Kuwait: When Old Certainties Are Swept Away
Since the Iraqi invasion in 1990 there have been enormous changes in Kuwaiti society. Following its liberation, the country has made huge strides in the reconstruction of its infrastructure. At the same time, social, economic and political changes have also undeniably altered the make-up of the country. The big question is where these changes will lead.
FREQUENT VISITORS to Kuwait are apt to comment that little has changed in the Emirate as a result of the Iraqi invasion. In the mouths of Kuwait's detractors, the remark is often just snide and ill-informed criticism of the perceived flaws in Kuwaiti society: over-confidence, unwillingness to take on non-managerial jobs and an unresponsive bureaucracy. Coming from Kuwait's friends, the remark refers to the rapid re-building of Kuwait's infrastructure and is often accompanied by the comment that it is "business as usual" in Kuwait.
Both groups of commentators are seeing only a small part of the picture. The fall in Kuwait's population, the re-establishment of the National Assembly, the spending of most of the country's overseas reserves on war-related costs, the revelation of serious corruption in the management of its overseas assets and the exposure of Kuwait's total reliance on Western powers for its own security represent enormous changes in Kuwaiti society,
The question, therefore, is not whether Kuwait has changed, but where the changes seen so far will lead. Will Kuwait's ruling Al Sabah family become the first to lose power in the Gulf for more than 90 years or will the ambitions of some National Assembly members lead to a backlash and the imposition of more authoritarian rule? Or can the ruling family and its opponents find a modus vivendi and rebuild Kuwait as a smaller, more cautious version of its pre-invasion self? The outcome will have a profound effect on the rest of the Gulf, acting either as a spur to change or reaffirmation of the old order.
Recognition of the changes brought about by the invasion does not entail a corresponding denigration of the rapid and successful reconstruction of Kuwait's infrastructure after the liberation. Kuwait's achievements during the last two years have been huge and undeniable.
Despite systematic destruction of the oil fields and facilities, Kuwait was capable of pumping two million barrels a day on a sustainable basis by the end of February this year. (Pre-invasion capacity was put at 2.5m b/d.) Long term crude supply contracts have been re-established with Kuwait's traditional clients. A year after the liberation, two of Kuwait's three refineries were producing at about half their pre-invasion capacity.
Power and water services have been restored and many of the shopping centres and hotels vandalised during the occupation have been partly or almost wholly repaired (although the fall in population has left many shops unoccupied). The banks resumed near-normal customer services within weeks of the liberation.
It is a measure of Kuwait's success in restoring what was damaged that discussions among Kuwait's officials and consultants now focus on expanding and developing the pre-invasion infrastructure facilities and not simply restoration of the status quo ante.
Nevertheless, infrastructure is only one element in the make-up of any country, and an analysis of the rebuilding in Kuwait provides only one view of the complex way in which the country has moved on since its liberation.
Indeed it is ironic that whereas during the 1970s, the construction of huge factories, utilities and office buildings allowed all the Gulf states to claim that their societies were being transformed, when in fact the changing and political continuity which was the most astonishing feature of the oil boom years, now, the reconstruction of Kuwait's infrastructure is being used as a screen to cover the undeniable social, economic and political changes which the invasion has brought about. …