December 2013. I had just landed the best internship in the world, in a place I was barely able to point on the map. In fact, Kuwait had been my last choice, I would much rather have gone to a country like Lebanon, one of the centers of Middle Eastern politics. But as it was, I got rejected for these internships, and going to Kuwait seemed like a small sacrifice to make to do that highly desirable internship I had put my mind on a year or so before. I had no idea I would come to love the country as much as I do now.
Getting the internship offer caused an immediate clothing crisis though, and I had nowhere to turn for information than the Internet. ‘What do girls wear in Kuwait??’, I wondered. After all, Kuwait is supposedly one of the most conservative countries in the world. I found only two people who had ever been there, and they both gave contradicting answers. ‘Cover your legs and only wear long sleeves’, my Egyptian friend M. advised. ‘Tshirts are completely fine here, but cover your legs’, my English friend J. said. I packed a bit of everything and decided to see for myself.
Fast forward a month. Arriving in January 2014, I was suprised about how cold Kuwait actually was and regretted not bringing a coat within a matter of days. I had checked the weather forecast online of course, but it never crossed my mind that 20 degrees during the day in Kuwait meant putting the heating on – instead of heading to the beach, as would have been the case back home! And whereas 20 degrees during the day is really quite okayish, being in a desert country means that it can be quite cold indeed at night. Bringing one or two sweaters for the cold winter months, not such a bad idea at all!
Locals cherish the short winter, as most of the year it is simply hot, very hot or very, very hot. It is during those hot to very, very hot months that the clothing crisis is most eminent. Because what do you really wear when it gets to 40 or 50 degrees? For Kuwaiti men, fashion is relatively simple. During those colder months they wear darker coloured dishdashas, the rest of the year their dishdashas are white. Non-Kuwaiti men (and less traditional Kuwaitis too) can wear tshirts and even trousers showing part of their legs, but shorts are not recommended: no one wears those and you will most likely get some looks. ¾ is as much as is acceptable really.
The more traditional Kuwaiti women wear black abayas and cover their bodies and sometimes their faces too. Less traditional Kuwaiti women are dressed just like you and I, although many wear veils and avoid short sleeves. For you however short sleeves are okay. This is about as far as you can go in Kuwait. Covering up is always better, but tshirts will not shock anybody too much. Avoid tshirts that show your shoulders or cleaveage, tanktops are not recommended either. But a normal tshirt, not too tight and with normal sleeves, should be perfectly fine. With regard to the knees: covering up is best, but if you insist on wearing a dress, make it one that covers the knees (more or less) and that is not too tight. Mini skirts will shock locals and expats alike, as I can tell from my own experience. And no, I was not the party wearing the skirt! In my seven months in Kuwait, I have only seen a mini skirt once – during routine grocery shopping. The young lady was not bothered at all, Kuwait is not that sort of country, but I imagine she would have drawn quite a few looks!
In short, even though Kuwait has the reputation of being very conservative, rules are not that different from any other Muslim country – not taking into account tourist areas in Egypt or Tunisia of course, they have rules of their own. As long as you cover your shoulders and knees, you are perfectly fine in Kuwait. Loose fitting clothing is best in these temperatures, and certain materials are definitely more suitable for the Kuwaiti summer than others. But when it comes to the amount of skin both men and women can show, rules are hardly as strict as you might have imagined. In fact, there is a large Western expat population in Kuwait, so it is unlikely that you are the only one showing a bit of arm or leg. Just keep in mind that you are not home. For tight dresses, mini skirts and tank tops, this is not your country. Chances are small that anything really happens, but a bit of respect for local customs is always appreciated.