The effect of segregation of the sexes is profound in Kuwait. Even at family gatherings where cousins and the larger extended family participate, men and teenage boys will go to one area while women, girls and younger children will enjoy themselves in another. Arranged marriages are quite normal and to learn to love your husband or wife after the wedding is a path chosen by many. It is very important in the more traditional families for the women to cover themselves completely when in a place a man might see them. Many women and girls after the age of fourteen or so will not appear in public without an abaya, a full length covering with long sleeves, always black regardless of the season, and a hijab, a scarf which can be highly decorative and draped or pinned in a variety of ways.
Many families insist on their women wearing a veil and face mask, which can be lifted up discreetly when eating or drinking at a restaurant or café just for a moment at a time to pop something in the mouth. The most extraordinary sight is that of women whose entire face is covered with a thin veil, even over the eyes. I was once walking by the beach when we came across two women hidden in this way, covered in their shapeless robes, with their children. It was impossible to tell at first if we were looking at their fronts or their backs. Another double take view is when a woman is all decked out in the black gear and then has sunglasses on as well. Protection plus.
With the advent of shopping malls, some teenage boys and girls take this opportunity to make some kind of contact, however fleeting, with members of the opposite sex. I have never seen a more practised use of the quick flick of a look out of the corner of the eye in Kuwait as I did in these contexts. They are so adept at this that surely it harkens back to an earlier era, one of desert taboos and campfire gossip. The eyeflick is not learned or unlearned in one generation. The more liberated girls, who are allowed out without an accompanying adult and are not forced to wear abaya and hijab can be seen all dressed up in their fashionable blues and browns, hair flying freely in the breeze as they stride their way through town on their not to be overlooked high heeled shoes. Boys parade in groups on their motorbikes or in their late model cars, music pumping and often decked up like they have just jumped out of a trendy magazine. For a boy to get the mobile phone number of a girl is a prize indeed, it has even been seen passed from a car of girls to a car of boys on a sheet of paper while both are travelling down the street. At speed..
It is quite unusual for a Kuwaiti to take a bus. This service, which is fairly extensive and prompt, is provided for the benefit of those expatriate guestworkers without cars: Egyptians, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Indians, Sri Lankans and the occasional European. Some Europeans I met had never taken a bus in Kuwait at all, preferring taxis to driving in the hazardous, free for all traffic. My apartment was fairly centrally situated so buses were no problem. Women would sit at the front and men at the back. But waiting for a bus did have its moments.
Avoid Eye Contact
As a woman, one always had to expect the attempts of a pickup. I have witnessed male prostitution on the streets twice but never females plying their trade so openly. However, we were told that women at bus stops were mistaken for prostitutes. We were warned not to look at any men who slowed down or parked at the bus stop, not to make eye contact, as they considered this to be a come on. Come on!
The most memorable experience I had of this sort was when a middle aged man with a clipped grey beard parked in the layby behind the bus stop I was waiting at and started blowing his horn. After the third honk I became annoyed enough to simply look at him and ask “What?” before turning back to face the street, hoping a bus would come soon. A guy turned up at the stop and fortunately this was sufficient reason to move the driver on. Another man on the scene. Protection. The bus came and I thought no more of it. Imagine my surprise when several minutes later, after dismounting, I saw the same old model Jaguar waiting for me. He had apparently so little to do that he thought it worth his while to pull in up the road and watch me, follow the bus and then park again in the hopes of an encounter. Oh the thrills…
This is the kind of occurrence that faces a woman of any age who uses public transport for shopping, going to the gym or any of the normal things one would do in one’s daily life. About 50% of the time the car’s number plate was orange, which meant that they were licensed to operate as private carriers. The other 50% were simply looking for some action. It doesn’t matter what you wear so long as you are there. I took to standing as far away from the kerb as possible and simply ignoring all comers. Except once, after six months of nose in the air, on a 40 plus degree afternoon, when I had been walking for about twenty minutes. We didn’t make it past the hello where are you from before he had his hand on my knee so I was out of the car and back at the bus stop, hypothesis reconfirmed.
In this way, open confrontations were avoided, although the offers were always there. I became so habituated to this that after only about three weeks in Kuwait when I was going shopping with a twentysomething blonde girlfriend, it got to the point that I was actually surprised we had had an incident free evening. Not so! Just as we were picking up some cigarettes at the local corner shop a Kuwaiti complete in dishdasha (traditional robe) and headgear approached us. “Hello girls, do you need any help?” (No thanks) “Can I take you anywhere?” (No, we are just near home) “I wanna sex!” Now how would you respond to that? We figured it was his problem, not ours.
The only conclusion I can draw is that some men believe or want to believe that every Western woman is like those they see in the porn movies they watch. With these men, there is no respect for a woman’s profession, no thought of why or how she may have come to their country in the first place. They just imagine she might want to make a bit of money on the side selling herself. As it was so common to come across such men, I began to wonder how many of the fathers of my students behaved like this. Not a thought worth pondering over. In any case the subject was never open to discussion!
“This is Their Nature”
One mighty lesson was learned from a Filipina receptionist at the sports club I used to belong to. This was at a time when security was really beginning to become an issue for Westerners. There had been at least three officially reported incidents where American soldiers or Americans working on military contracts had been shot in the past couple of months by Kuwaitis, once by a Kuwaiti policeman.
We had been advised by embassies not to gather in groups and to avoid public places like restaurants or international schools. (How can you avoid an international school when you work in one?)
I got off the bus as usual and started walking to the entrance when I noticed a fully bearded middle aged man right in front of me leering from his 4 wheel drive and honking the horn. I have nothing against beards as such, mind you, it is just indicative in Kuwait of a fashion that goes with fundamentalism. At that time we had our radars out for this kind of thing, which is probably just as much a sign of our fear as it was of the twisted nature of spin on the satellite English language media at the time.
There was nobody else around. I walked straight past the car without looking at him which he then started up and turned around, following me. Panicking, I ran the 100 metres to the entrance and then reported what had happened to reception, asking them if security could follow it up. Of course the man had gone and the security guard’s office was positioned next to a sidegate for vehicular access, so they had seen nothing.
Guessing that she had faced similar experiences, as she was a woman, I asked the receptionist what she would do in a similar situation and she replied “The best thing is to show them no fear. If you show you are afraid it encourages them to hurt you more. This is their nature.”
Spin or no spin, I had learned my lesson.
Oil rich countries in the Middle East have developed so quickly that the basics of institution building have been left behind. What exists instead is, naturally enough, a set of norms and relationships similar to what has held the culture together for so long, values which are typical of the society are melded onto new contexts. The landscape may change, with modern high rise blocks dominating the desert skyline, but people do not.
A technical expert from Europe was contracted to work in an advisory capacity with a government department responsible for electricity and water. It was a complicated arrangement from the beginning. He was employed by a company which had been subcontracted by a European semi governmental agency to do the job.
On arrival in Kuwait he found himself in an office with no computer and no internet access. These had been removed. The carpet was vacuumed only once a month but there was no shortage of “teaboys”, who could be summoned at any time for refreshments. He found he had no job description, no direct way of finding out who was who in the departmental hierarchy or what they were responsible for specifically. It took three weeks before he finally met his boss, for five minutes. There were no regular meetings to discuss the progress of projects. Access to information of any sort: technical data, equipment specifications or records of maintenance procedures was very difficult if not impossible.
