Living in Kuwait

Expats moving to Kuwait were once welcomed to the oil-rich emirate with open arms. However, in recent times the government has begun to limit the number of foreigners living and working there, and lucrative relocation packages are far more difficult to come by. Nevertheless, Kuwait still has a large expat population and over 80 percent of the country’s workforce is made up of foreigners.

Although Kuwait is an Islamic country, expats will find that Kuwaiti culture is strongly influenced by Western traditions. While the country is not quite as conservative as neighbouring Saudi Arabia, expats should always show respect for Arab traditions, including dressing moderately and not displaying affection in public.

Arabic is the official language of Kuwait, although English is widely spoken and the official language of business. Expats should have no problem communicating with the locals.

Generally, expats will find Kuwait to be quite safe on a day-to-day basis. Some governments do warn their nationals against travelling to Kuwait due to the threat of terrorism against Western corporations. However, there have been no significant incidents that should draw concern from expats.

While there are a large number of multinational companies operating in Kuwait, finding a job is not easy and this is often a very real problem for the trailing spouse. The majority of Western expats moving to Kuwait do so to follow lucrative employment packages in the country’s booming oil industry; Kuwait’s financial sector is also thriving.

Expats moving to Kuwait with children will be glad to know that education in the country is of a very good standard and literacy rates are high. However, expats wanting their children to attend certain international schools should be aware that waiting lists can be long. Therefore, it is best to apply well ahead of time to secure a place.

Expats are not entitled to the generous benefits afforded to all Kuwaiti citizens such as guaranteed housing and free education and healthcare. However, expats moving to Kuwait will benefit from excellent medical facilities, which are on par with private hospitals in Western Europe and North America.

While new arrivals may have to deal with an element of culture shock and accordingly make some lifestyle adjustments when moving to Kuwait, they're likely to settle in quickly enough and start enjoying the luxuries associated with expat life in the Middle East.

Accommodation in Kuwait

Rental prices have shot up in recent years, making housing increasingly expensive in Kuwait. Nevertheless, there is a wide variety of accommodation in Kuwait and expats are not likely to struggle to find suitable housing to fit their budget.

Types of housing in Kuwait

The majority of housing in Kuwait comes in the form of apartments, villas (large houses) and floors (which occupy a single floor of a villa). There has been much construction in Kuwait in recent years and expats will find a number of newer apartment blocks to choose from. Both short-term and long-term rentals are available.

Homes in Kuwait are generally quite spacious, and may even have extra rooms available for domestic staff, a luxury that many expats may find they can afford in Kuwait. Expats will find that they can enjoy an active lifestyle in Kuwait as housing complexes often have facilities such as swimming pools, gyms and tennis courts.

Although there are a number of housing compounds in Kuwait, they are not as common for expats as in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, and expats tend to live in apartment blocks and villas nestled among the local Kuwaiti population.

Finding accommodation in Kuwait

With a wide variety of options, expats will find it quite easy to find accommodation in Kuwait. It is likely that one’s employer will assist in the house-hunting process, and will finance it in part or full. The organisation often also becomes the primary signatory on the lease, thus carrying the burden as the sponsor of the expat.

Those searching for accommodation alone should consider using an estate agent; there are a number to choose from in Kuwait. Online listings are also easily accessible as are classified ads in local English-language newspapers.

Word of mouth is another good way of finding accommodation in Kuwait. The transient nature of relocation to the emirate means that apartments become available on a regular basis and networking is therefore a necessity to finding the perfect home.

Factors to consider when house-hunting in Kuwait

Not all apartments and villas are fully kitted out with light fittings, appliances and air conditioning, and it’s important to establish clearly what is included in the rental. When initially looking at a property, it’s not uncommon to find that when moving in all the appliances and fittings that were there before are no longer present.

Expats should also establish upfront whether utilities are included in the rental. Utilities such as water and electricity are often a separate expense that the tenant has to cover.

Construction is ongoing in Kuwait, and expats should consider the proximity of their home to construction sites as the noise and dust can become a nuisance.

Parking is a persistent problem in Kuwait, and often in short supply. Expats should ensure that there is secure parking in close proximity to their home. This is not always included in the rental and can become a serious inconvenience.

