Stunned, embittered Palestinians return from prized jobs in Kuwait

September 10, 1990|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

BAQAA REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan -- For a few weeks of summer, Mohammed Shehad finally had the good luck and success for which his parents had sacrificed so much. After a long search, he found a well-paying government job as an engineer.

Then came the bad luck, as it has for thousands of other Palestinians. His new job was in Kuwait, and his employer was the government overthrown by Iraq's invading soldiers.

Mr. Shehad has become part of a steady stream of stunned and embittered Palestinians who are heading back to the families they supported with earnings from jobs in the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf. Mr. Shehad's father is expected here any day -- assuming he can make his own way from Kuwait, where he worked for 20 years to support his wife and put his son through school.

"The job is gone, and so is the money," Mr. Shehad says, sitting on the floor of his parents' sparsely furnished house. "No matter what the Palestinians do, it always turns against them."

Iraq's occupation of Kuwait has richly fed Palestinians' anger and resentment. But in the process, the invasion has created a split between Palestinians and much of the rest of the Arab world.

Most Arab leaders berate Iraq for occupying its neighbor. But many Palestinians enthusiastically praise Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and aim their anger at his victims.

"I'm glad what's happened to Kuwait," Mr. Shehad says. "The same thing should happen to the other governments in the gulf, because they deserve it."

For Palestinians, Kuwait and other oil-producing states have been places of well-paid work but also of debilitating insecurity. Palestinians were welcomed for their labor but never regarded as true brothers. No matter how long they stayed, they never became eligible for citizenship.Palestinians remained guests who could be ordered to leave at any moment.

Palestinians had other complaints, too. None was more important than their allegation that the people of the gulf were never sufficiently interested in the Palestinian cause.

As for the millions of dollars in gulf contributions to the Palestine Liberation Organization, that was a payoff to be left in peace, they complain, not a real political commitment.

More than 300,000 Palestinians lived in Kuwait at the time of the Iraqi invasion, while another 300,000 to 400,000 live in other gulf states.

The Palestinians have been those countries' educated elite and their willing muscle. They are the bureaucrats and planners, the architects, clerks and businessmen, the truck drivers and common laborers.

Of all the people in the region, Palestinians probably were thosemost affected by swings in the price of oil.

When prices rose, beginning in the mid-1970s, the economies of the gulf states boomed and workers of every type were needed. Those states offered Palestinians an opportunity to raise their families to middle-class status, or to escape the refugee camps of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

When prices began to fall, beginning in the mid-1980s, Palestinians both skilled and unskilled found their jobs threatened by Indians, Pakistanis and other non-Arabs willing to work for less. And resentment began to fester on both sides.

Some Palestinians envied the wealth that they saw all around but that they were prevented from fully sharing because of their status as guests.

"They were too materialistic," complains a 27-year-old camp resident who studied computer science in Saudi Arabia. "They always gave priority to people other than Palestinians."

Leaders of the gulf states had their own misgivings, especially about the danger that Palestinians might threaten the region's conservative hereditary rulers.

"The Saudis always thought that Palestinians are in some way terrorists," the former student says. "They were always asking me if I had artillery under my house."

Whatever trust once existed is now almost entirely eroded.

Kuwaiti exiles tell with great bitterness stories of Palestinians in Kuwait helping Iraqi soldiers track down former officials for arrest. If the deposed Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah and his government ever return to power, they say, Palestinians will not be allowed to play as large a role in society.

"From now on, that's the way it will be -- I'm Kuwaiti first, I'm Arab second," says Walid al-Masouk, the exiled editor of Kuwait's largest newspaper, Al-Anba. "The Palestinians, they have really slapped us."

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