Liberated Kuwait plods along aimlessly Citizens seethe, leaders vacation

May 28, 1991|By Alan Sipress | Alan Sipress,Knight-Ridder News Service

KUWAIT CITY -- Almost three months after liberation, Kuwait is a land lacking in leadership, stripped of its work force, gutted of supplies and apparently in little hurry to do anything about it.

Although electricity and water are finally operating, telephones and traffic lights remain temperamental, making for a chorus of slammed receivers and bumped bumpers. From broken traffic lights to missing ministries, Kuwaiti society seems utterly directionless.

"Up to now, we didn't set our priorities," said Planning Minister Ahmed Ali al-Jasser. "We will wait at least two to three weeks more to see what things we need. It needs to be discussed with the other ministers."

Outside his office, white-robed Kuwaitis fingering worry beads wandered the halls looking for an official, a clerk, anyone who could help them restore order to their shattered lives.

But just 14 of the ministry's 987 employees are back at work. About half the old workers were foreigners, especially Palestinians, who either fled the country during the war or have been ordered by the Kuwaiti government to stay off work. Most of the ministry's Kuwaiti employees still live abroad, and no one is certain when they will come back.

To savvy Kuwaitis, this near-paralysis comes as little surprise.

"This is the usual practice around here," said Abdul Aziz Sultan, chairman of the Gulf Bank and a member of one of Kuwait's most powerful merchant families. "Kuwait was never managed anyway, so we don't expect it to be managed in a crisis. Now everyone sees the weaknesses."

Governmental inaction is especially crippling because the regime has monopolized both labor and capital -- through its control on one hand of visas for foreign workers and, on the other, of the country's oil revenue and nearly $100 billion in overseas investments.

But Kuwait's stagnant surface is deceptive. Below it, there is dangerous turbulence.

New hatreds now divide Kuwaitis and the Palestinians, who were the managers and technicians in this society. New hatreds divide the Kuwaitis who endured the occupation and those who spent it in relative comfort in exile. New hatreds divide the increasingly Westernized population and its autocratic, tradition-bound leadership.

Add this to rankling frustration with the near-comatose government, and a volatile mix results. Add guns, and there will be trouble.

There are now more guns tucked away in basements and attics than this country has ever known -- guns left by the retreating Iraqis, guns obtained by the Kuwaiti resistance movement, guns still being smuggled across the Iraqi border.

What afflicts Kuwait is much more than just the damage of occupation and war. In fact, the destruction here is much less than expected and seems to surprise Kuwaitis returning with visions of the bombed-out cities of postwar Germany.

Granted, hundreds of homes, shops, office towers, schools and power plants have been looted. But not leveled. The buildings and infrastructure here are in far better shape than in many places at peace, such as Cairo or Philadelphia.

The estimated cost of rebuilding the emirate has plummeted over recent weeks from $100 billion to $25 billion to perhaps less than $20 billion. As a result, the gold-rush fever that swept many foreign businessmen has given way to disappointment.

"The reconstruction boom will be in Iraq and not in Kuwait," said industrial magnate Bassam al-Ghanim.

Instead, what afflicts Kuwait is an apparent unwillingness to lift a finger except to point it.

The apparent paralysis of the al-Sabah family, which has ruled Kuwait since 1756, has come in for some of the sharpest criticism. After the U.S.-led forces restored his government to power in February, Emir Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah remained behind for two weeks in the Saudi mountain resort of Taif -- nicknamed "Dessert Storm" for its groaning banquet tables. Sheik Jaber returned only after suitably palatial arrangements in Kuwait could be arranged.

During Sheik Jaber's only public speech since then, he told his people last month that all personal loans would be forgiven. This pledge came as a surprise to Kuwaiti bankers, for whom this could represent a $4 billion loss, and they have yet to receive any government direction on the matter.

"The Kuwaiti government never gives any policy statements," Gulf Bank Chairman Sultan said. "They don't give any leadership. It's nothing new."

Neither has the government indicated what it will do to salvage the teetering banking system, now owed as much as $25 billion by local businesses. Many enterprises have been plundered and cannot repay.

"The government made a lot of promises but did not deliver," said Suleiman al-Mutawa, Kuwait's former planning minister. "It sat for seven months [in exile in Saudi Arabia] planning a post-liberation program, and, when it returned, the man in the street did not see the fruition of that plan."

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