The View from Kuwait
A briefing by Shafeeq N. Ghabra
March 18, 2000
Dr. Shafeeq Ghabra, director of the Kuwait Information Office in Washington and a distinguished academic who teaches politics at Kuwait University, addressed the Forum's Philadelphia board of governors on March 18, 2000. He spoke about the continued threat of Saddam Husayn as well as oil prices, and some aspects of Kuwaiti politics.
Nine years after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Husayn continues to loom large. Some lingering issues from the 1990 invasion (war reparations, 600 missing POWs, the border demarcation) continue to fester. Kuwaitis note that the malevolence of Saddam is mixed with a vengefulness so extreme as to be illogical. He still performs deeds like ordering the execution of the fathers of his grandchildren and his brother-in-law, seemingly without remorse.
If he can take such action against members of his family, one can only imagine his designs for Kuwait. Kuwait therefore supports the United Nations and the United States in their efforts to keep up the pressure on Iraq until fundamental change is realized.
How deep runs the Iraqi ambition to seize Kuwait? I do not believe that the majority of Iraqi people support another campaign against Kuwait; the bellicose attitude in 1990 was episodic. Note that in disputes over the independence of a country (for example, between China and Taiwan, the Arabs and Israel), one side typically makes a persistent historic claim against another one. Iraq's claim to Kuwait lacks this persistent quality. Only on a few occasions has Baghdad forwarded a claim against Kuwait. Present-day Kuwait existed independently from Iraq without dispute until the discovery of oil within its borders during the 1930s. With that news, the Iraqi monarch declared rights to the land. The claim was renewed briefly at the time of Kuwait's independence in 1961. Saddam revived it in 1990. But it is not widely subscribed to. Even Iraq's own representative to the U.N. in 1961 now admits his country has no justifiable claims to Kuwaiti soil.
Oil and Economic Reform
Persian Gulf states all recognize the necessity of economic reform bringing less reliance on oil. Despite the high price of oil during March and April of 2000, OPEC member states realize that oil cannot provide a long-term stream of revenue as it has in the past. To compensate for the decline of oil, Kuwait is making real efforts to improve its education system and instill a work ethic, so that its people can be competitive in this technology-driven information age. It has also begun the painful process of privatization. This is painful because it creates unemployment; privatization is expected to lead to a situation in which one worker will perform the tasks now done by two. It also causes elements currently benefiting from state control of corporations to lose influence and income. Finally, Kuwait is encouraging its citizens to invest at home. The government of Kuwait and the governments of the Gulf want to attract a portion of the hundreds of billions in private Gulf money now invested abroad (and which has done very well). To achieve this, Kuwait and the other states must make a convincing economic case by building infrastructure, fostering sound banking practices, and ensuring the availability of clear and complete information regarding its businesses.
The Oil Crisis of March-April 2000
Two factors stand prominently in the minds of oil producing nations in responding to the high price of oil: oil prices are extremely volatile; and unity is not strong within OPEC. Even when oil prices languished at $8, their lowest rates in twenty years, OPEC members found it difficult to forge a consensus to curtail oil production. The cuts in production that were finally achieved created the current circumstances and demonstrate how sensitive oil prices are to supply. A very cold winter and the Asian economic recovery contributed dramatically to the rising prices. Kuwait wants to respond by increasing its production levels once again as requested by U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. However, it must be cautious, so as not to swing prices recklessly in the other direction. Kuwait's sensitivity to the concerns of the world economy cannot alone alter the fact that it is unsure how to adjust oil prices reliably; additionally, Kuwait is but one member of OPEC. The process took time when OPEC initiated a supply decrease, and the same will be true in reverse. The U.S. Congress must be patient.
Relations with Israel
Kuwait is prepared to establish relations with Israel, particularly after it moves on the Syrian-Lebanese front and achieves a balanced conclusion to the Israeli-Palestinian process. However, the Iraqi threat remains the country's main concern, and it cannot take steps that diminish Kuwait's ability to defend itself against Iraq. Iraq has gone to great lengths to manipulate the Middle East against Kuwait. For example, it has spread the perception that Kuwait stands behind the U.N.'s treatment of Iraq including war reparations, the trade embargo, weapons inspections, and other steps taken to discourage the retooling of Iraq's military. As a result, Kuwait must focus on shoring up relations with friends such as Syria. Should Kuwait in the future enjoy the level of calm that it aspires to, it can pursue relations with Israel.
Women's Right to Vote
Kuwaiti women have not yet received the right to vote but things are moving in that direction. First, they have made real progress in society. For example, women comprise between 30 and 40 percent of the country's workforce. Second, the emir proposed a women's enfranchisement bill that was defeated in parliament in good part for technical reasons in the first vote (parliament did not approve of the way the emir had gone about the issue). In the second vote, the bill lost by only two votes and could well be revived in the fall. Third, instead of being discouraged by this loss, women have taken their fight to the courts, where several lawsuits are currently pending. A woman's right-to-vote bill will make its way into Kuwait's parliament without much more delay and possibly in time for elections this fall. The emir of Kuwait has made this issue a nationwide preoccupation and created much optimism among women, an optimism that is driving the attempts to keep this issue alive.
Summary by Andy Weiner
Related Topics: Iraq, Kuwait, Persian Gulf | Shafeeq N. Ghabra
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