KUWAIT CITY — HONORING the Bedouin tradition of desert hospitality is all very well, but what could a candidate in the Kuwaiti elections do when two or three thousand people turned up to hear him speak?
Go down market. With the price of sheep skyrocketing due to the demand from election-rally caterers, many would-be national assembly members turned to chewier but cheaper camel meat.
Providing one's audience with dinner is simply common courtesy in the rule book of Kuwaiti political etiquette. As the speeches drew to a close at one rally in the Bedouin town of Jahra, Egyptian kitchen-hands in a nearby tent shoveled 440 pounds of rice onto platters that were then garnished with the boiled remains of 23 sheep and one camel, before being laid out in long, orderly rows on the sand.
Even for a country as wealthy as Kuwait, the costs of running a respectable campaign are high, especially since most candidates stood as independents. A bill for $150,000 to secure posters, pamphlets, and hospitality raised no eyebrows, and several millionaire candidates reportedly spent twice that much. Why walk when you can pay 57 cents a gallon?
If you judged by the pedestrians on the sidewalks in this country, you'd think you were in Bangladesh or the Philippines, because Kuwaitis do not walk. If they are not at home or in the office, they are in their cars.
And what cars. The city's wide-open freeways, which could cope comfortably with five times the traffic they actually bear, are rich with the sort of boats that automakers in the United States find hard to unload on energy-conscious Americans.
Shiny gas guzzlers of every description roar by; Kuwaitis have a particular predilection for GMC Suburbans and Chevrolet Caprice Classics. But in an emirate sitting on top of oil reserves expected to last longer than any other country's, and where gas costs a mere 57 cents a gallon, nobody cares.
Now the country's reverence of the automobile has reached new and somewhat grotesque heights, with a memorial to Sheikh Fahad al-Ahmed al-Sabah, the emir's brother, and the lone member of the royal family to die in the August 1990 Iraqi invasion.
The Kuwaiti Olympic Association, of which Sheikh Fahad was president, has chosen to commemorate him by painting his Lincoln Town Car gold - Super Sport Wide Wheels and all - and mounting it on a marble plinth outside their office.
Through the roof of the bullet-scarred vehicle - Sheikh Fahad was killed as he drove it away from Kuwait City on the morning of Aug. 2 - an enormous fist punches defiantly toward the sky. At night this oddity is floodlit. No need to hunt around for the foreign food section
Kuwait's location at the head of the Persian Gulf has long made it a crossroads for international traders, and if the merchandise is more likely to arrive by Boeing 747 today than by dhow, it still arrives from all over the world.
A glance at the produce shelves in the Sultan Center supermarket gives you the idea. Egyptian guavas sit next to Dutch lettuce and tomatoes, alongside US celery, Indonesian ginger, Cypriot mint, Australian carrots, Saudi Arabian cucumbers, Indian onions, Lebanese eggplants, Chilean apples, and Chinese garlic.
Oriental exotica can be found in profusion - wooden trunks of cinnamon, turmeric, and dried lemon perfume the air, and for those with more prosaic tastes, there is an entire shelf full of Pillsbury's Artificial Strawberry Flavor Frosting Supreme.
But on Thursday and Friday nights - during the Muslim weekend - you know you are in Kuwait. Security guards are posted at the door to prevent young, single Kuwaiti men from coming in. Otherwise, the supermarket's managers fear, the place would be jammed with them, ogling the female shoppers.