 Signing a lease in Kuwait

Leases are normally signed for a period of one year, and rental is usually negotiable. A security deposit of at least a month’s rental will be required to secure the property. Sometimes rental is required upfront for three to six months’ rent to secure the lease.

The rental agreement will usually be written in Arabic. It’s therefore important to have a trusted translator to have it drawn up in English as well, to ensure that all aspects of the lease are understood. Bear in mind though that should a dispute arise, the Arabic version will be the only one taken into account.

International schools in Kuwait

There are many international schools in Kuwait catering to the expatriate community. Below is a list of some of the most popular schools offering an international curriculum in the emirate.

  • American Baccalaureate School
  • American International School of Kuwait
  • American School of Kuwait
  • British School of Kuwait
  • Canadian Bilingual School
  • English Academy Kuwait
  • Gulf English School
  • International Academy of Kuwait
  • International British School
  • Kuwait National English School
  • Universal American School

Healthcare in Kuwait

Healthcare in Kuwait is of a high standard and both public and private facilities are accessible to Kuwaiti nationals as well as expatriates. All Kuwaitis are entitled to free medical treatment at government facilities, while expats are expected to pay an annual fee to access public healthcare facilities. Additional services, such as X-rays or specialised tests, are usually additional costs over and above this annual payment.

Expat healthcare in Kuwait has been a contentious issue in recent times, with the government looking at implementing policies of segregation for local and foreign patients, as well as local and foreign medical staff, at public health facilities. This has come after complaints in the Kuwaiti parliament of local patients having to wait for treatment at public facilities due to the large number of expatriates seeking medical assistance. There has also been talk in recent years of creating separate hospitals for Kuwaitis and expats.

Public healthcare in Kuwait

Kuwait is divided into five administrative regions, with each region having a general public hospital, which provides full out-patient services and 24-hour emergency services. In addition, there is a wide range of specialist public hospitals in Kuwait.

Expats have access to public facilities, but should expect long queues and waiting times. In an attempt to ease congestion at public facilities, the Kuwaiti government has started trials to bar expats from accessing public healthcare during certain times of the day. In some out-patient facilities, Kuwaiti nationals will be given priority access to medical care at public hospitals in the morning, while expatriates can only access these facilities in the afternoon, except in the case of an emergency. It remains to be seen whether this policy will be extended to all public health facilities in the emirate.

Expatriates wanting to access public healthcare in Kuwait need to have a medical card, which they will be given on presentation of their Civil ID card when registering at their nearest hospital or clinic.

Private healthcare in Kuwait

Private hospitals in Kuwait offer better services and a shorter waiting time. Expats are not subject to restrictions at these facilities. Although private healthcare fees are regulated by the government, they can still be expensive; patients are charged registration fees, on top of general medical fees.

The restrictions being discussed for public hospitals are unlikely to affect foreigners who have comprehensive health coverage and attend private hospitals.

Health insurance in Kuwait

Health insurance is mandatory for expatriates in Kuwait. While access to the state system is granted through the state insurance scheme, which expats are required to pay into every year, this scheme does not cover treatment at private facilities. Expats living in Kuwait are therefore advised to have comprehensive health insurance for the duration of their stay in the country.

Medicines and pharmacies in Kuwait

Pharmacies are widely available in Kuwait. Expats will find at least one 24/7 pharmacy available in each major administrative region. Private hospitals and clinics usually also have a pharmacy. The prices of medicines are strictly regulated by the Ministry of Health, so expats should find the prices of basic medications the same at every pharmacy.

Some basic non-prescription medications, such as cough syrup, are available in supermarkets. However, many medicines that are freely available in the US or Western Europe may require a prescription in Kuwait. Certain narcotics such as tranquilisers and sleeping pills are banned in the emirate. Expats who require these medications will need to bring them with from home, and must have a script and letter from their doctor.

Health hazards in Kuwait

The extreme heat and humidity, accompanied by dust from the desert and continuous construction, are health hazards in Kuwait. Expats with respiratory conditions may struggle in this environment, and heat stroke and exhaustion are common among foreign workers.

