is controversial; funded by Iran and seen by the West as a terrorist organization, monuments and posters of martyrs are ubiquitous in the Muslim areas and the paramilitary presence leads to a feeling of a state within a state. Whilst the Catholics are generally wary of them, the Muslims I spoke to saw them as defenders of both their community within the country but also as a bulwark against the hated Israelis to the South. They did provide a wonderfully quirky attraction in the mountains near the Israeli border called MLEETA. It’s a museum cum propaganda vehicle where the spoils of war captured from the IDF like tanks and missiles are displayed and gloated over as well as the hillside tunnels and hideouts they used in the guerilla war in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Fascinating to see and walk around, although with the country at relative peace it was difficult to see what their raison d’etre is now.
Whilst it’s not a big place geographically (maybe a 3hr drive North to South), getting around Lebanon isn’t easy. There’s no public transport and the clogged highways has led to one of the worst traffic and pollution problems in the world. After a week of noise, fumes and people I was desperate to get away from things but it’s almost impossible to get away from people in Lebanon. Even up in the mountains you’re always in sight of towns and villages as the extremely fertile soils and pleasant climate led to a naturally densely populated area. However, swollen by 500k Palestinian and around 2m Syrian refugees out of a population of just 6m, it’s now the 4th most densely populated country in the world. Almost all the famous cypress trees have been chopped down and virtually all viable land is used for agriculture so there isn’t really anything resembling wilderness. The best I could do was a relatively quiet valley called Qadisha; it’s home to the most important sites of the Christian church in Lebanon and is a UNESCO listed site. Dotted with wonderfully calm monasteries carved out of the cliff sides amid rolling streams, a hike in the clean air down the valley felt like a vital recharge in this hectic, intense country.
Thinking about my time in the country over shisha that evening I felt very lucky to have visited and had the opportunity to experience the amazing culture and hope the country stays at peace into the future.
From Beirut,
barney

Posted by carlswall 04:57 Archived in Lebanon Tagged kuwait

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