Cycling in Kuwait: It’s Not the Heat That’s the Challenge

Kuwait was the last place Abe Alkhamees expected to find a cycling community. After an extended vacation to all the best cycling destinations in Europe, he traveled to his home country to explore the cycling there. His Meet The Rider project aims at putting a face to Arab cyclists, sharing their stories, and bridging the gap between these riders and the rest of the cycling world.

Knowing the name of something doesn’t mean you understand it.” – Abhishek Chakraborty

Being from Kuwait doesn’t mean I understand it, either. Coming back to Kuwait as a cyclist who lived in a cycling-centric society was challenging.

In the Fall of 2021, I ventured on a trip to Europe and the Middle East, temporarily saying goodbye to my family and friends in Portland, OR. I packed up my trusty Breadwinner Lolo, gear, and coffee to go and explore parts of the world I had never cycled in before. The cycling I found in Valencia, Spain, and Antalya, Turkey, was on a whole other level.

I’ve ridden in areas out of fairytales, like the western Taurus Mountains, or when I traveled back in time to the ancient city of Termesos in Southern Turkey. As for Spain, I really don’t think I need to explain why cycling there is out of this world. Throughout eight months, I got to know Valencia like the back of my hand. I rode where the pros ride, like climbing the infamous Puerto De La Llacuna. I also road up two of the steepest peaks, Pico De Las Nieves, and Mt. Teide, in the Canary Islands. To say that trip was epic would be an understatement.

By October 2022, I was packed up and not really ready to leave the beautiful roads, food, and cycling culture of the Mediterranean. I left one of the best cycling countries in the world, Spain, and headed back home, where I was born and raised, Kuwait. I wasn’t sure what to expect or to find about cycling there, let alone finding a fully-fledged cycling culture as I hadn’t been back there in quite a long time.

I found myself back in a car-centric society, a flat desert that’s known as one of the hottest countries in the world, averaging temperatures above 135F every summer.

Clearly, I have some unspoken biases about Kuwait from a cyclist’s perspective. However, I wanted to remove as much bias as possible from documenting the cycling scene here. So the first and most crucial step was to lay down my points of view and experience about what I observed in Kuwait, which I did in depth here.

I wasn’t sure where to begin or ride. However, a friend managed to get me out of the house to ride my bike on real roads in Kuwait, not just the trainer. I had promised Moe a ride when I returned from Spain, where I was riding without looking over my shoulders, untroubled and safe. That ride was short but long enough to get the gears turning.
We met at Al-Arjan, a spot by the beach that local cyclists frequent. The area has moderate traffic in the mornings and afternoons. It offers direct access to the Doha Bridge.

I learned that cyclists tend to ride on the shorter Doha Bridge (as I did the first time) since riding on the longer Jaber Bridge is risky due to dangerous traffic conditions. In addition, police will likely stop and ask whether you have a permit or not. This measure was enacted after a hit-and-run that left a 17-year-old cyclist dead on the side of the road on Jaber Bridge. Alaa wasn’t alone, She was with a group, and they had a safety car behind them. The concept of a safety car was new to me, but I quickly realized that it might be necessary out here. A group or team would hire a driver to follow them on their ride to safeguard them from distracted and aggressive drivers. Still, no solution offers complete safety, as that group found out the hard way.

The government pushed forward with what they thought was a “rational” decision and banned cyclists from using the bridge. However, after some resistance from the national cycling team and officials, the team acquired a permit to ride on the bridge.

So now, only a selected few have the privilege to ride on the bridge without risking any complications with the law. The rest, or the majority, can just risk traffic fines and possibly harassment from drivers and, even worse, dealing with distracted drivers. I have experienced that personally. I gathered from others that this is a typical way of dealing with issues here in Kuwait. First, take the easy way out, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong. Second, ensure the restriction of inadequate solutions to a few or only those with connections. Third, refrain from making any actual reforms. Or, heaven forbid, update traffic laws to solve an issue that left many dead on the road; pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists.

But as the famous saying goes: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Riding here is mentally draining. I find myself dragging my feet to ride for two hours at least. It’s mostly mental and rarely physical. I have the fitness and experience, and I thought I had the mental capacity. I was proved wrong after a few rides. Add boring scenery on top of dangerous road conditions to the equation, and you have a good recipe for a total mental drain. Lead by what I experienced and observed riding here, I kept asking, “how do these riders keep on doing it?”

As a recent addition to the community, I felt that we were misunderstood and underrepresented, so I sought to change that one way or another. A lightbulb lit above my head, “Meet The Rider, that would be a cool project!” I figured why dwell on the situation instead of talking to local cyclists about it and hearing their stories. I read interviews and gained insight from others who had done something similar in the US and elsewhere. I wanted to ensure I was going about things in a constructive and informative manner both for the reader and the rider.

I wanted to challenge riders in Kuwait to go down the rabbit hole and speak up. Living in a society like Kuwait can be challenging to go against the grain and speak truth to power. But desperate times call for mediocre measures, which is to simply start by talking about the issue! I wasn’t and will not be the only one who has tried to amplify the concerns and needs of cyclists and pedestrians for more safety on the road in Kuwait. I simply want to keep the momentum going.

