Slow Recovery for Kuwaiti Society

One year after liberation, legacy of prejudice takes toll on social trust and economic revival

ONE year after the liberation of Kuwait, there are few reminders that a war ever was fought here.

Luxury shops are filled with expensive imported goods, and Kuwait City's streets are lined with high-class cars. On a five-star hotel, an image of Colonel Sanders making a V-for-victory sign is projected six stories high.

"Besides the oil-industry destruction," says Hassan al-Ebraheem, a Kuwaiti political scientist and charity founder, "Kuwait City was not really damaged. The Iraqis didn't have the time to do the total destruction they had planned. In seven months they destroyed the institutional infrastructure of Kuwait - by destroying files, by ransacking libraries."

Less visible but perhaps more damaging, the social fabric of Kuwaiti society seems to have borne the brunt of the occupation.

"It's easy to rebuild a bridge," says Fatama Nazar, a Kuwaiti lecturer at the University of Kuwait, "but it's hard to get back a feeling of safety."

While most Kuwaitis seek to play down the war's social impact, there are widespread reports that the public has yet to come to terms with the effects of the seven-month occupation. If anything, reports of violence toward foreign workers is on the increase. More than 300 Asian women have taken refuge in their embassies after fleeing abusive Kuwaiti employers.

"The intolerance toward non-Kuwaitis has become worse than it was before," says one Palestinian who has lived all his life in Kuwait. "Rather than being humbled by the war, they have become even more Kuwaiti. A small minority have rethought their priorities, but the bulk of Kuwaitis have become more grasping, more materialistic.

"It knocks all the myths and sentimentalism printed about the occupation. Prove to me that the Kuwaitis have learned anything."

Concern over the country's nationality remains high. Even before coalition forces ended Iraqi occupation of the country last year, Kuwaitis were debating how to reduce their dependence on foreigners.

Last week the Council of Ministers decided to suspend issuing expatriate work permits for two weeks. A recent government report revealed that some 140,000 foreign maids have entered Kuwait since liberation.

According to new regulations, all foreigners must have residency permits by the end of May or they could face fines or even expulsion. Many of those without such permits were in fact born here. Only 30,000 Palestinians remain in Kuwait from a pre-war population of more than 350,000. Within months there may be only a few thousand.

"The population is half of what it was, and it is also changed in type," says Jassem al-Saddoun, a Kuwaiti economist and pro-democracy supporter.

"The change in the population has mostly affected the mid-skilled management which was mostly Palestinian and partly Iraqi. Now the management is less qualified and it has affected the productivity of the private sector," he says.

When elections are held next October, between 80,000 and 100,000 Kuwaitis will be eligible to vote - all "first-class" males over the age of 21. The distinction marks them as descendants of Kuwaitis resident in 1920, well before the discovery of oil. Earlier pledges to give the vote to women and "second-class" males appear to have been forgotten.

Late last week several hundred women made their position on the absence of a vote clear by trying to register at one of the city's registration centers. But no public rallies have been held to press their case.

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