As his contract was for a year he began to wonder what he would do. Creating work was no problem, he could develop improved maintenance management systems, assess safety and risk factors, generate reports, whatever, but what did the department want him to do? What was his job? This question puzzled him and he could find nobody to tell him the answer. Day by day he turned up at his desk, plugged in his own computer and began to look busy. He had been used to working for projects which had well structured goals, even if at times these were undeliverable, but basically now he had to content himself with bits and pieces.
The office was shared by an Egyptian engineer he had been told was his assistant. This guy would spend hours each day chatting to anyone who would visit him. He would also disappear for days at a time, presumably visiting and chatting to others. Occasionally the European and the Egyptian would have a conversation and the weeks rolled by.
At one point he was instructed to find work for the Egyptian to do. After a series of training sessions (for which everyone was late) he gave the fellow a routine job which would take two weeks to do thoroughly. It involved checking the settings of equipment by looking up the maintenance documentation which was stored in what was called the library. This building had no air conditioning and was dust laden with open windows, nobody was in charge and there was no order to the way anything was shelved. The Egyptian bounced back two hours later, mission accomplished. How could he have found all the information so quickly?
As he was beginning to feel rather stale, the technical expert decided to get his teeth into one long term project. He initiated a proposal for a new computer system, which would calculate relay protection for the system of substations he was responsible for in a more reliable and accurate way. It was going to cost U.S.$30,000, which was very small potatoes compared with the level of expenditure he could witness all around him in the department. Problem: who would approve this purchase?
In the end nobody did. Being from a different background, unwilling and unable to pad the bill and find someone with influence to whom a “commission” could be given, the idea lapsed. Included in the purchase agreement would be a training component involving two people from the department visiting the United States for orientation. He was told that although he would be the one using the program he would not be the one to get the overseas trip. Reluctantly, after several efforts, he abandoned the plan.
I told him he should not expect anything different and if he wanted the project to go ahead he should make the training component sound very attractive to the upper levels of management. But it was in Pittsburgh and what was attractive about that? Well, Niagara Falls is not too far away. How would the sight of so much water appeal to an Arab living on the coastal fringe of a desert? As it was his first posting outside his own country and he had particular scruples about how to do business he considered it best not to go down this road of spin and glory. Fair enough.
Time moved on and he found himself approached by a number of suppliers of relay protection equipment who were involved in building new substations. Some were from Japan and Korea, others from Sweden and the Netherlands. In every case he was asked questions that at first he could find no answers for. Why were they asking him? Because there was nobody else. He busied himself finding his way through the maze of the department locating the information required. Finally he had something challenging to do, though if the place were run efficiently he could have channelled his efforts into something more worthwhile.
Weeks and months passed. At two each day he left the office and worked out in a local gym. He looked forward to these daily training sessions as an integral part of his routine. There was some real satisfaction in monitoring his progress as he got himself back into shape physically. Although this was not what he had been sent here to do, and not what he was being paid for, at least this was work.
One day something momentous happened. A substation blew up. Blew up? Yes, exploded. Well the inside did anyway, the building was still standing. There was no power in the central business district for two hours. Though it was patently obvious to most observers that this was yet another example of poor maintenance, nobody wanted to accept the blame.
Despite not having been invited to inspect the site, our technical expert was asked to write a report about what had happened and why. Piecing together the evidence, and with the experience of 20 years, he developed a theory of how the accident had happened. The gas which created an inert atmosphere inside the chambers where high voltage equipment was housed had not been refilled regularly. An enormous spark had vaporized some of the metal and a huge explosion occurred. Confusing his clients with a profusion of diagrams, statistics and calculations, the specialist developed a series of reports explaining how this could be avoided with the purchase of an improved relay protection system, which would shut down and reroute power in case of such an emergency. Hadn’t he been telling them that all along?
Some time between the explosion and the final report it became clear that the U.S. was about to invade Iraq. There was an announcement from the expert’s embassy. It was not safe to stay in Kuwait. The semi governmental agency responsible for the contract instructed him to leave, and return on embassy advice. He packed up his computer and off he went, to continue working on his report. It was not a holiday. Every day he drove to the office. Every night he drove home. With the benefit of a professional exchange of ideas, his calculations progressed well. He was able to generate real evidence, admittedly based on guesstimates due to insufficient data and poor record maintenance practices back in Kuwait. Or so he said. Why would he want to admit to receiving an unpaid holiday, just as I had had to do?
Five weeks later he returned to the country, carrying on pretty much where he had left. Not much had been done in the meantime. Kuwait had been practically paralysed for part of that time, with people staying indoors or heading for public shelters during missile attacks from Iraq. He was told his absence would be regarded as a holiday. Although he had been paid by his company, the Kuwaiti government would not pay for that period of the contract. He would not be allowed to go home for a break during the summer. They said he had used up all his annual leave. This attitude was typical of the time. This case study is only a variation on a theme. At least as a teacher we have two months annual leave during the summer, despite the fact that his salary was about twice mine I did not envy him his situation.
The thermometer rose steadily, often to as much as 50 degrees Celsius. The country was plagued by hot winds and dust storms, worse this year than ever as the desert’s surface had been churned up by tanks and trucks for months while the U.S. and British military undertook their “training exercises” prior to the war.
As he gazed out the window from his 9th storey apartment across the Arabian Gulf, the heat haze shimmered on the water. He thought longingly of his country, of his friends and family, of the music festivals on the beaches, of the familiar smells of the countryside, of the taste of real beer.
Our European gent exchanged email after email with his office back home and they in turn liaised with the semi governmental agency. With the Kuwaitis not paying for five weeks of the contract, and the 30% reduction of the Kuwaiti dinar against major European currencies, there was no profit left. There was talk of abandoning the contract altogether.
His written application for leave to escape the gruelling summer heat was rejected by his main boss in Kuwait, one of the many directors. So he contacted his company in Europe to see whether they could arrange something via liaison at a higher level in the ministry. Flight booked, he was hopeful, as the local sponsor had indicated an under secretary in the ministry would look on the application favourably. But he was reluctant to go over the head of the boss. A classic game of delaying to the last possible minute was being played out.
He approached the director, waiting in his outer office along with several others. Some were seen, some were not. He was not. With the convenient excuse of prayer time, the boss slipped out the back door. Intercession by the sponsor on the mobile phone produced an arrangement to meet again the next day. The room was full of people but the boss never arrived. The plane left that evening. Our friend was not on it.
With characteristic equanimity, he resolved to try again the following week. Perhaps the director would change his mind? You guessed it. There were a number of complicating factors due to the conditions of the contract but the basic point was that as he had left at a time of need there was no way he could leave again until the contract had expired. It goes all the way down the line, from engineer at a salary of 1400 Kuwaiti dinar a month to maid or groundsman at a salary of 40KD a month. If you leave who will take care of us?
Anyone who has gone through tough times will know how human nature tends to maintain a veneer of normality throughout them. In early 2003 in Kuwait we seemed to live in some kind of provisional world, where we would seesaw through a series of expectations and plans set off by some piece of news which would then be counterbalanced by the next. Rumours were rife, and whatever you heard today would just as likely be contradicted tomorrow.
The big issue was when were the Americans going to attack Iraq? As soon as we woke up the television was on to watch the CNN 6 a.m. news, sensationalist though it was, it was what was available at the time. So long as the weapons inspectors were still active and still in Iraq we knew that the thing wouldn’t happen yet. So long as Turkey was stalling about the kind of support it would provide in terms of air space or access by land we knew we had a window. A window not of opportunity but of time.
As early as November we had been advised to have a bag packed. I shipped home a lot of my personal belongings in February. One social event after another was cancelled as nobody knew whether we would still be here. Talk about boring. My whole life was on hold. Meanwhile the mortgage was being significantly depleted every month, and that was a goal to aim at, a purpose that guided me amid all the nonsense and spin. We were making a series of rolling bookings for flights, about two a week, more for peace of mind than anything else because when the crunch came we had to leave on the next flight available, never mind what we had booked.
