Engulfed

Philip Robins

In his long-awaited book Kuwait: Vanguard of the Gulf,[*] Peter Mansfield may unwittingly have written an obituary for the Amirate, so suddenly and unexpectedly overrun by Iraq on 2 August. Like most obituaries, it concentrates on the positive aspects of this small and vulnerable city state. As with most obituaries, the shortcomings of the Principality are largely placed on one side in favour of an intensely personal and very English reminiscence of ‘this remarkable little state’. In producing his gentle view of what one Kuwaiti has called the Athenian style of democracy in the Amirate, he presents a broad perspective which is shared by many. It is the perspective of the Sunni community in Kuwait, of the Gulf Arabs in general, and of numerous governments in the region and around the world. It is no coincidence that all three of these constituencies have enjoyed the benefits of the existence of Kuwait virtually cost-free.

The Sunni population, which comprises about 60 per cent of the citizenry but less than 30 per cent of the population, has prospered most under the Amirate. It is this group that has been the main beneficiary of the circulation of the country’s oil wealth – in particular, through the benefits of the country’s extensive welfare system. It has benefited from the decision to Kuwaiti-ise the labour force, which has offered accelerated promotion and quick access to positions of power.

For the governments and intellectuals of the smaller, more southerly Gulf states, Kuwait was a valuable counterweight to the overbearing attentions of Saudi Arabia. Liberal Kuwait, with its traditions of free discourse, an open press and a vigorous though intermittent parliament, provided an opposite pole to the grim uniformity of Saudi Arabia. The greater the distance between the two poles, the greater the freedom of action of the other members of the Gulf Co-operation Council.

Kuwait has also distributed its favours more widely. Through the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development the Government has circulated its oil-generated largesse widely across the developing world. Such a policy was a deliberate attempt on the part of the Amirate to interest as many states as possible in its continued existence. This global approach of buying good will was a function of Kuwait’s central foreign policy challenge: that of a small state trying to maintain its independence, and maximise its diplomatic room for manoeuvre, in the face of three overbearing regional powers: Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

But an alternative view to ‘benign Kuwait’ does exist. This perspective, at its most crude yet also at its most evocative, has been expressed by the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, and by the media and other organs of propaganda in Iraq. This view is that the royal family in Kuwait has been corrupt and self-serving, and has shamelessly and cynically stratified society within the Amirate. Such criticism has found some sympathy among those inside Kuwait. As one Palestinian living and working there told me, Kuwait is a place of insiders and outsiders. If you are Sunni (or one of the handful of old Shia merchant families), and of ‘pure’ stock, then you qualify as an insider with full rights to citizenship and access to the wealth of the country. For the rest of the population the situation is more difficult. The Shias, though possessing nationality, are periodically discriminated against, in terms both of employment and of resource allocation, especially with regard to their religious establishments; and they have been prevented from taking part in elections. Neither the ‘bidoun’ who form much of the Army, nor the Palestinians who comprise a fifth of the population and have for the most part lived in the Amirate for two generations, are offered the coveted prize of Kuwaiti citizenship, other than in exceptional circumstances. They therefore live a precarious existence, with the Palestinians denied the right for their offspring to settle in the place of their birth and upbringing.

A broader Iraqi criticism of Kuwait has been that it has not used its bountiful oil income for the good of the region. It has been content to amass more than $100 bn worth of assets which have been lodged outside the Arab world. The Kuwaitis are accused of particularism in a region where Arab nationalism is still an article of faith. The poverty and underdevelopment of much of the region are laid at their door, as is the debt problem. The Iraqis have attacked Kuwait for lodging funds in Western banks which in turn are lent back, at high rates, to the larger, potentially more powerful states in the region. Thus, goes the Iraqi charge, the Kuwaitis have deviously helped to undermine the region’s leaders.

The response to such charges indicates one of the major dichotomies of the region. While the governments of the Arab states which have been the recipients of Kuwaiti aid have dismissed such accusations as propaganda, the reaction at a mass level has been rather different. Among Palestinians and Jordanians, many of whom have worked in the Gulf, there is bitter resentment at their treatment in a fellow Arab country.

