The new voices of Kuwait eager for change

The youth of Kuwait are ready to take their country forward through technology and a vision of multiculturalism, but are frustrated by government inertia and reluctance to change, Gulf Correspondent Justin Vela writes

Nada Faris, a 28-year-old writer, says the aspirations of her generation are being stifled. Mohammad Taqi for The National
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KUWAIT CITY // In a complex region such as the Middle East, it is a startling, simple inquiry for a young person to make.

“Why wait Kuwait?” Nada Faris, a Kuwaiti writer, implores the audience at a slam poetry competition.

Nada, 28, is hardly well-known in Kuwait. Yet the poem, which uses Kuwait’s past as a way to examine the present, poses a question asked by many young people.

Kuwaitis in their 20s and 30s say their aspirations are impeded by economic and political challenges, despite the potential they see in the country, and they are eager for changes that will let their generation flourish.

At the same time, society does not fully recognise their unique blend of identities, which represent a new type of multiculturalism.

It is an issue common among youths in many Arabian Gulf states.

Someone who speaks English more fluently than Arabic, for example, risks being called a “McChicken”.

“We need to talk about events from a new angle,” says Nada, on the need to stop using “outdated language” when talking about her generation.

For this group, the struggle is not about money but how to move Kuwait into a new era.

Ahmed, 30, considers the main issue to be bureaucratic dysfunction, and what materialises compared with what was promised.

In 2008, he co-founded a property website, which failed after a seven-month wait for licences and permits.

He partly blames this on “a lack of regulation and the manner in which the market thrives on a lack of transparency”.

Ahmed’s next idea was to establish a “multi-concept store” with a co-working space, boutique, gallery, and cafe in one location. It was the kind of trendy place that might be found in New York or Istanbul, but that had yet to arrive in Kuwait City.

He hoped to pitch the idea to a state fund for small and medium-sized businesses but the fund was shut down to make way for a new US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) SME fund that has yet to materialise.

Now, Ahmed works for his family firm, and also learns code in order to develop a mobile phone application.

“You have people selling stuff on Instagram out of their homes,” he says.

“They want to see an alternative. The economy is getting it done informally because bureaucracy is a problem.”

More thoughtful than angry, he describes how young acquaintances returned to Kuwait after living overseas filled with aspirations. There was the country’s wealth, along with its beaches, a demand for luxury real estate and space to build. There were people with ideas and a desire to develop the country.

This combination usually leads to innovation and prosperity. But, Ahmed says, they soon hit roadblocks and become discouraged.

His friend Alia, 27, was an intern at a Silicon Valley incubator for business start-ups. She came home aiming to become a bridge between Kuwait and the California technology centre.

“I felt we needed to come back to Kuwait and teach them about start-ups,” she says.

But how this can succeed is unclear with so little room for young people in business.

“It’s very frustrating,” Alia says.

Stylish, multilingual, educated internationally, and obsessed with innovation, these young Kuwaitis are outpacing the social landscape of their country.

The combination of a talent for business, globalisation, and the country’s unique heritage has produced a new identity that Nada says makes the “rigid binary” used to describe Kuwaiti society obsolete.

She uses the term “Anglowaiti” to describe Kuwaitis that live in the country and speak mainly in English.

“Traditionalists pretend that Anglowaitis are westernised, which they are not,” says Nada.

“They are natural outcomes of Kuwait’s infrastructure.”

Society needs a new vocabulary to debate identity, she says.

“I argue that today’s digitally networked societies require new phrases, new words, new ways of debating identity that do not depend on the East, West, Arabic, traditional English, westernised dichotomies of the past, because they do not address the struggles that humanity will face in the future.”

With extremists such as ISIL in neighbouring Iraq, the issue is all the more acute.

It is “not an option not to stand up for what you believe in”, she says. “It’s not an option to pick one or the other”.

The governments that look to the past have produced extremists and given the world “horrendous regimes and distorted views of religion”, Nada says.

Introducing ideas to society after the Arab Spring, which brought chaos to so many states and with it, a crackdown on dissent, is not going to be easy.

Young people took part in the social activism and street protests that led to the resignation of prime minister Sheikh Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah in 2011.

Even if the momentum of the protests – with liberals, Islamists and youth groups on the streets – has faded, Dhari Al Rujaib, 27, says the demonstrations joined together people from different backgrounds.

Between issues of citizenship, the lack of housing, and government subsidies facing cuts, there is still enough tension that, Dhari says, demonstrators could take to the streets again. “Kuwait is buzzing now,” he says.

But the protests were not universally praised by government critics. A Kuwaiti woman in her 20s, who asked not to be identified, says she is frustrated by the country’s bureaucracy, lack of transparency and lagging efforts to tackle corruption, yet she did not attend the protests.

“I was concerned as a young woman,” she says. “I didn’t know who would be there, who would run it. I didn’t want to represent something that did not represent my wishes for the country.”

For her, Kuwait’s 2012-2013 National Youth Project had been an opportunity for young people to highlight what actions they believed needed to be taken to achieve their vision for Kuwait’s future.

The motto of the project was “Kuwait Listens”. A range of civil society groups and NGOs nominated 55 young people between 18 and 30 to study different issues, and to devise ways of improving the country.

The group produced a final document of recommendations for the government. She attended its presentation, and described the recommendations as not “reinventing the wheel”.But almost no action was taken, despite the public display of reaching out to young people.

There might have been some discussions about opening school football fields to the public at night – one of the recommendations – but little else.

“I did not have high expectations but don’t hold this and pretend it means anything,” she says.

For all the demand for change there is little agreement on how it should happen.

Hind, 30, who has her own company, is more interested in focusing on Kuwait’s potential. She says the country is an amazing market, with a “crazy demand for mobile data”.

Many young people in Kuwait have two mobile phones, with one data plan for home and another for work.

The market for Arabic-language products has not yet been fully explored, and the potential of Islamic finance not fully tapped.

One innovation she wants to see is a data-driven “smart mosque” that offers community news on high-tech screens.

Alia and Ahmed are also making inroads with a business start-up incubator and co-working space that they hope will help to develop Kuwaiti entrepreneurs, although the question of how companies will be funded remains.

Nada is also looking beyond politics. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t believe in this generation’s capacity to make change,” she says.

Inspiration for her poem Why Wait Kuwait came after surfing various social networks on her computer. She found people arguing, protesting, and being “contradictory”.

The essence of the poem fell onto paper quickly. Over the next few weeks, she polished it, eventually performing in front of an audience and winning second place in a slam poetry competition in April.

“So I’m just wondering

Why we’re waiting,

And what we’re all waiting for

Before we realize the stakes are more

Than our egos,

More than mere discomfort,

It’s loss of everything we stand for, live for,

Wake up in the morning for — so

Why wait Kuwait, until

We learn what wars are made of?”