Saturday, February 23, 2008



By Kevin Anthony Stoda, Fahaheel, Kuwait

Children of America in the 1980s recall President Ronald Reagan’s anti-communist speech, in which Reagan attempted to create fear in the hearts of Americans that the country was facing a RED DAWN. That is, a communist takeover of America was in the wings.

In that oft-quoted and sometimes ridiculed speech, Reagan warned that the wars of Central America was just one day’s drive from Harlingen, Texas.

As I live in Kuwait only about an hour or two from Iraq’s Civil wars, I might ask myself with the same urgency: Do I feel safe?

I might, in turn, ask the hundreds of thousands of Americans, other expatriates, and Kuwaitis who live in Kuwait the same question, eh?


Last month, I spoke on the topic of “Sense of Safety and Awareness in Kuwait” at the AWARE Center in Surra.

Whenever I travel outside Kuwait, many people are amazed to hear me share with them that Kuwait is very much safer than perceived.

These listeners and distant observers wonder at how 3 million people living on the border with the infamous War-Zone Iraq (and so close to Iran and Saudi Arabia) can feel so relatively safe to many other peoples scattered around planet Earth.

In order to investigate whether my personal feelings about this subject of “safety in Kuwait” (1) have been correct and in order to (2) create a clearer picture for those living in and outside of Kuwait about what the “levels of relative and perceived safety” are in Kuwait, I have conducted an initial survey on the subject in January 2008.

I presented these findings at that meeting at the AWARE Center in Surra, Kuwait.

Prior to conducting the survey and interviewing a few other peoples from various lands, I also posited a hypothesis about sense of safety by individuals based upon their own cultural identity related to cultural “proxemics”.


As a western born male, my personal bias when carrying out any research in Kuwait is based on personal experience and is naturally a bit skewed and subjective, i.e. I am a large male with red hair & beard and, therefore, stand out like a sore thumb. My own opinions about safety also shift or depend on whether I have just finished driving on Kuwait’s high-speed roadways or not.

As I first came to live in Kuwait in February 2004 and earlier as I lived in the UAE in 1999-2000, I perceived that both countries appeared to not have much overt crime and observed little overt levels of violence or threats. For this reason, I agree with the findings revealed in the survey from adult western male reports that in the Gulf states, I am safer than living one’s homeland—in my case: the U.S.A.

Moreover, aside from my 2 years living in rural Japan in the 1990s, both Gulf States were indeed are probably safer than in any of a dozen other countries I have ever lived in or worked in, including France, Germany, Mexico, & Nicaragua.

Only living in rural Japan in the 1990s had I perceived a similar standard of personal safety & freedom to walk, live and travel about, i.e. not becoming too worried that:

(1) someone would break into my flat, that
(2) I would be abused by some bully or that
(3) I would be arrested arbitrarily or given a fine without fair treatment before the law.

In Japan of the early 1990s, I recall feeling radically free—at times even leaving my personal luggage on the platform of trains and going to coffee shops to have a bite to eat.

Similarly, in both the UAE and in Kuwait, I have felt comfortable taking long walks at night by myself at all hours of the day or night & in whatever grungy or ghetto-like neighborhood I was in.

However, within a few months of moving to Kuwait, my own sense of ease & safety began to diminish at moments, for example, as I went swimming off the beaches of Kuwait.

There on the seacoast and along the beaches it was quite obvious that jet skiers of all ages thought nothing of approaching a swimmer at 35 to 55 mph—just to have the fun of frightening others, me, and other watchers scattered around the waters or on the beach.

I observed that this did not occur simply because I was a foreigner.

This also happened to Arabs, South Asians, and anyone else on the seaside.

During my presentation at the AWARE Center last month , I learned from the audience that other residents in Kuwait were put un-at-ease and felt both a sense of urgency and danger in their free time—even when onshore or in boats on the Gulf due to the proximity of these reckless jet skiers.

Last August 2007 the FRIDAY TIMES presented a lengthy an article on the Gulf State phenomena endangering the lives of recreational swimmers and boaters:

In summary, my zone of comfort and sense of safety during my free time was became smaller and smaller every time I attempted to go swimming—which was 3 or more times a week during the hot hot summers here.

The same sense of spike in lack of a comfort zone occurred the next year (in 2005) as I purchased a old car and started driving around the cities of Kuwait on my own, i.e. instead of taking a taxi or public bus.

