'There is no reason for fear,' Prince Saud al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti Information Minister, proclaimed yesterday morning. And yet there was that tell-tale printed sheet pushed under my hotel door after breakfast. 'Dear Guest,' it announced, 'the evacuation alarm will be tested today, 14 January, at 12 noon. Please do not be alarmed it is only a necessary exercise.' That last, unhappy conjunction of two words told the whole story.
Not that anyone here still believes that Saddam Hussein would re-invade. This time last year Kuwaiti television was broadcasting programmes on civil defence. These past two days, the Kuwaitis have been surfeited with costume dramas and re-transmissions of CNN news broadcasts from Baghdad. Yesterday's Arab Times gave almost as much space to a partial transcript of the alleged Prince Charles-Camilla Parker Bowles tape as it did to the text of Marlon Fitzwater's White House announcement of the bombing of Iraq. But you can't shake off that little edge of uncertainty.
Take Major Saleh Adouh, in the old police station near the Al-Salam supermarket. He wanted to help arrange our forthcoming trip to the Iraqi border, to make sure the Kuwaiti checkpoint did not prevent us reaching the frontier at Abdalli. 'But don't stray off the main road, don't go into the desert,' he warned with a big, concerned smile.
There was nothing wrong with the advice. It was the memory that played tricks. Two years and six weeks ago, I had passed this very police station on the day of Kuwait's liberation, when men like Major Saleh were anticipating the imminent overthrow of Saddam. Yet there we all were yesterday evening, watching the same American news commentators on the same satellite television shows, making the very same predictions about Saddam Hussein that they had made two years ago.
'I don't mind the bombing, if it was necessary,' the Kuwaiti woman confided as she sent off my fax to London on Kuwait's over-burdened telephone system. 'But couldn't the Americans have given one more warning? Was it really necessary to do all that bombing with all those planes again? Why was this? Why did it have to happen?' It was a worthwhile question, one that that even Prince Saud al-Sabah found himself unable to address satisfactorily.
In the atrium of the Information Ministry, he had repeated America's contention that the raids were 'limited'. Credence could no longer be placed in Iraq's promises; Saddam must obey UN Security Council resolutions. 'I believe there is worldwide acceptance of what the coalition forces have done.'
But if it was worldwide, it was certainly not Arab-wide. The Saudis and Kuwaitis may have expressed their satisfaction at this bit of extra Saddam-biffing but the Egyptians did not support it - President Mubarak regretted the use of force - and the Arab League complained about it along with Jordan, which objected to the raids. Syria remained gloweringly silent. So did Algeria.
Indeed, one got the impression yesterday that the Kuwaitis were finally having to face up to a kind of isolation. Understanding as never before how much they must now rely upon American protection they are beginning to realise they have crossed a divide. All the talk of Arab brotherhood and unity went out the window on 2 August 1990 but now the gradual loss of this familiar neighbourly rhetoric - bestowed upon Saddam on 23 September 1989 by none other than the Emir of Kuwait himself - has left a gulf, filled instead by US promises.
The Kuwaitis are beginning to understand Saddam: that his crisis-creation is directed at his fellow Arabs rather than the West. They have noticed how mildly their government has chosen to condemn Israel's refusal to adhere to the UN Security Council resolution on returning the 413 Palestian deportees to their homes. Asked about it yesterday, Prince Saud refused even to discuss the matter.
Yet yesterday evening a midde-aged Kuwaiti, dressed in gold-fringed robes, could be seen watching a CNN newscast of the air raids in the lobby of the Kuwaiti International Hotel, quietly cursing. There on the television were the usual Western claims of 'punishing' Saddam, of 'spanking' him - the old language of colonialism - and even the same grim references to 'collateral damage' that should have died with the Gulf war. But of course Kuwaitis are waking up to the realisation that the Gulf war has not ended.
So who was the middle-aged man cursing? Up on the border, the Iraqis do not inspire as much fear as the citizens of Kuwait might credit them with. They have not moved the UN's new frontier markers. Instead, they have defecated and urinated on the border posts in advance of tonight's deadline to leave the Kuwaiti side of the demilitarised zone.
And by today the West must take action to save the Muslims of Bosnia, otherwise the delegates to the Islamic Conference will take steps to send their own military assistance to the Muslims of the Balkans. How we in the West had forgotten that even more more pregnant deadline, set down in Jedda last year.
The European Community was sending a six-day ultimatum to the Bosnia Serbs yesterday, but the horrors of the Balkans long ago exhausted Arab patience. The massacres, tortures, rapes of Bosnia have far outdone the inquities of Iraqi occupation in Kuwait, leaving the little emirate isolated even from further sympathy. It is now Saddam's foreign minister who talks of 'vicious aggression'.
However evil its leader, can Arabs remain unsympathetic to Iraq much longer? Safe behind their Patriots, the Kuwaitis will be asking themselves the same question, counting the cost of America's friendship and protection as they realise the price that must be paid for these expensive commodities.
(Photographs omitted)Reuse content