Young Kuwaitis in Egypt dance as war rages at home WAR IN THE GULF

January 25, 1991|By Jane Mayer | Jane Mayer,The Wall Street Journal

CAIRO, Egypt -- When allied bombs first hit Baghdad, many young Kuwaitis here had their own, unique response: They hit the dance floors.

"They're battling it out in the discotheque," cracked an official at Cairo's newest five-star luxury hotel, the Semiramis Intercontinental.

As the night wore on, the neon-lighted dance floor at Sultana's, the hotel's discotheque, became crowded with fashionably dressed Kuwaiti youths. They celebrated the news of war by ordering rounds of drinks, nibbling hors d'oeuvres and gyrating to American pop hits; at one point, a belly dancer joined in. At dawn, some of them formed a convoy of cars, rocking and rolling through Cairo's narrow, sooty streets, honking their horns with glee. A few left the driving to their chauffeurs.

That night one week ago marked the beginning of what some Kuwaiti officials here delicately call "the disco problem." Kuwait's extraordinary oil wealth has long aroused envy in poorer Arab lands, such as Egypt. But the spectacle of draft-age Kuwaiti youths partying while Egyptian and other troops risk their lives has sharpened tensions. It has also given new life to feelings here that Kuwait is less a country than a country club.

"They start their days at 2 in the afternoon and stay out until 5 each morning," exclaims Ahmed Hamed, a waiter at Cairo's spacious Safir Hotel, where a number of Kuwaiti families are waiting out the war in $3,000-a-month apartments. "At first, they tried to act nice, but now that the war has begun, and they know they will get their villas back, they are reverting to their arrogant ways."

"It is real, this discotheque problem," sighs Ahmed al Nafisi, a former member of the Kuwaiti Parliament who now heads a citizens group here called the Kuwait Association for People's Work. "In normal times it's OK for people to do whatever they want. But now that people are dying on the front, it doesn't look good to have young Kuwaiti men going to all the wrong places at the wrong times. The obvious question to many is why, instead of going to discos, don't they enlist?"

The answer, he suggests, lies in Kuwaiti society. Before the war, Kuwait had a population of about 2 million, of whom only 750,000 were native Kuwaitis. The rest were Palestinians, Egyptians and other non-Kuwaitis who filled many roles in the country -- including that of soldier. Mercenaries were common in the military, but since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, they have disappeared.

So it is that Kuwait has contributed only a small military force of roughly 7,000 troops to the war effort, though several thousand more are in training and at least some Kuwaitis have been fighting underground in Kuwait. Notably, the country has also contributed several A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bombers and pilots to the effort; one of those pilots was recently shot down in a combat mission and is now a prisoner of war in Iraq.

That so many of the country's soldiers and service workers have been outsiders has left some Kuwaitis thinking about the future -- and about reducing the number of non-Kuwaitis in a liberated Kuwait. "There's so much money in Kuwait, we are used to having non-Kuwaitis doing many jobs for us," says Mr. Nafisi. "We want to become far more self-reliant. We have been living in a very artificial society."

Extravagant socializing may be one of the more minor problems Kuwait faces these days, but Kuwaiti leaders are nonetheless moving swiftly to assure disco damage control. Mr. Nafisi's group has formed a committee to offer youths other pastimes, such as courses in plumbing and auto mechanics. It has also sent out three directives to the 7,000-odd Kuwaiti families hunkered down in Cairo, calling for them to behave in a modest manner, stay at home as much as possible and cease gathering in large groups, "particularly in hotels and restaurants."

Kuwait's embassy in Cairo has gone even further. It began this week to send citizen volunteers out to infiltrate the city's glitziest watering holes and collect the names of Kuwaitis behaving in an indecorous fashion. Hard-core partygoers who don't heed their government's warnings, say embassy officials, will face the ultimate punishment: deportation to Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive, let alone dance.

Kuwait's ambassador to Egypt, Abdul Razag al Kandari, who has the task of ministering to the 30,000 Kuwaitis living in Egypt, explains his approach to the disco problem this way: "I've advised our people not to feel so happy." Of course, not all have been dancing the Arabian nights away. Amal el Hamad, who works at the Kuwaiti information center here, says, "It was always a mixed feeling of happiness that they had started to liberate our land, and agony over the death and destruction."

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