Saudi Arabia's big shadow on tiny Kuwait

Saudi Arabian diplomacy, with United States support, may be inadvertently destabilizing the very regimes in the smaller Persian Gulf states that it hopes to bolster. It is the security of these same politically vulnerable states that America's new Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) is being equipped to protect.

The Saudis are pressing their smaller neighbors to accept a security agreement which would require each government to ''combat the activities that harm the security of any of thJ Gulf Cooperation states.'' Printed material, including pamphlets and posters, that criticized any of the ruling regimes would be prohibited. Interior ministries would exchange information on actual or potential dissenters and would share techniques for combating subversion. Universities and other cultural centers would have to inform all six governments before holding conferences. And security forces would have the right to pursue subversives across borders or to seek their extradition.

Motivating this proposed agreement are the common fears generated by the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the rise of Muslim fundamentalism, and the influx of large numbers of expatriate workers into the oil-rich Gulf states.

However, Kuwait has so far refused to accede to Saudi pressures to sign this security agreement. The most liberal society in the regional Gulf Cooperation Council (which also includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates), Westernized Kuwait boasts an elected parliament, political pluralism, relatively enlightened attitudes toward women, and a benevolent welfare state that provides free education and health care and substantial subsidies for housing and food.

The Saudi royal family fears that Kuwaiti liberalism could provide space for antimonarchical groups to organize and disseminate their views. Many Kuwaitis are alarmed at the potentially repressive aspects of the proposed security pact and view them as a Saudi design to stifle liberal influences in the Gulf. With a population (roughly nine million) about six times as large as Kuwait's, Saudi Arabia casts a long shadow across tiny Kuwait.

Kuwaiti domestic stability and international security demand a careful balancing of contending forces. The ruling family allows a limited array of interests to express themselves in parliament and in the press, on the theory that it is better to provide escape valves for dissent than to force it underground. Its overwhelming oil wealth has enabled the regime to coopt business with lavish contracts and cheap loans and the widening middle classes with government employment and welfare programs.

Kuwait has carefully sought to maintain good relations with its more powerful neighbors (Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia), as well as with both superpowers. It tries to antagonize no one, while relying on the broadest international support to deter potential aggressors.

Kuwait may be at a crucial turning point in both its domestic politics and international alignment. Internally, the regime could grant more power to the elected parliament and broaden its constituency to include women and the ethnic minorities who are largely prevented from obtaining citizenship. Or it could follow the Saudi example of concentrating all power in the executive, clamp down harder on domestic dissent, and keep foreign labor in inferior status.

In foreign policy, Kuwait could continue to protect its sovereignty through regional and global nonalignment. Or it could throw its lot in with Riyadh and Washington, and count on them to deter the aggressive designs of an alienated Baghdad, Tehran, and Moscow.

The course of controlled liberalization and shrewd nonalignment is most likely to produce a stable, secure Kuwait. Yet the US State Department seems insensitive to the dangers that await Kuwait if it accommodates the Saudi preference for rigid authoritarianism at home and hegemony in the Gulf. A senior official in the US Embassy in Kuwait admitted that he had failed to consider that a highly visible Gulf Council tie could compromise Kuwait's traditional neutrality by associating it with Saudi Arabia and the US.

Some aspects of the council's agenda - regional peacekeeping, economic cooperation - are promising and deserve support. But the US should seek to shield Kuwait and other small Gulf states from Saudi political ambitions. Indeed , it ought quietly to edge the Saudis to emulate Kuwait's more enlightened politics.

The Rapid Deployment Force is geared mainly toward deterring a Soviet thrust toward the Gulf, but it is also arming for intervention in unstable states. A farsighted US diplomacy toward the Gulf Council could preempt the need for RDF units ever to have to land in Kuwait. It would be ironic if the US, blinded by its interests in Saudi Arabia, supported heavy-handed Saudi policies which unintentionally undermined stability in the weaker Gulf states.

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