Kuwait struggling to rebuild without a vital resource--its foreign workers WAR IN THE GULF

March 24, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

KUWAIT CITY -- The Iraqi soldiers occupying the city demanded to see the manager of the supermarket. Riad Sultan knew if he went with them he would be tortured or killed.

Instead, a Palestinian worker hustled the Kuwaiti manager out the back door and presented himself to the soldiers as manager of the store. The man was taken, beaten and almost died. Said Mr. Sultan, "I owe him my life. He is my brother."

But he may have to fire the Palestinian.

With the country back in its control, the Kuwaiti government wants to remold it in miniature. Officials say they must drastically reduce the population of "foreign" workers, who outnumbered Kuwaitis before the war.

Where the old Kuwait was a country of about 2 million people in which fewer than one in three was Kuwaiti, they talk of a new country with half that population and a majority of Kuwaitis.

The goal would necessitate making non-Kuwaitis leave, or at least preventing many who fled during the Iraqi invasion from returning so they do not outnumber the 600,000 Kuwaitis. The potential for unfairness in that process concerns Western nations.

Furthermore, it may not work. Many believe that the Kuwaitis do not have the skills, the desire or the manpower to run this country without relying on others.

"You can kid yourself by kicking out everybody, [but] this is just not practical," acknowledged the planning minister, Suleiman al-Mutawa.

A new Kuwaiti currency is to be issued today, and banks are scheduled to open, an important step in restarting the paralyzed economy. But Mohamad al-Yaha, who runs the country's second-largest bank, is not happy. Before the August invasion, he had 1,300 employees who ran 35 branch offices. All but a couple hundred were foreigners -- Palestinians, Iraqis, Saudis, Sudanese.

Now he can find only 259 of his workers who did not flee Kuwait. The government has told him to open his bank offices, but it will not open the borders to permit the return of the employees he needs.

"To be honest, I don't know what to do," he said. "I don't think we can operate without them. Not in the foreseeable future."

Mr. Sultan, the grocery owner, has the same problem. Before the invasion, he had 220 employees in five stores. Now there are only 76.

His experience before the invasion leaves him skeptical that Kuwaitis will fill the jobs.

"We'd put ads in the paper saying we need Kuwaitis to work," he said. "But they were not willing to cut meat in the meat department. They were not willing to clean lettuce in the produce department. They are not willing to wash floors. So I go to other nationalities."

Workers from other Persian Gulf countries flooded into pre-war Kuwait for its oil-rich salaries. Egyptian and Indians came to find professional jobs. Governments in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Yemen contracted to send planeloads of workers, whose

monthly checks home were an important source of income.

The pay was good, by comparison. Pryan, a 28-year-old Sri Lankan hotel worker, earned enough in nine years here to become a comfortable business owner at home, he said.

But non-Kuwaitis are denied rights here. They cannot own land, vote or obtain citizenship, no matter how long they live here. Their children born here are not citizens. Workers brought in by an employer can be expelled at his whim.

The largest and most stable non-Kuwaiti group is the Palestinians. Many have lived all their lives here but hold Jordanian passports. Many are well-educated -- the Palestinian neighborhoods are full of alumni of U.S. colleges -- and they typically held technical or professional jobs.

But Kuwaitis especially want them out because of their supposed treasonous sympathies. Kuwaitis tell of Palestinians greeting the invading Iraqi tanks with flowers and food, of informing on Kuwaitis who hid and of helping Iraqis run the country.

The Palestinian population now is estimated at less than half the 400,000 before the war. Very few non-Kuwaitis have been allowed back into Kuwait, even those trying to rejoin family and homes. Palestinians who remain here say they expect to be squeezed out.

"I worked at Doha," a major power plant, said Mohamud Jazzar, a 24-year-old Palestinian mechanical engineer. "During the occupation, all the Kuwaiti engineers hid and did not come in. I provided power to all the Kuwaiti people. But I expect in a month or two to be fired."

Myima and Haitim, two young Palestinian woman who would not give their full names, helped staff the lab at Kuwait City's main hospital during the war and throughout the scary period of allied bombing and liberation. They volunteered to work every day, for long shifts, often at night when others would not risk the curfews. They have not been paid in many months. But when they approached the hospital administrator last week, he said they may not be kept on the staff.

"We are very disappointed," said Myima. "We treated the Kuwaitis when they came in with injuries. Now they don't want us."

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