- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2003

Kuwait City, KUWAIT.

It could have been Farmington Hills, Mich. or Des Moines, Iowa, or any of the other last-minute rallies at the end of a long political campaign. The candidate, Nasser Al-Sane, had the look of the winner, as he worked the crowd that had packed his campaign tent, arms waving and (if the loose translation that I received was any indication) superlatives flying. Around him were the usual campaign flotsam and jetsam — a bright, but ill-hanging banner behind the platform concealing broken water bottle boxes, stacks of bumper stickers and colorful pamphlets on a table in front.

There were a few differences however. The men were dressed in their traditional white robes, and most of them were planning on staying for dinner. In Kuwait’s constitutional monarchy, the battle for the soul of Islam is being fought in a more moderate way than elsewhere in the Arab world — at diwaniyas, traditional meetings at which Kuwaitis gather to eat and talk — rather than with suicide bombers. Think of the hard-cider and electioneering of early America, without any alcohol. There weren’t any women at the diwaniya either, aside from the female member of our delegation. Even our outstanding female guide from the Kuwaiti Information Office had decided to stay away, out of “courtesy” to Mr. Al-Sane.

Mr. Al-Sane, who was re-elected to Parliament, is a central figure in the Islamist bloc, one of three informal groups fighting for power in Kuwait’s constitutional monarchy. Islamists, while not necessarily opposed to Westernization (in the sense of the wealth and products it brings) are definitely opposed to liberalization. They are against granting women the franchise and government’s efforts toward privatization. They support the establishment of the strict sharia law and cooler relations with the United States. Progressives, who as a result of the elections now only hold four seats in the 50-seat parliament, disagree with them on each issue. Between them is the largest bloc, the tribalists and trading families, who tend to follow the wishes of the ruling Sabah family.

Not always, though. A few years ago, the family tried to give women the franchise by decree, but the parliament failed to ratify it. It isn’t clear whether the government will try again, or what the outcome will be if it does. Parliament is perhaps the most prominent focus of Kuwait’s ongoing clash between old and new; Islamist and progressive. Even the parliament building is a construction of the cultural contradictions. Standing stark and white, a modernized jolt against the ancient sands, it was designed to look like a Bedouin tent.

However, similar battles are being fought elsewhere. At Kuwait University, both more liberal and more radical and female students tend to use the limited franchise that they have there to vote for Islamists. By day, women walked through our hotel lobby wearing full-body- covering burqas, but by night, others would strut though the same lobby wearing cocktail dresses immodest enough to make a Beltwayer blush.

Even the Bedouins enjoy air conditioning, though, since Kuwait is like Denmark with oil wells. Thanks to the billions that flow in from its oil reserves, most of the citizens live comfortable, well-subsidized, fairly cool lives (even when the thermometer reaches 120 degrees). There are no taxes, the state pays for male and female citizens’ educations through the university level and the government gives out other generous subsidies. Citizens’ life expectancies are comparable to those in the West, and no one, aside from the 1.5 million guest workers, has to labor too hard.

However, that prosperity has seemingly had a downside. Because citizens don’t have to work very hard, not many do, instead being content with quasi-sinecures. Ninety-five percent of Kuwaitis are employed by the government — postal service jobs with exponentially better pay scales. Yet pushing paper is not necessarily any more meaningful than stamping envelopes, and it seems to show. Many of the Kuwaitis I talked to spoke of national stagnation. They didn’t attribute it to their sudden, easy oil wealth, but it’s a likely reason.

That wealth has brought modernization and Westernization. The former trend seems to have cemented into the foundations of the Burger Kings and designer clothing stores that dot the cityscape. The society seems largely liberated, even though women don’t have the vote. Kuwait City’s streets are lively despite the ban on alcohol. However, the winds of Westernization could turn into a stiff breeze Eastward, if Islamists continue to grow in strength or the ruling Sabah family abandons its tack towards reform.

Yet, more than the pragmatic ideology of Islamists or the hopes of progressives, Kuwait’s dependence on oil seems likely to be the most dominant force driving the nation’s politics. Oil wealth is the central fact of the Kuwaiti economy and the fundamental support of its successful welfare state. Time will tell how all of the contradictions resolve themselves.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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