Sometimes through all this people displayed a true sense of humour. Our art teacher set up a signpost, Iraq one way and Saudi the opposite. What a choice! We saw the need for a rumour monitoring chart. This was a table headed rumour, date, confirmed, not yet denied, denied, source. Colleagues were laying bets on when the attacks would begin, and circling dates on a calendar with their names beside them. By the time I returned someone had invented a scud counter. It was up to number 16.
Traditionally National Day and Liberation Day are a time for great celebration in Kuwait. National Day commemorates their independence from the control of the British and Liberation Day marks a far more recent victory, over Iraq. At night the whole of the road bordering the Arabian Gulf is crowded with cars, horns tooting and music blaring. People jump out and start dancing in the street, attacking passers by with shaving foam.
At our school the last day before the holiday was a time for the girls to dress up in traditional clothes and the whole day was given over to a concert organised by the Arabic staff. It became typically organic towards the end, with those staff melting away after the rehearsed dances had been performed and some solo artists taking the floor. The scene was a riot of colour, the clothes were a great opportunity for everyone to show off their finest and this included the finest Jordanian embroidery, stunning silks and some even turned up a la American in breakdancing gear.
This was the last day for half of the expatriate contract staff for who knew how long. The security advice from embassies had reached a level where we had been offered the option to leave with our contracts frozen. Staff were heading in practically every direction. Some were flying east to Asia, others west to Canada, some to South Africa or north to Britain. The furthest went all the way to New Zealand. Nobody had a clue when they would be back. There was a clear sense that this would be the last time we would celebrate for a long while. Nothing would be normal again till it was all over. But when would it be over in Iraq?
“You’ve Got Three Hours”
Things had got back to normal really, as much as they could have. It was late May, every staff member except one had returned (and we will never know whether she just decided not to come back as she is so diplomatic about these things she simply said she had not received an email to do so). Surprising that it didn’t happen earlier actually. There had been a bomb scare at another school months ago, before any scuds were dropped anywhere. We had ours while the year 11 students were undertaking international exams and I have to congratulate these girls on how calmly they handled themselves through it all.
The first we heard of it was the siren. There had been plenty of drills so we all knew what to do. We assembled in the recreation area and everyone was accounted for. When the admin staff and maids came out we knew it was for real this time. Out we all went, class by class to the waste ground which served as a carpark nearby the building. There was some consternation as the older girls didn’t have their headscarves on so one teacher went to the uniform room and started handing out woollen scarves, while other girls borrowed the loose flowing robes used in the prayer room. They looked quite a sight with these draped around their heads but it served a purpose.
The little children from the primary school next door also trooped out to join us. I can remember gazing in disbelief as roughly 10 schoolbuses disappeared off into the distance, each one empty except for the driver.
After forty minutes, at 11.00 a.m., the firetrucks and an ambulance arrived. May in Kuwait can be pretty warm so the students were beginning to be quite restless as there was absolutely no shade at all in the carpark and the thermometer was climbing through the late 30’s and into the 40’s every day.
At about noon the decision was made to take the younger students across the road into the shade and the year 11s were led off to continue doing their exams in a room at a neighbouring house. As time wore on shelters were found for everybody and we ended up underneath a carport opposite the school. There were groups of us spread out all up and down the street and round the corner. If there had really been a bomb, a big one, most of us would have run the risk of injury or death because we were so close.
Amazingly, despite the heat we still had a job persuading some of the girls to remain in the shade. A couple of them had fallen ill very early on, collapsing, trembling and breathing very irregularly. I don’t think it is a coincidence that these two were real attention seekers, the sort of girl that would make an impression on a teacher the very first day of class, and every class after that.
They did very little to help themselves out of their hysteria, didn’t follow instructions to breathe deeply no matter how much we tried to persuade them and were generally attended to by all and sundry, one even being carried to a car to be in the airconditioning as the ambulance hadn’t arrived yet. Most of the students were pretty sensible though, and some were having a great time as they knew there would be no more school that day.
There were reporters, sniffer dogs and men in uniform all over the place. Mobile phones were at a premium as people tried to contact parents. The maids came by every so often offering water. Thank goodness! They must have brought hundreds of bottles that day from shops in the neighbourhood. At one point the principal announced that she had been told the building was now safe and we could all return to school. But when the first group tried this they were sent back by the civil defence. A communication problem, obviously…
Bit by bit, in ones, twos and threes, the girls were taken home by their parents or relatives and we basically could do nothing but see them off and make sure their class teacher knew that they had gone.
The next day a very graciously worded letter from the parents appeared on the staff notice board, telling us how much they had appreciated the care we had taken of their children. I can remember thinking that it was the one and only time that year that we had been thanked for anything we had done. But that didn’t take the edge off it. They really meant it.
The whole thing seemed rather like a charade though, in comparison to what had gone on before the invasion of Iraq and the mindset we had maintained in the interim period when so many expats were still away. This bomb scare may well have been initiated by any prankster. Even so, it was pretty clear that if there had been an explosion we who were sheltering across the road could well have been affected. An utterly hypothetical thought.
Eventually the story came out. Someone had rung the school and asked if we had non-Moslem teachers. He was told (by a Christian as it happens) that some teachers were and others weren’t. He then said we had better be careful to which she replied that we didn’t play those games at our school and she hung up on him. He rang back. He said we had three hours. And that was all he said. This is why the civil defence wouldn’t allow us back into the building even though they had reported it to be clear. They were waiting for the three hours to pass. So much for the cool headed words of our able administrator. It seems we did play those games after all, under instruction from the civil defence. What else could they do?
Part of a memo from John Levins, Kuwait’s main warden for Australians and New Zealanders
Dated 16th March 2003
British Embassy Wardens’ Meeting
Here’s the full briefing on Saturday, February 22nd’s British Embassy wardens’ meeting, covering all British Embassy Area Wardens, the two dozen Company Wardens (mainly schools), and National Wardens (AA, NZ, EI). John Lawson and myself attended as National Wardens respectively for Australians and New Zealanders and me covering for Stu Mooney, who had work commitments. Gerry Burton as KOC company warden was out of town. As with the previous meeting, the panel comprised the Deputy Head of Mission, Robin Lamb and the Consul and the Vice-Consul.
This meeting was a regularly scheduled one but followed the FCO’s Travel Advice of February 19th on Kuwait, circulated to you on that day but with the main points reproduced below:
We advise you not to make any non-essential travel including holiday travel to Kuwait; and, if already in Kuwait, to leave unless you consider your presence there is essential.
We are giving this advice because of the increasing regional tension and of the risk of terrorist action. Developments on Iraq and any further increase in regional tension could affect our travel advice. You should check it daily and follow developments closely.
We have ordered the departure of dependants of staff in the Embassy and authorised the departure of those of our staff who wish to leave.
The advice is now because of the risk to British nationals posed by the latent terrorist threat. In time, the risk from Iraqi military retaliation may compound this, and the terrorist threat could further increase as a reaction to military action. There has already been a “call-to-arms” by Al-Qaeda. The commencement of military action against Iraq may make it more likely that sleeper cells or other individuals in Kuwait may answer these calls.
The advice has been approved at the highest levels of the FCO, by Secretary of State Jack Straw. It is based on advice of the FCO itself and that of intelligence agencies and reflects an assessment of the risk and the British Government’s concern for its citizens.
