Kuwait, Coffee, and C-130’s

CJR Daily’s correspondent, on his way to Baghdad, gets a military-sanctioned tour of Kuwait City - including plenty of Starbucks franchises.

CJR Daily’s Paul McLeary is reporting from Iraq on how the press is doing its job there. This is his first dispatch in a series.

KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT — In retrospect, after landing at Kuwait City airport, groggy from the daylong flight from New York, I probably wasn’t the best judge of my options.

The initial plan was to get my visa, collect my backpack and find the shuttle to the Hilton Hotel, the spot where journalists catch a bus to the Kuwaiti Air Force base for flights to Iraq. I tried to call Capt. Paul Edwards, the U.S. Army media relations officer who handles travel for embedded journalists, to let him know I made it, but I couldn’t get my satellite phone to work. Frustrated, I suddenly forgot about the shuttle, and instead stumbled over to the cab queue and headed to the Hilton. After losing a full day to travel, I’d had it, and just wanted to make it somewhere to put down roots for a bit.

I had little idea how futile that goal would prove to be in the days ahead.

Reporters can choose from any number of hotels in Kuwait City, though only a handful are recommended by the American military. Given that the Hilton is the place where ur-contractor Kellogg Brown & Root stages its buses to the airport — which I needed to take to make it to Baghdad the next day — I figured it would be easiest to stay there.

The Hilton, after you get past a checkpoint staffed by armed guards, is a curious mix of wealthy Arab businessmen sprinkled with a handful of Western airline crews and denim-bedecked Americans in NASCAR jackets and baseball hats, some with wives in tow, speaking in big, proud Southern accents. (I spotted one guy at the Kuwait airport wearing a “Southern by the Grace of God” t-shirt.) I can only assume that they’re contractors working on some of the big construction and oil projects going on in Kuwait.

After getting to my room, showering and figuring out the satellite phone, I got in touch with Edwards, who said he’d come by the hotel and brief me on the details of my trip to Baghdad. (For security reasons, I can’t divulge the times of any flights or buses, and will occasionally omit exact locations in these dispatches.)

After catching about an hour of shuteye, I met Edwards and Lt. Col. Paul Williams in the lobby. I dropped off some paperwork at the KBR office to get on the manifest for the C-130 flight to Baghdad, and we all piled in to an SUV to drop my passport at the U.S. base and take a military-sanctioned tour of the city, something they told me they’re trying to do with more journalists.

Truth be told, for such a big place, there isn’t a hell of a lot to recommend Kuwait City, which resembles nothing so much as a giant construction project being held together by Kentucky Fried Chicken and Starbucks franchises.

As we drove along the coast, past the skeletal forms of half-built hotels and mansions, it became clear that the Kuwaitis don’t subscribe to the idea of tearing down something old in order to build something new. For all the buildings going up amid the crumbling edifices of old Kuwait, the city is simply spreading out. Vast, acres-long dirt lots abound, bookended by new mansions built with the fruit of the country’s economic boom whose driveways are packed with new model SUV’s and expensive sports cars. There are so many brand new sports cars and luxury SUV’s on the road that half of our drive time conversation consisted of interrupting each other to announce “Hey, there goes another Lamborghini!”

On the agenda for the day was a trip to a giant replica of a traditional Kuwaiti boat, built to act as a museum of sorts for Kuwait’s maritime history. The landlocked ship — a couple stories tall and few hundred feet long — sits maybe a half mile from an enormous compound owned by one of the members of the Royal family (which a Kuwaiti Navy vessel idling in the blue waters of the Persian Gulf just off shore showed was no one to be trifled with).

After ambling around the Disney-fied ship for a bit, Edwards, an opinioned yet extremely friendly Reservist with a full-blown obsession for coffee, took us further in to the city, pointing out some of his favorite Starbucks franchises for me as we drove past.

Williams, a quieter, older Reservist from Utah (who prefers new cars to coffee) worked as a journalist for the Army before moving on to public affairs. He also wins the award for being the only military guy I met who knew what CJR is, adding that he was a little surprised that CJR was sending a reporter to Iraq. (That makes two of us, Lt. Col. Williams.)

The next day, after fighting a losing battle for sleep with jet lag and a cold, Edwards came back and gave me a full briefing on the coalition military presence in Kuwait (which is really mostly American). Afterward, I checked out of the hotel and headed to yet another Starbucks to kill a few hours, before heading back to KBR HQ for the bus to the airport.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.