Dr. Osamah Al Sanea, a leading Kuwaiti bariatric surgeon, is describing a stomach he recently stapled. “We don’t take anything out,” he says. “We make the stomach smaller. We restrict the fuel.” Then he opens his laptop and clicks on a link that says “surgery,” and the computer screen fills with video of the darkened interior of a morbidly obese woman. A tiny flashlight illuminates the pinkish stomach and thick folds of gray-yellow fat.
As he watches the video of the procedure, which cordons off nearly 90 percent of the patient’s stomach capacity, Al Sanea says, “One out of three Kuwaiti adults is obese. Ten percent is morbidly obese.” Actually, the numbers are worse: Only 12 percent of Kuwaitis have a body-mass index (BMI) below 25. (The ideal range is 18.5 to 25.) At least 88 percent of Kuwaitis, in other words, are considered overweight. According to a study published in June by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, using data from the World Health Organization, Kuwait is the second-most obese nation in the world, behind the U.S.
As waistlines in Kuwait and across the Persian Gulf have expanded over the last three or four years, so too has the business of bariatric surgery. Ten years ago, Al Sanea says, there were only two bariatric surgeons in Kuwait. Today, there are 20. By 2015, he predicts, there will be 40. Other doctors in Kuwait say there are at least five major hospitals that now perform hundreds or even thousands of stomach-stapling procedures each year. At least 5,000 people in Kuwait underwent the procedure last year—compared with 3,000 in Canada, which has more than 30 times the population.
According to surgeons like Al Sanea, the bariatric boom can be traced to the buildup to the 1991 Gulf War. That was when hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops descended on the Gulf nation, bringing with them Taco Bell, Hardee’s, Baskin-Robbins, and Nathan’s Famous hot dogs, among others. “The [war] was the demarcation line,” says Dr. Abdulwahab Naser Al-Isa, at the Department of Community Medicine & Behavioral Sciences at Kuwait University. Andrew Smith, the author of the Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food, says, “The American military went in, and obviously they wanted fast food. Therefore, the number of fast-food establishments expanded exponentially.” And Kuwaitis fell in love. Read more at Bloomberg Businessweek