Emergency services in Kuwait

Ambulances are usually only used in Kuwait in extreme emergencies. Many expats, if they are physically able to, will use their own vehicle or a taxi to get to a hospital.

In the case of an emergency, expats can dial 112. Most emergency dispatch operators can speak English.

Transport and Driving in Kuwait

Kuwait is a small Gulf country so expats will find getting around is relatively quick and easy. Public transport in Kuwait is not well developed and consists of buses and taxis. The majority of residents buy or rent a car for getting around, or make use of taxis for short trips within Kuwait City.

Driving in Kuwait

Kuwait has a well-developed road network, petrol is cheap, and as most road signs are in Arabic and English, expats will find that driving in Kuwait is relatively easy. However, traffic congestion can be extreme during peak times and Kuwaiti roads have a very poor safety record. Expats driving in Kuwait should therefore be cautious; defensive driving is recommended at all times.

The majority of Western expats have their own vehicle for getting around Kuwait. Both used and new cars are widely available, and expats will more than likely find themselves driving a car far more luxurious than what they had back home.

Cars drive on the right hand side of the road in Kuwait. Law enforcement on Kuwait’s roads is strict, with the speed limit on major highways being 75 miles/hour (120km/h) and on urban roads, usually 28 miles/hour (45km/h). However, this does not stop many local drivers from racing at high speeds, leading to many accidents.

It’s possible to drive in Kuwait with an international driver’s licence, but once foreigners receive their Civil ID card, they are required to get a Kuwaiti driver’s licence. The process for getting a Kuwaiti driver’s licence may vary according to an expat’s nationality and their home country driver’s licence. While most Westerners will be able to easily obtain a local licence, some expats may be required to take a learner’s test and then a driving test in order to get a Kuwaiti licence.

Expats should note that when their residence permit lapses or is cancelled, their Kuwaiti driver’s licence also becomes invalid. The licence only becomes valid again once the residence permit is renewed.

Kuwaiti authorities have recently been clamping down on foreign drivers in the country; hundreds of expats have been deported for driving without a licence or committing other traffic offenses in recent months, and new restrictions for foreigners wishing to drive are likely to be implemented in the near future.

Public transport in Kuwait

Kuwait’s public transport system is not well developed, consisting of buses and taxis. The majority of residents therefore use their own vehicles for getting around. There is no railway system in Kuwait, although the government has plans to develop a railway and metro system in the near future.

Buses

There is an established bus network in Kuwait, with services operated by CityBus and the Kuwait Public Transport Company. Buses operate along set routes (according to a numbered system shared by both companies) around Kuwait City, but schedules can be erratic. Services also run to destinations outside of Kuwait, including Saudi Arabia.

Buses are generally modern, comfortable, and importantly, air-conditioned. To avoid embarrassment, men should be aware that seats at the front of the bus are usually reserved for women.

Taxis

Taxis are widely available in Kuwait. They are usually reliable and quite affordable, and therefore popular among the expat community. Taxis in Kuwait are not metered, so it’s best to agree on a fare before getting into the vehicle.

Taxis can easily be hailed from the street, although expats should be aware that a number of unofficial taxis are in operation in Kuwait; these can easily overcharge unsuspecting passengers.

Ferries

A ferry network connects Kuwait with other countries in the region, with regular services running to Bahrain and Iran. There are also boat trips to the surrounding islands, for those looking for an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Air travel in Kuwait

As a tiny Gulf country, domestic air travel is not really possible and there is only one major airport in Kuwait City, the Kuwait International Airport. The national carrier, Kuwait Airways, offers daily flights to regional and international destinations, while a number of other international operators, including British Airways, Emirates and Lufthansa, also offer services to and from Kuwait.

Doing Business in Kuwait

Expats doing business in Kuwait will find themselves in a tiny Gulf state that is one of the richest countries in the world, thanks to its oil reserves. Kuwait has one of the most open economies in the Gulf, and a well-educated work force made up predominantly of foreign workers.

The centre of business is the capital, Kuwait City, with large industrial areas located in Shuwaikh, Sabhan and Shuaiba. Home to around 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves, business in Kuwait is largely centred on the oil industry. Other major sectors include construction, finance and water desalination. The country is also a major exporter of plant fertilizers but, aside from fishing, there is virtually no agricultural industry.

