Petrol prices are going up by up to 80 percent next month, and even though they still are among the cheapest in the world, some habits may get upended. Of course, this does not mean the end of gas-guzzling SUVs or aimless cruising on the streets, but some changes may be afoot. It is no coincidence that a major transport company has launched a carpooling service in Kuwait, a first in the state. Uber it is not, but a positive development nevertheless.
Owning a car has never been a luxury in Kuwait. One can even consider it a necessity, as public transport coverage is patchy and the weather extremely harsh. Couple this with the cheap prices of fuel and used cars and you’ve got a situation where car ownership is only constrained by the difficulty in obtaining a driving license. In fact, one of my friends bought a used car recently for KD 75. Yes, only 75 dinars! The car had a litany of problems and needed a lot of repairs, but he got it up and running. Obviously, you get what you pay for, and a few days later, two of the car’s cylinders went bust. The guy still manages to drive it around, sputtering on its remaining four cylinders, but that’s another story.
Another of my friends made a very insightful observation on the reasons why used cars are so inexpensive in Kuwait, making them affordable even for the most marginal of laborers. This is not the case in neighboring Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where used cars can fetch nearly double the price compared to Kuwait. It all depends if the product is in demand by the locals, he said. If it is coveted by Kuwaitis, its price rises, and when it falls out of favor, its price falls. Interesting…
Notably, in a country where the roads are chockfull of cars with single occupants all heading in the same direction, some kind of carpooling has always existed among expats in Kuwait. This is evident when one goes through the ‘Transport Wanted’ and ‘Transport Available’ sections of the classifieds, both printed and online. So-called ‘private taxis’ had also been an option for long, but rigorous crackdowns by the interior ministry and instant deportations have more or less ended this service.
As the clock ticks down to the hike in the price of gasoline, it remains to be seen what changes it brings about to a car culture that is deeply ingrained in the psyche of this nation. I believe there will be a few positive developments, but only when everyone jumps on the public transport/ carpool/ridesharing bandwagon will there be a real difference. Until then, gnash your teeth at the pump, then promptly hit the gas to go to the baqala that’s just round the corner.
By Shakir Reshamwala