The point was made at the conclusion of the meeting that a British national, a contractor to a company serving the Saudi defence forces, had been shot and killed in Saudi Arabia, yet the FCO’s travel advice for Kuwait was still stronger than that for Saudi Arabia. That point was allowed to speak for itself. The panel stated that there is a very strong possiblity that there will be a terrorist threat in Kuwait. There is no guarantee that the pattern where US military and US military contractors will be maintained.
(a) Consistency With Australian Travel Advice of Friday, February 14th
There was little further discussion on the appropriateness or otherwise of the Australian Travel Advice for Kuwait. This was now seen as less strong than what the British are now saying about Kuwait. If anything, there was a sense that the Australian advice may have been a few days premature but the argument, if one exists, is more about timing and wording than substantive content.
The meeting was dominated more by questions-and-answer rather than briefings from the panel. The panel was unequivocal that the advice is clear and in little need of further elaboration. If people don’t need to be in Kuwait, they should leave.
Much of the discussion was on the meaning of “essential”. Advice from the panel was as follows:
“It is for the individual, in conjunction with the organisation the individual works for, to determine for themselves whether their continued presence in Kuwait is essential.”
Those who do not have compelling commitments should leave. The Embassy was not prepared to define these terms for people.
A number of company wardens (i.e. people whose warden role is to pass the Embassy’s advice to British, Australian, New Zealand and Irish nationals in their companies, and to convey the concerns of those nationals in their companies to the Embassy) raised questions about the effect of the advice on their businesses, particularly how it might lead employees to depart. The panel was clear about the role of the wardens: it was to pass the information to their “parishes” as individuals and to reiterate the advice. The duty of wardens is to relay the advice of the FCO and Embassy, unadulterated, and not to be dismissive of it or to interpret in the commercial context of the businesses they may be managing.
The Embassy recognises and appreciates that the advice will have an effect on the ability of some businesses to function, and will cause many customers to leave, but its primary responsibility is to advise its citizens in their personal capacities. It cannot and will not tell Kuwaiti-owned businesses how to conduct their affairs. As such, no one should look for a further stage where the FCO and Embassy will DIRECT people to leave or businesses to close. The FCO and Embassy CANNOT tell people what to do and it has no power to tell businesses to close. In the case of schools, given that about half of the company wardens are from schools, the only authority that can REQUIRE schools to close is the Ministry of Education as an organ of our hosts, the Government of Kuwait.
One company warden raised the point that the role of the Embassy was to promote British business and trade, including, in the case of his business, education. He was told quite clearly that the primary purpose of the Embassy and of the British Government as a whole, was to ensure as far as possible the security and safety of its citizens. That had priority.
The point was made quite directly that businesses who place undue pressure on their British employees to remain in Kuwait may be seen as acting contrary to the Embassy’s advice. This clearly included schools.
Having said all this, it must be noted that there is no immediacy attached to the advice. It says to “consider” going and does not say that one needs to be on the next plane out. However, that was three weeks ago, so perhaps that time to go may have come.
(c) Diplomats’ Dependents
These people have been ORDERED to go, which is a step further than the Americans. In parallel with this, but arising some days after the meeting, the dependents of officers in the British Military Mission were also required to leave. The last of these women and children left Kuwait on March 8th, more than two weeks after the advice. It’s no secret around town that most of them didn’t want to go and saw no need to go.
(d) Levels, Phases and the Future
There was some discussion on Phases and Levels, and what level of alert we are at now, or phase we are in.
The clear advice from the panel was to NOT get too hung on by numbers and letters but to read the wording of the advice. That is the main thing.
The panel clarified that levels and phases are used for diplomatic missions themselves, not necessarily for the communities. This is entirely consistent to what the Australian Consul, John Newton said.
The Brits are presently in Phase IB. Phase II will most likely kick in in the event of hostilities, if not before. If before hostilities, this will lead to several things, including (i) advice (or even urging) for the community to leave by commercial means as soon as possible (even immediately) whilst still available; (ii) the Embassy going down to a core staff (and thus being less capable of offering consular assistance just when people might be most expecting it); and (iii) the departure of many of the wardens, with a reduced capacity for the community to help itself.
If Phase II kicks in on the commencement of hostilities, it is possible, even probable, that there will be no commercial services until the situation is more settled. Advice then would most likely be to leave as soon as possible in an orderly manner.
One should be aware that it is quite possible (although unlikely in this crisis) to go direct from Phase I to Phase III (i.e. immediate ordered departure of all diplomats) without going through Phase II, and it is quite possible that we may never got to Phase III, or even Phase II. The smart money seemed to be on the current travel advice remaining in force for at least the next fortnight, which has been borne out by events; I can’t see it lasting much longer.
The local BA Country Manager made the point that it was possible that commercial air services could be discontinued BEFORE the British Embassy went to Phase II.
As background on “Phases”, particularly how this relates to contractual entitlements, not all Embassies “sing off the same songsheet” on this. A Canadian “Level 2” is not necessarily the same as a British or Australian “Level 2”. Anyone who has an employer making decisions or applying policies on the basis of embassy levels and phases needs to get the employer to clarify where they got the definitions of the levels from (I certainly don’t have them) and how they reconcile the levels or phases of respective diplomatic missions.
Leading on from the discussion on levels, it is clear that the Embassy does want people to leave BEFORE there is the need for an evacuation. An evacuation could, of course, only be contemplated if normal commerical services were, in effect, completely suspended. This doesn’t mean that only one or two major airlines cease flying into Kuwait but that it becomes virtually impossible to get seats on scheduled flights on a timely basis. Should matters have reached the stage of an evacuation being necessary, it is most likely that the British Embassy would already be at Phase II and thus it would be very difficult for the remaining diplomats to help with the evacuation.
The assumption that “It’s OK to hang on to the end and you’ll be evacuated anyway,” is NOT encouraged. It is quite possible that given the expected duration of military action and the risks of conducting an evacuation, there will be no evacuation and advice may be to stay inside “for the duration”. Any “evacuation” would have to be conducted with the agreement and co-operation of the Kuwaiti security authorities. One does not want to be attempting such operations if the local authorities cannot guarantee the security of the reception points around town, the assembly areas, and departure points.
For now, release of advice on the reception points is deferred until Phase II. The structure of the community is changing so rapidly that they many need revision. It would only cause confusion if they are released now, then merged or changed, and people end up going to the wrong places.
You should be aware that a convoy out through Saudi Arabia is the LEAST preferred option for a variety of reasons.
(f) Next Meeting
The next wardens meeting was to have been this past Monday, March 10th, but was deferred because there had been no change in the travel advice.
However, I expect that there will be a significant upgrading of the travel advice within a matter of days. This is as much from my own supposition as anything else. This advice is likely to lead to a “Level II” for the British Embassy and advice to the community urging them to leave immediately while commercial services are still available. A wardens’ meeting is likely to follow.
(g) Old Advice, Good Advice
It is perhaps worthwhile repeating the following from the briefing from the previous wardens’ meeting…
Should a strike occur, from Kuwait, the main issue will be the TIMING of advice to the community.
It is accepted that:
ˆ even if there is a strike on Iraq, we may not be in any great danger here, although things may be a little tense and inconvenient for a relatively short time;
ˆ whilst there is a very small risk that a chemical or biological attack might be launched on Kuwait, the impact of such an attack could be large. This might not necessarily be from the direct effect of whatever might be in the weapons delivered, but from the panic and disruption it can cause. If the attack is of a biological nature (much less likely and much less practical than a chemical attack), it is conceivable that the country may have to be quarantined for some time after the conflict;
ˆ the airport is most likely to be close from the first hours, or several hours before, any strike is launched.