Since that date ( April 2005) , I have been hit by cars or have had cars jump in front of my own vehicle at high speed dozens of times. I have been involved in 7 collisions of one sort or another.

One of those collisions was even intentional and at done at 65 mph. This was when a tailgating red taxi had bumped me--simply because he thought I was going too slow at 65 mph.

More than ironically, less than 20 minutes prior to my speaking on “Sense of Safety in Kuwait” at the AWARE Center that January 22, a young Kuwaiti female driver hit my car from the U-turn lane side--from which she was turning-too-wide into my lane.


Before presenting the findings of the survey from this first stage of my research on “the sense of safety of Kuwaiti residents”, I need to note that I have posited a theory about the root causes of some of the growing perception of a lack of safety in some facets of the Kuwait experience.

This theory is that a greater awareness and wide-ranging societal dialogue about proxemics could lead to less insecurity in one’s comfort zone while living in and moving around Kuwait. Who knows? Perhaps a sound awareness campaign could reduce accidents and stress in Kuwait by 10 to 20 percent each year.

This analysis of the importance of proxemic awareness is based upon research on cross-cultural proxemics undertaken over the past three decades.

(a) Proxemics is part of non-verbal communication.

(b) Proxemics focuses on the distances between actors in a communicative or social events in context.

(c) Proxemics & kinesthetic research also includes touching, holding hands kissing, etc.

(d) From a Northern American or Northern European perspective proxemics in high context cultures of Latin America and Arab states are similar. Nonetheless, in Arab states distances are closer and generally still more exaggerated than in Latin America and much of Asia.

Currently in the area of video and computer simulation as well as in the domain of cognitive research & in research on artificial intelligience much research is taking place in terms of proxemics.

In an almost classic example, one set of researchers looked at audiences from the USA. In this set of experiments the viewers for the experiments were divided by ethnic group in observing the distance and relationships of characters or figures during a video or during a computer game simulation.

Arab and Latin American students were shown the computer simulation of a group of figures in a variety of activities together.

At this stage, both the Latin Americans and Arabs found the figures in the computer simulation to be appropriately close to one another. Meanwhile, the non-Arabs and non-Hispanic viewers perceived the figures as being unnaturally close to one another in the various manifestations of interpersonal interactions.

At the next level of research the Latin American or Hispanic audience was shown a set of computer simulations where the figures were interacting at a still closer range than they had been interacting before. At this point the Hispanics objected saying that the distances in such settings were too close or unreal.

This stage of the study also showed that the Arab viewers still maintained that the interpersonal distances between the figures or actors on the computer game simulation appeared to be natural in distance to them.

In summary, distances that even Latin Americans might fight unnatural or threatening were considered acceptable or tolerant to the Arab in viewing the same interactions of pair and group work activities among the computerized figures.

Sadly, despite widespread knowledge of this difference in proxemics among scientists and educators working in the areas of cognitive, social and computer linguistics, this difference in cultures is generally only taught intentionally in (a) “intercultural awareness” seminars, (b) to a few business people working in international business training workshops, or (c) to language educators.


An Egyptian colleague of mine, who was also a brigadier general in the Egyptian air force in a prior career, shared with me once a story which has brought home the importance of teaching proxemics and the need of all in a multicultural world to become more aware of cross-cultural proxemics.

Over a 15 years ago, this Egyptian officer was in an English teacher training course at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. There were other officers from various Arab states in the same classroom as he. On the day in question, one Kuwaiti officer met an American female instructor, and he began to try and talk to her about a problem he was having.

As the Kuwaiti officer talked to his teacher, that female instructor backed up.

Since in his culture such a setting required closer proximity, the Kuwaiti moved closer to her once again.

This repeated itself until the female instructor was backed up against the wall.

Suddenly, she then fled the classroom with a scream.

My Egyptian colleague shared then how the wise director of the English teacher training program realized what had gone on, in terms of miscommunication due to classroom proxemics across cultures.

This director then preceded to train both the students and the teacher on what the appropriate differences (proxemics) in different social distances were among the cultures in various communicative settings.

These settings and distances change depend on how many people are involved in the communication and which cultures are generally involved.

Going into the Iraqi occupation, it is quite likely that American coalition forces as a whole were unable to make good judgments about what was safe and what were not safe distances and safe social contexts to put themselves in.

This has led to a heightened set of fear and stress for American forces relating to Iraqi Arabs in the 2003 to 2008 period.

