BNEIDER, KUWAIT — In the last few months, a new billboard has appeared on highways across Kuwait. Each one carries the face of the country's most renowned singer with the sole message "I too am with you."
With whom? Most Kuwaitis say they have no idea. But it was meant as an unprecedented antidrug campaign to tackle the drug abuse that has become increasingly widespread in the decade since Iraq invaded this affluent oil state.
Even the slogan seems leery of taking on the taboo subject of drug use in a tradition-bound Muslim country where all such substances - including alcohol - are forbidden by both law and religious belief.
But at a retreat to this seaside town, where many Kuwaitis own beach chalets, members of a self-help group speak openly about how easily available drugs have become in recent years.
"Even 12- and 13-year-olds can find it, and now even the poor are getting it," says Khaled, a young salesman with a chic black goatee. "I think the problem has been here a long time, but now we're finally starting to admit it."
Abdullah, a former addict who used heroin and other narcotics for 15 years, says that such substances were also available before the Gulf War, but became more popular during and after the Iraqi invasion. Iraqi soldiers allegedly, abducted, raped, and killed many civilians during their seven-month occupation.
"Maybe more people came to drugs to forget their experiences during the war," says Abdullah, an aviation engineer.
The Ministry of Interior documented over 600 drug cases for 1998 - the most recent figures available - and 40 drug-related deaths, considered relatively high for a country of 750,000 citizens and a total population of 2.2 million.
The combination of wealth and public conservatism in Kuwait leaves many young people with plenty of disposable income and few venues to spend it. Except for movie theaters, most forms of nighttime entertainment are nonexistent. Mixed parties and dating are considered unacceptable in all but the most ultra-liberal circles.
Now, Kuwaiti newspapers are replete with stories highlighting the nation's escalating drug problem - many of them critical of the government's handling of it so far. But various antidrug groups and government ministries that are tackling the issue have shown little coordination, no comprehensive strategy - and an advertising slogan that seems to have missed the point.
"No one understands this poster hanging around, and when you asks kids in the street they have no idea what it's about," says Dr. Layla Al-Jassem, director of the health education in Kuwait's Ministry of Health.
Another key shortcoming in Kuwait's new war on drugs is the dearth of professional treatment facilities, a factor many of the recovering addicts here complain about. A drug-awareness program is just now being introduced into the school system.
"The problem is lack of education," Dr. al-Jassem adds, "and a denial that such an evil even exists, because this is an Islamic country."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society