EACH year, nostalgic Kuwaiti city-dwellers decamp en masse from their villas and pitch tents in the desert outside the capital. On the flat land, where in the brief spring only the hardiest weeds grow, a sea of tents arises as some of the wealthiest people on earth try to recall a simpler way of life that vanished forever during the oil boom of the 1970s.
``It is part of our heritage you know,'' says Amal, a government employee. ``We want to hold on to something of the old ways.''
Holding on to something of the old ways has become an obsession for some Kuwaitis, particularly this year. Kuwait has always prided itself on its ability to get along with its much larger, sometimes hostile neighbors and on its business acumen. But the collapse of the unofficial stock market in 1982, plunging world oil prices, a spate of terrorist bombings, and the continuing Persian Gulf war have badly shaken Kuwaiti confidence in the future.
During the oil boom, Kuwait enjoyed a decade of unimagined prosperity, sitting on earth's second-largest oil reserves and enjoying the world's highest per capita income. But now Kuwaitis are again feeling the military, political, and social fragility of this tiny nation.
``We are living through a maelstrom,'' says Dr. Kaldoun Naqeeb, of Kuwait University. ``All Arabs, and especially those in Kuwait, have to feel apprehensive about their internal national situations because of the economic crisis.''
Most Kuwaitis trace the start of their troubles to the collapse of the unofficial stock market in August 1982, which forced many large investors into bankruptcy and sent shock waves through the superheated economy. The Kuwaiti economy today is in a recession, and economists such as Ziad Taky, of the National Bank of Kuwait, do not believe it will improve in the near future.
``It is very bad now,'' Dr. Taky says. ``A lot of people have left town and more are going. The talk among the expatriate communities here is where everyone is planning to go next.''
Optimists, however, say Kuwait is more likely to weather the collapse of the oil market than some other states which also rely almost entirely on oil for their livelihoods. Despite the plunge in oil prices since December from $30 per barrel to nearly $10 per barrel, Kuwait will probably be able to pull in about $8 billion from selling oil and oil products, down from $9 billion in 1984 and $19 billion in 1980. It is also expected to earn an estimated $5 billion this year on its foreign investments.
But the annual growth rate, which a few years ago averaged 6.2 percent, is expected to be less than 1 percent for the second year running. The real estate market has slumped and the government plans cutbacks in all its ministries. There has even been a hike in some utlities rates, which were heavily subsidized.
The economic contraction is not entirely bad news for all Kuwaitis. The slowdown in economic growth has weeded out some ``new money'' investors and companies that Kuwaitis were happy to see go.
Kuwaiti officials would actually be happy to see a shrinking of the huge foreign community that resides here. Kuwaitis are a minority in their own country. Of a total population of 1.7 million, 650,000, or 40 percent, are Kuwaiti citizens. The rest are Palestinians, other Arabs, Indians, Bangledeshis, Filipinos, and Western Europeans. Many Kuwaitis say they fear the presence of Arabs from hostile countries and Shiite Muslim fundamentalists from Iran and Lebanon is the most likely source of political and social instability. A spate of terrorist attacks in recent years has reinforced those fears.
In December 1983, terrorists bombed the United States and French Embassies and other buildings, killing seven people and wounding dozens more. Kuwait eventually convicted 17 Shiite extremists, all foreigners, for the attacks. Last May, there was an attempt on the life of Kuwaiti ruler Sheikh Jabir Ahmad Jabir Sabah. Two of his bodyguards were killed when a suicide car bomber drove into his motorcade.
Last July, bombs exploded in crowded seaside caf'es, killing eight people and injuring 56. No one was arrested in either the May or July attacks, but Kuwaitis universally believe the offenders were foreigners. After each incident, several thousand foreign residents were rounded up and deported.
Internal political and social tensions have also been exacerbated by the 5-year-old Iran-Iraq war. In February, the war got uncomfortably close when Iran captured Iraq's Faw peninsula, bringing Iranian troops to within 40 miles of Kuwaiti territory.
Now Kuwaitis can hear the Iraqi and Iranian artillery pounding each other's positions at night. Kuwaiti men, who must serve one month's reserve duty each year in the Army after an initial year's compulsory service, have been forced to serve three months this spring, because the small Army has been put on alert and moved to the northern border.
With such troubles, it is small wonder that the Kuwaitis this year were ready to escape to the desert from their ultramodern, airconditioned offices on the four-lane superhighways built during boom times.
Entire families, many of whom own villas here and abroad, ventured out to the desert and set up two tents -- one for the men, one for the women and children. Some families stay for a few weeks at a time, others come out only on weekends. But this year, many families chose to linger longer.
``Of course, these tents aren't exactly like the old Bedouin tents,'' one Western diplomat remarks, ``the additions being the color television and video in one corner and the water tank outside that provides running water for the family and its guests.''
Kuwaitis and diplomats I spoke to emphasized that there is no sense of panic here about the external and internal problems Kuwait is facing: Rather, there is a sense of uncertainty and unease.
``The people are not hysterical, they are depressed,'' a Western diplomat says. ``There is a general sense of malaise.''
There is a feeling, Kuwaitis say, that the good times are over and that this nation, unusual in the Arab world because it enjoys internal political stability and practices a limited form of democracy, is passing through a particularly precarious time.
The Iran-Iraq war is still not perceived here as a grave military threat. Kuwait declared itself in the Iraqi camp years ago and, together with Saudi Arabia, provides Iraq with much-needed cash by selling an estimated 250,000 barrels per day of oil on Iraq's behalf from the oil fields split between the Saudis and the Kuwaitis. Iranian threats to punish the two Gulf states no longer cause much real alarm here.
``Let's face it, if the Iranians had wanted to invade Kuwait, they could have done it at any time in the last four years,'' a diplomat says. ``Just because they are on Faw does not mean they are any more inclined to march into Kuwait. There is no reason for the Iranians to add to their troubles that way.''
Kuwaitis say they worry much more about economic woes and the threat that Iranian-inspired subversion attempts may pose to their cherished democracy than about the prospect of Iranian troops landing on Bubiyan Island, which lies near Faw.
``There are two schools of thought in Kuwait right now,'' a senior Kuwaiti journalist says. ``One says that our democracy is what makes us strong, and the other says that it is perhaps something we cannot afford in such times.''
Kuwaiti democracy is embodied in its National Assembly, the 50-member parliament. The Assembly members are elected every four years by the approximately 58,000 Kuwaitis who are eligible to vote. Enfranchisement in Kuwait is limited to ``first class'' citizens -- those Kuwaiti men who can prove that their grandparents were Kuwaitis in 1920. That excludes the vast bulk of the population, including anyone under 21 and all women.
Despite the restrictions, the National Assembly provides a rare example of open criticism of the government in an Arab country, and there is nothing else remotely like it anywhere in the Gulf. The Kuwaitis are proud of the institution and worry that internal and external pressures might move the ruling Sabah family to dissolve it, as was done in 1976, if assembly members go too far with their criticisms.
So far, the government has continued to state publicly its commitment to democracy and to allowing the assembly to function. But, one government official says, Kuwaitis must remember that ``along with democracy and criticism, there must be wisdom.''