Arriving in Kuwait I am taken on a ‘visit’ of Kuwait which consists of touring the Scientific Center, with Aquarium. Not to be condescending but on walking into the Science Center, which is a very clean glass and steel contemporary building, I am confronted by a, Jaws style, great white shark smashing its way through a concrete wall. In many ways this view captures my preconceptions of Kuwait. As a desert they should be fascinated by water so it should not really come as a sup rise that the first part of “Kuwait” I am shown is the Aquarium. As for the Jaws style great white shark the colonisation of American culture of the Arabian desert city could not be better articulated. The American style highways, with American cars, are lined with American chains such as McDonalnds and 7Eleven. For a country whose Parliament is dominated by Islamists there can be no doubt where the real power lies. The Islamists have however, been able to make sure that Kuwait is T-total. Thus, foreigners are forced with the indignity of having to hold debauched house parties that Kuwaitis can also attend without the inconvenience of getting caught, as in Saudi and Iran.
I was in Kuwait because Al Wataniya a new Kuwaiti airline flew me to Kwuait City from my home in Beirut to review their new airline for Executive Magazine. The trip was probably the quickest trip I will ever experience in my life; leaving on the Saturday and returning the next day in the afternoon. Thus, what I learned about Kuwait was extremly superficial but interesting nonetheless.
Currently Kuwait is experiencing quite a storm internally; Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah recently dissolved parliament on the basis of national unity and called for new elections for May 17th. The Kuwait political system is interesting, for some background see the estimate (a bit outdated but very informative). Kuwait has the oldest elected legislative body in the Gulf and has a thriving parliamentary system that is elected but subject to the emir’s quite frequent decisions to dissolve parliament. Recently the urge to dissolve parliament has been particularly strong for the Emir as parliament has been dissolved twice in the past year. Kuwait’s current political dead lock has been becuase of the strong Islamist factions, with some liberal and tribal leaders, pushing for Ministers to be called to account over their practices. However, the Ministers have preferred not to be scrutinised and resigned. This led to the Emir dissolving parliament, in part also becuase of the need to inject $5 billion into the economy as a stimulus in this period of low liquidity.
Kuwait also has a thriving media with 17 daily newspapers, the reason for this being every ‘big man’ in Kuwait wanting his own paper. Those in Lebanon will know all to well the Kuwaiti media with one paper Al-Seyassah being particulalry active on Lebanese politics. Al-Seyasseya articulates the strange regional game that occurs in the Middle East with sometimes Lebanese breaking stories of vital importants appearing in the Kuwaiti paper.
Geographically Kuwait is a small country that site vulnerably between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, on the Persian Gulf. Relations with Iraq have always been tense. The Iraqis have historically laid claim to Kuwait as being a part of the Ottoman province of Basra and unjustly severed from Britain from the main body of Iraq in the 1920s. Britain protected from ‘Kuwait’ from Iraqi claims in the 1960s and then in the Gulf War but of course the superpower of the day the US really protected Kuwaiti sovereignty. The Gulf War is still very much a raw subject in Kuwait and even in my brief stay I saw pictures in the Kuwaiti towers of the destruction wrought on Kuwait with a sign stating how the barbaric Iraqi invaders destroyed everything. Charles Tripp, in his History of Iraq, details how Saddam invaded Kuwait basically becuase he wanted to extort money from the vastly wealthy Gulf country to help with the vast Iraqi debt that he was pilling up. When Kuwait was not really willing to had over the money he decided to invade on the 2 August 1990 and completed the occuption in 24 hours. The ruler of Kuwait Emir al-Sabah left with 300,000 other Kuwaitis and Saddam announced Kuwait as the 19th province of Iraq. This of course as we all know was not to last and Saddam did not find a “supine Arab world or an acquiescent international community,” as Tripp states he expected. It was the Gulf war that caused the US to station half a million American troops in Saudi and this led to the rise of Bin Laden and Sept. 11. Coming from Lebanon that has such a pivitol role in the history of the region, Kuwait shows how another tiny state has formed the history of the contemporary Middle East and shaped Western-Middle Eastern relations.