Business as usual in Kuwait Many promised reforms slow in coming, if at all.

November 27, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

KUWAIT CITY LLHC XPB — KUWAIT CITY -- Eight months after Saddam Hussein's Iraqi legions were repulsed, the passion, anxieties and dark-of-night retributions of the immediate postwar days have softened in Kuwait.

Desert Storm camouflage has given way to blue suits of deal-makers from Europe, the United States and Japan. "Mad Max has gone," as one Western diplomat puts it, "and the carpetbaggers have taken over."

Now, too, the grasp of bureaucracy is once again choking business enterprise. The prospect of political change, which seemed to boil after liberation, has become a mere simmer.

And the postwar demands for "Kuwaitization" of the work force -- to reverse the system that left Kuwaitis as no more than one-third their own country's population -- are still raised but seldom heeded.

At the restored Kuwait International Airport, 12 to 15 planes arrive daily, many packed with single women from Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Well-to-do Kuwaiti families once again have the maid service that has provided them with one of the world's least strenuous lifestyles. One diplomat put the number of returning maids at 100,000 out of an estimated prewar level of 180,000. That prewar figure meant Kuwait had nine times more maids than soldiers, an illustration of priorities.

In middle- and lower-class flats in the old sections of the capital, Egyptian men are living five or six to a room, taking over space -- and jobs -- left by Palestinians, whose numbers have fallen to less than 20 percent of the estimated 400,000 who lived in Kuwait before the Iraqis invaded on Aug. 2, 1990.

The Palestinians' days here were numbered once Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat sided with Saddam Hussein during the war.

The Palestinians formed the heart of the middle class, and their purchasing power will not be replaced by Egyptian men coming to Kuwait on short-term contracts. In addition to the issue of political loyalties, Kuwaitis are also loath to let a second generation of Palestinians take hold of the mid-managerial reins of government services, commerce and professions here.

Meantime, the grip of the Sabahs, the ruling family, has not relaxed. The emir, Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah, and his brothers, nephews and cousins have resumed control of the political superstructure and have set the political agenda as well.

Within three months of liberation, the emir, pressured in those heady days for reform, named a new Cabinet that perpetuated Sabah control of the key ministries of interior, defense and foreign affairs.

Demands for political change were rampant at war's end, particularly among the Kuwaitis who remained here during the occupation. The opposition -- a label that in Kuwait includes democrats, Islamists and Pan-Arabists -- called for prompt restoration of the Parliament that was disbanded in 1986.

The emir promised new elections for October 1992 -- a distant 20 months from the end of the war. The pledge was initially met with charges that he was stalling, but it now has become a visible political milepost down the road.

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