Sunday, April 13, 2008

Kuwait

As I said, I am in Kuwait on a trade mission. This is my second trade mission, and I am kind of getting familiar with the trade mission life. I mean, the briefing, the networking, the exploration, the local agents who invariably crowd the receptions, the quiet solemnness with which diplomats and trade officers conduct themselves - all of that. I remember even seeing a novel called The Trade Mission, though this was an adventure/ mystry novel by Andrew Pyper on a boat trip down the Amazon, far from realities of the very discreet, very bland trade missions that I am seeing.

Kuwait is an interesting place. I am reminded, over few meetings that I had since yesterday, that this was the original Middle East boomtown. Much before Dubai, that is. However, that all vanished when Saddam walked in. For that, Kuwaitis in fact blame some of their gulf neighbours. They almost say that this has been a conspiracy, and regrets that the occupation and the war shifted the financial centre base to Dubai. I am not sure whether this is true, but this looks like a neat conspiracy theory that my Asian mind is naturally accustomed to - Gulf Neighbours encouraged Saddam to walk in, and then abandoned him for the Americans! Which Gulf neighbours, then? Could it be Saudis? Was Kuwait getting too cosy with Iran, then? Don't know.

But it is a welcome change that you get to meet local people here. That does not happen too often in Dubai. Dubai almost seems an extension of India to me, because I get to meet all Indians. No, I am possibly wrong, because I get to see lot of Britons too, and lots of shops selling international wares. A bit like Oxford Street really. But Kuwait is certainly different - slow, with great towers trying to be high and people showing off their money everywhere, with a beautiful sea shore and temparate climate [I am told that the weather is so pleasant because of the storm on Friday].

The key difference, of course, is that Kuwait is trying to be democratic, they have an umma and elections are right around the corner. There is a lot of power struggle going on, lot of changes. People I spoke to did not like democracy that much, they thought it is coming in the way of progress. I am told that Sheikh Mohammad, the ruler of Dubai, dismisses anyone who advise him to go a bit slow saying 'you are not progressive enough'. In Kuwait, the Umma found their new powers quite absorbing, and they have made it a habit to grill ministers on petty issues, leading to quite a few ministerial resignations. Now that the Ministers are not elected, and they are usually appointed by the Prime Minister, and usually related to the ruling family, this is sure a cause of tension. And tension there is.

I also learned that the legal institution in Kuwait is quite evolved, and in fact has quite a bit of exposure to Western Legal systems and procedure. Though that is an encouraging factor, doing business in Kuwait needs a sponsor/local partner, which means that foreign companies have to pay a local partner, who may not do anything, to be there. I have seen that in Dubai too, and this is usually a great hinderance for a SME to enter this market.

The rest are usual. No nightclubs, no alcohol. I tried to get to a porn site and I was presented a form, which said the site is banned and if I think this is wrongly banned, I can fill up a form and give my contact details and appeal for a review! Not in my right senses, you bet!

So, that's Kuwait for me - a big brother watching and giving a creepy feeling. It is all about knowing someone. Capitalism in action - not the entrepreneurial side of it, which is usually glamourized, but the more real, more common, crony capitalism that one sees everywhere in the world, just a bit more nakedly.

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