The State of Kuwait’s modern history began in the 18th century when Kuwait City was founded by the Bani Tubah tribe, who had travelled north from Qatar. An important port on the trade route to India, the country was of great interest to the Ottoman Empire, and to avoid their rule Kuwait sought protection from the British Empire. In 1899 the independent sheikhdom of Kuwait became a British Protectorate, a status it maintained until the British withdrew in 1961. Historically the country’s economy was dependent on shipbuilding and the pearling industry, but in the late 1930s Kuwait struck black gold: immense oil fields were discovered, resulting in nearly 60 years of unprecedented economic growth.
In August 1990, Kuwait’s growth came to a juddering halt as the country was invaded by neighbouring Iraq. Iraqi soldiers occupied the country for seven months until a UN-mandated coalition, led by the United States, managed to liberate Kuwait. Kuwait's infrastructure was badly damaged during the war, and both the economy and environment were wrecked as the retreating Iraqi army torched more than 600 Kuwaiti oil wells.
The fires took nine months to fully extinguish, and it took Kuwait a further two years to recover its oil output to pre-war levels. Its economy recovered accordingly and Kuwait – with the world’s fifth largest oil reserves – now ranks as the world’s fifth richest country per capita.
Despite – or perhaps, because of – Kuwait’s vast oil wealth, the country is not a popular tourist destination and the majority of people who visit Kuwait City are the country’s two million expatriate residents, numerous business visitors and army of overseas military personnel.
However, there are plenty of sights and attractions in Kuwait and the 90,000 visitors who arrive every year can enjoy everything from museums to malls, buildings to beaches.
Many of Kuwait’s museums depict the story of the 1990 invasion: at the Al Qurain Martyrs’ Museum you can see bullet-ridden walls, bomb damage and a military tank in the garden. The National Memorial Museum also details many of the horrors of the Iraqi occupation. Alternatively, lift your spirits at the Tareq Rajab Museum in Jabriya: a private collection of Islamic pots, clothes, weapons, musical instruments, jewellery and carpets alongside a beautiful array of Qurans.
One of Kuwait’s architectural wonders is the iconic needles of Kuwait Towers. Two of the triple towers are punctuated by huge spheres – resembling olives on a cocktail stick – which contain a revolving restaurant and observation deck with 360° views of the whole city.
A quirkier option for visitors is Mirror House, a residential villa Qadisiya. Built by Lidia Al Qattan, every conceivable surface inside and out – from floor to ceiling and even including the kitchen cupboards – is bedecked with a mosaic of miniature mirrors. It’s a private dwelling so ring ahead to request a tour.
Numerous cafés and restaurants can be found across Kuwait City, and with such a large expatriate audience they serve cuisines from around the world. A favoured dining destination is Marina Crescent, two storeys of restaurants and cafés attached to Marina Mall, one of Kuwait's busiest shopping centres. The complex is liveliest in the evening when people come to watch the sunset over the marina’s expensive yachts.
Kuwait operates a strict no-alcohol policy and so nightlife is substantially quieter than some of the other Gulf States. Evening entertainment usually involves hanging out at coffee shops, watching the latest movies at the cinema or smoking shisha while enjoying a coffee or fresh juice.
Take a ferry from Ras Salmiya for an inexpensive day trip to Failaka Island – the 20-km sea journey takes around 90 minutes.
The island houses some of the most important historical and archaeological locations in Kuwait. Ancient Greeks colonised the island in the fourth century BC, but the island’s most recent colonists were the Iraqi military in 1991. After expelling the residents back to the mainland, they mined the beaches and used the buildings for target practice. Many of the bombed houses remain: fortunately the mines do not.
Nowadays the island is a popular beach destination for Kuwaitis; rent jet skis and other water sports equipment from Failaka’s hotel and tourist village.