Naturally, in Kuwait itself, this has led to most of the U.S. military personnel being subjected to little leave-time from their own military barracks for weeks at a time during the same periods. (At most only a few dozen personnel out of thousands are allowed off the U.S. bases each day.)

My theory concerning proxemics and roadway dangers in Kuwait is that part of the problem with driving on Kuwait highways is certainly that distances that are appropriate between cars are also subject to cultural proxemics.

With drivers from different cultural backgrounds now unable to adjust in time to the distances that the OTHER perceives as acceptable leads daily to a tremendous amount of high speed collisions in Kuwait--where the population is made up of 30% Kuwaitis born-and-raised here, 25% Arabs not from Kuwait, 30% Asians, and 15% Western or southern African, or Latin American residents.

Likewise, differences in distances between males and females from Asian and Western cultures are sometimes observed by Arabs in restaraunts, malls and other public spaces. However, these differences are misused or misunderstood by Arabs, such as Arab policemen, creating a very threatening situation when Arabs attempt to imitate (or fail to properly imitate) these differences in proxemics in the wrong social and communicative context.

This leaves western females and Asian females feeling unduly followed and insecure about Arabs and others from different cultures hanging around too close to them.

As the results of the survey are discussed below, note how many of these levels of concern might be lessened by the creation of more common understanding of how to behave in public space takes shape sometime in Kuwait in the future once this need for awareness of proxemics becomes more understood in this fast changing Gulf State.


The initial survey on Safety in Kuwait entailed a broad variety of Kuwaiti resident respondents answering these open-ended set of questions.

(1) What is your general feeling about safety in Kuwait? Is it very safe? Only safe in certain areas and/or at certain times of day?

(2) At what times are you most concerned personally about safety?

(3) At what times are you most concerned about the safety of others, such as loved ones or family members?

(4) Do you have recommendations to make about safety to people who are new to Kuwait?

(5) Do you have any recommendation to the cities of Kuwait, to the national government, or to police about how to make Kuwait more safe?

The were respondents as young as 10 or 11 years old, teenagers and adults through their 50s or 60s.

Moreover, among those who responded to the small survey were single women, single men, married couples, high school students, young ex-pats and Kuwaiti nationals. There were also Saudis, Bedouin, Christians, Muslims, Filipinos, Africans, British, German, Egyptians and a large variety of other respondents.

Incidentally, for those readers now living outside of Kuwait, it will be surprising to learn that very few of any of these varied respondents mentioned any level of fear of war overflowing from Iraq or Iran in Kuwait.

This is likely because in the last 5 years only a few terrorist attacks, threats of attacks, or robberies have been reported in the press in Kuwait.

Therefore, it should be understandable that many other issues of safety are more important in the daily lives of the 3 million (mostly foreign born) residents who live in Kuwait. The wars or rumors of war abroad are reported but as Kuwait is not at war with Iraq and as Kuwait currently prohibits its citizens from participating in the current occupation of Iraq, the war seem light years away at times—even though in actuality it is only an hour or two away by car.


In response to the first question, these are some of the tremendous variety of responses:

(1) What is your general feeling about safety in Kuwait? Is it very safe? Only safe in certain areas and/or at certain times of day?

--“It seems safe.”
--“No place is safe here, but safer than in Philippines (homeland).”
--“Safe, concerning crime.”
--“I feel it is safer than some cities/or most cities in the U.S., but being so close to a ware zone, always need to be aware of surroundings.”
--“Yes, but in the desert there are dangers”, i.e. reckless boys on three wheel buggies, and some animals, like scorpions.
--“The cities are most safe, but some deserts are surrounded by bombs.”
--“Yes, Kuwait is a safe place to live in, however, residential areas of local Kuwaitis need improvement in safety measures. At noon or night it is not safe for peddlers (and commuters).”
--“Depends on other country(ies), Kuwait is very safe.”
--“Kuwait is safe at certain times of day.”
--“I think there are different places (that are safe)like at home, at school, at shops or supermarket.”
--“No, it is not safe. Well can’t say because every now and then there is problem everywhere. It’s mostly (unsafe) during the evenings.”

The overall variety of respondents felt that only location and time of day led to lack of comfort in moving about in Kuwait. Only a few males claimed that Kuwait was very safe.

In response to the second question, these are some of the tremendous variety of responses:

(2) At what times are you most concerned personally about safety?

