Kuwait: The War Within

Three months after the eviction of the Iraqi army, the once-resplendent commercial center of Kuwait City remains largely a ghost town. Not a single store or restaurant is open. On upper floors of the bank towers on Mubarak al-Kabeer Street, offices are empty, plants dead. Desk calendars are frozen in time, their pages turned to Aug. 2, 1990, the day Iraq invaded.

Kuwait's psychological and political wounds are deep, perhaps greater than the physical damage inflicted by the Iraqis. Haze from burning oil fields only 10 miles away is a reminder that Kuwait's reconstruction is progressing at a snail's pace. In its greatest internal crisis ever, Kuwait's government remains paralyzed, mainly because of jockeying for power among the al-Sabahs, the family that has run Kuwait for more than two centuries. "No one seems to know what the hell they are doing," says Fouad K. Jaffar, a former general manager of the Kuwait Investment Office (KIO) who quit in 1990 under pressure from the al-Sabahs.

The al-Sabahs' squabbles are compounded by the emergence of Kuwait's first real political opposition, which raises questions about who will eventually run the country. The U. S. must face the prospect that victory over Saddam Hussein may be soured by a lengthy internal struggle that could leave Kuwait a wasted asset. While Washington sees Kuwait's impasse as a problem for Kuwaitis to solve, President Bush can ill afford to stand back and watch.

Much more is at stake than control of 94 billion barrels of oil and $80 billion in foreign assets. An unstable Kuwait would siphon energy from Bush's campaign for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement. And any challenge to the al-Sabahs could roil neighboring Saudi Arabia, where the war has prompted a questioning of the absolute rule of the House of Saud. Thirsty for vengeance, Saddam might even be tempted to try to intervene again in Kuwait, perhaps through terrorism, diplomats say.

For now, however, the greatest threat to Kuwait's rulers comes from within. The al-Sabahs traditionally have tolerated more dissent than most gulf rulers, permitting a lively press and, until its suspension in 1986, the only parliament in the gulf states. But the government tightened up after the invasion. Only one pro-government paper has reopened, and in mid-May, five Kuwaiti students were arrested at the airport merely for putting up posters welcoming returning citizens home. Still, Kuwait's rich merchant class is pressing for democracy as the cure for the country's ills. Skepticism over the stewardship of Emir Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah was only heightened in March, when he reshuffled the Cabinet and dismissed Ali al-Khalifa al-Sabah, the country's internationally respected Finance Minister and architect of the oil industry's global expansion drive.

PRO-WESTERN. The new opposition, which boasts its own underground newspaper, Voice of the People, airs its grievances in nightly diwaniyas, at-home discussions for friends and associates that are a hallowed Kuwaiti tradition. At one session in Kuwait City, 24 men gathered in a room festooned with heads of African game animals, sharks, and sailfish to coordinate policies for two dissident groups, the Shiite National Islamic Coalition and the Democratic Forum. Unlike other Mideast opposition movements, this one is overwhelmingly pro-Western. Some Kuwaitis even suggest that the U. S. retake control of their state to ensure that democracy survives.

Kuwait can ill afford political drift. With oil revenues cut off, the KIO and its sister, the Kuwait Investment Authority, have already sold as much as $20 billion of the country's foreign stocks, bonds, and real estate to pay wartime expenses. For weeks, the government has been studying plans to borrow $10 billion to $20 billion abroad until Kuwait's oil exports resume--sometime in the next three to six months. But some high-ranking officials concede that if the government doesn't go ahead soon, Kuwait will have to dump even more foreign assets.

Whether the al-Sabahs can continue to deflect the rising chorus of complaint is open to question. The Emir has left the government in the hands of his second cousin, Crown Prince Saad Abdullah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who, according to one official, painstakingly reviews even minor issues. Prince Saad's indecision is compounded by rivalries between his and the Emir's branches of the family. Although Saad's relatives dominate the Cabinet, some say the Emir's branch may want to assert control.

Unable to express their displeasure at the ballot box, many Kuwaitis have simply voted with their feet. As many as 100,000 citizens have fled the country since liberation, swelling the ranks of Kuwaiti refugees already abroad. Only 100,000 to 150,000 of the emirate's 580,000 citizens remain. But the government is having a hard time providing security for even this shrunken populace.

SQUANDERED GOODWILL. Widely criticized for having failed to form international security alliances that could have prevented the Iraqi invasion, the government still hasn't decided how to build its postwar defenses. Compounding the problem is Kuwait's lack of control over its military and police, which have beaten, tortured, and killed Palestinians for collaborating with the Iraqis. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and U. S. Ambassador Edward W. "Skip" Gnehm have lectured the Crown Prince on the need for better control. But an upcoming trial of some 200 Palestinians and other foreigners may create more friction with Washington, especially if the Kuwaitis carry out their threat to execute those found guilty.

The government's squandering of international goodwill galls the many Kuwaitis who stayed behind when the al-Sabahs fled in panic. Of all the outspoken Kuwaitis, Abdul Aziz Sultan, the chairman of the Gulf Bank, perhaps best embodies the postwar opposition. One of several prominent members of influential Kuwaiti merchant families who have become critics of the

government in recent years, Sultan and his eight brothers run a conglomerate that has interests in hospital supplies, retailing, engineering, oil services, and other businesses. In testimony to the family's resourcefulness, Sultan Center, its supermarket-hardware store, is thriving in the postwar confusion, well-staffed and stocked with goods trucked in from Saudi Arabia, while its rivals remain shuttered. "Kuwait's problem is a crisis of leadership," says Sultan. "The government has no vision."

Even before the war, merchant families such as Sultan's saw the 3,000-member ruling family threatening their interests by entering into numerous business deals. But since liberation, a merchants' political party headed by Abdul Aziz al-Sagar, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, has joined other opposition groups. They include Shiite Moslems, who make up half of Kuwait's population, and the Moslem Brotherhood, a Sunni organization.

WOMEN VOTERS? This coalition wants to gain oversight of Kuwait's government and wealth by restoring its suspended parliament and constitution. Faced with such challenges, the al-Sabahs have suggested that some change may be in order. The Emir has promised elections in 1992 and even suggested that women should have the right to vote. But skeptical business leaders remain sour on Kuwait's prospects. They lost $10 billion or more in inventories during the occupation, and many say they won't restock until they are more confident of the political environment.

Politics is also worsening Kuwait's labor shortage, slowing down the rebirth of commerce. Before the invasion, 1.2 million Palestinians and other foreigners lived in Kuwait. Since liberation, the government has started preaching "Kuwaitization," forcing agencies and contractors to lay off the Palestinians who made up the bulk of the country's middle managers, clerical workers, and engineers. Palestinian sources say that Bechtel Group Inc., for example, recently let go Palestinian employees, under pressure from the government. Bechtel would not comment. With many Kuwaitis and Palestinians now armed, Western diplomats fear rising tensions between the two groups could break out into violence.

Not everything in Kuwait's reconstruction has gone awry. Foreign contractors have reopened the international airport, switched on phones, and restored electricity and water. Critics nonetheless decry the government's tight-fisted attitude, especially in the fight to extinguish the oil fires that are having a devastating effect on the economy and the national psyche.

The next few weeks will be a major test of the government's strength. While the ruling family fiddles, more and more influential Kuwaitis are suggesting that war and liberation have given their country a golden opportunity for political and economic change. Kuwait has the wealth to bring that about. But all the oil money in the world won't be able to set reforms in motion if the citizenry can't persuade the government to get cracking. If it won't, Kuwait--and its Allied liberators--will lose the peace they fought so hard to win.

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