SADDAM HUSSEIN risked international condemnation and great power reprisals when he invaded neighboring Kuwait, a tiny oil-rich nation whose increasingly free intellectual and political atmosphere sounded bells of warning for Iraq's dictator. Western analysts have flocked to the notion that this latest Iraqi military adventure is motivated by oil pricing and production policies. But the reasons for Hussein's lightning move into Kuwait are far more complex.
Iraq's inherent political instability, together with growing Kuwaiti agitation for the kind of political changes that have shaken Eastern Europe, have made it more and more difficult for Hussein to sit by while his tiny neighbor edged closer to liberalism, and instability. Moreover, the tolerance and moderation exhibited by Kuwait's ruling Al Sabah family toward the growing pressures for change led the Iraqi leader to conclude that the Kuwaiti rulers had to go.
An examination of Kuwait's recent history strengthens this assessment of Hussein's motives. Kuwait is a small country with approximately 1 million ethnically similar citizens. In addition, it hosts a huge foreign work force and has a large Palestinian minority that does not hold Kuwaiti nationality. The Palestinian connection is an important one since that group represents a highly educated force for change, especially in view of the ongoing impact of the two-year-old intifadah against Israel.
Intellectual ferment in Kuwait over the past decade has led to demands for greater power sharing by various groups. Kuwait's parliament was disbanded in the mid 1980s after being accused of disruptive activities. But it has resurfaced as a political option during the last six months. Moreover, an attempt on the life of the emir and other incidents of sabotage were not met with strong repressive measures by the ruling Sabah family. In fact, the behavior of the government can be described as relatively liberal in the Middle Eastern context.
From a Western viewpoint, it's difficult to see family-ruled Kuwait as anything but repressive. Nonetheless, increasing pressures for change there have not been met with severe measures - as would be common in the region.
This mild reaction to a vocal and visible opposition set Kuwait's political environment apart from others, especially Iraq's. Arabs from other nations often remark that Kuwait has a relatively free press, perhaps even dangerously so. Viewed from Iraq, Kuwait had to look like a hot bed of dissent.
The seriousness of Kuwaiti political developments and their potential to affect neighboring Iraq should not be underestimated. Historically, Iraq is a multifaceted and divided land. Independence from the British in 1932 did not bring political stability. The monarchy that the British installed to rule Iraq in its first years of independence was in fact the same family which was removed from the Hejaz region of Arabia by Ibn Saud when he formed the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
That family was first set up in Syria before being moved to Iraq. The dynasty, related to present-day King Hussein of Jordan, was bloodily deposed during the Iraqi revolution of July 1958. The 10 years after revolution saw four violent changes of power in Iraq. Since Saddam Hussein seized control in 1968, however, the country has remained relatively calm.
He and his Baath Party supporters have maintained order by heavy reliance on force. Dissent is not tolerated. As a result, Iraq is a land of fear and uncertainty for many. But it is not in the throws of violent revolution and political upheaval, and Iraqis can thank Saddam Hussein for that. The Iraqi president vows to keep his country stable, and from his perspective the Al Sabah family was failing to do the same.
The freedom of expression being allowed in Kuwait had the potential to spill over into Iraq. More important, things might have gotten out of hand in Kuwait and threatened the stability of the entire Gulf and its crucial commerce in oil. Long-term disputes over territory between the two nations, and the fact that Kuwait was once a part of Iraq, were all added reasons for Hussein to remove the Al Sabahs.
In spite of mounting economic reverberations and sanctions against Iraq, for now Saddam Hussein appears to have succeeded in installing a more cooperative government in Kuwait. Regardless of Hussein's next move, Kuwait is not the same country it was a week ago.
The vulnerability of its leaders was exposed by the ease with which they were flicked out of power by the strong man to the north. The Al Sabahs are not likely to regain their lost position, even if Hussein were to allow them to try. Above all, the events of this past week stand as a powerful reminder that in the Middle East, tolerance and weakness are easily confused.