--“At night.”
--“When I am driving at night.”
--“Rush hours (7 to 9am), (12-2pm), (5-7pm) & weekend and nights.”
--“When I’m not at home or in school.”
--“If I am alone in the mall.”
--“Riding in the bus because you can’t get out if there’s trouble.”
--“When a guy dies in front of you and you can’t do anything.”
--“When driving on the road (being driven) or as a pedestrian crossing the road.”
--“After 3am”, i.e. drag racing time scenes are around Kuwait in early mornings
--“Like I said, it’s only on the roads and highways and that has no particular time.”
--“When I ride a car with a bad driver.”
--“In the malls on weekends because of the fights.”

When discussing personal safety, the female respondents showed greater variety of fears for all locations and times in contrast to male respondents. Moreover, Asian respondents felt more fear more of the time than did either Arabs or Westerners.

In response to the third question, these are some of the tremendous variety of responses:

(3) At what times are you most concerned about the safety of others, such as loved ones or family members?

--“I am concerned about my big brother when he drives in big sand drifts.”
--“When they are out at night or when they are out without a visa.”
--“When driving in the desert” & “I’m afraid for my brother running into a bomb”
--“My spouse as he is an instructor for the Kuwaiti Air Force and this could be a possible target for attack.”
--“After midnight”
--“At night”
--“On the roads when driving”
--“When my father and grandpa go fishing at 3am.”
--“I’m concerned for the safety of western women at night, on public transport & when they are on their own.”
--“There is no specific time, however, driving is not safe in Kuwait at all times.”
--“At nights and noon.” & “Early evening and night.”, i.e. seemingly concerned with transportation

Asians and western women showed particular concern for family and others being out at night or in public spaces, like malls alone. Asians were more likely to be concerned about loved ones wandering about without visas and paperwork. (The Kuwaiti employers and government delay approval of visa and other documents for months on end.) It should be noted that youth are also very concerned about all of these same issues—worried about brothers, fathers, grandfathers, mothers, etc. on the roads or out and about in Kuwait.

In response to the fourth question, these are some of the variety responses:

(4) Do you have recommendations to make about safety to people who are new to Kuwait?

--“Explain to them about problems on highways and proximics including closeness and touching as well as warn them about the lack of good law enforcement.”
--“To respect the country’s traditions.”
--“Stay in a group. Be polite.”
--“For the women, I’d say don’t drive alone late at nights in isolated places. Don’t ever walk., otherwise only be extra careful when driving.”
--“Always use common sense while using taxis. Try not to travel alone in unfamiliar places.”
--“Keep a safe distance you talk to or question. Be alert at all times.”
--“When there is a fire. Save the others by calling the police. The number for police (and emergencies) is 777.”
--“New people need information regarding residency, money, and visa matters.”
--“Be careful on the roads. Only get into a car when you have to … maybe safer to use a bus.”
--“Warn them about the dangers to pedestrians.”

Most of these are directed towards women in Kuwait. Both male and female Asians as well as western women need to be aware of kidnappings and rapes as real possibilities in Kuwait—though possibly more of a fear level of awareness than in actual number of cases in a country of 3 million. However, kidnappings and forced prostitution are certainly also too prevalent in the secluded corners of some neighborhoods and ghettos.

In response to the fifth question, these are some of the variety responses:

(5) Do you have any recommendation to the cities of Kuwait, to the national government, or to police about how to make Kuwait more safe?

--“Police need to follow the laws, like when they knowingly arrest people who actually have their visas along with those who don’t. POLICE ARE FOR PROTECTION, NOT ABUSE. (Same goes in my country, the Philippines where some lesser problem prevails.) I’m scared when I see police here in Kuwait.”
--“The police should be available everywhere.”
--“Better and more police.”
--“They (the police) need to test (oversee) the desert and they need to come faster when they call them. They (the police) need to command the government to prohibit ATVs (three wheel buggies) in the street.”
--“Apply rules of traffic consistently and penalize accordingly.”
--“Teach and tell children not to play in the streets.”
--“To be more serious when dealing with people’s complaints at the police stations.”
--“Police are the worst offenders.”
--“Dangerous driving (must be stopped). Hooliganism on the main roads should have more severe consequences. FINES. Take away license. (Enforce) license age for drivers at 18+.”
--“Hire and empower safety engineers to transform the country, building bridges and tunnels (for pedestrians) and safety infrastructure. Hire police from Europe or USA or Japan.”
--“Police must be required to speak some English/learn some basic western/non-threatening body language.”

A comment from one teenager was that the police are the worst ones in the law enforcement system and actually promote lack of safety in Kuwait. This was reaffirmed by what some adults suggested.

