A Quiet Renewal in Kuwait Masks The Lack of Debate on Reform
AS Kuwaitis ponder their future after the most traumatic 365 days in their country's history, they are doing so quietly, engaging in little public debate about things to come.The prospects for democracy, the distribution of Kuwait's oil wealth, the country's overwhelming dependence on foreigners - these and other aspects of Kuwaiti life have been turned upside down since Iraq invaded this desert emirate a year ago. (Saddam's grip at home, Page 6.) But after a seven-month occupation that stripped the country even of its existence, the mere fact that their homeland has been restored to them by the United States-led coalition seems for the time being to be enough. Kuwaitis themselves and foreign observers attribute the general reluctance to address questions raised by the past year's events to a number factors: Many Kuwaitis still have not returned home; those who have are still taking stock; and the government is doing its best to still any doubts about its performance with generous financial assistance to all Kuwaitis. "The government is giving and giving and giving," says one senior official privately. "Seven months back salary plus a cash gift equals silence." The National Council is currently considering giving every Kuwaiti family $60,000. Basic questions about the invasion - why the country was so unprepared, why the Army crumbled almost immediately, why the country's entire leadership fled to Saudi Arabia rather than staying to organize resistance - remain taboo for public discussion. At the same time, says a European diplomat, "the agenda for a new Kuwait was not set in any kind of detail during the exile. There is nothing to indicate that the most fundamental questions about Kuwait's future have been asked." Instead, the emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, told the inaugural session of the council last month that there was "much to do after the liberation ... to return Kuwait to the way it was, or better." At one level, though, the ruling al-Sabah family has accepted that some change is inevitable: The emir has promised elections in October 1992 to the parliament that he dissolved five years ago. The vote was a key demand of opposition leaders. "It was the price the royal family paid for keeping Kuwaitis with them," says the diplomat. "And now they are committed to the Constitution." If before the Iraqi invasion the al-Sabahs were "seeing how far they could bend the constitutional limits" to their power, he says, now "they have accepted the system, and are haggling within it to maintain the balance of power in their own hands as far as possible." That haggling has infuriated opposition figures, who fear the royal family is set on keeping absolute control over Kuwait. "The government shows the image of a free-enterprise society, but actually they have a communist way of thinking," argues human rights activist Ghanem al-Najar. "They think that everything that happens must happen through the government." Al-Sabah family members chaired every committee set up in exile, points out opposition leader Abdullah Nibari, "and they seem determined to get things back as they were, maybe with even a little bit more al-Sabah dominance." Although Kuwaitis of all political stripes insist that the royal family has not lost any legitimacy, even its supporters are worried by the emir's apparent reluctance to share political power. "At the moment there is respect for the al-Sabahs," says the government official. "But they will lose that respect if they continue along this line." The emir's decision to reconvene the council, an unconsti-tutional body elected from among government supporters in 1989, is seen as a bid by the royal family to promote its own prots with an eye to the 1992 elections. But while the seven opposition groups protested the council, they have had little to say on other matters. With a return to the 1962 Constitution their only real demand, the government's promise of a vote next year has taken the wind out of their sails. There has been little real protest at the lack of other democratic freedoms which some Kuwaitis had hoped might flourish in liberated Kuwait. There was very little outcry, for example, when the government closed "February 26th," an independent newspaper that was named for the day the allied ground offensive started, after only a few issues were published. In private, many Kuwaitis who stayed in the country during the occupation are angry that the old ways are being reimposed. "The people who fled the country, who left everything, the ones whose mistakes put Kuwait in this situation, they are coming back to give us orders again? To make the same mistakes?" fumes an Army officer who led a resistance cell. "Nothing has changed." But resistance members have not turned frustration into political action, and while many have kept their guns they have not emerged as a coherent force. "Lots of people feel like me, but we can do nothing," says the Army officer. "Our job is over. Now the government is responsible." If the government has given few hints as to its intentions for Kuwait, it has made one policy plain - to reduce the number of foreigners on whom the country has depended for decades to keep things running. Most dramatically, the 400,000-member Palestinian community is to be cut back twentyfold, and officials say they intend to do without outsiders as much as possible. "If our development strategy is designed for 1 million people, we do not need 1.4 million foreigners to help 650,000 Kuwaitis," as has been the case until now, argues political science professor Abdul Rida Assiri. "That is too much by any standard." Beyond a desire to reduce the population, little is clear about Kuwait's future. "People are satisfied, because basic services have been restored," says the government official, "but they are not happy because they wanted more," such as political freedoms.