AS the West and the Arab world wait hour by hour for war, the Kuwaitis are locked in an intense debate in Saudi Arabia about what kind of Kuwait everyone may be fighting for. The secret debate is going on in a hotel in Jiddah among a mere 40 people - a handful of senior ministers from the ruling Sabah family government, including the prime minister, Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, and leaders of the country's opposition and business community.
As the prospect of liberation nears, so the debate has intensified and the stakes increased. The opposition, say two delegates attending the conference, has demanded the resignation of the Sabah-dominated government.
The demand has come from both sides of the political spectrum. On one side is the leftist-leaning Arab National Movement led by Ahmed Khatieb, known for his long historic fight for democracy in Kuwait and his links to liberation groups throughout the Arab world. On the other are the conservative Islamic groups dominated by Jamiat Islah (Society of Goodness).
Opposition party members say they are concerned that despite protestations to the contrary, liberation will herald a new period of prolonged repression and suspension of political life as Kuwaitis regain control from the Iraqi invaders. They are demanding full parliamentary life and press freedom. Some in the opposition camp are arguing that a government of National Salvation should be set up which would incorporate all political factions to replace the current Sabah-dominated government in exile.
``We are looking for a new government, a government that can cope with the new era when we go back. The present Cabinet is not for the new era, it belongs to the old. What we had before was Tom-and-Jerry politics,'' says opposition leader Ahmed Rubaie, referring to the cat-and-mouse cartoon.
A widespread feeling among many Kuwaitis is that liberation represents a chance to build a new country and society. They wonder what kind of government the new Kuwait will have, what kind of foreign policy, what kind of population policy? Should Kuwaiti nationals return to being loyal subjects of a sheikhdom with attendant lucrative benefits, or can it be reshaped into a more merit-based, rather than name-based, society which guarantees democratic rights and equality?
Other, more ambitious political observers talk of a constitutional monarchy with only commoners in the government, and even more ambitiously, of the need to establish a union of democratic states throughout the Gulf region.
At times, the debate has taken on the air of irrelevant 'emigr'e politics - except that in the next few weeks thousands of allied and Arab troops could be laying down their lives in the name of Kuwait. And a victory which leads to an undemocratic, repressive regime dominated by a family of sheikhs risks postwar discomfort for the United States.
The Kuwaiti government says none of these issues can be decided now. ``Now is not the time to change horses. Everything will have to wait until we get back and see the extent of the damage,'' argues Planning Minister Suleiman Mutawa. ``How can we discuss the country's political future when we don't know what the future is?''
The priorities, the minister argues, will be to ensure the safety of all citizens, and get the machinery of government going again.
``First we have to find out who is in Kuwait,'' says Mr. Mutawa. Fifth columnists left behind by the departing Iraqi Army and Palestinians who cooperated with the occupiers will have to be rooted out. He adds that most of the Palestinian community remained loyal to Kuwait.
However, the opposition is suspicious that the interests of security will override the opportunity to be consulted about the ``New Kuwait'' and evaporate chances of democracy being resumed as soon as possible. Kuwaiti government officials respond that the Sabah-dominated administration has pledged its commitment to democracy. ``There is no going back on that,'' Mutawa comments.
The unknown factor for all sides - the Sabah family, the Arab Nationalists, and the Islamicists - is going to be the view of those inside Kuwait, the people who remained in the country to fight the occupiers instead of fleeing to the safety of hotel lobbies in the Gulf region. Already, each political group is claiming that its supporters dominated whatever resistance there has been.
The challenge for the Sabah family will be to include the ``insiders,'' regardless of whether they are first- or second-class citizens. Most Kuwaitis agree that the old classifications of citizenship, which determined who could vote, will have to go, as well as social divisions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Kuwaitis know that when they go back, their old easy life of guaranteed jobs, free public services, and cheap Asian servants will be history. The new era promises to be much more positive and energetic, believes Planning Minister Mutawa.