This is really long, but I wanted to be as complete as possible for those truly interested in the information. I had to do comment replies to this original post to complete my post because of so many words. It took me a couple of days to write this up.
I have been living in Kuwait for the past 2 years and 9 months. I took a US government contractor job and am doing computer support on a US base in Kuwait.
What got me here?
I was making right at 6 figures in Florida doing the same job I am doing now in Kuwait. I was not getting the FIRE savings acceleration I wanted and being a government contractor I always wanted a slice of that sweet overseas money. I had a house and a girlfriend, but nothing really holding me back from taking a planned 1 year relocation to Kuwait. The money is over double here compared to what I was making in Florida, plus there are many perks.
I also knew a few guys that had spent time in the Middle East and could answer all of my questions about life, safety and other general questions I had about Kuwait and Middle East life before making the plunge. I hope to cover some of this for you here.
Let me clarify what I mean by the Middle East. I am speaking of safer locations and not direct war zones. I am specifically speaking of Kuwait, Dubai and Qatar. I am not speaking of nor am I recommending accelerating FIRE in a war zone. While lots of people live and work in these places as US gov’t contractors and make legit money, these places carry too much risk to your physical and mental health. You can’t benefit from FIRE if you get dead or emotionally scarred trying to solve for it. We are discussing a solution that carries at least a somewhat normal life with more limited amount of risk. I will explain further later.
So before we get into what it is like, let’s talk money. I am currently debit free minus a mortgage payment back home and am saving at a +-70% rate comfortably and have $200k saved so far. My savings goal is near completion: $300k not including retirement savings. I’m maxing out IRA and 401k and using Mint to help me track account balances as well as using it’s Goals feature to track my savings goal that is made up of a few different accounts.
I got a bit of a slow start saving over here as I paid off a good bit off debt upon first arriving and had initial living expenses in Kuwait to be covered like deposits, TV, bed couch, washing machine, etc.
I plan to leanFIRE via the 300k saved mostly in VTSAX + 100k profit from selling my house that will also go to VTSAX or some other similar fund and live on a few acres of land in Florida that is already paid for. The key for me to leanFIRE is to have zero rent or mortgage payment. I will improve the land and live in a large shed already on the land allowing me to slowly self build a reasonable house without taking on any home debit. Power, water, and septic tank already exist on the property as well as a very basic and small standalone bathroom structure. I’ll build as funds are available via 4 to 5% initial withdraw rate in addition to a part time job at Lowes or some other workplace that offers part time employee healthcare. I also plan to stay physically active and may start a small lawn mowing side hustle using basic lawn care tools which I already own. My days of sitting behind a keyboard for hours on end are hopefully behind me.
I plan to keep 1 year’s worth of expenses in a high yield savings account to avoid withdrawing investment funds during a dip or a short term market downturn. I acknowledge that my total saved is lower than a normal FIRE and my withdrawal rate is higher. Everything is fluid and adjustable. We will see how it goes. I also plan to spend a minimum of 1 month per year in another country staying in an affordable Airbnb type apartment and living like a local.
Ok back to living in the Middle East and why I think it is something worth considering for those that are hankering for a bit of adventure or want to accelerate their FIRE plans.
What are the perks?
#1. Excellent pay. The caveat for me is that I work more hours. I work 12 hour shifts 5 days per week. This sucks at first, but you get used to it.
#2. The tax benefit. Overseas workers spending the majority of the year overseas are exempt from paying income taxes on the first $103,900 of their income. However the tax rate is based on the full earned amount. For example if you are making 140k overseas and don’t pay taxes on the first 103,900, you will pay taxes on the remaining $36,100 at the 140k tax rate. This tax exempt amount changes yearly, but this is a really nice perk. Subtract any tax deductions from that 36k as well by the way. You can also deduct overseas cost of living as well. (I think my overseas cost of living deduction is around $30k but look up Foreign Housing Exclusion for more info. Don’t count on your tax guy to know about this unless he deals with overseas workers a bunch.) With that and tax deductible retirement contributions, you could easily avoid paying any taxes even if making well over 100k per year overseas. I am paid in dollars direct deposit into a US checking account. I am not paid in the Kuwaiti currency called the Kuwaiti Dinar (usually called KD).