Some have done so locally, such as in TV interviews. However, this was the first time anyone really focused on the rider, and taking this to an international level was essential.

Salman Alsaffar was the first to vocalize his interest in the project. “I’d be happy to help with anything that benefits the [cycling] community.” This is the mantra of many cyclists in Kuwait. His eagerness to answer questions, network, and encourage others to do so was kindling the flames of what would turn into a full cycling advocacy movement.

“Our first race as a national team was unforgettable; it took place in the United Arab Emirates, Tour de Al-Sharjah. It was as surreal as it was eye-opening. During the training camps, daily training, and all that we had to do to be better at cycling, we never expected to see the level of riders, speed, and sportsmanship we saw during our first race,” said Salman.

Stories like Salman’s resonated well with many cyclists around the globe, especially about how eye-opening it was about a place few people know about. Driven by that, I reached out to Salman to nominate a rider I should interview next. He suggested I get in touch with Nora Albarrak. Equally as excited, Nora was fully supportive of the MTR project. A new pathway opened up with every conversation. “Well, to be honest, I can’t name a person that led or inspired me to pick up cycling, because it was the whole [triathlete/cycling] community that inspired me to do so. Without exceptions!” Nora.

The community is here and ready to break through the ceiling that’s been capping them for years. I learned a lot from them while in the saddle, sharing stories with some of these talented riders. I heard about the highs and lows of their journeys as individuals and as a community. With every “breakthrough” came empty promises from the government and officials. But, with every empty promise, the cycling community grew more determined to push the envelope.

However, the reality of “pushing the envelope” is different everywhere I look. For example, in Kuwait, riders are often seen as incompetent, and their sport as a pastime fit for children alone. Or as adults dressed in Lycra riding on the road, inconveniencing poor drivers.

Ahmad Alsharhan spoke directly about these issues, his struggle with swimming against a raging river of bad policy, careless officials, and the general sentiment that cyclists should not ride on the roads.

“As for creating a safe space, we tried everything, with little to no success. We pressured officials through conventional [methods] and social media to raise awareness so that the public majority are aware of our needs, which is to feel safe. Sadly, we saw no movement or support from the government,” lamented Ahmad.

I kept the interviews light, which gave me the chance to go back and dig even deeper if needed. One of the questions I always ask is, “What do you need as a cyclist in Kuwait?” The responses are always about more safety on the road. Although these riders keep riding through some of the region’s worst and most hectic traffic conditions, they will never acclimate to such an environment. Faisal, one of the riders I interviewed, shared a lot about this but concisely summarized the point in a few sentences.

“We’re honestly not asking for much; what we need is ensuring the safety of cyclists. Ensuring that they will return to their homes and families safe and sound.” I know Kuwait isn’t the only place struggling with car-centric fallacies, but take it from me, I don’t feel safe riding here. I’m constantly looking over my shoulders for distracted or aggressive drivers that have nothing else to do but cause trouble to themselves and others.

These conversations are hard to have with those who have taken safety on the road for granted and those who are yearning for it. These conversations bring out a lot of emotions, be it guilt, outrage, helplessness, and bitterness. The matter of the fact is that we need to have these conversations. This trip back to Kuwait, where I was born and raised, felt like a rite of passage. I had to come back to connect with my roots and my people. I left home 10 years ago looking for a better life abroad and found more than that. I found a community so wholesome that it changed my life for the better, forever. That community in Portland instilled in me the eagerness to help however possible, in whatever capacity. That’s precisely what I sought to do in Kuwait. Of course, I’m no better, wiser, or more skilled than any of these talented riders. However, I might be good at having open and honest conversations, which is an excellent step for me to start with.

Meet The Rider project started with the simple idea of putting a face to Arab cyclists, sharing their stories, and bridging the gap between these riders and the rest of the cycling world. It is also an attempt to highlight issues the international cycling community can significantly help with. I learned from this project that great talents flourish in the harshest environments. I can only imagine all the goodness that will come if these riders are supported and have their basic needs met, with safety being glaringly obvious at the top of that list.

I saw the extent of damage car-centric ideologies impose on society. Forcing such ideologies is harmful to the environment, discriminatory, and expensive. Not to mention the negative effects it has on public health, with a huge emphasis on the fragility of mental health in such environments. With the rising tide of tokenism and surface level diversity initiatives, especially in the cycling industry, I learned that riders in this region are not seen. So to ensure that I don’t fall into the trap of focusing on diversity for the sole purpose of virtue-signaling on social media, I opted to focus on inclusion.

For months on end, I’ve tried and will keep trying to connect with influential cycling companies, to ask them to spare a few minutes and take a look at what is happening in Kuwait. Although, thus far many cycling companies have been reluctant to take a chance to simply lend an ear. Was it perhaps that they don’t understand this region? Based on my actual experiences reaching out to dozens of cycling brands, lots have not been eager to give me a chance to share what I learned about this region from a cyclist’s perspective.

By the same token, only two brands were interested in extending their arm and collaborating on bringing the positive support that these riders desperately need. Again, this is just a small step of a long journey I set myself on, thanks to the riders I interviewed, the reader, and the talented people I met along the way. Think of this as a prelude to what’s to come in the future.