It is not just in relation to the policies of Kuwait that a gap can be said to have opened up between the view of Arab governments and their populations. The decision of Saudi Arabia to seek the assistance of US troops and other foreign – that is to say, non-Arab – forces has been widely met in the region with dismay. For individual Arabs, such a turn of events is a humiliation. It is further evidence that the Arab governments are hopelessly divided by petty and personal jealousies, and are unable to close ranks even over their own national security. It is evidence, too, of the Arab world’s psychological and material dependence on the countries of the old West and on the United States in particular. Insult is added to injury because, first, this structural dependence is owed to states which were responsible for dividing up the Arab nation with the crudest use of ruler and pencil, and secondly, because of the role of such states as the UK and the US in sponsoring and supporting the state of Israel. The view is propounded that if the major states of the Arab world, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are beholden to the US for their economic well-being and their security respectively, then what hope do the Arabs have of ever achieving a balanced and honourable settlement with Israel?

Since the Saudi decision to invite in US troops, the Arab world has seen the emergence of a curious alliance – with Islamists joining Arab nationalists in attacking US intervention. The nationalists are tarnished by their failures in the region over the last four decades and by their inability to do anything more than rail in exasperation at successive humiliations, and criticism from an Islamic perspective may ultimately pose the more potent threat to regional stability.

The legitimacy of the Saudi royal family is based, more than anything, on the Islamic religion, and on the ability of the Saudis to offer open access to all Muslims to perform the pilgrimage, one of the five requirements laid on the pious Muslim. The importance apportioned to this role is conveyed by King Fahd’s clumsy decision to assume the title of ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ before his kingly prefix. Yet the Saudis’ ability to execute this essential task has come under question. In 1987, over four hundred died during the pilgrimage when riots broke out after Iranian pilgrims had staged political demonstrations. This year there were more than three times that number of fatalities following a stampede in a tunnel at one of the holy sites.

By the time the Saudis invited in the US forces, their credentials as protectors of the religious shrines had somewhat faded. In addition to the Iranians, Turkey and other Muslim states had been critical of Saudi management of the pilgrimage. The current move to call in non-Muslim forces from a state which is the main sponsor and protector of Israel will therefore test Muslim patience not just in the Arab world but throughout the Muslim diaspora. The gravity of the act can be comprehended through analogy: a suitable one might be that of some 15th-century Pope inviting Ottoman forces to protect the Vatican.

Both Arab nationalists and Islamists have seen themselves manoeuvred by events into tacitly or even actively supporting the position of Saddam Hussein. This is a deeply uncomfortable position for many nationalists and virtually all Islamists. An Arab Nationalist party, the Ba’th, may nominally rule in Baghdad, but few nationalists in the Arab world are fooled. They regard Saddam Hussein as an authoritarian and brutal figure. A recent book, Republic of Fear by an exiled Iraqi writing under a pseudonym for fear of reprisals against his family,[†] describes the climate which prevails in Saddam’s Iraq. His rural peasant background and that of the main bedrock of his support are fundamentally illiberal and anti-intellectual. There is no doubting the sort of centralised and repressive regime which would be installed were the Arab world to unite under Saddam’s moral leadership. Even Saddam’s commitment to pan-Arab ideals are in doubt. He invokes and manipulates political and religious symbols as they suit him: his rhetoric proclaims Saddam the Iraqi nationalist, the Arab nationalist, the descendant of the Prophet, without any apparent appreciation of the tension between these claims. The position of Islamists is even more uncomfortable. Saddam has regularly persecuted even to death that section of the Shia establishment which has challenged his legitimacy or claimed the right to comment on the form and content of his government. Sunni religious observance has been oppressively regulated and denied political form.

Neither nationalists nor Islamists, on the whole, relish giving support to Saddam. Yet the alternative for them is arguably more unpalatable. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein would remove the most powerful Arab state, and the Arab leader with the audacity and sang-froid necessary to stand up to the West. His downfall would be interpreted by all as an American triumph which left the world’s only superpower presiding over a unipolar world. This in turn would be likely to encourage a new breed of subservient Arab ruler, without bringing about any of the benefits the West claims to promote, such as increased political participation, or the self-determination sought by the Palestinians.

If the ‘best case scenario’ from a Western point of view comes to pass and Amiri rule is restored in Kuwait, this may be seen as vindicating the allocative policies of the regime. However, no one should be in any doubt as to the profound shock the Arab world will have been given, and the resultant weakening of the traditional leaderships in the Gulf. New policies and strategies will be required of the Gulf regimes. An essential element, assuming they get the chance, will surely be a widening of their domestic base of support.

[*] Hutchinson, 139 pp., £14.99, 9 August, 0 09 173604 8.

[†] Republic of Fear: Saddam’s Iraq by Samir al-Khalil. Radius, 310 pp., £7.99, 16 August, 0 09 174683 3.