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Speaking the Language

Kuwait - Speaking the Language

The state of Kuwait is in the Middle East, and its neighbours are Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The official language is Arabic. Classical Arabic, in which the Qur’an was written, is largely unchanged from when it developed between the 7th and 9th centuries AD. But the spoken form of Arabic has developed its own character in each of the 22 countries where almost 200 million people use it. Gulf Arabic is the version of Arabic spoken in Kuwait.

In such a small country as Kuwait, especially as it is the first language of only about half a million residents, there is not a wide variation of dialects. The dialect used in Kuwait is called Hadari. Some differences do exist, though; the dialect spoken in the town and Kuwait City in particular is subtly different to how it is used in remote and rural settlements.

Children learn modern standard Arabic in the public school system and private Arabic schools. It is the root of the Gulf Arabic that they speak in everyday life, but is more formal and distinctly different. Most official documents, books, newspapers and magazines are written in modern standard Arabic, and it is one of the six languages used by the United Nations.

At University, lectures are given in Arabic for subjects with religious or historic focus. Those which are more geared to business or applied sciences will often be taught in English.

For those who wish to learn simple Arabic phrases to get by in Kuwait, the first steps can be taken by looking at Youtube. A few young people have filmed themselves explaining and demonstrating the key terms that will help you do simple things like greet and thank people. The Arabic script, which is read left to right and has a lettering system alien to westerners, can be difficult to learn. A basic level of spoken Arabic is a more achievable target for beginners.

Today language resources are affordable and easily obtained. Books and CDs can be used to learn a language at home, but websites and apps also offer resources. Some of these are free, and some will make a small charge. It is possible to sign up for formal language courses on the internet, although these are more expensive. When accessing resources, make sure you are being taught a form of Arabic which will be useful in Kuwait. Egyptian Arabic, for example, has a number of key differences to the Arabic spoken in Kuwait.

Alternatively, you can join at course at one of the many language schools in Kuwait. They offer everything from short intensive courses to long term evening courses. Some employers may be happy to cover the tuition costs.

With expats forming two thirds of the resident population and about 80% of the working population in Kuwait, the reality is that many languages are spoken in the country.

English is widely spoken at workplaces and across the service industry. This occurred through a combination of highly skilled expats arriving to work in the oil and health industry, and people from ex-colonial countries arriving to find work across the employment spectrum. It is also a compulsory second language in schools, so many Kuwaiti citizens have english skills to some extent.

English is now the second language in Kuwait, though it is not an official language and all government documents must be in Arabic. The ability to use the English language fluently is seen as an essential skill by well educated Kuwaiti families, who choose to pay for their children to attend an International school.

The largest expat communities in Kuwait are Indian and Egyptian, but the country is home to a vast array of people from all over the world. In common with expats elsewhere, communities often live in close proximity and their closest friendships develop within it. Therefore, there are many languages frequently spoken in Kuwait. Farsi, which is the official language of Iran, Urdu, which is the official language of Pakistan, and Hindi are three of the most common after English.

If you are living in Kuwait it is important to know how to address the people you meet. As with western norms, a Kuwaiti’s first name is their personal name. However, their second name will be their father’s personal name, prefixed by “al-”. Next comes their grandfather’s personal name, and finally the family name. Both are also normally prefixed with “al-”.

Whilst women in Kuwait are traditionally given fewer freedoms than expected in the west, when they marry they do not take on their husband’s name.

When you talk to a Kuwaiti it must be with respect. You may not use their personal name alone until they explicitly invite you to. Instead, they should be addressed as “Mr.”, “Professor” or any other appropriate honorific title, with the personal name then following. If they are a member of the royal family, which has over twelve hundred members, or if the person you are addressing is an old man, then the title “Sheikh” should be used.

Business cards are widely used in Kuwait, and well kept cards should be given to everyone you meet. One side of the card can be in English, but the other should be in Arabic. Apart from being a normal part of good manners in Kuwait, it will help your contact identify your correct name given that they may be confused about the western name forms.

In Kuwait, it is possible to watch television and listen to the radio in English. It is also possible to access streaming services via the internet to purchase films and TV programmes. Radio stations are easily found via such apps as the BBC iplayerRadio.

Kuwait Television is the state broadcaster, and has operated the domestic channels since 1961. These include KTV1, which shows news, current affairs, cultural and religious programmes, and KTV2, which offers family shows in English, Kuwaiti TV series with English subtitles, and American movies with Arabic subtitles. The stated mission of KTV2 is to promote Kuwait’s culture, media and news to foreigners. KTV Sport is also available, showing a wide range of international sport.

28 free to air satellite channels are also located in Kuwait, whilst the only provider of cable television is KCV.

A number of papers and magazines are available in English, in addition to UK and US imports and web pages. Most Kuwaiti newspapers are privately owned by individuals and reflect a range of political viewpoints. However, newspapers are not allowed to make criticism of the government or Islam, so some situations cannot be published or commented on.

Out on the street, most road signs include both Arabic and English. Many restaurants and other businesses do likewise.

70% of Kuwait’s population are Sunni Muslims, and 30% are Shi’a Muslims. Islamic studies form a core part of the school curriculum. For practising Muslims living in Kuwait who do not speak Arabic, it is possible to find Friday sermons also delivered in English in Kuwait City.

Across the Middle East, the group known as Daesh or ISIS targets Shiite Muslims. On National Unity day in 2015, Friday prayers at the Imam Sadiq Mosque in Kuwait City was packed with 2,000 worshippers. A sudden bomb killed 27 of them and injured many more, and also caused a lot of damage to the mosque itself.

Other religions may be quietly practiced in Kuwait, but children at school may not be taught about any religion other than Islam. There should be no attempt to convert Muslims to another religion, both for the security of the persons involved, and to avoid causing an inflammatory political situation.

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