Let's not cry for Kuwait: The wealthy emirate courts Western cash, while Iraqis starve, says Robert Fisk

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Journalists who have been transported up to Kuwait's border with Iraq over the past week have found it hard to meet the demands of their editors. Many reporters in the desert discovered just a solitary Kuwaiti tank near the frontier, a vehicle which was subsequently used only to tow their own bus out of the sand.

On the other side of the border, there were even slimmer pickings. United Nations officers disclosed that their reconnaissance aircraft - whose flight path gives them a 20km view across the frontier - had not observed a single Iraqi tank or personnel carrier. And the few Iraqi policemen in their battered wooden huts beyond the border could hardly be called aggressive; several of them, it transpired, regularly beg for food from the UN, pleading for clothes to replace their ragged uniforms. 'We're not supposed to give them anything,' one UN officer admitted, 'but it's hard to turn them away when they're hungry.'

So much, then, for the monstrous Iraqi threat looming over Kuwait. Hours of live satellite television coverage on the invasion-that-never- was simply petered out in gentle embarrassment towards the end of last week. Amid the torrent of rhetoric emerging from the United Nations and from all the Western ministers visiting Kuwait (with the venality of future arms deals not far from their minds), the only country to get it right - to understand that there never was a real military threat to Kuwait - was Israel.

From the very start of the 'crisis', Yitzhak Rabin and the Israeli army's senior staff officers stated frankly that Saddam Hussein had neither the air cover nor the manpower to invade Kuwait, that the Republican Guard divisions were not deployed in an aggressive posture, that there was, in short, no impending catastrophe. The only casualties during the non-existent conflict were a Bahraini soldier killed in Kuwait during live fire exercises with the US Marines and, of course, the steadily increasing number of children dying in sanctions- bound Iraq.

The United Nations Development Programme says that infant mortality in Iraq has tripled since the Gulf war; Unicef believes 2.5 million nursing mothers, pregnant women and babies face 'severe malnutrition'. Reporters in Baghdad were shown three dead babies, each in a cardboard box, whom doctors said had died of malnutrition.

Most of the major picture agencies declined to use photographs of the babies on the grounds, in the words of one desk editor, that they were 'too gruesome'.

Thus did a non-existent war receive more coverage than real death, even if both Kuwaitis and Iraqis had their own reasons for encouraging reporters to recall their respective suffering. It was somehow more difficult, however, to feel the appropriate sympathy in Kuwait; not just because it is often difficult to feel pity for rich victors, but because Kuwait - despite the latest dollars 1bn bill likely to be sent to the Emir by his Allied mercenaries - probably has very little to fear in the immediate future. Even though the price of a barrel of oil may fall from dollars 14 to dollars 10 if the UN lifts its sanctions on Iraq - which is what this month's 'crisis' was all about - Kuwaiti financial analysts believe that increased Far East demand could bring it up to dollars 21 by 2000.

Kuwait, of course, still has its own claim for billions of dollars in compensation from the Iraqis for damage inflicted during the 1990-1 occupation, as well as a far more pressing demand for the return of 625 civilians - 564 of them Kuwaitis, eight of them women - who remained in Iraqi hands at the end of the conflict. Their pain - if they are still alive -and that of their families remains one of the more shameful relics of the war.

Even Kuwaitis, however, admit that their capital suffered far less material damage than Beirut or Sarajevo, and the emirate's own human rights record does little to attract compassion.

A variety of Palestinians and Iraqis were murdered in the aftermath of the liberation and 80,000 Palestinians have been driven out in retaliation for Yasser Arafat's collaboration with Saddam, along with perhaps 120,000 bidun -civilians, some of them born in Kuwait, who are ineligible for citizenship. Many of these were among the 4,000 stateless men and women whom Iraq trucked down to the border over a week ago. Of the 125,000 bidun still in Kuwait, 50,000 expect to be deported or encouraged to leave within the next few months.

Furthermore, members of the Filipino community in Kuwait - mainly employed in service industries or as servants in private homes - claim that up to 30 Filipinos have died in mysterious circumstances, or have 'disappeared' in the past six months. Around 300 Filipino women are said to have sought sanctuary at their embassy after complaining of threats and beatings from their employers.

Kuwaitis remind critics that the Royal Family has personally paid the return air fares of dissatisfied Filipino workers, adding, in the words of one official, that 'some of the Filipino women have loose morals'.

If these events seem insignificant compared with Saddam's grotesque crimes, they none the less raise questions about the nature of the Kuwaiti society that the United States and Britain have promised to defend for the next 10 years. And if it is more democratic - or less undemocratic - than any other Gulf monarchy, Kuwait remains a small and frightened nation, prepared to trust Western, Christian armies rather than its Arab brothers, preferring the US Marines to the Egyptian soldiers who could easily be sent back to the emirate.

Its wealth deflects public criticism by those Arab allies that privately wonder if Kuwait is not in the opening stages of a Western social- economic occupation that could prove, in the long term, more damaging to the emirate than Iraq's cruel invasion.

For the present, there will be no forgiveness for Iraq, even if it obeys all UN Security Council resolutions - 'too soon, too soon even to think about it', said a principal member of the Royal Family bitterly - but there is, too, a tacit understanding that the sources of conflict in the region may be moving slowly away from the Gulf.

With the Israeli-Arab peace process bulldozing its way towards a conclusion, many Kuwaitis believe the Middle East earthquake zone is travelling eastwards. They predict wars between Iran and the undemocratic former Soviet Muslim republics, border conflicts between Iran and Afghanistan, even between Iran and Pakistan.

'There will be Sunni-Shia wars, or Muslim-Communist wars that will leave us in peace on our peninsula,' one prominent Kuwaiti said. 'When Saddam goes - not before the peace process is concluded with Israel - then Iraq will be virgin for reconstruction programmes with Gulf money. The new Iraqi leader may not be much different from Saddam, but we will be able to trust him and he can blame all Iraq's crimes on Saddam. Then we will be free, guaranteed by America and Britain.'

Kuwaitis have the money to secure their protection by the West, at least until their oil runs out. Next to Israel, Kuwait is the most 'guaranteed' state in the Middle East, a fact that will be sanctified when President Bill Clinton pays a courtesy call on Kuwait this week. And like Israel, Kuwait is now totally dependent on the US. Economically, Egypt already shares this distinction; soon Jordan will, too, and then, perhaps, Syria, as the pax Americana spreads over the region.

No wonder the Kuwaitis look forward to that time when the nightmares will shift eastward from the Arab to the Persian world, to the sub-continent, to the edges of what was once the 'evil empire'.

(Photographs omitted)