According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2016, Kuwait was ranked 101 out of 185 countries. The country did well in the areas of paying taxes (11th) and enforcing contracts (58th), but fell short in starting a business (148th) and trading across borders (149th).

Fast facts

Business hours

The work week in Kuwait is Sunday to Thursday, with the weekend falling on Friday and Saturday. Business hours are usually between 8.30am and 6pm, with an extended lunch break. Business hours are reduced during the holy month of Ramadan, so expats should not expect to conduct important business during this time. Fridays are considered a day of rest and business meetings should not be arranged on Fridays.

Business language

Arabic is the official language, although English is widely spoken in business.

Dress

Business dress is conservative. Men should wear suits. While women are not expected to wear an abaya or hijab, they should cover up as much as possible and avoid wearing close-fitting or revealing clothing.

Gifts

Gifts are not expected in Kuwaiti business circles, but will be appreciated. In line with Islamic practices, alcohol and pork products should be avoided. Gifts are usually opened in private.

Gender equality

Although women are given greater freedoms than in some of Kuwait’s neighbours, senior positions in business are still dominated by men.

Business culture in Kuwait

Business culture in Kuwait is essentially Arabic. The majority of the local population is Muslim and Islam dominates most facets of life in Kuwait, including business practices. Expats will therefore need to familiarise themselves with and show respect for local customs and business etiquette at all times.

Language

Arabic is the official language, although English is widely spoken in Kuwaiti business circles. Western expats should therefore not struggle to communicate with local associates. Nevertheless, being able to speak some Arabic may be useful and will be appreciated. Official documents and business contracts are written in Arabic. Although it’s possible to have the contract translated into English, should a dispute arise, the Arabic version will be the only one taken into consideration.

Greetings

A handshake is common for greetings between men. Muslim women will generally not make physical contact with men they do not know; if greeting a woman, rather wait for her to extend her hand first. Titles are important; only use someone’s first name when invited to do so.

Family

Family is the centre of Kuwaiti society and nepotism is common, so it’s not unusual to see many members of the same extended family all working within the same organisation. In line with this, Kuwaitis like to do business with those they know and trust, and networking and taking time to build meaningful relationships with Kuwaiti associates will therefore go a long way to conducting successful business in Kuwait. Small talk and getting to know one's associates is expected at the start of a meeting and it would be considered rude to want to get straight to business.

Titles

Titles and seniority are respected in Kuwaiti business culture. Business structures are hierarchical and decisions are made at the top. Those conducting business in Kuwait may need to practice patience as they may need to get through many meetings with junior associates before finally meeting with the main decision-makers. At other times, the senior decision-makers may be present at a meeting, but will have the junior associates conduct the conversation without contributing their thoughts upfront. Business decisions can therefore take time, and should not be rushed.

Timing

It’s not unusual to have business meetings frequently interrupted by visitors or phone calls. In addition, Muslims pray five times a day, and expats doing business in Kuwait should be aware of prayer times. Meetings and business engagements will need to be arranged around these times. Such disruptions can be a source of frustration for foreign businessmen in Kuwait, but impatience is frowned upon and tolerance and courtesy should be practiced at all times, even if one is frustrated by the process.

Face

Kuwaitis are known to be hospitable and generous hosts but they are also fine negotiators and astute businessmen. Saving face is important to Kuwaitis, who will not necessarily offer an outright no when they cannot do something or are not interested in a business proposition, and it’s therefore difficult to discern whether a business deal is likely to be successful or not. It’s important for expats to always remain calm and not to show anger or frustration when dealing with Kuwaiti business associates.

Dos and don’ts of business in Kuwait

  • Do respect Islamic principles and practices. An effort to learn Arabic would also be well received.
  • Do show respect for one's Kuwaiti business associates at all times; never show anger or impatience in business meetings.
  • Don't rush business negotiations; always have patience and expect that decision-making is a slow process in Kuwait.
  • Do take the time to get to know one's Kuwaiti associates and build meaningful business relationships with them as Kuwaitis are more inclined to do business with those they know and trust.
  • Do dress conservatively. Women should take particular care with their clothing, which should not be too tight or revealing.
  • Do have business cards printed in both English and Arabic. Business cards should be given with the right hand.
  • Don't arrange business meetings on a Friday as this is a day of rest and an important day of prayer for Muslims.

