Kuwaitis, accustomed to the easy life, are doing little to rebuild war-torn country

May 19, 1991|By Dallas Morning News

KUWAIT CITY -- Two teen-age girls smile and wave at soldiers outside the U.S. Embassy from their cherry-red convertible. One is wearing skin-tight jeans, the other a hip-hugging skirt with the hemline above her knees.

Madonna's "Like a Virgin" blares from the car's speakers. Draped across the back seat are two abayas, the traditional black robes worn by Arab women. Islamic tradition dictates that women dress modestly.

Why are the abayas in the back seat?

"To get out of the house," the convertible's driver explains as traffic begins to move.

Although Saudi Arabia, at least in public, is a bastion of strict Islamic virtues and values, Kuwaitis have always been decidedly more laid-back. If Saudis are the Calvinists of Islam, many Kuwaitis are its hedonists.

They are the yuppies of the desert, conspicuous consumers par excellence.

Iraq's seven-month occupation put a dent in Kuwait's pocketbook and its free-wheeling lifestyle, but Kuwaitis are bouncing back -- in some ways. Boutiques and fast-food restaurants were among the first businesses to reopen after the Iraqis left. A shipment of 1,000 new Buicks, destined for a Kuwaiti dealership, was en route late last month.

In other ways, however, the country has done little to repair the scars of war. More than two months after the Feb. 27 liberation, streets in Kuwait City are ankle-deep in litter and war debris. Despite widespread damage to commercial buildings and homes, the pace of reconstruction is lethargic.

Kuwaitis who were outside the country during the war aren't breaking any speed records trying to get back home to rebuild. Kuwaitis who suffered through the occupation have displayed considerable energy and enterprise in getting out for a vacation in Switzerland or London.

Kuwaiti society is cursed -- or blessed -- with a collective shop-till-you-drop mentality. In the aftermath of the occupation, it has not taken a roll-up-your-sleeves approach to the many problems facing the country. Many Kuwaitis seem perfectly willing to wait until they can pay someone to do the dirty work, no matter how long it takes.

Such attitudes can be blamed in part on geology.

Fate led a nomadic tribe from the harsh Arabian interior to a seemingly worthless wedge of coastal desert on the Persian Gulf.

For years Kuwaitis eked out a living with maritime trade, boat building and pearl diving. In 1938 geologists discovered that Kuwait was floating atop one of the world's largest oil deposits. After World War II, when the oil resources could be developed, the good times began.

Today, Kuwaitis seem determined to get those good times rolling again, despite the austere dictates of Islam and the

sobering aftereffects of war.

One of Islam's most important religious observances is Ramadan. For a month, Muslims should abstain from food, drink, tobacco and other pleasurable pursuits during daylight. After sunset, the fast is broken with a large meal.

In Saudi Arabia, visitors are sternly warned to comply with Ramadan restrictions while in public. Business comes to a standstill. Visitors are warned that drivers might be out of sorts by late afternoon.

Although many Kuwaitis are observant, it is not unusual to see men smoking during Ramadan. And especially before the Iraqi invasion, abstaining from pleasurable pursuits was hardly the rule.

During this year's Ramadan, which began March 17, one wealthy Kuwaiti businessman stood on the beach, staring wistfully at the waves.

"Before the Iraqis came, it was great," he mused. "We'd jet-ski all afternoon and then go eat."

Alcohol is strictly prohibited in Saudi Arabia and officially prohibited in Kuwait. Yet even wet bars can be found in Kuwaiti homes. But since the war, Kuwait's primary source of alcoholic beverages -- Iraq -- has dried up.

Nevertheless, where there's a will, there's a way. The devastation of war and its aftermath have not prevented many Kuwaitis from struggling to maintain their former way of life.

More than two dozen men recently attended a diwaniya, a traditional male Kuwaiti gathering. They lounged on couches or floor pillows. The goodies distributed by servants included traditional Arab fare: olives and dates, nut-filled pastries, unleavened bread.

Some of the men wore traditional dis--a -- white, ankle-length cotton robes -- and ghutras, or red-and-white cloth headdresses tied with a headband. Footwear ranged from sandals to running shoes.

Other guests wore jeans. One relaxed in a jogging suit.

New arrivals were greeted in a traditional Arab fashion: a long handshake, a hug and a series of light kisses on each cheek.

The refreshments definitely were not traditional.

One of the guests, a business owner in his 40s, sat cross-legged on the floor playing gin rummy. He nursed a scotch and water.

A bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label was among several bottles of spirits on a table. Two frequently visited ice chests held several dozen cans of Lowenbrau beer.

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