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Arrival in Doha 26, September 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Qatar, The Emirates, The Gulf.
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I just arrived at Doha International Airport for a nine months stint studying Arabic at Qatar University. Needless to say, Qatar is visually much like the rest of the small Emirate-type city-states on the Eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. The general low-rise buildings, all the same stucco colour, occasionally give way to spectacular skyscrapers which are invariably high-end hotels or apartment blocks. Nevertheless, there was something discernibly different about arriving in Qatar that is dissimilar to arriving in Kuwait or Dubai. Obviously, Doha International airport is somewhat smaller that these two airports, although that may well change soon, but, simply put, the people at the airport from security guards to police to porters to the customs staff are far friendlier than Dubai and certainly Kuwait.

Arriving in Kuwait and collecting your bag you are inevitably set upon by a phalanx of porters wanting to take your bag to the car for you (and charge you a fortune) or menacing security guards and custom officials glaring at you for having the temerity to interrupt their conversations. In Dubai, the impression is that it is just so busy that people have neither the time to be friendly nor rude. Here’s hoping that this extra bit of friendliness pervades the rest of the country and is not just a freak occurrence on this particular morning.

Qatar is certainly more outward-looking than Kuwait. It wants foreign input in a whole host of ways that Kuwait unanimously rejects. Perhaps this kind of ethos makes its way (through osmosis or by threats) to the staff at the airport. In short, you actually feel that you’re welcome in the country, unlike in Dubai where, as I have said, no one cares either way or in Kuwait where the staff are – more often than not – rude and negligent in their jobs.

Criminally lax security at Kuwait International Airport 21, August 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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If we’re being honest, the Middle East is a region that is not known for being overly safe. From the full scale, relatively recent wars in the Levant and the Gulf, the seemingly endemic and endless insurgency in Iraq to varying degrees of state sanctioned violence, the region has an unfortunate – yet at times warranted – reputation. One might assume, therefore, that states in the Middle East may pay particular attention to, for example, security and airports.  From the hijackings of the 1980s to 9/11 and beyond, air travel has had something of a close relationship with terrorism.

Kuwait has, thankfully, been relatively immune to terrorism as a tactic in recent history. Certainly compared to neighbouring Saudi Arabia and, needless to say, Iraq, Kuwait has been significantly safer. Yet this is not for an apparent want of trying. Many will recall the arrests and ensuing fire-fight in 2005 of suspected terrorists in Mubarak Al Kabir. Moreover, as a country hosting large numbers of Western troops in various bases, Kuwait is a target.

Therefore, with the regional context, not to mention simple good practice in today’s security-conscious world, one might expect Kuwait’s International Airport to take security seriously. Yet, as anyone who has flown through Kuwait International in the past few years can no doubt testify, security can be criminally lax at times.

I write this from the departure lounge bound for Dubai. When I went through the first X-Ray on entering the ‘passengers only’ section, the policeman whose job it is to monitor the screens x-raying my hand luggage for explosives, weapons and other prohibited items had his back fully turned to the screen. Unless he is psychic, this security check was utterly meaningless. True, some machines sound an alarm if they detect unusual items, but they can hardly detect all banned items: indeed; that is why that particular policeman has a job there in the first place.

Yet, there is extra security when passengers go through to their gate. This time the policeman in charge of monitoring this screen was standing talking to a friend and having and good chat. His chest, not his eyes, was watching the screen, checking whether I had smuggled something illegal onto the plane. So once more, unless this shurta had special powers, I could have easily smuggled anything onto the plane that I wished.

The key problem is that this is far from an isolated incident. I have noticed this exact behaviour on the last three occasions that I have flown out of Kuwait. Whilst theoretically I could simply have been ‘unlucky’ by witnessing such occurrences, I simply do not believe that for a second. Incidentally, I have never seen such contempt for security by those guarding our security in any of the hundreds of airports that I’ve been to over the years; let alone an airport in the Middle East.

There seems to be a disgraceful and endemic lack of professionalism at the airport. In addition to their criminal lack of security awareness, the police I spoke to – just a few words in polite Arabic – were rude, abrasive and seemingly indignant that I was getting them off their phone.

As much as this is a personal annoyance of mine there are – need it be said – real, serious and grave security risks here. The whole ethos needs to change and quickly. Not only does such a profound lack of professionalism reflect badly on Kuwait but for the simple task of making policemen do their job remotely efficiently, who is to say how many lives could be saved.