The end of the Gulf War in 1991 brought both peace and fast food to the people of Kuwait. Fast-food restaurants first came to the country on U.S. military bases, but within a few years of the war, they started springing up around the country. Soon after, the average Kuwaiti waistline started growing. Today, 88 percent of Kuwaitis are overweight and at least one-third are obese, according to a report from Bloomberg Businessweek, which also found that the country is enjoying a surge of stomach-stapling surgeries.
Fast food isn't the only factor affecting obesity levels in Kuwait. The desert country's high temperatures — 110 degrees or higher in the summer — make walking, let alone exercise, a rarity. A 2010 report from CNN pointed out that Burger King and other chains will even deliver food, and families host competitive multi-course banquets with so much food that the "tables groan under the weight."
According to Dr. Osamah Al Sanea, a bariatric surgeon who performs stomach-stapling surgeries, only 12 percent of Kuwaitis have a body-mass index (BMI) below the ideal of 25. "One out of three Kuwaiti adults is obese," he told Businessweek. "Ten percent is morbidly obese." Al Sanea is one of 20 bariatric surgeons in Kuwait, up from just two 10 years ago. He says at least 5,000 Kuwaitis underwent stomach-stapling surgeries last year.
The growing market for bariatric surgeries led to the first annual Kuwait Obesity & Metabolic Surgery Conference in November 2011. Conference director Salman Al-Sabah wrote in his introduction to the event that "Bariatric surgery is now recognized to be the standard management option that provides significant and sustained weight loss in morbidly obese patients. Several bariatric operations originally designed to treat morbid obesity also cause dramatic improvement or even remission of co-morbidities that commonly co-exist with morbid obesity like type II diabetes."
A recent report in Arab Times links the fatty foods from Western restaurant chains to the obesity epidemic, as well as the fact that Kuwaitis are now eating out more often than they used to. The culture also places a high value on dining as a social activity and lacks education about healthy eating. A 2010 study published in the International Journal of Pediatrics suggested that "health education programs for families should be implemented to help control overweight and obesity in Kuwaiti children."
Western food isn't completely to blame. Arab Times mentions a local dish, Makbous Dajaj, in which chicken is boiled and then deep fried. Rice for the meal is then boiled in the chicken water, "absorbing all the saturated fat that was released from the chicken."
In addition to surgery, other new businesses like gyms and weight-loss camps are helping Kuwaitis to lose weight. A report this week in Arabian Business presents obesity in Kuwait and nearby Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as a major investment opportunity.
But the quick fix of a one-hour stomach stapling surgery appeals to many overweight people. "Improved lung function, reducing diabetes, healthy liver, kidneys, hypertension — you get all that if you give me one hour in your body," said Dr. Al Sanea.