Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | January 10, 2011

Sacrifice

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.ย 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.


Responses

  1. Very wise words Barrak and I really hope that there are also a new generation of Kuwaitis that see things the way you do. You are completely right that before blaming others (and in this case, I don’t only look at Kuwait, but all of us as global citizens), we must think of how we can change ourselves, our lifestyles and give a little personal sacrifice to ensure a better future, not only for ourselves, but for our future generations. We live in an age of unchecked consumerism and self-entitlement. We all have to take baby steps to make our daily living habits more sustainable and equitable. I really like how you see poverty in a more expansive definition and I compliment you on using your blog not only as a forum for questions of urbanism, but about also about the moral imperatives that must lead the discussions on employment, planning, the economy and overall coexistence with others.

  2. I’d love to walk, but everything is at the very least an hour away by foot. Not to mention there isn’t a sidewalk or path system from one district to another.

  3. Well said… you hit the nail on its head

  4. “continue to live in moral and intellectual poverty”

    So true. I honestly think it all starts with the “tarbiya” and what type of upbringing the individual had. Generations are playing fruitless roles disturbingly without any trace of ethics, morals, principles or values. It’s reflecting on everything from the choices they make on what type of poison they choose to ingest to how much chaos is strewn into the streets. You know it has reached a terrible situation when you realize you have to somehow instill codes of behavior that a mother or a father should have done in the first place. What happens is that, by and large, you are reeducate individuals who are way past their puberty. They’d pay the 1000 KD to maintain their energy consumption but I bet they’d run to the parliament and do everything they can in their power to get it revoked (90% chances of winning), not to mention you’ll hear the whining and whimper of it all like there’s no tomorrow.

    • Dana, I think it’s hard to expect people to behave rationally when everything around them encourages destructive behavior. In Kuwait, there is no real incentive to conserve or invest in long term goals.

      I think it’s wrong to blame the culture of conspicuous consumption and ‘selfishness’ on the people themselves, as if they just weren’t brought up right. I don’t think that’s fair.

      If I lived in a chocolate factory, you can’t expect me to live a healthy life. Living in Kuwait makes it easy to be selfish, but that doesn’t mean it’s an inherent quality of Kuwaitis (or petro-nations in general). I don’t think it is.

      I believe people end up that way because that’s how anyone would react given the incentives and structural framework that we built for ourselves (highways everywhere but no walkability, etc).

      So what can we do about it? Well, for one thing, we have to really examine the incentives that we’re putting out there, because that is definitely something that we can control. Are they productive or destructive? We subsidize petrol, electricity and water and this makes it easy for people to take that resource for granted. If we raise prices then people will think about their actions more.

      Politically, this is impossible, but it can work if we simply give the money back as a sort of rebate. On average, people will get a bump in their paycheck equal to the amount of money most people spend on energy/water. This is a much easier pill to swallow and harder to revoke, because most people won’t want to lose the benefit. Of course it’s not as easy as it sounds, there are lots of details that need to be figured out. But we can’t keep blaming other people for our problems. The solutions are out there if we keep looking for them.

      • Yeah I hear you, but at the top of my head I can think of several families who are surrounded by these incentives and structural frameworks you speak of but still manage to bring up responsible citizens, Barrak, who are genuinely trying so hard to make a difference. So you’re saying even if the root of this recklessness which I attributed to terrible upbringing, is apparent if the Government is forcing people to pay taxes, what really guarantees you that they will actually keep up to it? Being as reckless as they are, they’ll just whip up some Vitamin-W and find a way to avoid paying, no?

        People don’t even know how to queue in line here. I honestly think family values and upbringing plays a huge role in this. Maybe I shouldn’t blame it only on that since you’re showing me a different side of it but I still think it’s a dominant factor.

  5. Hello Barrak, I agree that people need to change their consumption behaviours but I think we need to walk before we run. Many of the points raised in the article, I agreed with very much, the columnist was trying to express that the government’s definition of development is very different than what is really being implemented or what should be implemented, which is basically quality of life, health, environment, culture, communications, encouragement of waste facilities and alternative energies, that is a first step to what you are talking about. Abu dhabi and dubai are doing it, why cant Kuwait? This is a govt decision not me or yours. They are the ones who allows 30-40,000 new foreigners enter kuwait every year that drive on the streets with cheap cars. They are the ones who didnt do effective power facilities.The points concerning bad zoning and empty lands and lack of trees and pavements is a true one, whether we save energy or not whether we travel by bike or walk or not. There are many streets in kuwait without plants or even bricks. The issue about the tender committee is also very true, he really hit the nail on the head with that. I think both the article and what your posts are saying is true but they are different issues, but in the end the government in kuwait controls your life, work, business, bureacracy, surroundings, not us:) Thank you.

    • First of all, I do agree with most of what was said in the article. No question about that.

