Voted the world's worst for expats: How did Kuwait become so unpopular with foreign workers?

The Gulf state has ranked bottom of a list of the best and worst expat destinations for the second year running and a recent string of negative headlines has not helped
Voted the world's worst for expats: How did Kuwait become so unpopular with foreign workers?
By Sarah Townsend
Thu 22 Oct 2015 02:36 PM

This week, Kuwait was named as the worst country in the world for expats to live and work.

A quick scan of the news coming out of the country lately and it is no wonder expats say they feel so unwelcome in the country.

According to reports, Kuwait plans to introduce a cap on expat numbers in the coming months and restrict them to five years working in the country; it deported 20,000 expats in the first nine months of this year, and has vowed to crack down on an estimated 115,000 believed to have flouted labour and residency laws.

It is therefore no surprise that the latest annual Expat Insider survey compiled by InterNations ranked Kuwait bottom out of 64 countries based on the views of 14,300 expats from 195 countries.

The survey ranked countries according to a range of indicators including leisure options, ease of settling in, travel and transport, and health, safety and wellbeing.

Kuwait ranked bottom for leisure options, personal happiness, ease of settling in, friendliness and finding friends.

And it was second bottom for quality of life and feeling welcome.

It was 59 and 58 respectively for travel and transport and health, safety and wellbeing.

The only indicators it did not score poorly on were job security and language, for which it ranked 26 and 25 respectively.

InterNations pulled no punches in its summary of the findings, saying: “Unfortunately, the situation is similarly grim when it comes to overall quality of life [in Kuwait].

“Many expats are not satisfied with the available leisure options, while others see their personal happiness suffering.”

This is not the first time Kuwait has fared badly in expat polls – it also ranked bottom of 61 countries in last year’s InterNations survey.

The country has been receiving millions of expats since it first discovered oil in 1938 – almost three decades before the UAE.

Foreign workers currently account for around 70 percent of Kuwait’s total 3.3 million population, according to official estimates.

So why is living in Kuwait so bad for expats?

The response from Arabian Business readers to coverage of the InterNations survey on Tuesday was revealing.

One commentator, who called himself James, was especially damming. “Everything is stacked against the expat,” he said.

“Having spent seven years in Kuwait I totally agree [with the survey findings]. 

“The government wants to reduce the numbers; makes it hard to get simple things like a driving licence; allows big companies to break labour laws.

“Rents are expensive, there is nothing socially to do except shop or eat out; it’s not a family-friendly place either.

“We have to have skill tests, DNA taken etc, but [they] don't do it to [their] own citizens. 

He concluded: “So, Kuwait, if you want to attract great talent you need to make us feel welcome and treat us with respect.”

Another reader, called Knox, said: “I’ve been in several GCC countries and Kuwait is by far the worst. Work and life ratio is reasonable as I work 40 hours per week.

“However, the racism, awful driving and extremely incompetent law enforcement make outings a stressful situation.”

Commentators on expat website added that high levels of litter were a problem in Kuwait, the leisure and entertainment offer was poor and housing standards were “mediocre”. 

Others, such as ‘Sarah’ from the UAE, claimed that living costs were high. “High rents, high school/college fees, high telecommunication charges, high water and electricity charges, higher charges for clothes-food-electronics, poor [social] services, disappointing government services, backward judiciary, quality of life issues, rank it low compared to other countries.

“Just goes to show that bigger isn't better,” she added.

However, her perception is interesting given that Kuwait is widely considered to be a cheaper place to live than many other countries in the GCC. Cost comparison website Expatistan calculates that Dubai, for example, is a substantial 34 percent more expensive than Kuwait, based on the relative costs of food, housing, clothes, transport and entertainment – although the website notes the comparison “lacks data and is not yet reliable”.

Still, many readers disagreed with the findings of InterNations’ research. One Indian expat in Kuwait said: “I have been here 11 years and have loved every moment I spent here.

“This place has got the highest concentration of educated citizens…than any other GCC country. I have lots of Kuwaiti friends and they are much more civilized than the other GCC nationals.

“I have never faced any racism here and have found Kuwaitees very helpful and understanding. My mantra is, respect the rules and regulations of the country you live in and you will love the place.

Another Indian expat said: “Been here in Kuwait for 20 years. No worse treatment than I could expect in other or my own country. Most local people and expats are nice to each other, and decent health, education and housing facilities.”

He added: “Public infrastructure is very good. There’s social and religious freedom. Peace and security amongst the best in the region. Savings prospects are fairly decent despite living with a family of five.

“If you’re a law abiding citizen with a reasonable lifestyle, I think this is a good place to live and work in. Just my thoughts, you’re entitled to yours...”

Kuwait may not care about the negative findings of such surveys (its proposed policy to restrict expat numbers “to restore demographic balance”, as one official was reported as saying in local media, suggests it may not).

However, perceptions about quality of life for foreigners do matter – particularly in a country with an ailing tourism industry.

Back in 2010, Sunil D’souza, general manager at Kanoo Travel, the largest travel management company in the Middle East, warned that the lack of a coherent tourism strategy by the Kuwaiti government has dragged the sector “into oblivion”.

Comments this month by Orient Travel CEO Asim Arshad suggest little has changed. “Kuwait’s leisure tourism industry has basically lagged behind the same over the past years, compared with regional competition,” he said in an interview with ARabian Travel News, adding: “The country’s recreational facilities are limited compared to other GCC countries.”

On Tuesday, the CEO of national carrier Kuwait Airways announced the company’s intention to move into profit by 2018, as it continues a strategy to reduce losses and privatise the airline.

Then, the following day, Kuwait stepped down as host of December’s Gulf Cup of Nations, following FIFA’s decision to suspend the country’s football association.

It seems Kuwait needs to take steps to alter public perceptions if it is to welcome more foreigners to its shores – and keep its citizens happy, too.

One Arabian Business reader, UAE resident ‘Ahmed’, concludes: “Bottom-line is this, historically when a dominant nationality feels that they have ‘lost control’ of their society they automatically attack the nearest underdog and in Kuwait’s case it is the expat. It is so pathetic listening to Kuwaitis constantly complain about their government but are afraid to raise their voices to change the situation.

“Further, what will eventually happen is this ‘expat’ war that the Kuwaitis are waging will backfire on themselves; actually it already has in the business arena. You will notice that when there is an expansion plan in the GCC, companies generally opt out of going to Kuwait – they will go to UAE, Saudi, Oman, Qatar, but not Kuwait. Kuwait will never advance until they adapt a more ‘inclusive’ policy like the UAE.”

Read the full InterNations report here

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