The inaugural Maker Faire Kuwait happened this past weekend. It was a great first event, with 67 local makers showing their projects, from high-tech inventions to handmade regional crafts, to an engaged flow of attendees. Through all three days, one aspect stood out: the large number of proud young women engineers.
Kuwait is a tiny, triangle-shaped country, about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island, sitting between Iraq and Saudi Arabia along the northwest corner of the Persian Gulf (regionally called the Arabian Gulf). Historically, it was a boat-building and trade leader for the Arabian peninsula; the discovery of large oil reserves in the 1930s helped it develop a strong focus on science and engineering and turned Kuwait into one of the richest countries in the world.
I wasn’t too familiar with these aspects as I arrived to Kuwait the night before its first Maker Faire began. Approaching at night over the gulf by plane, the tall and modern downtown glowed below, each building brightly lit up with flashing lights along the waterfront. The roads also appeared comparatively empty to those of western cities — I later learned this is in part from it being an alcohol-free country with little proper nightlife, but also because the country rises for 5am daily prayer, then has its workday from 7am until 3pm. (Kuwaitis also pay no taxes, another perk of the their lofty economic position; Porsche Cayenne SUVs abound like Honda Civics do in the US.) In the daylight the next morning, the desert’s grit offset some of the nighttime gleam, with dusty construction and rebuilding providing a rapid transition between the country’s past and its glossy downtown skyscrapers and towers.
I met Ms. Hala Montague, the senior PR officer of Kuwait Investment Company (KIC), the Faire’s main supporter and organizer, as I arrived to the shiny Kuwait International Fairgrounds the next morning, located in a quickly growing area about half an hour from downtown. Energetic, proud, and in charge (and a wonderful tour guide over the next three days), she introduced me to many of the exhibitors, including a cheerful local artist who hand-carves intricate designs into all types of bird eggs, ranging from the size of small marbles, to ostrich eggs the size of a nerf football (he told me those are not easy to come by). I quickly noticed many groups of schoolchildren touring through the space, eagerly listening to the makers explain their projects, participating actively in the 3D Pen Workshop, and throwing balls at a wall to pop virtual balloons and unlock a prize box. This youth was on display not only at the faire, but in Kuwait overall, where 70% of the population is under age 30.
The other group helping organize the Faire was Creative Bits Solutions, a Kuwaiti business that distributes tools and electronics for makers in the Middle East, founded and run by Ahmad Alsaleh and his family. He and his friend Nasser Alkhaldi brought the maker movement into Kuwait by founding the country’s first FabLab, and also designed and sell an educational robotics hardware platform called Ebot. In 2014 they participated as makers at World Maker Faire New York, and brought the idea of organizing their own local event home with them.
The Kuwait producers split their faire into two sections: artist projects on one side of the hall, tech projects on the other. Many of the tech groups came from engineering programs at local universities, recent graduates showing their capstone projects. As I met the makers in the tech area, I began to notice that the majority were young women who were electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, computer science engineers, and IT professionals. The proportional number of female makers outweighed what I see at Maker Faires in the US or Europe.
This female prominence can be traced back to the country’s historic and recent engineering and science needs. Its massive resources have always been offset with a relatively small population, providing work opportunity for women. Countries with a strong travel culture also tend to move toward modern ideals. Despite a massive stock market crash in the early 80’s and turmoil from the Iraqi invasion of 1990, Kuwait has maintained a progressive position in the region for arts, media, government, and gender. Women even outnumber men in their workforce, according to a report from February 2016.
That’s not to say that women there have perfect parity overall — the right to vote was only granted to women twelve years ago; there are still strict rules enforcing modest attire; men there can practice polygamy, and it was hard to find teams of makers containing both men and women at the Faire, although this did not get a strong reaction when I asked about it.
Many of the women’s projects at the Faire focused on assistance; one group had built an attachment to affordably motorize ordinary wheelchairs. Another group created a camera tool that could translate sign language gestures into spoken words. Four women showed their diabetic wound detection device that could help diagnose foot injuries caused by the disease. Another female duo built an app to provide social reminders and tools for people experiencing the onset of Alzheimer’s. One woman built a robotic “nose,” designed among other uses to help impaired people determine if their produce is fresh. There was a tracked robot designed to detect and pick ripe fruit (“No one else’s robot has an arm like ours,” one of the makers explained, showing me the appendage they made for it); a home-brew CNC PCB mill; a modular digital fabrication machine; a connected home model house (“I just started learning Arduino,” the maker, Fatima, told me); a heat-resistant drone for firefighters; and more — all from women, humble but proud of their work.
