Saturday, April 29, 2006

Farewell to Kuwait

Groan - the more than a month's absence has been down to getting out of Kuwait, being back in NZ with no internet connection, and then starting a new job which makes my old one look like the internet surfing opportunity it actually was.

However, it's probably worth detailing the nightmare of actually getting out of Kuwait. Other people manage this all the time with little or no fuss, but of course I had to be different. Once again, Mr Westerner forgets that other people on the planet don't share his firm convictions about the right way of doing things.

Here's the situation: my contract to work as a civilian contractor for the US Army was due to run until August, but I got a headhunting message back before Christmas with an attractive job offer back in NZ. "Attractive" in this case means I get to work a lot harder than I did in Kuwait for not much more than half the pay, but it's a management job with the opportunity to stick my fingers in all kinds of juicy pies, and I'd already decided that I was too homesick to do another year in Kuwait, so attractive it was.

But what about the rest of the family? My wife's contract runs til the end of June, and we're already losing thousands by breaking mine half way through. So she's staying in Kuwait til July. And I've got way too much on my plate already with this new job, so the kids are staying with her.

Which gave us a problem. The kids were sponsored by me - in theory, if I left Kuwait, they had to leave too. Well, simple enough, I thought - get their sponsorship transferred to my wife, and they can stay. Ha! "So einfach ist das nicht", as the Jerries say. I went to see my employers regarding the transfer of sponsorship with two weeks to go before I flew out, assuming that this was a lengthy period of time.

They were horrified:
"To do this you would have to begin much sooner! How can we take care of something like this and still get your own residency cancelled in just two weeks?"

"Er, we go down to Immigration tomorrow and transfer the sponsorship. That takes care of one day. Then you have one week and 5 days to cancel my residency."

"No, no, no! This will take a lot of work - and we have to have it complete before we cancel your residency, and for that we have to take your passport and send it to the Sponsor. The Sponsor then handles the cancellation and gets the passport back to us. This can take 10 days."

At this point, I made a statement that was to become something of a mantra over the next two weeks:

"Well, whatever happens, I'm flying out on Friday the 31st of March."

I also made a silent decision that I wasn't about to hand over my passport to anybody who might take 10 days to give it back.

It soon became obvious why this was going to be a problem. By local standards, it was a completely bizarre request. Now, I know that in Kuwaiti society (and Muslim society in general for that matter) the man is the head of the family. But, there's intellectually knowing something, and then there's living the fact that the man being the head of the family is something from my Grandad's time, not mine. I couldn't get my head around it, but to the Kuwaiti officials, the concept that a man would hand over sponsorship of his children to some woman that just happened to be their mother was damn near incomprehensible. Even worse, it provoked suspicion (such a bizarre request had to be concealing some kind of scam) and the desire to wash one's hands of such an obviously time-consuming nightmare.

After the usual business of being shuttled from one place to another as various bureaucrats attempted to avoid the grasp of this tar-baby, we eventually landed up at the local Justice Dept, to which we brought two witnesses and a translator, so that I could legally affirm that indeed I was seriously requesting that my children be handed over to my wife's sponsorship, and that this was only because I was imminently leaving Kuwait and they weren't. That took two trips, but once it was out of the way I thought we were in the clear. We weren't.

All this had taken so long that it was now too late to cancel my own Kuwait residence visa. Well, I'd be in trouble for that, but at least now the kids could stay in Kuwait on my wife's visa, right? Because I had this official affidavit from the Dept of Justice, countersigned by a judge, affirming that I was about to leave the country? Well, no actually. Immigration refused to transfer the sponsorship until I could prove I'd cancelled my residency, still apparently convinced that only some elaborate scam could possibly account for such unnatural behaviour.

At this point, my mantra came into full effect. It was now Wednesday, and I was flying out on Friday. The Immigration Dept advised me to postpone my travel plans. My employer advised me to postpone my travel plans. My wife's employer advised me to postpone my travel plans. My consistent answer was

"Whatever happens, I'm flying out on Friday the 31st of March."

So - there we all were. Wednesday's the end of the working week in Kuwait - the weekend is Thursday and Friday. I went round the various parts of the Army base on Wednesday afternoon doing "outprocessing", until I got to the point where I had to get "Residency Cancelled" signed off, and that was the showdown. I had an ace in the hole, though - my very much uncancelled residency was good til August. That meant the kids' own papers are also valid until August. They're coming home in July. In the end I just told everyone fuck, because I know the kids won't get hassled as long as they leave Kuwait before August. I'm probably blacklisted from ever working in Kuwait again, but at least I did get to fly out on 31 March.

I still had to get "Residency Cancelled" signed off though, because they don't let you leave the base until everything's done. So we addressed the question of how much it was going to cost me, and I got yet another lesson in how business is done in Kuwait. Here's how it works: a foreigner isn't allowed to run a business and employ people in Kuwait, you have to be sponsored by a Kuwaiti. So all staff members of my American company based in Kuwait are sponsored by a Kuwaiti cleaning company. As it turns out, my company pays this Kuwaiti company 48 Kuwaiti Dinar per employee per month for sponsoring us all - all ca 6000 of us. 48 KD is about US $165, so if you want to do the math on how much that Kuwaiti cleaning company is bringing in every month for handling our residency papers, go ahead. Of direct relevance to me was only the 5 months between March, when I was leaving, and August, when my residency was due to expire. My company has to pay the Kuwaiti cleaning company 48 KD for my residency every month until August. Which meant in turn, that I owed my company a total of 5 months residency fees, which came to a total "departure tax" of US $825. At this point, when it came to the question of whether I'd rather pay 800 bucks or stay in Kuwait for another month, the 800 bucks seemed pretty cheap. I was madder than hell with everyone involved in this outside my own family.

One day, I sincerely hope the average Gulf State guy will be able to conceive of his wife as a fellow citizen, rather than his personal property. But there's not much sign of it at this point.