#3. Easy access to awesome travel. This wasn’t something I really considered until I got here and talked to coworkers that had been to some amazing places, sometimes even on a quick holiday weekend. This side of the world has lots to offer that is typically an expensive or miserably long flight from America, so rarely travelled by westerners. Places like Dubai, Thailand, Philippines, Australia, Bali, Africa, etc are all really accessible from the Middle East.
#4. Safety. Put simply, it is safe in Kuwait. I can also speak for Dubai and Qatar. As Westerners we think the Middle East is a collection of AK’s and militants, but I can tell you that could not be further from the truth in the countries I am speaking of. The people here are different from us, but also strive to be like us. Additionally, these countries are quite rich and money makes for less desperation, better policing and no desire to mess up a good thing. These countries also welcome tons of migrant workers. Tons! These migrant workers in Kuwait outnumber the Kuwaitis by a factor of three. They practically run the country’s day to day ops. From customer interfacing at shops in a mall to managing the oil fields, to being a doctor or dentist. It is good to be a Kuwaiti. They are not taxed at all and are provided with pay scales from the government based on their family’s bloodline. They all get paid, but some more than others. Same for the other countries mentioned. As for the migrants, well having migrant workers works really great here. They are checked (as was I) for criminal background and diseases and then allowed in to work. They generally work very hard at jobs the Kuwaitis do not want. Earning double or triple what they could earn back home and send the money back home to support their families. They don’t interest themselves in crime. Nobody I know here has ever been the victim of any crime in any way in Kuwait. Zero. None. You can pull up stats somewhere online that will tell you than no American has been killed in Kuwait since 2001. I read that before coming, and this put my mind at ease. I could not say the same thing about my very small home town in the US. Not even for 1 month let alone nearly 20 years. That’s not to say there is no crime here ever. The typical crime here is someone at home abusing their live-in maid. These ladies are often abused, controlled, sometimes murdered and paid very little. There is a problem here that Kuwait is addressing and abuses are not going unpunished with recent executions of those responsible for murdering a maid.
Let’s quickly address Iran. This is a bit of a concern with the escalation recently between them and us. We aren’t necessarily in the line of fire, but it would be foolish to discount them as a threat to life of any American in a nearby country. Their coast is less than 50 miles from our coast. Kuwait does a really great job of staying out of Middle East problems though and tries to keep the peace among Arab nations. I don’t know what the future holds. I can tell you I was more concerned about my safety a couple of years ago though…. When Trump briefly banned Muslims access into America, I could feel the stares when out in public. I was honestly a bit concerned that there would be some retaliation against me personally. That did not happen though and I have never felt that way again. I do get a few stares just because I am a white guy. The Kuwaitis that I have spoken to are always warm and friendly to me when they find out I am American and always mention their independence from Iraq and our assistance in that endeavour. I take no credit for this, but thank them and explain that I was in school at the time. They have a HUGE party every year and it makes me feel proud that our country among others helped free Kuwait from Sadam and that they still celebrate this freedom every year.
#5. Free housing. I am provided company housing or a stipend go find housing of my own. There are no utilities cost in Kuwait. Water, trash, sewer and electric are free for everyone here.
Ok that sums up the major perks. Let me tell you more about life here.
What is the weather like?