Nevertheless, it is the very clear intention of London to time advice so that people can get out of Kuwait if necessary, in good order and in plenty of time, by normal commercial means. The Embassy will err very much on the side of caution, meaning that they will not wait until the last minute. The British Government does not want to have to conduct a services-assisted (i.e. military) evacuation as that carries its own risks. Far better for people to leave in comfort on a proper passenger plane, if necessary.
There was some discussion as to whether the British Government would have enough advance notice of an attack to issue advice and get people out, particularly if American commanders want to take advantage of the element of surprise. In other words, there was concern that we might wake up one morning to find that the war is on and the airport is closed, people really don’t want to be here and the Brits weren’t told. In response to this, the panel suggested that there will be more than enough indications to Iraq that an attack is on the way and that tipping Saddam off with the departure of British civilians is likely to be of no consequence at all. It is quite a different situation to 1998 when only airpower was used against Iraq.
(h) Updated Advice
The most recent FCO advice on Kuwait, current today, is as of 28 February 2003.It is essentially the same as that issued on February 19th. You can get the full text on the FCO website but it is is summary:
We advise you not to make any non-essential travel including holiday travel (but excluding airline passengers in transit, provided they do not break their journey) to Kuwait. If you are already in Kuwait, you should leave unless you consider that your presence there is essential. We are giving this advice because of the increasing regional tension and of the risk of terrorist action. Developments on Iraq and any further increase in regional tension could affect our travel advice. You should check it daily and follow developments closely. We have ordered the departure of dependants of staff in the Embassy in Kuwait and authorised the departure of those of our staff who wish to leave. We believe that Kuwait continues to be one of a number of countries where there is an increased threat to British institutions and organisations from global terrorism. There have been recent attacks in Kuwait by terrorists and you should maintain a high level of vigilance and exercise good security practice.
- Air Capacity
John Lawson covered this more than adequately in the material I sent around for him, and which he sent direct to the Kiwis on February 24th.Since then, I’ve spoken with the local Country Manager for BA. They have been very kindly including Aussies, Kiwis and their non ANZ family members in their planning for how many aircraft they many need to bring in should the travel advice be strengthened. However, given that they would be flying west and most of our people with homes in Australia or New Zealand would wish to go EAST, using Arab or Asian airlines, we may be placing too much of a burden on BA. On top of that, with the departure of many of the ANZ’s of Western origin over the past two weeks, about 75% of ANZ’s in Kuwait are of Arab or Eastern origin and thus at little risk from Al-Qaeda and their like. Many will be staying and those who may leave are more likely to go to Mediterranean Arab countries or to the sub-continent.
Unless a large segment of ANZ’s have strong objections, I intend to tell BA that they may not need to plan for us in their emergency air capacity, and that our people, so long as normal commercial services are functioning, will be most likely using other airlines.
You should be aware that BA is likely to be among the first airlines to stop flying into Kuwait. They were badly burned back in 1990/91 and arequite risk averse.
You would also be aware from news reports that they have scrapped plans to “hub” out of Dubai and are now operating through Larnaca. I recognise that Larnaca will suit many of our ANZ’s of Arab origin as they will have family in countries readily accessible from there. However, BA are presently unable to drop people off in Larnaca. It’s only a crew change stop. This may change in an emergency evacuation situation or if charters are use, but don’t bank on it. If you go out on a special BA-operated flight or a regular BA flight, it’s London or nothing.
5. The French
Commentary on the French position is at http://jrweston.net/HIK/BTF/BTF.htm Updated almost daily.
6. The Irish
I’m briefing you on the Irish situation not just because of my own Irish heritage but because of the parallels between the Irish situation and Australia and New Zealand’s (particularly with the latter, being a small, divided island nation with a mixed relationship and some language similarity with its much larger nearest neighbour), given that we’re all (largely) English-speaking Western countries with reasonably-sized communities here with no local embassies.
You should be aware of an important thread in the Irish character which obliges it to be fiercely independent and in particular, not to be seen to be following on from or being influenced by anything British, particularly English. A bit like the ANZ’s. However, one has to be practical and recognise one’s place in the overall scheme of things. As such, any difference in wording in Irish advice from British advice is most likely quite deliberate but not necessarily meant to convey a different emphasis or meaning.
The Irish Ambassador, Mr. Conor Murphy, visited Kuwait during the last week of February and held a community meeting with his people. Very nice little buffet at the Marriott, thank you.
I missed the first ten minutes or so of the meeting but the points were basically as follows. In general, the Irish, characteristically, seem a lot more relaxed about things than some of the larger countries.
(a) Threat. From Al-Qaeda and local loonies at present, but they aren’t necessarily going to be able to tell an Irishman from an American. However, noted that to date the targets of such incidents have been US military or US military contractors but as such targets are made more difficult to hit, it is quite possible that ‘softer’ ones may be chosen;
(b) Working together. The Irish work in very close co-operation with the UK and the EU and the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Irish Government will take whatever action is necessary to secure the safety of Irish citizens. This is a direct quote. I don’t think that this means we can expect Irish Air Force C-130’s at the airport or the Irish Army deployed to bring their people out, but it does perhaps mean that they will do whatever is reasonable, given that people will have had plenty of opportunity to leave by normal commercial means. The Irish government, realising the disruption to life that leaving a job and responsibilities can cause, does not want to advise people to leave prematurely but if enough other (often larger) countries advise their people to do so, then Ireland has little choice but to fall in line.
(c) Levels. Back to these again. The Irish have four “levels”They are (1) Alert; (2) Advise to Leave; (3) Urge to Leave; (4) Evacuate if is unsafe to remain. Mr. Murphy said that at the time, they were on “Level 2, moving into Level 3”. It is probably safe to say that they are a little more into Level 3 now.
(d) Dangers. This is linked a bit to (a) above. The Irish see three threats. The first is war, with “a 95% chance” of happening, as he put it. However, the risk of a retaliatory attack from Iraq is seen as unlikely although it is recognised that if such retaliation occurs with unconventional weapons, that the effect could be significant if not in immediate casualties but in the panic it may cause. The second is trouble from the “street” as a reaction to the war commencing or about to commence, or even happening. Far more likely in countries other than Kuwait, even the one the Ambassador himself resides in nearby. The third is obviously Al-Qaeda both now, as is the ongoing situation, but also in reaction to the commencement of hostilities.
(e) Essential/ non-essential. The Irish, in typically egalitarian style, don’t make a distinction between someone being essential and non-essential. They aren’t even going to try to define it. As far as they are concerned, everyone is equal. It is very much up to the individuals to make their own minds up. It is a subjective thing, with, as Mr. Murphy put it, “a cocktail of factors”.
(f) Land Evacuation, via Saudi. This was a question from the floor. The Ambassador said that the “more and more he reflects on it, the more he would advise against it. For one thing, if you do get into Saudi Arabia, Bahrain (the closest place that most people would be heading to) might not be an option as it will fill up very quickly. It’ll be very hard (not to mention expensive) to get hotels, especially as a lot of people from Saudi Arabia will also be headed there. It is also quite possible that commercial flights may be unable to operate from Bahrain as well and Kuwait and Qatar. The UAE is perhaps a better option but that’s much further. The Ambassador stated that he understood that Saudi Arabia has nor stopped the issued of transit visas but I later confirmed that this is not so.