The men too brought creative and engaging projects. Two high-school aged brothers, Mohammed and Yousef, built “Gate Game” — a Raspberry Pi-powered controlled game where you try to illuminate a virtual LED by activating onscreen logic gates using physical toggle switches. It was fun, frustrating, and subversively educational. I asked Mohammed what gave him the idea for the project, and he replied with a shrug, “Honestly? Minecraft.”
A self-erasing whiteboard project used one of Ahmad and Nasser’s EBot controllers to drive a mechanical wiper. Another, called Kuwait 1951, showed a virtual-reality recreation of old Kuwait 66 years ago, experienced through an HTC Vive VR headset. Some groups had traveled from neighboring countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Qatar Scientific Club brought their robot camel jockeys, which have been refining camel racing in the region, moving away from child jockeys to small, lightweight, remote-controlled robots that strap to a camel’s back and spin a whip to make it run. Youns and Nasef, two other Qatari makers, brought the Sanea Bus, a mobile workshop inside retrofitted bus that contained workbenches, a huge assortment of LittleBits, a laser cutter, an Ultimaker 3D printer, and an Inventables Carvey. “If you take a picture, make sure to show Zach Kaplan,” they told me.
The maker movement being new to Kuwait, a lot of the exhibitors wanted validation that they were on the right track with their projects. “What do you think — is it OK?” was a common question I got through the weekend from men and women alike. There were a few Arduino-based projects, but not as many as I typically see at a Maker Faire. The Gate Game and a magic mirror were the only two I saw with a Raspberry Pi. Instead, they tended to use more conventional electronic components, relays, and drivers. I told them all their projects were great, because they were. Some asked “Then you’ll vote for me?” Ahmad later explained that they were having a competition via Instagram, with five winners for each of the two categories (art and tech), the top of each winning 2000 KD (about $6,500).
Ahmad took me to lunch in downtown Kuwait City, a wood-fired pizza place I had looked up before I left on the trip (and it was quite good). Most of Kuwait is a mix of well-known international companies and western concepts. We discussed the impact of the 1990 invasion — he was 12 years old at the time, and told me that it leveled the country in just seven months and was pretty terrifying. (“We’re still not back to normal,” Hala later told me.) After high school, he moved to southern California to study engineering at Cal State Fullerton. He started his first company there with a roommate, refurbishing computers, and stayed for ten years before moving back and starting a new business. “It’s nice to raise a family in Kuwait,” he told me. Most of the Kuwaitis I asked had been to the US, more than a few to study, and all seem to travel regularly.
The middle section of the faire had various corrals with activities inside; Robotics Arm Workshop, Woodworking Workshop, Fighting Robots, and a giant, assembled CNC-routed bird that kids were free to paint throughout the event. A 3D printing area let visitors design objects on Tinkercad and print them out. In the center of it all, Ahmad Awadh showed off his Big Bike, a huge bicycle with wheels that alone stand about six feet tall. He’d periodically let someone ride it slowly through the hall, gathering a spontaneous procession as the rider would honk its loud electronic horn. It was a great centerpiece to the show.
One cultural difference of the region appeared halfway through a presentation I was giving on the first night, as the stage manager told me I had to pause for a bit because it was almost time for prayer, and immediately after that, they had to do the daily televised national giveaway, which was a weekend shopping trip to Dubai on a private jet. I stepped off the stage and took photos with exhibitors while one volunteer flew his DJI Mavic drone around us. About 20 minutes later, I resumed my presentation. People stayed until after 10pm each night, despite the show officially ending at 9pm. The enthusiasm was great on all sides — attendees, makers, volunteers, and organizers.
The arts area was varied as well, but one theme came up regularly. Throughout and across Kuwait in general, models of traditional sailing vessels reinforced the historic importance of the water and travel to the country. Various artists brought and worked on gorgeous wooden boat models, flanked by anime sculptors, knife makers, and traditional craftsmen. There were both men and women showing projects in this area, but where crafts tend to be more female focused in the US, this area had a higher proportion of male makers than that of the female-heavy tech area.
On the last night of the show, the organizers took the stage to announce the five winners of each category. Top spot in the arts segment went to Nawaf Hussine, who makes endearing touch-sensitive lamps out of plumbing pipes. His friends whooped and hollered when his name was called, throwing their headbands onto the stage, then lifting him up and throwing him in the air over and over when he came down.
The organizers then called up the winners of the tech category, from fifth place to first. The runner-ups included the electric wheelchair, Alzheimer’s app, and the fruit picking robot. The top selection then went to the Diabetic Wound Detector team, giving all five selections to female teams — a point the organizers proudly brought up to me after the award ceremony.
Beder Alsubaie, the CEO of KIC, summed it up succinctly. “We love women. They’re smarter than men.”