It is HOT! Like cook food on your car’s dashboard hot! One of my coworkers does occasionally cook cookies for us on her dash. Because of the heat, there are laws about working outside limited to morning and evenings. It is not always adhered to, but it exists. Also because of the heat most people don’t go outside unless they have to during the day in summer. This causes nightly sundown rush hour on the roads. In winter, it can get a bit chilly and is generally windy here year round so it feels pretty darn cold. It typically rains a few times per year and can flood due to the sandy ground not being too absorbing of water and clogged storm drains that have filled with sand and debris throughout the year. There are dust storms several times per year and they are miserable. No real bugs to speak of. Some roaches inside, but few flies and I’ve never seen a mosquito here. Lots of street cats. Some street dogs, but these are rare because dogs are just less resourceful than cats and can’t jump into dumpsters to find food scraps. I occasionally see herds of sheep and camels. They are not wild, they are managed by a person herding. Typically the person is sitting in a 4×4 truck used as a herding vehicle. Camels are always cool to see. They are just so funny looking. The locals eat the young camels from what I understand. I have never tried the meat. I think the ones I see often are used for camel racing, as I often see them with ropes or saddles. They race them using tiny robot jockeys with remotely operated cordless drills outfitted with whip attachments.
Cleanliness – Kuwait is not as nice as Qatar and Dubai as far as infrastructure and cleanliness. There are some nice areas here, but the majority are not so nice with lots of trash and mess around and just general clutter. This is not always the fault of the locals though. There are lots of bad habits brought in by workers from outside of the country. Some have disregard for cleanliness and also disregard for any traffic laws or parking sanity. The roads are not maintained well and highways are not to American standards so highway exits come up fast and merge lanes are short. Google Maps works great here and is a damn life saver for getting around as well as routing around traffic jams.
Food – This is a big part of travelling and being in another country in general. The food here is highly Americanized. They love American food especially burgers and most all of the big chain American restaurants are here and very busy. There are also traditional restaurants of course and I have partaken in some amazing Iranian food consisting of grilled chicken, yellow rice, some potato soup and flat bread cooked in an oven where the baker takes a wad of dough and throws it against the hot stone oven wall for cooking. Pretty awesome and tasty. They also love their date fruit over here. It is one of the few food items Kuwait produces. I understand now how sanctions impact a country that can’t or doesn’t produce for themselves. If Kuwait was sanctioned for food imports, we would all starve within a matter of weeks. Literally nothing is produced or made in Kuwait.
As for groceries, we have you covered and the selection is different, but quite good. Some of the nicest (and some of the most disgusting) grocery stores I have ever visited have been in Kuwait. It is pretty much all here. Some product names you know and most you don’t. If you recognize it, it was imported from the US and has a sticker reflecting this and a jacked up price as well. Want Ragu spaghetti sauce? No problem. That will be triple the price of what you’d pay back home. Excellent selection of fruits and veggies and the country of origin is always listed next to the price and can be quite interesting. Who knew they grew Mango fruit in Egypt….? Rice? Ya we got ya covered there. I have never seen so much rice selection. There is a whole wall dedicated to rice varieties.
Typically I like to cook an Instapot full of some chili, soup or some other concoction that can go over rice and eat that for the week at work to save some bucks and get some decent nutrition.
Gotta have a car – Driving can be a challenge. There are lots and lots of traffic jams, most of which follow no rhyme or reason and happen at hours you would not expect. The Kuwaitis normally have pretty nice cars and drive very fast and aggressively. Lots of trucks and SUVs here and interestingly, a ton of old Mercury Gran Marquis here. Like a lot lot of them. I guess they are just built like a tank and ride good on the crummy roads here. Also, there is little regard for fuel mileage, so they fit in that way too. I have seen zero hybrid cars here. (lots in Dubai though) I’ve heard there was a Tesla around, but never seen it personally. No official Tesla sales possible here to my knowledge, so I think that car was shipped in. Also any repair for a Tesla would have to be done in Dubai or fly a Tesla guy in special to do it. Nothing is impossible when you have money.