(g) Website. Another question from the floor, whether the Irish Embassy has any plans to establish a website, as the Brits and Americans have here. This was something dear to the heart of Mr. Murphy but it seems that it is beyond the financial resources of the Irish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, they do have e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
(h) Irish Wardens. Besides the Irish Warden, Vera Al-Mutawa, there are seven Irish sub-wardens. Brian Denny, Patricia Whelan, John Towell (taking over from Tom Byrne) Paul D. Kennedy, Faris Glubb, Liam McPharlan and Des Nelson, with Tim Brosnan (no relation to 007) as back-up. Eight in total, plus Vera. Vera’s daughter, Hanan, does much of the database work. The Irish warden system works generally by geographic area rather than, like ANZAK, economic sectors.
Attached is a notice of February 22nd, 2003 from the Irish Embassy in Riyadh, distributed by the local Irish Warden March 5th. Some useful stuff in there on personal security, particularly re vehicles. Also attached is a subsequent notice of March 10th on which the following errata was subsequently issued:
I refer to this Embassy’s advisory notice for Irish citizens in Kuwait of 10 March, 2003.
It has been brought to my attention that, in our notice, this Embassy mistakenly misquoted from a warden notice of 9 March, 2003 issued by the British Embassy in Kuwait. We do of course apologise both to our citizens and to our colleagues in the British Embassy for any confusion caused as a result of our unintentional misrepresentation of the British Embassy position.
Irish citizens should be aware that there has been NO change in advice issued by the British Embassy since its Warden Notice of 2 March. That Embassy continues to advise that their nationals should now leave Kuwait unless they consider their presence there to be essential.
Embassy of Ireland
Since that meeting, Mr. Conor Barrington, First Secretary at Irish Embassy in Riyadh, has been posted to Kuwait and will remain here for an indefinite period. Conor is available to receive all queries from Irish citizens, in addition to passport issues of which he will be glad to sort out /renew etc. He can be contacted at the Kuwait Palace Hotel 571-0301. His mobile number is (00966) 5414 1793 (a Saudi Arabian number)
7. Rumour Control
People are being remarkably good with rumour and generally treating them with the combination of contempt and common sense that they deserve. There are far less rumours flying around the ANZ’s than there were in 1998 or 1994, and even less than at some times last year. People seem to have very much got their act together, at least among the ANZ’s.
However, a few pointers, especially if you bring rumours to me to check:
Rule number 1 when checking any rumour with me or any other warden: Please give me the name and if possible the contact details of the person who passed the rumour on to you, and the name and contact details of the person who passed it on to them, and the name and contact details of the person who passed it on to them, all the way back to the original source of “information”, preferably with the basis of the information, so that we have the hard information necessary to chew them out and have their residence visas cancelled for undermining public morale should it be unfounded.
Rule number 2 (particularly re checking rumours related to airport closures): Ring the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation first on 433-4499 and see if they have anything to say on it. Only then contact anyone else. By definition, the people who actually run the airport should have a reasonable idea of what the story is. Granted they might say they don’t know or you may not get any answer at all, but at least give them a go and a chance to set the record straight. Maybe it will close and maybe it won’t, so if it’s going to be a problem for you if it does close, then you should go before it does. If this ends up to be a false alarm and really screws up your life, then by having the information necessary in Rule number 1, you can take it out on whoever passed it on to you, all the way back to the originator.
Any other proposed rules are most welcome.
from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade, Kuwait
This Advice is current for Monday 17 March 2003 EDT
The Advice was issued on Monday 17 March 2003 16:20:07 EDT
This advice has been reviewed. It contains new information or advice. The overall level of warning has increased.
Given the risk of conflict in Iraq and heightened tensions in the Middle East, Australians should not travel to Kuwait. Iraq has made public statements threatening Kuwait. All Australians in Kuwait are strongly urged to put their own safety first and leave immediately by available commercial means. Commercial air services in Kuwait are likely to cease in the event of or before an outbreak of conflict in Iraq and Australians should leave now while they have the opportunity. Australians remaining in Kuwait, despite this advice, are advised to exercise extreme caution and closely monitor developments that might affect their safety. Australians in Kuwait are strongly encouraged to register with the Australian Embassy in Riyadh.
Safety and Security
Given the risk of conflict in Iraq and heightened tensions in the Middle East, Australians should not travel to Kuwait. Iraq has made public statements threatening Kuwait and in the event of conflict, concerns for security in Kuwait will sharply increase. All Australians in Kuwait are strongly urged to put their own safety first and leave immediately by available commercial means. Commercial air services in Kuwait are likely to cease in the event of or before an outbreak of conflict in Iraq and Australians should leave now while they have the opportunity.
Australians in Kuwait who do not heed this advice to depart should be aware that the Australian government’s ability to provide consular services in Iraq is very limited. Australia does not have a mission in Kuwait. Australians remaining in Kuwait, despite this advice, should exercise extreme caution and closely monitor developments that might affect their safety. Australians in Kuwait are strongly encouraged to register with the Australian Embassy in Riyadh, or online at ttp://www.orao.dfat.gov.au Australians in Kuwait should ensure that travel documentation, including passports and any necessary visas, for themselves and their dependents is valid and up-to-date.
This travel advice should be read in conjunction with the General Advice to Australian Travellers at http://www.dfat.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/Advice/General. It advises Australians in the Middle East region to be aware of the possible use of chemical and biological weapons in any conflict against Iraq, and take precautions if they have concerns about their security from such threats in consultation with their employers and local authorities. Preparing for the Unexpected?, published by Emergency Management Australia, provides general guidance on chemical, biological and radiological threats and is available at http://www.ema.gov.au
The General Advice also advises that there would be heightened potential for terrorist activity and civil unrest in the event of conflict in Iraq. Potential exists for terrorist acts against tourist and religious sites, as well as other sites frequented by expatriates including international schools. We recommend heightened vigilance for Australians at all such locations.
There have been several incidents involving firearms in Kuwait recently. Although there is no indication that Australians are being specifically targeted, Australians should exercise extreme caution, particularly in areas where large numbers of Westerners congregate regularly and publicly. Australians should avoid any large public gatherings or demonstrations and keep themselves informed of developments that might affect their safety.
Wardens notice no. 10/03
Monday 17 March 2003
In my notice 09/03, issued this morning, I drew attention to the Phase 2 advice now issued by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. As you may know, the US Embassy has today issued similar advice.
We have received a number of enquiries in the last few hours about arrangements for a Phase 3 evacuation. Please therefore underline to British nationals on your list that:
- we have just issued unequivocal advice to leave while commercial flights continue
- commercial flights are likely to be disrupted should there be military action in Iraq
- our advice makes it clear that we are reducing to a core staff
- we will thereafter only be able to offer a severely restricted consular service
- we can give no assurances that we will implement further arrangements to assist British nationals to leave Kuwait beyond those now in hand
- people should go now: a decision to stay is entirely and solely the responsibility of the individual concerned
- the travel advice notes that attacks from Iraq and from terrorists could involve chemical and biological weapons
- the sensible response to a CBW threat is not to be there in the first place – this is why taking account of FCO travel advice is so important
This morning’s Wardens notice mentioned that chartered flights were being arranged to carry those who now decide to leave in accordance with Phase 2 advice. These charter flights would cease to be available if military action in Iraq were to take place. We will in the meantime confirm them if British nationals are unable to obtain bookings on commercial flights.