      My worry is that we keep pointing fingers at the government when in reality we are basically getting what we deserve, right? We’re not willing to pay higher petrol prices, so driving is easy, so everyone drives. People want cheap labor so labor laws are relaxed and there’s an influx of laborers. We really do get what we ask for and what we deserve, and we’re constantly asking for things that hurt us in the long term. We only have ourselves to blame for that, more so than the government.

      I’m not defending the government, because the initiative and the leadership should naturally come from them. But they’re responding to the requests of the vast majority of the people who are demanding higher benefits and lower regulations and subsidies. It’s a very, very unhealthy relationship. Like that of a drug dealer and an increasingly desperate addict. Eventually the supply of drugs (petrodollars) will run out. What happens then?

  6. I read both your articles and I think you both make important points , but if I had to make a choice between who is the greater perpetrator …who is generally responsabile and at fault for the general deterioration of services and infrastructire in Kuwait, its not the people, its the government. Lets be honest they control 90 pct of the eceonomy, the services, the land and they make it very difficult for any citizen to interact with there service providers without going insane in the process.

    Is it my fault when I go visit the Ministry of Commerce to get something done and get sent to the person’s brother’s “consultancy company ” to get what should be my legal right? Where are the ministers and undersectrataries ..what exactly is there job is it not to serve us legaly of course? I run a large business in Kuwait and I regulalry send ghost shoppers to all my salespeople and have them write reports on everything that took place in those meetings… how hard is it for the largest employer in the country to do the same and weed out the corruption. The truth is it is not hard but they dont want to weed it out they want you to call them or call some parliament member and for “favors” ….favors that should be your legal right to get.

    Members of the government either benefited , encouraged or at best ignored all the bureaucracy the thieving and criminal behaviour that took place right under there roof , and now that they want to spend serious money on improving things in the country those same people they allowed to fester and prosper are throwing so much red tape in there faces they cant even move let alone walk or run.

    They cooked it it”s about time they ate it with the rest of us .

    • I think we’re in agreement here.

      90% of our labor force works for the government and that makes it impossible to manage. Again, i’m not defending corruption or mismanagement, but the basic idea is that working for the government is our way of redistributing the wealth of the nation to the people. It’s not seen by most employees as a public service, but rather as a way to get their god-given birthright. They have to suffer through the day in order to get their money until they eventually retire early.

      This is the price we pay for avoiding rampant unemployment and riots, by expanding the size of government beyond efficiency and giving people jobs that they’re not qualified for. The problem, of course, is that this makes everything incredibly complicated and leaves openings for people to take advantage of nepotism and positions of power.

      What we can and should do is try to implement and enforce a sort of agressive anti-corruption mechanism that isn’t symbolic and political. Beyond that, we need to have a serious and empirically grounded effort to increase efficiency. We need to have numbers showing how many hours it takes to finish a government action, and people must be held responsible to keep reducing the time and the quality of work every year. Once people can be held accountable and the weak links identified, we can slowly work our way out of the quagmire.

      We just need to follow a plan. Think of the way police in the United States started using a system of identifying in numbers and metrics how many incidents of crime were taking place, and where, and put it all in data that the people in charge can monitor and be held accountable to. Because the outcomes (crime) was tied to data now, they can’t hide behind the numbers. They HAD to prove that the numbers were going down in order to keep their jobs.

      This worked really really well, and since the 90’s crime has been greatly reduced beyond expectations. Of course the police started to find ways to fake the numbers in order to show better results than reality, but the point that empirical data can be used to make government efficient is still valid.

  7. Very good post.

    My only wonder is at Badriya’s comment:

    “This is a govt decision not me or yours. They are the ones who allows 30-40,000 new foreigners enter kuwait every year that drive on the streets with cheap cars.”

    Uhhh… what??

    lol I don’t really know what this is trying to say.

    1. The congestion problems in Kuwait are **not** caused by cheap laborers – this statement is devoid of reality. Most cheap laborers get moved around by buses owned by the companies they work for, and the rest carpool. You can thank the Kuwaitis with a car per child for that.

    2. “Cheap cars”? Is this really a problem that concerns you? Have you been to Rome? Or Athens? Or London?

    3. The laborers are in Kuwait because Kuwaitis need the laborers. The government does not “let” them in – the Kuwaiti economy requires them. Unless Kuwaitis want to start keeping their local Mcdonald’s clean, sweeping the malls, building the villas, driving the kids – then yes, foreigners are needed. The foreigners of Kuwait are what make this place.

    4. The most important step Kuwait could take for its future is to selectively nationalize the foreign middle class. These are the accountants, consultants, architects, professors, mostly from other Arab countries. They make this country function and are required because the local population is not capable of filling their shoes. There are various economic benefits of nationalizing this group – but the point is, they aren’t the ones causing the traffic problems either.

    “They are the ones who didnt do effective power facilities.”

