Category Archives: Social

Hidden Taxes in Kuwait

By | Politics, Social | 3 Comments

There’s a difference between pride and patriotism. People keep asking for more handouts and assume that we don’t pay any taxes in Kuwait. Sure, our salaries and income isn’t literally taxed, but we pay for our political and social dysfunction in other ways.

We pay an incompetence tax when regulations aren’t enforced and food is tainted, buildings overdeveloped and stocks manipulated. We pay a monopoly tax when land is restricted and severely overpriced while laughably slow internet is unreasonably expensive. We pay an inflation tax as every time the government raises salaries and benefits so does the price of everything else. We pay an inequality tax when insecure parents enroll their children in exclusive private schools that increase segregation and stratification. We pay an opportunity tax when smart, passionate and creative individuals are numbed by an indifferent and hostile bureaucracy into a life of stable monotony or even exile to achieve their dreams.

Money is great but more money is usually a bad thing. It skews incentives and unbalances relationships. I’d rather be taxed at 60% and live in a country blessed with justice, opportunity and freedom for all, but we’re blessed with oil and that solves everything, right? Is it not patriotic to want to be proud of our country?

Is It Hot Outside?

By | Energy, Social | 6 Comments

It feels so good inside ourselves we don’t want to move.*

Obesity has been linked by some with the constant use of central air conditioning. I’m not sure i’d go that far, but it does help us maintain a comfortable sedentary existence which is generally the cause of a lot of our health problems as a society. Comfort is killing us.

There’s usually a struggle to find a way to design a house with livable and usable outdoor space while expecting the ‘inside’ of the house to stay airtight all the time. What about the dust? How would you stop the cold air from escaping? There are lots of alternatives to central air. It’s silly and selfish to keep a big indoor space cool when there’s no one in it.

Our bodies have not evolved with the luxury of a constant and perfect climate. We store food to have spare energy to burn when it gets a little colder than we’d like, or when there are days when food is scarce. Ramadhan is round the corner and as usual people will gain weight. There isn’t an easy answer to being healthy and living sustainably as a society both in terms of bodily and economic health.

We have to accept the reality that there are compromises that have to be made. A little less comfort can be a good thing, but I still don’t want to move. Change is hard and i’m comfortable right now.

*Sly

Park Fence Removal

By | Neighborhood, Qortuba, Social, Urban | 4 Comments

They are going to start demolishing all the fences that surround public parks. I’ve asked for this a couple of times (here and here) and it seems their reason for removing them was mainly to stop people abusing the parks for ‘immoral acts’. I can also understand the concerns of parents worried about their kids. I wouldn’t mind child proofing the kids play areas, where there are swings and activities (maybe have a 1m high fence around those areas?) but I also think those fears are exaggerated. The problem parents should concentrate on is trying to find ways to reduce the speed of cars in residential neighborhoods. That’s the real problem and one which I don’t see much effort going towards fixing it. Still, this is a good step towards improving the walkability of Kuwaiti neighborhoods and every step makes it easier to take the next one and get us closer towards safer, healthier and more stimulating neighborhoods.

Gubei Gold Street

By | SAM Street, Social, Urban | One Comment

When thinking of what Salem alMubarak Street could be this is what I kept imagining, a great urban renewal project in Shanghai that has almost the same scale and density as SAM Street.

People usually think of buildings without caring about what happens in the space between them. We keep making that mistake in Kuwait.

Before and after shots of the renewal of the pedestrian promenade in Gubei, which I hope is one day replicated in Kuwait:

Faith in Accountability

By | Social | 3 Comments

Money has no real value. We use it to exchange goods and services only because we all have faith in what we collectively agree to be its worth. If we lose that faith, money is worthless.

I think a similar sort of faith exists in civic life. When people have faith that there is accountability, civic life flourishes. If there is no faith, people end up doing what they want without fear of reprisal.

Kuwait is not just corrupt but also corrupting. Most people assume that success is achieved only through ‘wasta’ or some other unfair advantage. I don’t think that’s because Kuwaitis are inherently corrupt or bad people. We just live in a state where it’s easier to break the rules than follow them and it’s infinitely more rewarding to let corruption continue than to stop it. With time even the most well intentioned person is corrupted or is at least demoralized to the point of submission.

We have simply lost faith in the rule of law.

In order for us to change we first have to reinvent the environment of civic life. To transform a crumbling neighborhood the first thing you do is replace all the broken windows. That one simple act communicates to people that the neighborhood is being taken care of and it is not being neglected.

The problem in Kuwait is not that we don’t have any laws. We do, but they’re not being enforced well enough. Before we can see any kind of progress at a political, economic or cultural level we have to start aggressively and ruthlessly enforcing the laws that are in place. Once people regain their faith in the rule of law, that everyone is treated equally and fairly, we can confidently begin rebuilding Kuwait.

A 1000KD Gift is a Terrible Idea

By | Energy, Social | 11 Comments

As if to prove my point, this 1000KD ‘gift’ is a perfect example of short sighted gimmickry. People don’t want to think about how it will cause accelerated inflation, how most of the money will be spent outside Kuwait and what it means when Kuwaitis think of this as a patriotic act.

Patriotism is sacrifice. It is about working hard to make your country better than how you found it. It is about planning and preparing for a future that is not by any means certain. Kuwait and other petro-nations are driving towards a brick wall. Instead of wearing seat belts, slowing down and ultimately trying to avoid the wall, we’re shutting our eyes, listening to some great music and trying not to care. Some people feel that they can just jump out before it’s too late, and maybe they can, but the car is still going to crash into the wall.

