To reach the Port of Shuwaikh from downtown Kuwait City, you drive east on Arabian Gulf Street, a six-lane thoroughfare that follows the curve of Kuwait Bay. You pass Kuwait Towers, erected by the emir in 1979 as a symbol of the country's incomparably good luck with oil, as well as a series of immaculate, sand-colored buildings—the Ministry of Planning, the Central Bank—all new or rebuilt since the Gulf War. And after 15 minutes, you arrive at the imposing industrial port that is the unlikely setting for one of the world's most unusual shopping malls, Villa Moda. Here, between the warehouses and container ships, the mall's four towering walls of glass shimmer in the desert sun. Careful—the light can be blinding.
No ordinary shopping center, the new Villa Moda is a 23,000-square-foot see-through society playground. Women clad in floor-length black abayas and veils revealing nothing but eyes wander in and out of Prada and YSL Rive Gauche. Others are less modest, covering their heads with silk scarves, or nothing at all. Unlike their Saudi sisters across the border, Kuwaiti women can dress as they please in private and in public. They largely save their Islamically correct clothes for funerals and pilgrimages, so at any given moment most women here look no different from those on Madison Avenue. Miniskirted mothers and daughters stock up on Alexander McQueen denim skirts and Stella McCartney layered chiffon dresses in the glass-enclosed shops, where every bit of merchandise is always visible. They relax on white leather couches beneath the atrium's 65-foot-high ceiling. They make calls on their platinum-and-sapphire Vertu cell phones (cost: $21,240). Welcome to shopping in Kuwait.
The Middle East might seem an odd place to find the apotheosis of Western-style consumerism. If you believe what you see on the news, people in this part of the world are more inclined to burn America's flag than to sell its products, more likely to hide women behind locked doors than to appreciate the sex appeal of a low-cut blouse. Money, however, tends to extinguish the flames of fanaticism—and Kuwait has more money than it knows what to do with.
The country has been riding a wave of prosperity since the 1940's, when oil replaced pearls as the country's principal export. Even now, 11 years after the end of the Gulf War, when Iraqi soldiers torched nearly all of its oil wells, Kuwait still controls 10 percent of the world's oil reserves. Kuwaitis make up only about half of the country's 2 million residents—the rest are either professional expatriates or "guest workers," manual laborers and domestic staffers from countries like the Philippines, Iran, and India—but they control its riches. And although not all Kuwaitis share in the wealth, an astonishing one-quarter of them have enough to shop at the exclusive clothing boutiques of Villa Moda. That's 250,000 people—as if the entire population of Lincoln, Nebraska, were super-rich.
Unlike some of its neighbors, Kuwait has maintained close ties to the United States and the developed world, and largely embraces globalization. America is the country's second-largest trading partner, after Japan. Nearly 70 percent of Kuwait's population is under 24 years old, and many have been, or will be, schooled in the United States. Aside from the Arabic-language street signs, the calls to prayer, and the non-alcoholic Budweiser, this could be Florida. For one thing, every building is heavily air-conditioned, and the drastic temperature shifts between inside and out can cause a mean case of the sniffles. The Persian Gulf, like the Atlantic, is a clear, warm blue. People spend their weekends sunbathing, sailing, and waterskiing. Starbucks sells Frappuccinos by the dozens. Malls are everywhere.
"Alcohol and pork insult Islam. Adultery insults Islam. Ferragamo shoes are harmless," explains Prince Majed Al-Sabah, a nephew of the Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir Al-Sabah, whose family has ruled the country since 1756. The man behind Villa Moda, Majed is 33 years old, tall, thin, and blessed with a wide smile. He is known by fashion insiders as a man with impeccable taste and a bottomless bank account. At catwalks in Paris and Milan, dressed in Dior and YSL suits, he looks every bit the Western buyer. At home, Majed goes Gulf, wearing the traditional, long white dishdasha and a white ghutra on his head. Majed knows his customers. But even more than that, he knows a thing or two about image.