    The power plants of Kuwait run as effectively as in any other country. The problem is not with how much power is being supplied, the problem, as Barrak was trying to express, is the inordinate quantities of power demanded by the people.
    To understand this problem, I recommend Kuwaitis to move to Finland or Norway for a year and live as the locals do. According to the UN, the scandinavian countries are at the top of all the tables when it comes to education, happiness, and success. I’ve lived in scandinavia, Canada, Kuwait, and the UK. A great nation is made by each individual person embodying the best habits and traits. Kuwait has the money and the potential to top all those lists – but it doesn’t come anywhere near. I wish Kuwait all the best, but have very little hope for its future.

    • I’m not so sure that nationalizing the foreign middle class like you suggested will solve anything. We should make their stay more comfortable, allow them to purchase property and own businesses, but giving them Kuwaiti citizenship (if that’s what you’re suggesting) is not something I agree with.

      • Yes, there aren’t many Kuwaitis who do think that.

        But what dma said below, and what you’ve suggested in your own article, is that the fundamental problem of Kuwait is the lifestyles of the people, and the way they look at the government as some sort of transcendant nanny.

        The reason Kuwait is not topping UN tables for schools, or for life potential, or for happiness, is that the people don’t NEED good schools. They don’t NEED good educations. There is no competition in Kuwait! All Kuwaitis are assured cosy state jobs. Look at the public sector! It’s a farce! Not only is it a farce, it’s a shame!
        The foreign middle class are arguably the highest educated people in Kuwait, as they do not have the benefit of Kuwaiti scholarship policies, or the benefit of a secure “wasta” system back home. I grew up in Kuwait and am very familiar with how the system works. I later interned at an international architecture consultancy, and there was only one Kuwaiti working with me, and he happened to be from my high school. No other Kuwaiti chose to take the long hours and decreased pay. Some companies hire two people for the job, a local and a foreigner, just to appease the government’s quotas of Kuwaitis in the workplace.

        Come on man, this is not a secret, this is known by everyone. One family friend became a partner at an international firm and said that if it wasn’t for the government quotas they would never hire any Kuwaitis. I’m sorry, but this is the reality.
        The things that you are talking about, like getting people to use less electricity, getting people to demand public transportation – these are things that will never happen with the current status quo. There needs to be a complete overhaul of the society and the way it’s run.

        The reason the foreigners are a benefit is because they live by these principles. It is the foreigners in Dubai who started recycling initiatives and who use the public transportation. Kuwait needs entrepreneurship, and right now Kuwaitis have no reason to be entrepreneurs, or at least serious ones. It is precisely these people who have lived abroad who would start initiatives for public transportation and better schools. In fact, the only reason YOU are advocating these things is because you have gotten a foreign education and have seen what could be. But you are part of a very small minority of Kuwaitis. Your blog is in English, and not your native language, the ideals that you call for are all learned from abroad. There needs to be an actual meritocracy in Kuwait. As long as it remains this nanny state where all Kuwaitis live like its their own private golf club, then traffic problems and obesity rates will be the least of your problems in 50 years.

  8. I am so excited to see a lively discussion! I would like to add another point and reassert what Barrak was saying about pointing the finger. We, Kuwaitis, have gotten used to being spoon fed everything that we became so lazy and dependent that we became arrogant and ignorant too. We are used to free electricity, cars, secured jobs, free education, lack of exercise, fast food, etc that we do not want to change and accustom ourselves to that fact that at the rate of consumption that we are accelerating at, we will self destruct. The irony is that 50 years ago we were hard working Kuwaitis who respected and honored what we had. Again, I will not point the finger, I will rather give a call for everyone reading this to change themselves to be better. True, one person cannot make the change, but if 100 people changed and changed one 1 more person, thats double and so on. You can take the horse to the water, but you can’t force it to drink. So, let us, the readers, be the change. Power in the masses!๐Ÿ™‚

    • To rehabilitate a run-down neighborhood, the first thing you do is fix all the broken windows. That changes the way people think about the space and they sort of respect it because it seems that someone is taking care of it and there isn’t mutual neglect that gives people an excuse to continue degrading it.

      I really do feel that we’ve developed a lot of bad habits that somehow reached a critical mass sometime in our generation and created a really ugly culture of selfishness, greed and jealousy. This is not an inherent quality of Kuwaitis, but I do think that the way our society has evolved made it very easy for people to become selfish and insular.

      Like the example of the broken windows, there has to be a way to change the environment and break the cycle. There must be a moment where people feel that the rules have changed and acting that way is no longer rewarding.

      I’m pretty convinced that a gradual easing of electric, fuel and water subsidies can do that trick.

      I’m also convinced that only by holding the government accountable with proven metrics and agreed upon targets (Did they reduce fatal car crashed this year by a satisfactory amount? Have they increased broadband penetration at the agreed upon rate? Are University graduates increasing?) and not by looking for silly scandals or political gamesmanship to move the country forward.


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