When I first got here, it was nothing to see a car on the side of the highway that had been flipped, burned and generally looked like it was the worst wreck imaginable. They seem to have gotten lots more speed cameras over the years now though and this has slowed down the locals tremendously. Now it is rare to see a severely wiped out car on the side of the highway. As much as I hate speed cameras, they really do work in a country like this one. My work provides me a car to use free of charge including free gas. Gas prices are .085 KD per litre subsidized by the government. (About $1 per gallon) Every gas station has the same gas price and they are full service. You do not get out in the heat and pump your own gas here.
Communication – Living day to day speaking only English is really easy here. Of course the native language is Arabic however all of the street signs are in Arabic and English and everywhere you interface with a business they all speak English. In some cases even the Kuwaitis must speak English in their own country in order to buy goods and services.
Mosques and religion – There are lots of Mosques here. I heard somewhere that there should be a Mosque every 500 meters by law. I don’t believe that, but they are a part of every day life. They are no issue with the exception of their loud speakers. You don’t want to live next door to a Mosque unless you are Muslim. In some cases, you can live within earshot of two if you aren’t careful. They have several bullhorn type loudspeakers mounted on the building and they call to prayer at all hours of the day and night depending on what the moon is doing and what they may be celebrating. Friday is their day of worship and the speaker will go for an hour straight at noon on Friday -in addition to the other prayer calls. You get used to it, but it is something to be aware of. They do have Christian churches here too and I have some hardcore Christian co-workers that feel they can do their thing without fear here. I don’t know if there are any Buddhist temples or other religions openly practised here but I would assume that there are no issues with any of them.
Ramadan – This is the big one in the Middle East. This is a month long religious devotion check or test of their faith. I don’t know everything about it, but it follows the moon again and basically they do not eat or drink during the day during the month of Ramadan. Once the sun goes down, they eat and drink. Out of respect for their discomfort, non Muslims should not eat or drink outside during the day also. Eat and drink inside your home or apartment all you want. Restaurants and shopping malls have adjusted hours stay closed for the day and stay open later in the night because the people stay up all night to sleep away their fasting. Well there has to be a bit of logic here still and there are exceptions given for those doing outside work that need water, sick people, babies and pregnant moms. They are also supposed to abstain from sex during Ramadan. How does this affect a non-Muslim working here? We do not drink outside, do not eat outside and this includes in your car or even chewing gum. Don’t do it. You can get arrested under some circumstances especially in ultra conservative countries like Saudi. I have heard Saudi actually has special Ramadan police forces ensuring compliance. -But we are not discussing Saudi here.
Dubai within the last couple of years has relaxed their Ramadan policy. They now allow restaurants to be open any hours they want and serve food any time of the day, but serve the customers behind sheets or other media used for closing off the view from passers-by. They had to do this to help avoid shutting down their whole tourism industry during the month of Ramadan. Money trumps all in the end.
Conservativeness – It is quite conservative here although as typical human nature -where there are rules there are ways to break them. The biggest one is there is no Alcohol nor drugs in Kuwait. You can however drink in Qatar as well as Dubai, but only in specific situations. For example: You can’t walk down the street drinking a beer and you can’t just go buy a beer from a gas station without a special permit in Dubai and Qatar.
No drinking and no drugs are Muslim rules. The rule states that one should not do anything that alters the mind. Legal though are tobacco and caffeine. (also mind altering, but alas…) There are tons of cheap cigarettes, shisha bars, and there is a busy coffee shop on every corner. My personal opinion is that Kuwait should be the first Middle Eastern country to legalize Weed use. I think they could benefit from its relaxation and chill them out so they are not as aggressive driving. It can also help in their planning for when the oil runs out by taxing the crap out of it. Dubai and Qatar are wayyy ahead of Kuwait in this planning for oil running out effort. Legalizing weed will probably never happen here, but we said that in America too.
They do dress in robes and some females cover their faces. Not all do this and not even a majority do this really. Just some and it is up to the individual and their personal religious and family beliefs.
No public displays of affection.