Further, acculturation of western concepts and standards was demanded by almost every respondent. These reforms have been hard to reinforce or introduce in Kuwait where wasta, bribes, and the hiring of police from the most traditional and lower echelon of society has been prevalent for decades. I.e. the police are observed as extremely subservient to the wealthier, political (tribal) & economic powerful classes to a great degree in Kuwait.


Considering the variety of peoples from all over the world who make up both cosmopolitan and parochial Kuwait today, it is surprising that there can be a consensus on what they think and feel.

Nonetheless, this initial foray into the opinions of Kuwaiti residents of their perceptions on safety shows that they are not as multifaceted in terms of their concerns as one might expect.

(1) There is the prevalent need and desire to have standards enforced much better by police & at levels or standards of police performance expected in Northern Europe, Japan, or the United States.
(2) There is a consensus for the rule of law to dominate in terms of safety on the countries roadways and in public spaces. Buses, taxis, and poorly policed neighborhoods are of special concern.
(3) There is strong agreement that the roadways, parks, malls, deserts, and seaside need to be turned into a safer place for all to travel or holiday in.
(4) Remarkably, a common or prevailing perception is also that the level of safety for males in Kuwait is still commonly perceived as good as or better than in one’s home country.
(5) In contrast, women--especially western women and Asians-- feel that they soon may be under threat or constantly must remain ever-alert when out and about.
(6) Children and teenagers need more oversight and restrictions in public space. Some drive on highways at ages as young as 12 and 13—sometimes with off-road vehicles or in fast cars. Others run in gangs threatening expatriates at bus stops and in buses.

Alternatively, more organized after school activities might certainly help youth—as would awareness campaigns for parents as to the alternatives to running in gangs or getting caught up in fights or drug scenes.

Another sort of public awareness campaign would be one targeting cross-cultural communication in a multicultural society. I believe that as multinational societies form and reform all over the planet in coming decades each society will face similar trouble in defining themselves and proxemics & other non-verbal communication practices in a society will need to be thrashed out again and again.

The historical approach of pretending that expatriates are only a temporary phenomena in Kuwait needs to be ended.

This means that government and police need to be seen as working for the commonweal of the entire mass of people it has welcomed to inhabit the same space—making up the current country of Kuwait.

These so-called expatriates who make up the bulk of society people need to become part of regular government surveys on how to improve the country for all. Two million expatriates cannot be treated as the invisible people of the land any longer.

These expatriates, with their varying backgrounds, can make a lot of important suggestions to Kuwait and its leaders these days.

One important multi-national organization working for safety issues in Kuwait is the Kuwaiti Chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers who recently gave a presentation at one of the schools I have been teaching in.

American Society of Safety Engineers. Kuwait Chapter

The society’s technical know-how, educational orientation, and multicultural insight are examples of what can be formed or created to improve any society located on the edge of Iraq’s civil war--and near Iran, whose government appears to be incapable of improving its economy and society, without picking fights around the region and globe.


The following is an example of a recent communication to U.S. citizens living in Kuwait. The contents or warning are not typical but are exemplary of the need to discuss safety in Kuwait.

“The (USA) Embassy would like to highlight two recent incidents in Kuwait and recommend how to handle similar situations:
Incident 1 - Recently, an American spouse was at the Carrefour store at the Avenues Mall when she was harassed by an Arab male making inappropriate comments. The spouse departed the store to avoid the harassment and was followed by the man to her vehicle who tried to enter it. The spouse was not hurt during the attempted vehicle entry and the she departed the area.”

“Recommended action: In a case as this, attempt to contact the store management or security personnel or go to an area where there are cashiers or other patrons. Do not go to a location where there are no other people (the parking garage) or lead the individual to your vehicle.”

“Incident 2 - An American observed what appeared to be an Arab male harassing females walking. The American stopped his car to assist the women, which enraged the Arab male, who then chased him with his vehicle. The American was cut off by the Arab male, at which time the American exited his vehicle to engage in conversation. The Arab male reversed his vehicle and drove over the American, breaking his leg.”

“Recommended Action: Although the American acted with a great degree of chivalry, there is no upside to getting involved in a situation like this. It is better to report the behavior and location to the authorities, stay in your vehicle, get a license plate number and physical description of the vehicle and driver, and never attempt to engage the other party.”
---from Warden Letter relaying report from US Embassy in December 2007.



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