I’ve just experienced one of the most unusual weekends of my life, thanks to a trip to Kuwait. The reason I was there was to report on the Kuwait Concours d’Elegance for Octane magazine, an event that exposed me to some of the most amazing cars you’re likely to see in one place… and yet, all I could think of doing was getting out and exploring.
Obviously, when it comes to the lottery of life, Kuwaitis have scored very well indeed. The country is responsible for 7% of the world’s oil production and, with a population of just 3.5 million, there’s quite a bit of money to go around. You can see plenty of evidence around Kuwait City – something I was keen to find out on a quick drive. The first thing you notice – and it’s a characteristic shared with the Egyptians – is that, on the road, Kuwaitis drive with real purpose.
They don’t want to stop unless completely necessary and lane discipline is non-existent. On the wide boulevards, it’s hard to judge where you should be, as the cars come speeding by you left and right. Anyway, after a little acclimatisation, I soon adapted and rolled along at my own happy pace – and, actually, that’s what everyone seems to do there. Gaps tighten, cars come from every side, but it all seems dreamily smooth and ordered – with plenty of mutual respect given. Driving there isn’t about screwing over the other guy like it is here – it’s just about getting where you need to be.
I noticed it all the more after I came back to the UK too. Jumping in the car to head to work, it soon became clear that British drivers seem tightly wound. Incredibly so.
The mix of cars in Kuwait is absolutely fascinating, too. I’d say it looked like a third USA, a third European and a third Japanese. The order of the day seems to be large SUVs, luxury saloons and plenty of supercars. There are some small cars – but not many at all. That’s simply because petrol is so damned cheap out there.
A fill up of the Chevrolet Caprice I was rolling along in came up to £6.60. Yes, really, £6.60. Given that the Kuwaiti’s GDP per capita is higher than ours and their high average wages (albeit less evenly distributed than ours), that is an incredible situation. Indeed, as I pumped in the fuel and handed over my card, I couldn’t actually comprehend what life must be like with fuel at 14p per litre – by way of comparison, it costs 50p per litre in the USA and 130p per litre in the UK.
Over the past couple of years, the number of people I know who now take account of fuel prices in their life planning has increased dramatically. Long trips are thought through carefully. Short ones are undertaken on foot. In short, our lives are changing, and it’s because, as average incomes fall relatively and fuel prices rise sharply, we’re re-evaluating our love affair with the car. I know I have.
Going there, seeing that, and experiencing petrol that’s cheaper than water first hand has really changed my perspective and, maybe, made me resent our current situation just a little bit more. I started to daydream about life here with such cheap fuel – would it be better or worse? I couldn’t in all conscience say that it could be worse. How could it be? I love my car and I love driving. I don’t need an excuse to get in my car and enjoy it.
When I started driving back in 1987, I remember fuel cost 37.9p per litre and it was never really a factor in my life. I’d get in my car, I’d drive to John O’Groats, I’d come home. I’d fill-up and not think about it. In short, I had personal freedom and I exploited that. I’d look at the map, fancy the look of somewhere, and I’d go – and it was lovely.
Today, and better off than when I was as a student with a Rover 3500 habit to fund, I wince every time I fill up. I’m conscious of the cost. I feel the pain. A colleague once said to me that filling up these days is probably the least pleasant experience you’re likely to experience on a daily basis as part of your life. You drive on to some windswept forecourt, mess around with the pump, get your hands and shoes dirty and pay £80 for the privilege. He’s not wrong.
In reality, it’s probably not in the interests of the long-term future of the planet to have such cheap fuel but, ye gads, I loved it. I mean, I really loved it. I’m therefore re-evaluating my future and liking the idea of fiddling while Rome burns, I can tell you…