Living situation – Most employers will provide housing for you absolutely free. They may also provide you a stipend for getting your own place if you prefer this. In my case, my company housing was a decent 2 bedroom apartment where I had a roommate. I took stipend and got my own apartment out on the economy and am quite satisfied. I pay the stipend amount in rent, so it is still free for me and no roommate. I have a three bedroom apartment all to myself and I have a cat rescued from the local animal rescue. In Kuwait, nobody pays any utilities. Electric, trash, sewer and water are all free. I do pay about 60 bucks a month in internet and I have a $15 a month cell phone bill on a pay as you go plan. Google Fi does also work here as do internet connected phone devices such as Magic Jack or Ooma phones.
What about my family – Bring them with you! I’d recommend going through the initial process of getting yourself out here and size up the situation, but I have several coworkers with their families out here. Just be advised that there really isn’t much to do here. What with the heat and the general lack of tourist type stuff it is pretty light in the stuff to do department. You can always fly 1.5 hours to Dubai to get some tourist stuff done though. Ok so one example I have on the family thing was a surprise for me. One coworker brought his family over here for vacation to size the place up and see if it was something they were willing to move to. They were checking out the local private schools and one seemed nice. It was a British run school and the headmaster told my buddy to have the kids attend class during their vacation in Kuwait. He agreed and the kids actually loved school much to his surprise. To the point where, the wife and kids decided to move to Kuwait, but t he son didn’t bother to go back home to the US with mom and sister. He stayed in Kuwait with dad and stayed in school. Mom and sister went back to America and packed the house and came back a couple of months later. In addition, the son has learning difficulties and always struggled in the California school system and hated school. My buddy says that he is really excelling now and loves school. Now, this is a private school but they were also going to a private school in Cali so it is a wash. Who knew uprooting the family and coming to Kuwait would get them a better education?
Additionally, your wife could easily get a job for a company over here and now you are double dipping.
Health Care – This one is also a surprise. I am on a global health plan and the premiums are really low. I pay well short of 100 bucks a month for eyes, dental and medical. Of course this varies by company. The plan itself is standard US fare. Co pays and other mumbo jumbo if used in America. The kicker is though that there is none of that if used outside of America. Everything is covered at a rate of 100% for medical. Dental and eyes are crappy just like in America. Go, pay cash (from an old HSA account if you have a balance in one) and hope for a reasonable reimbursement. Anyways back to medical. They have free state run medical here as well as private clinics and private hospitals. You want to avoid the state run stuff at all costs and there really is no need to go there. Here is a private hospital experience example: A buddy got a stomach illness and spent 3 nights in a private run hospital recently. He had his own room with a view of the Gulf and excellent care and the cost to him was $0. Another friend had knee surgery with partial knee replacement. Again, private hospital and excellent care. I think there was a charge that insurance didn’t want to cover so he paid $100. Rehab was also free.
Me personally, I have been to the dentist and Dermatologist and both experiences were as good or better than any experience in the US. In both cases, dramatically better was the lack of wait time. There was simply no waiting for service. None.
Love, romance and loneliness – This is as good or bad as you make it.
Internet use is monitored by the government and you may run into some sites blocked. I have only run into this for sites that are adult in nature. For these, you will need a VPN. If you get caught with porn, pack your bags. Having said that I don’t know anyone that has ever been inspected, caught nor kicked out for this.
Married or in a committed relationship? You will be missing that person and will be lonely. There are video chat apps though that help a ton. Keep in mind though that Dubai blocks video chatting. Qatar video chat blocking status is unknown by me. A VPN or other way around it might exist, but just so you know. This aint Kansas. Kuwait does not block video chat.
You might hang out with your coworkers some, but working 12 hour shifts drains you and you might just want to chill on your weekends and not see those clowns. Also, without booze in Kuwait socializing over a can of coke is not so much fun. Maybe doing it with Sheesha is fun but I don’t do that so can’t speak to it. As for Dubai and Qatar, the drinking and hanging out there are much improved with booze. You will be spending more, but might have more sanity to show for it.