- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2001

KUWAIT CITY Having the country's leader rushed off to London for treatment of a brain hemorrhage just as U.S. military forces are streaming into the region to start a war on terrorism would be a recipe for instability in much of the Middle East.
Kuwait, a key U.S. friend, is quiet, however. In large part, it's a reflection of people's confidence that their governmental institutions are strong and inclusive enough to maintain social cohesion.
How strong those institutions will have to be won't be clear until people learn the scope and nature of U.S. military retaliation for the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington.
The question is whether the United States can strike at extremist Muslims without provoking Islamic fundamentalists, who have come to sometimes uneasy compromises with governments that allow them to influence society as long as they don't threaten the rulers.
Kuwait's emir of nearly a quarter century, Sheik Jaber Ahmed Sabah, is one who allows fundamentalists to exert some influence and participate in the government. At the same time, Kuwait's laws remain largely secular.
The 75-year-old emir's condition is improving, and he will not need surgery to stem cerebral bleeding, Health Minister Mohammed Jarrallah told Kuwait television from London.
He was moved from the intensive care unit to a private room on Monday, and will need several weeks of rest and treatment to make a full recovery, Mr. Jarrallah said.
The health minister said the emir's condition was "continuously improving."
However, he added, the ruler may need up to three more weeks for a full recovery and may take some time off for recuperation.
The emir's designated successor is Crown Prince Saad Abdullah Sabah, 71, a widely popular leader who is himself in poor health.
Next in line is Sheik Sabah Ahmed Sabah, the emir's 72-year-old brother, who is respected and seen as the real decision-maker even today.
If the emir dies, it isn't likely his successor would alter Kuwait's strong support for the United States, which led the 1991 coalition that liberated the country from Iraqi occupation during the Persian Gulf war.
Sheik Jaber took office Dec. 31, 1977, and survived an attempt on his life by a Shi'ite Muslim in a suicide car bombing in May 1985.
During the Gulf war, the emir fled Kuwait but led the government in exile from neighboring Saudi Arabia until he returned after liberation.
Kuwait has had its bouts with extremism, but the size of such groups isn't known.
Some liberal Kuwaitis worry about Islamic fundamentalist politicians who want the small, oil-rich Gulf nation governed by religious law.
But so far the Islamists have pursued their goals peacefully within the system, succeeding on individual issues only when they muster support from other segments of society.
The emir, for example, decreed in 1999 that women be granted the right to vote and run for political office.
But the constitution requires that decrees get parliamentary approval, and Islamist lawmakers vehemently opposed to the idea aligned with other conservatives to defeat the decree.
Although the emir has ultimate authority in Kuwait and could have disbanded parliament and forced the measure through, he did not.
Accepting decisions of parliament, whether favorable or unfavorable to the ruling family's wishes, has built faith that the system can benefit all Kuwaitis at least, in the case of political rights, all Kuwaiti men.
"Usually, in other Arab countries, the room for opposition is very narrow they are chased by the ruling government," said Massouma Mubarak, a political science professor at Kuwait University. "Here, they are part of the government."
Still, fundamentalist militancy could result if President Bush's war on terrorism becomes or is perceived as a war on conservative interpretations of Islam.
Abdullah Muttawa, head of the fundamentalist Social Reform Society, acknowledged tense times lie ahead but stressed that Kuwait is a peaceful society that long has preferred "legal and constitutional ways of expression."
"As long as there is a parliament and proper channels, if there is any objection it will be expressed there," he said.
Crackdowns on extremist Muslims in Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been a primary government response to religious extremism. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as Yemen, have tried to pull extremists into the system to lessen the threat of destabilizing the governments.
But in Saudi Arabia, the royal family is the only decision-making body, and gestures are more like favors bestowed.
There is no pretense of being a policy debated and set by the people's wishes. Yemen falls between the two, with the president's wishes generally receiving a parliamentary rubber stamp.

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