Working in Kuwait

If you have the opportunity to accept an expat assignment in Kuwait, prepare for a career boost! Every year the country’s huge oil reserves and great opportunities for expats attract thousands of foreigners keen on working in Kuwait. Our guide has info on permits, business etiquette, and more.

  • With one of the lowest unemployment rates worldwide and no personal income taxes, Kuwait provides an attractive job market for expats.
  • Kuwait is, however, encouraging the local workforce to take more jobs higher up the career ladder, which makes it harder for expats.
  • Expats don’t need to have Arabic language skills to work, due to the many multinational firms and the English-speaking community.

With a gross domestic product of over 123 billion USD in 2015, the importance of Kuwait’s economy far surpasses its small geographical size. Kuwait has a wealthy and fairly open economy which mainly relies on the country’s immense oil resources. At 3%, Kuwait has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world.

Expatriates with skills that are on demand in the country’s booming economy are received with open arms. Still, this applies mostly to those who will be employed in Kuwait for just a temporary period. Foreigners generally are not granted citizenship, irrespective of how long they have been a resident of Kuwait with restrictions imposed on land or property ownership.

Main Industries in Kuwait

Kuwait’s economy is dominated by the massive oil industry. Kuwait has crude oil reserves of around 104 million barrels, more than 8% of reserves worldwide. Petroleum accounts for close to half of Kuwait’s GDP and over 90% of government income. Many expatriates working in Kuwait are employed in this sector. But due to the recent drop in oil prices, Kuwait’s economy has begun to shrink. The annual GDP and exports fell from 2014 to 2015, while a budget deficit emerged for the first time in 16 years.

The manufacturing sector is also dominated by oil products and is mainly export-oriented. Recently, the fastest growing fields in the service sector have been real estate, business services, and finance. These also offer various opportunities for expats.

As Kuwait has practically no arable land, it does not have any meaningful agriculture. The state imports more than 95% of its food. The only exception is the fishing industry, as seafood is plentiful in Kuwait’s coastal waters.

Getting Your Work Permit

All expats, with the exception of nationals of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, have to obtain a work permit before they can take up employment in Kuwait. Work permits are only issued if the expat has a valid employment offer.

The employer then functions as a sponsor for the expatriate employee while he or she is working in Kuwait. This means the company handles all the administrative work for you, from filing the visa application to opening your bank account. Also, your sponsor is responsible for you as long as you are resident in Kuwait and liable if you violate any regulations.

Once the work permit has been granted and residency obtained, male expats can, in turn, act as a sponsor for their spouse and children to come live with them in Kuwait. If dependents also want jobs in Kuwait, they will have to obtain separate work permits.

A Relaxed Tax Regime

Most of Kuwait’s extensive government spending is financed by oil revenues. Taxes, the main source of government income elsewhere, appear to be dispensable. As such, there are no personal taxes, not even for expats working in Kuwait.

The only ones liable to pay income tax are foreign companies working in Kuwait. The corporate income tax rate for foreign businesses currently is a flat 15%. Kuwaiti-owned businesses are exempted from any such taxes.

As those working in Kuwait will soon find out, there is no value-added tax, either. There have been discussions, however, about introducing it.

Social Security for Expats

Kuwait has a comprehensive social security system that covers all Kuwaiti nationals working in Kuwait. It covers pensions, disability, and sickness benefits, as well as free public healthcare. The system is financed mostly by the state.

The public social security system, however, is not accessible for expats working in Kuwait. Some employers have corporate pension schemes for expatriate employees. If these are not available, it is advisable to continue paying into a state pension scheme and/or private pension plan in your home country while you are working in Kuwait.

Expatriates do have access to public medical care while residing in Kuwait. In recent years, however, there has been increasing pressure on foreign companies to provide private health insurance for expatriates working in Kuwait in order to reduce the burden on the public system, with plans to restrict expats’ service hours in public hospitals as well as building expat-only hospitals with a higher charge.