Kuwait’s government is incredibly generous with its 1.3 million citizens. It provides not only health care and education through the university level, but also employment in the public sector and a house for every family for a nominal price. And not just any house—a villa built on a 4,300-square-foot plot of land.
Kuwait’s oil wealth has allowed the government to create such a welfare state, and for decades it has functioned pretty well. But in recent years, the number of requests for houses has far outstripped the number of houses being built. At present, more than 100,000 people—particularly young people, as more than half of Kuwaitis are under 25—are waiting for their government-supplied abode. (Though the government offers a 4,300-square-foot apartment as an alternative to a villa, few Kuwaitis are interested in this option.)
To illustrate the immensity of this problem, 100,000 is more than the number of housing units the government has provided since the policy started 60 years ago. The issue even prompted some Kuwaitis to form a group called Nater Beit, or Waiting for a House, which pressures the government to build more homes.
The Kuwaiti government has listened. It is planning to construct five new cities on the outskirts of the capital, Kuwait City, where most Kuwaitis live. The first to be built, South Al-Mutlaa City, will include around 30,000 homes and house about 400,000 people. Parks, mosques, medical centers, schools, and other structures are also planned. Another similar-sized development in the works, South Saad Al-Abdullah, will be built as a more eco-friendly, “smart” city in partnership with the South Korean government.
If completed, these developments should ease the pressing problem of scarce housing. Yet Kuwait’s preference for homes on large plots of land—and the system that produces them—has profound drawbacks.
Kuwait’s government provides housing to any married Kuwaiti male, regardless of income or personal wealth. (Single Kuwaiti men and Kuwaiti women are not eligible for the program; they generally live with extended family until marriage.) In doing so, the government aims to make its distribution of homes among Kuwaiti families equal, but in fact the policy has fostered inequality.
Some Kuwaitis not in need of government homes have still obtained them and use them for speculative purposes. This practice, plus the scarcity of housing, has driven up real estate prices to the point where very few can afford to buy a home.
Sharifa Alshalfan, an architect and urban researcher based in Kuwait City, says that the provision of villas has created incredible sprawl and a dependency on cars. “This creates more and more traffic,” she says. “It’s not environmentally sustainable.”
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It’s also questionable whether the housing system is economically sustainable. With Persian Gulf oil-producing states such as Kuwait now facing lower oil prices, it’s unclear if the government can continue to provide its citizens with freebies. “There’s a lot of discussion in the Kuwaiti parliament about decreasing subsidies for power, water, and petrol,” says Alshalfan. “They’re even talking about reducing salaries.”
Alshalfan advocates for a shift in the housing priorities of both the Kuwaiti government and the citizenry. “You might be getting a villa,” she says, “but it’s far away from from the city—and probably far away from work as well as family and friends. We need a system that offers choices for those willing to compromise bigger spaces for more central living arrangements surrounded by green, walkable areas.”