Kuwaitis will be fine, for now. But Kuwait won’t for long. Patriotism is about knowing which is more important.

Sacrifice

By | Social | 15 Comments

I have a few thoughts in response to an interesting article in the Arab Times by Amer Al-Hilal. I don’t think it’s generally productive to lament gridlock and hope for progress. Kuwait has major structural problems, but those can be fixed if we can identify them and propose adequate solutions.

At the heart of it, I feel that we are all to blame for the mess we’re in. It’s easy to point fingers at the government and blame it for the way Kuwait has regressed. Yet nobody seems patriotic enough to offer meaningful sacrifices to help pull us away from peril.

In 50 years Kuwait will no longer be able to provide for its citizens. A sane reaction to this reality would be to slowly enact rules that would alter the habits and lifestyle choices of Kuwaiti citizens so that when the time comes we would be able to withstand the shock.

An example that i’ve mentioned before is to slowly raise fuel, electricity and water prices every year. When the time comes, our children will have understood the value of conservation and we would have avoided the cataclysmic shock that is otherwise inevitable.

No politician is brave enough to propose this. I don’t hear ordinary Kuwaitis asking for this. All I hear is more calls for higher salaries and benefits. If all we expect from Kuwait is to provide for us without personal sacrifice, then we will continue to live in moral and intellectual poverty.

There is so much traffic on the roads not only because of bad planning, but because everyone has a car and we drive everywhere all the time. That’s a personal lifestyle choice and nobody is willing to change. There aren’t any trees on pleasant shaded sidewalks because everyone is demanding bigger houses that are getting closer and closer to the street. Nobody accepts that the reason why we have blackouts in summer is because everyone keeps their AC on all the time even when nobody is in their oversized home. I drive a car and I hardly ever turn off my AC. I don’t want to change because i’m living comfortably. I am to blame, too.

If there was a structural reason for me to change, I would gladly do so. If I had to pay 1000KD every year to maintain my energy consumption, I’d be first in line to install solar panels and buy a hybrid. Everyone is just too comfortable to care.

Measuring Success

By | Social, Urban | 8 Comments

Malls, skyscrapers and suburban living are western ideas that have been introduced into Kuwait. They haven’t evolved as a response to our climatic, social or urban concerns. They are foreign ideas, in every sense of the word.

Yet when asked, many people feel a strong sense of pride looking at our towering skyline and they point to malls being commercially and maybe even culturally successful. Why is that? Is it because they are a form of liberation from our nomadic/arab/islamic/’uneducated’ past? What does it mean for a city to be successful?

Have malls, skyscrapers and suburbia really improved our quality of life? Shouldn’t that be the ultimate measure of success? Happiness?

Kuwait City by hassan-q8

Wadi Hanifa Wetlands Project

By | Social, Urban | 5 Comments

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=coXbQYD2y4Y&fs=1&hl=en_US&rel=0]

Wadi Hanifa was once the lifeblood of Riyadh. Decades of development and neglect has turned this natural water source into sewage dump. A few years ago, the Saudis decided to revitalize the Wadi and the results are stunning.

What was once an open sewer is now a wonderful landscape and park system where children play and the water is naturally filtered and reused for irrigation. It’s a beautiful success story and an example for the entire region to follow. The project has won the 2010 Aga Khan award for Architecture:

“This project reverses the tide of rapid urban development, which has seen public space in many cities within the Muslim world fall victim to expropriation and other practices that deprive the population of its resources. This invariably happens at the cost of environmental values and sensitive ecosystems. The Wadi Hanifa Wetlands project eloquently demonstrates an alternative ecological way of urban development. It shows how a major natural phenomenon which, through the course of urbanisation, became a litter-strewn and dangerous place – a scar on the face of the capital city – can be transformed by sensitive planning attentive to social values and imaginative infrastructure driven landscape solutions.

The Award has been given in recognition of the project’s vision and persistence in developing a sustainable environment. Using landscape as an ecological infrastructure, the project has restored and enhanced the natural systems’ capacity to provide multiple services, including cleaning the contaminated water, mediating the natural forces of flood, providing habitats for biodiversity and creating opportunities for recreational, educational and aesthetic experiences”

Ushahidi

By | Social | 3 Comments

I was just watching Clay Shirky’s recent TED talk and he talked about the Ushahidi project, which is a free, open-source platform that allows people to set up websites that can collect and aggregate data sent in by people using their mobile phones with SMS messages and pictures. This is the perfect way to structure what I talked about earlier in the crowdsourced activism post.

I’m not a programmer, so I would have no idea how to set it up, but if there is anybody in Kuwait who has the passion and the time to use the free platform that Ushahidi provides to build the website then I will do everything I can to help. The way I imagine it working is that the website will be using the Ushahidi platform to collect data sent in by people in Kuwait who would photograph things and places they feel need fixing. The genius of the platform is that doesn’t need a human being to physically collate and map the data, it all happens automatically. Someone posts a picture of a neglected, overflowing garbage dump and the system would use the GPS tag in the image to place it on the interactive map.

At first, it will just be a map of images, but it can be used as both a shaming device that would spur the government into action as well as a wonderful tool to know more about the city in general, and get a feel of what places look like that you don’t normally hang around in.

A less ambitious project would be to use their simpler ‘Crowdmap’ service to do basically the same thing, without having to program anything or host it on a web server. Maybe that’s a better idea for what we need…