A Quiet Renewal in Kuwait Masks the Lack of Debate on Reform Series: THE GULF: ONE YEAR LATER. First of Three Articles Appearing Today

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AS Kuwaitis ponder their future after the most traumatic 365 days in their country's history, they are doing so quietly, engaging in little public debate about things to come.

The prospects for democracy, the distribution of Kuwait's oil wealth, the country's overwhelming dependence on foreigners - these and other aspects of Kuwaiti life have been turned upside down since Iraq invaded this desert emirate a year ago. (Saddam's grip at home, Page 6.)

But after a seven-month occupation that stripped the country even of its existence, the mere fact that their homeland has been restored to them by the United States-led coalition seems for the time being to be enough.

Kuwaitis themselves and foreign observers attribute the general reluctance to address questions raised by the past year's events to a number factors: Many Kuwaitis still have not returned home; those who have are still taking stock; and the government is doing its best to still any doubts about its performance with generous financial assistance to all Kuwaitis.

"The government is giving and giving and giving," says one senior official privately. "Seven months back salary plus a cash gift equals silence." The National Council is currently considering giving every Kuwaiti family $60,000.

Basic questions about the invasion - why the country was so unprepared, why the Army crumbled almost immediately, why the country's entire leadership fled to Saudi Arabia rather than staying to organize resistance - remain taboo for public discussion.

At the same time, says a European diplomat, "the agenda for a new Kuwait was not set in any kind of detail during the exile. There is nothing to indicate that the most fundamental questions about Kuwait's future have been asked."

Instead, the emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, told the inaugural session of the council last month that there was "much to do after the liberation ... to return Kuwait to the way it was, or better."

At one level, though, the ruling al-Sabah family has accepted that some change is inevitable: The emir has promised elections in October 1992 to the parliament that he dissolved five years ago.

The vote was a key demand of opposition leaders. "It was the price the royal family paid for keeping Kuwaitis with them," says the diplomat. "And now they are committed to the Constitution."

If before the Iraqi invasion the al-Sabahs were "seeing how far they could bend the constitutional limits" to their power, he says, now "they have accepted the system, and are haggling within it to maintain the balance of power in their own hands as far as possible."

That haggling has infuriated opposition figures, who fear the royal family is set on keeping absolute control over Kuwait.

"The government shows the image of a free-enterprise society, but actually they have a communist way of thinking," argues human rights activist Ghanem al-Najar.

"They think that everything that happens must happen through the government. …

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