The kinds of labour relations that exist in Kuwait are not always pleasant. My personal experience, and that of teachers in general is certainly not that of the least privileged. The Bangladeshi and south Indian camel riders, some sold as young as six or eight into a kind of modern bondage and trained as jockeys for the entertainment of camel owners suffer the worst case scenario of the immigrant labourer’s lot. The Sri Lankan embassy is bursting to the seams with over 160 maids who have fled from Kuwaiti households and have no money to buy their ticket back home. Brief mentions of suicides and attempted suicides by other maids appear almost on a weekly basis in the local press. Safety practices at the oilfields are typical of a third world standard, with explosions due to poor maintenance killing and injuring workers every year. Slavery was only officially abolished in the country by the early 1960’s.
The story which follows pales into insignificance when compared to the plight of many workers in the country. Yet it is the one that I know best, being my story, so it can be read as a kind of example of attitudes and values which are endemic.
Teachers are low on the pecking order of professional of European descent. For a start, there are so many females among them, and many of them middle aged. It is highly disharmonious to come across a single woman, over 40, without a husband, who has come to your country to teach your children. Commerce being what it is though, you will find many teachers of this demographic category. There are no fixed salary rates, each private school operates independently and even within a school the staff room can buzz with stories of inconsistencies in pay. During the leadup to the U.S./ Iraq war in 2003 every employer was dealing with the fear of their employees. In every industry, questions were being asked, extended leave was being sought, contracts were being reviewed and comparisons were inevitably made.
There were some highly creative excuses that middle managers in oil companies found for being elsewhere in early 2003 for several months. If they were part of an international company obviously secondments were available. For those employed directly by Kuwaiti firms or their government it was a different story.
The prevailing attitude among Kuwaiti employers was “If you go away, who will look after us?” Many household employers took the view that if a worker left the country they would never have the right to return.
In our group of schools new teachers got a taste of the management’s view of employees very early in the school year.
Each teacher’s contract was dated to start on September 1st. There was also a standard clause stating that they would be paid from the first working day. Most new staff had been issued air tickets by the school. These were cancelled at very short notice and teachers were emailed to wait until new travel arrangements were made. This meant that people had moved out of their homes, had needed to stay for longer than expected in hotels and had foregone other contractual offers. Some arrived up to three weeks after the school year had started. All were then paid from the first day they started teaching. It took two months and a petition signed by thirty names to finally get payment from September 1st.
It didn’t take long for everyone to share an attitude of mistrust of management. In my case I simply stated that there was no availability for flights between the time I had booked and the time I had been asked by the principal to come to the school for orientation so I had to arrive when I did. In other schools of the same group they were not so lucky as the principal of their school had been forcibly removed from the school grounds 3 days before the official end of the previous school year, after he had already done all the recruitment in London and Australia for the following year.
By November our weekly staff meetings began to contain mentions of security advice and warnings from the British embassy. We were told that the school would remain open until a stage 3 warning, which meant evacuation. We were also told that the assembly point for evacuation was the open carpark next to the school and a telephone tree was set up for efficient communication of urgent news. This meant that one person would ring five and those five would ring five more each etc. We would need to be at the assembly point no later than two hours after the phone call. At this stage, the British embassy maintained that it had evacuation procedure plans in hand. Everyone I spoke to was very sceptical about the evacuation scenario, which had been an unmitigated disaster before the Gulf War in 1990.
At the same time there was a lot of controversy about gas masks. The Italian embassy had issued gas masks to its citizens. A Bulgarian colleague had managed to get one too from hers, a different model, second world war technology so she jokingly said. We read articles in the paper about which country’s model was the best. We read that thousands had been bought by the Kuwaiti government and would be distributed. I didn’t know anyone who had received one free of charge. We were told to buy them at the local cooperative stores. We learned they would be useless without a full protective suit which covered the entire body including the hair. (I saw one of these suits on display at a fashionable department store in early April. As it was disposable it had been made of paper fibre and the sleeve had already been torn at the cuff.)
By February the British embassy’s tune had changed and it advised that it would not allow its citizens to be endangered to the point where gas masks were needed. There were still plans in place for evacuation but to avoid confusion we would not be made aware of the details until there was a need to know, as they were being continuously reviewed and subject to change. While I could see merit in this argument I still was not convinced that the school had arranged a safe place for us to meet in the event of an impending chemical or biological attack. An open area of ground would hardly do! But I did have faith that we would get sufficient warning from our consul and a thoroughly reliable travel agent was only a phone call or email away.
Schools started to temporarily close, particularly the American ones, in response to pressure from their staff following security advice from the U.S. embassy. International companies and organizations started sending personnel and families home. Everybody was comparing conditions. Were staff being paid while they were away? Were they given tickets? We even heard later of one company employing aviation mechanics who provided a 1000 British pound bonus to anyone who returned. What would be the upshot for our lot?
We had been told at a staff meeting in November (which none of the owners attended) that we would be paid till the end of the month and the school would provide tickets if an evacuation was announced. This made no sense as nobody would be hanging around waiting for cash and tickets at a time like that. And neither would we expect the admin staff to hang around to deliver it! Week after week whole school staff meetings were avoided by dividing us into subgroups to develop electronically deliverable report cards. If you challenged this you were identified as a troublemaker. In a sister school of the same group there were endless meetings to clarify these issues but in my school, with an all female staff, mum was the word.
Eventually by mid February, after a tyranny of silence at our school and threats of strike action at the other one, we got a memo stating that those who wanted to leave could do so, their contracts would be frozen, they would receive pay up until the day they left the school and they would be reimbursed for airfares by the end of the contractual year. Those who chose to stay would be paid a 25% bonus for a maximum of five weeks. They would be free to leave at any point from now on under a similar arrangement up until the British embassy called for evacuation.
Nearly 100% of the staff on expatriate contracts from the feisty sister school left Kuwait for an “unpaid holiday” and 50% of ours did.
The Bottom Line
The timing was very clever from a financial point of view. This had been staged to take account of a public holiday period for National Day and Liberation Day (25th and 26th February). Those who left would not be paid for the holiday and those who stayed would not be paid a bonus until after the holiday and subsequent weekend had finished. It is by such scrimping and saving that fortunes are made or reputations ruined.
The school provided rented shared accommodation for singles and individual accommodation for families. All who left were told to pack up their flats. Not all did. Those singles who stayed were issued a memo, with two days’ notice, that they would be regrouped in terms of accommodation, either they were required to move or they would expect an extra household member. After protests from many of the affected this edict was ignored. I got the impression the owners thought we were robots rather than human beings, that we had no feelings and that the relationships we had developed with flatmates and the support we were giving each other at this time of stress meant far less than the bottom line, money. Yet I stayed for precisely this reason. You understand your adversaries well when you share similar goals.
The management in fact was three months in arrears with the rent. This prompted them to send staff to pack up the vacant flats, all belongings being placed in garbage bags and stored in two of them. From 24 apartments, they now had to pay for only 12. (This caused endless problems when teachers finally returned as everybody lost stuff: clothes, shoes, perfume, ornaments, photos, even a family bible and rosary beads.)
Each staff member was asked to sign a piece of paper stating that they understood the conditions under which they were leaving, that their contracts were frozen and when they were called back they would return as soon as possible or otherwise by arrangement with the principal. I was warned by one of the secretaries not to leave as I would not be allowed back. Although people did not openly admit it, many were suspecting the same thing. I chose to stay as I did not want to let some stupid war in the country next door interfere with my financial plans. Stubborn? Maybe… I was also pretty convinced that we would get sufficient warning, via emails from our own embassy wardens, to be able to leave in good time by commercial flights. The third week of February was just too soon.
Push came to shove in the third week of March.
By that stage we had had the evacuation drills, we had had the armed guards stationed outside the school gates, the emergency care packages were stored in the classrooms, plastic was covering all the windows, a bucket of water with bicarb soda was in every classroom waiting for the towels that would be soaked in it and serve as makeshift facemasks. We had been teaching all kinds of subjects to all kinds of classes, often with very little notice as the timetable had to be made up on a day to day basis. We were just about ready for anything.
