Iraq Crisis: Dreams fade in face of Kuwait's siege mentality

Raymond Whitaker returns after seven years to find the country stagnating in its oil wealth
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The Independent Online
IT LOOKS undistinguished: a double highway rising gently to a low escarpment which anywhere but in the flatness of Kuwait would barely register as a natural feature. Plastic bags caught on a wire fence shiver and snap in the breeze. A couple of battered kiosks sell cheap toys and fizzy drinks.

But on this spot in 1991 thousands of men met their deaths. Allied aircraft caught the fleeing Iraqi army at Mutla Ridge, the only point in Kuwait where vehicles cannot scatter across the desert to escape attack, and once the the road was blocked, there was slaughter. By the time I got there the last bodies had been cleared, but their smell still lingered in the cruelly-named "traffic jam", a deadly scrapyard of blackened, riddled tanks, trucks, ambulances and cars. All around were scattered the pathetic booty of the Iraqi conscript: children's clothes, cassette tapes and women's shoes.

Mutla marks the divide between Kuwait then and now. To the south is Kuwait City, where the damage of war has been cleared away. Trashed and looted hotels and office blocks have been been restored or replaced, an extravagant new official complex is being constructed on the waterfront and at the airport, where seven years ago the wreckage of a British Airways jumbo jet caught by the Iraqi invasion lay on the apron, airliners dock at a new terminal.

Until the past few weeks, only the billboards and newspaper advertisements calling attention to the 600 Kuwaitis still missing or held prisoner by Iraq reminded one of the trauma this country experienced. The gathering crisis over Saddam Hussein's defiance of the United Nations has caused a rush of volunteers for civil defence and first aid, but few people have left, and the desperate search for gas masks in Israel has not been witnessed here. In Kuwait City the threat still appears unreal.

North of Mutla Ridge it is different. On the sparsely-populated plain extending north and west to Iraq the results of the Gulf War can still be seen - roadside buildings are collapsed in rubble, a twisted communications tower lies flat on the ground and the wrecked satellite farm we used as a landmark on the road to the border is still there.

At the al-Rawdhatain oilfield a trail of black smoke rises from a solitary well flare, triggering memories of the hundreds of oil fires the Iraqis left behind in 1991. Driving down this road then, under a blacked-out sky supported by columns of smoke, the only light coming from the flames at their base, I thought that it looked like nothing so much as a cathedral of Hell, and remembered what James II said when he saw the newly-built St Paul's. He called it "awful", meaning it was awe-inspiring; this was awful in both senses.

But the oil fires were extinguished more quickly than anyone expected, and after a difficult few years the economy is back to normal, or what passes for normality in a country where the 650,000 citizens, more than 90 per cent of whom work for the government, are outnumbered two to one by foreigners. It is a place where there is no need to create wealth - you can simply pump it up from under the ground.

The soothing flow of oil revenues has stilled the passions of 1991, when there was bitterness between Kuwaitis who had suffered the seven-month Iraqi occupation and those who had fled, including the ruling al-Sabah family. Demands were heard for greater democracy - even votes for women - and more self-reliance. In the end most of the anger was turned outwards, at Palestinian residents in particular. Yasser Arafat's flamboyant support for President Saddam meant that they were tortured, harassed, and, according to human rights organisations, murdered by death squads often led by members of the al-Sabah family.

Undoubtedly many Palestinians collaborated with the Iraqis, but nearly all have been expelled anyway, along with citizens of other countries which sided with Baghdad, such as Jordan and Sudan. Their places have been taken mainly by Egyptians, staunch members of the 1991 Gulf alliance, while most of the menial work is performed by Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinas.

The number of expatriate workers has risen almost to the pre-Gulf War level, although the government claims to have reduced it. While it is now possible to find the odd Kuwaiti nurse or mechanic, official efforts to persuade citizens to go into the private sector remain embryonic; the welfare state demands no taxes and provides free education and health care, abroad if necessary, as well as generously-subsidised housing. Talk of greater self-reliance has faded.

So has the possibility of political change: other Gulf states have nothing like Kuwait's National Assembly, but it has failed to gain real power over the al-Sabahs. Although women can work, drive cars and dress more freely than in other Gulf states, they are as far as ever from obtaining the vote, despite the occasional sit-in or boycott by middle-class feminists. A few thousand of the Bedoun, stateless descendants of nomads, have obtained citizenship in recognition of the role many played in resisting the Iraqis, but some 114,000 remain in limbo.

The Prime Minister, Sheikh Saad Abdallah al-Sabah, in his 60s, is considered diligent but indecisive, and his health is poor - recently he spent seven months in Britain recovering from a colon operation. "Basically there is stagnation," said a Western diplomat.

Since 1991 the traditional siege mentality of Kuwaitis, a minority in their own country, has been reinforced, and not only by the behaviour of President Saddam. The influx of British and American forces, pursuing a political goal which has next to no regional support, has heightened sensitivities. Once again, it seems, Kuwait is having to pay foreigners to do what it cannot manage itself, and places like Mutla Ridge are a warning that the cost may be more than financial.

Letters, page 14