Our chairman’s counsellor (married into the business) had gone public and was reported in a newspaper as saying that there were doctors and nurses at every school in the group, with beds for teachers and students for emergency use and that our schools would remain open no matter what. (None of that was actually true but it sounded suitably heroic and anyway the management didn’t want to refund any fees which is why they didn’t want to close.)
Our deputy principal, also the school’s warden for the British embassy, placed a memo from the embassy on the staff noticeboard on the morning of Monday 17th March. It stated we should leave immediately while commercial flights were still available. This was pretty much a repeat of what the U.S. embassy had stated about three weeks previously. The notice was closely followed by another reiterating it and underlining that the embassy would take no responsibility for the safety of anyone who chose to ignore this advice. While this was a 180 on its previous messages regarding evacuation this was good news for all of us. We had (quoting the memo) the “unequivocal” green light to leave. Or did we…?
On the same noticeboard appeared an announcement in the principal’s handwriting. The school would close one hour early on Wednesday and the civil defence would have a meeting with staff to discuss security arrangements. I am sure she knew this would set the cat among the pigeons and have no doubt she wanted out of Kuwait asap too, but she had made it her business to be the conduit for information from the owners to her staff, so she was sucking the lemon.
Many of us had been making rolling bookings for flights over the preceding weeks. It only took a phonecall to finalise details. The deputy principal popped into the staffroom to tell us that we had better be quick as flights were filling up fast. With a lot of negotiation behind the scenes we were finally told at around noon on Tuesday that the owners had agreed to allow the school to close… until Saturday.
At 12.30 that day I asked the deputy principal whether we were to stay away until the British embassy advice had changed. She replied we were not to come back until we had been invited. It was true, even at a time like this the school was intending to save money on teachers’ salaries any way they could. As emails to and from the school had sometimes gone astray I silently resolved to come back when I felt it was safe, I had signed nothing stating that I would wait for them to contact me. (As I found out later I was not the only one to do this.)
I flew out on Tuesday night. Our principal emailed everyone to check that we were safe. I found out later that the Ministry of Education had announced on Thursday that all schools would close for a week. It was touch and go deciding when to return. I delayed it a bit when a stray missile hit the pier near a shopping center close to the Emir’s palace. In the end I made it for April Fool’s Day, the last day of the first week the school reopened. That looked like good timing to me. I was hoping an extra body to help out in a pretty empty school would be appreciated. And it worked. There were 39 passengers on the 737 that took me back.
Some of the staff in the sister school returned to find that they had no flat, no job and nobody was going to pay their flight. Court cases followed. We heard of all sorts of variations on the theme in other schools. The (London) Times Educational Supplement website’s staffroom had multiple strings of comments from teachers about their experiences in Kuwait, one string alone was more than 70 pages long. This concerned a school that advertised itself as offering the best of British education.
Friends had been told by the owner of their school that they would face punitive action if they left without permission. This meant that they were stuck at the airport on the Thursday the war started and when they finally managed to get on a plane the air raid sirens sounded twice while they were still on the tarmac.
50% of their staff did not renew their contracts for 2004.
It’s all about attitude. If you work for a Kuwaiti company you had better be prepared for lots of it!
Anzac Day in Kuwait is remembered much like in any other international setting: the dawn service, the breakfast, the two up and the beer. It was particularly poignant this year for Australians and New Zealanders all over the world as the war in Iraq was still going on. One year later as I read these lines we still have troops there and I wonder just how long this war will last, despite Bush’s proclamation that it had ended so many months ago.
In April 2004 I read with dismay that Spain, the Dominican Republic and Honduras had pulled out of Iraq, had defected. The dismay was not about the pulling out of course, but the choice of pejorative blame. To defect means to join the enemy. How can any government that has invaded another country have the nerve to say that if you do not support them then you are against them?
Directions to the church were not sent out in emails until a couple of days beforehand as a security measure and about 100 to 150 people turned up for the service. The breakfast afterwards was held in what I like to think of as an Aussie ghetto, a lovely apartment complex right on its own bit of beach. There we met some Australian soldiers who had not set foot off the U.S. base in Doha, to the west of Kuwait City, until that morning. They had been in the country for months. It is not such a well kept secret that a bacon like substance was served in lavish quantities that day and no it was not turkey substitute.
Usually every year there is an Anzac Ball around the same time but that had been postponed for another month due to security and financial considerations. Who would have come only a month after the invasion? So many events had been cancelled in recent months. We had been told to avoid associating in large groups: anything from interschool competitions, raft racing and a marathon to raise money for cancer to various balls held at a five star hotel. Personally I didn’t feel at all ready for kicking up my heels so soon after the war had started and was really looking forward to a more normal event a month later when the situation felt more settled. I am sure most people felt the same way. Normal…
The venue itself was away from the center of town at the newly opened Hilton Hotel, which was set out on a very large spread of land in the south. The ballroom was located in a separate building quite far away from the accommodation for guests. Most of that was in five star two storey villas, something Kuwaitis could rent for a weekend, right on the beach.
It was the first time I had been there since an Australian television crew had interviewed any Australians and New Zealanders who wanted to come along at the end of February. That was a very cruisey day with great food and a very relaxed atmosphere. Some of the film crew had followed one family back to their apartment in our building and taken footage of them packing up. Another colleague interviewed had said that he was taking each day at a time and that nothing had changed. He had left the next week, when things at his place of work had changed considerably… and there was practically nobody left.
For the event on 29th May we had been told to expect stringent security inspections of each vehicle, which was very sensible. When tickets were being sold we had all been advised not to publicise the fact widely. The night was for Australians and New Zealanders Associating in Kuwait, and their friends. Alcohol is officially banned in Kuwait and a blind eye would be given on the night to whatever was brought in in bottles (whatever it was, home brewed, black market or via the diplomatic quotas).
Even so, the organizers wanted to avoid unknown people, especially curious ones, turning up with tickets they had managed to get through a connection of some sort. Quite a number of colleagues decided that there was still too much of a risk in going to this do. Many of them had had the luxury of being back home for a while recently.
There was a sense of surrealism on the night as we were processed, there is no other word for it, on our way to the ball, the only big party some of us had gone to for many months. First each person in the car needed to present a ticket (and an identity document if asked) at the gate. Our vehicles were directed into one of two queues. We could see up ahead that people in each car had to get out of it while a team of about four uniformed police checked the inside, the bags and the contents of the boot. For good measure a sniffer dog was led around the outside of the vehicle on a lead before we could get back in again and drive on.
Valet parking had been organized, so when we left the car at the entrance it could again presumably be searched if any further suspicions arose.
We walked through the by now mandatory metal detector that was put in place in all major hotels. Our bags were inspected again at this point and an official raised an eyebrow at my two bottles of fizzy grape juice, my only attempt at home brewing ever, and not particularly successful. Ladies were led to one side, behind a curtain, and gents to another. Here we were bodysearched by three people of our own gender and our bags checked again.
After all this we could pass through the ballroom doors and settle in for the night. The whole thing was very efficiently done and I am sure everybody appreciated this… it was just part of life in Kuwait at the time.
450 people did their utmost to enjoy themselves with the best band I had ever heard in Kuwait. The Hilton had shown a true sense of humour in the choice of desserts: among the buffet options there were lamingtons, pavlovas and mini custards, some decorated with little flags. The Anzac Ball of 2003 was one to remember, for many reasons.