Kuwaitis' Gratitude to U.S. Gives Way to Resentment

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  • Date: Fri, 24 Jan 2003 09:38:46 -0000

KUWAIT CITY, Jan. 21 -- Hakem Mutairi is on trial in the country often
called the most pro-American in the Arab world, charged with "spreading
rumors that caused harm to Kuwait." But his real crime, according to
Mutairi's supporters in Kuwait's powerful community of hard-line Islamic
politicians, is that he criticized the United States. 

In speaking out in a televised interview against the U.S.-led war in
Afghanistan, Mutairi also challenged the official orthodoxy in Kuwait, a
tiny emirate that owes its continued existence to the United States. "We
thought America was a friend for our country, but we think now it is a
colonial power," Mutairi said last week, summing up the evolving views
among conservatives here. Kuwaitis "are very angry," he added. "They
think Kuwait now is not free." 

Mutairi is the face of anti-American sentiment in Kuwait -- religious,
politically influential and on the rise. Public statements such as his
were seldom heard here before Sept. 11, 2001. But now, as the United
States threatens to use Kuwait as a launching pad for an invasion of
neighboring Iraq, even a crackdown by the Kuwaiti government on such
people as Mutairi cannot obscure the burgeoning resentment. 

It took two attacks last fall on U.S. soldiers based here to awaken
Americans and Kuwaitis to how much admiration for the United States had
waned in the years since a U.S.-led coalition liberated Kuwait from
Iraqi occupation in 1991. Some of the resentments that have spread
through the rest of the Arab world have reached even this pro-American
enclave -- bitterness about perceived U.S. targeting of Muslims in the
war on terrorism and anger at Washington's support for Israel in the
conflict with Palestinians. 

Islamic leaders here regularly complain about U.S. pressure on Kuwait to
adopt American values. They decry invasion plans, despite lingering
enmity toward Iraq. And they espouse the view, voiced elsewhere in the
Middle East, of the United States as a would-be "colonial" power. So
worried were the country's rulers by the first attacks on U.S. soldiers
that they began rounding up men with suspected ties to radicals and this
month issued a decree prohibiting Muslims from harming foreigners in
Kuwait. 

That ruling did not prevent another attack on Americans today. Two
civilian contractors with the U.S. military here were shot, one fatally,
as they drove down a highway near a camp used by U.S. soldiers. 

The official view is that anti-American sentiment is a fringe movement,
the attacks "isolated incidents," as Mohammed Salem Sabah, minister of
state for foreign affairs, put it in an interview. "If you talk about
the rise of anti-Americanism, Kuwait will be the last place where you
will find anti-Americanism," he said. 

But on the streets and in the diwaniyas -- traditional nighttime social
and political gatherings where Kuwaiti men conduct the country's
business -- many say the government has not yet come to terms with the
shift in Kuwaitis' thinking. 

"After the liberation of Kuwait, all people in Kuwait appreciated and
respected the government and people of America," said Duaij Khalaf
Shammary, an aspiring Islamic politician and businessman who was among
more than 50 Kuwaitis the other night at a diwaniya dominated by
questions about a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq. "But now America tries
to interfere in our affairs." 

Kuwait's newly vocal complaints about the United States are different
and subtler than those elsewhere in the region. They do not burn the
U.S. flag here, there are no antiwar rallies and no one betrays sympathy
for the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein. Even the most conservative
Islamic political leader professes gratitude for the U.S. coalition that
kicked Hussein out of Kuwait and has guarded the country ever since. 

There are no independent opinion polls to measure how widespread
discontent with the United States has become or test competing theories
about why criticism is on the rise. But the fact that it exists at all
-- and is growing rapidly, according to dozens of Kuwaitis interviewed
across the country's political spectrum -- marks a setback for the
United States. 

Saud Nasir Sabah, a former ambassador to the United States, oil minister
and member of Kuwait's ruling family, blamed the government, arguing
that even after the Sept. 11 attacks it has done little to rein in
Islamic militants. 

"The U.S. was there for us," he said in an interview, but since Sept.
11, "we haven't been there for them. You need a strong government to do
this; we don't have one. It's been a failure on the part of government
to react to these people." 

Right after the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, he
published an extraordinary public indictment of his family's response,
saying anti-American religious extremists had "hijacked" the Kuwaiti
government. "Now, in over a year since I made that statement, nothing
has been done," he said last week. 

But in Kuwait today it is not just Islamic conservatives of the sort
criticized by Sabah who are voicing disagreement with the United States.
Even among Kuwaitis opposed to Islamic conservatives, the view of the
United States has soured, suggesting the extent to which the Kuwait-U.S.
alliance has been based on common opposition to Iraq rather than a
broader agenda. 

"America is a friend of Kuwait because they saved us from the
occupation, but that's it," said Abdullah Nibari, a self-described
leftist leader in the Kuwaiti parliament. "It's not more than that." 

Like other reformers here, Nibari said the United States, despite its
pressure on the ruling family to revive a suspended parliament after the
1991 war, has not helped foster true democracy in Kuwait, but has been
more interested in maintaining the status quo. And the political status
quo today favors Islamic conservatives, who took advantage of the
resumed elections to become the most powerful force in the National
Assembly and have used their power to block voting rights for women and
impose sex segregation at Kuwait University. Kuwaitis share the goal of
getting rid of Hussein, Nibari said, "but apart from that we find very
little to agree with the American policy." 

Such sentiments are all the more striking because of their backdrop: a
6,880-square-mile state on the Persian Gulf that looks like a lost
suburb of Los Angeles. The first thing visitors see as they get off an
airplane at Kuwait International Airport is a Starbucks coffee shop on
the right. On a drive down the streets, the preponderance of American
fast-food icons overwhelms -- not just the ubiquitous McDonald's, but
also Applebee's, Baskin-Robbins, Chili's and more. The telephone book
lists 39 Burger King restaurants. 

The malls, clothing stores, four-wheel drive vehicles and movie theaters
that have multiplied over the last dozen years suggest the extent to
which Kuwait tightened its embrace of the West following its searing
seven-month occupation by Iraqi troops. There are also newer reminders
that the Kuwaiti government has staked itself firmly in the U.S. camp:
Signs along the highway to Iraq hail the American troops who occupy
one-quarter of the country, and a huge banner was unfurled last week in
a Kuwait City traffic circle saying "America & Allies God Bless You
All." 

Much of the cheerleading is a response to the attacks against U.S.
soldiers last fall. In October, gunmen shot two Marines, killing one; a
month later, a Kuwaiti traffic cop opened fire and wounded two Army
soldiers. Since then, "We got angry because of the crime committed
against Americans in Kuwait," said Yusuf Halail, a real estate agent and
self-described conservative. His view, expressed in a recent interview,
is shared by many Kuwaitis. "All Kuwaitis were against it, except a few.
Not all fundamentalists are against America." 

But others, like Islamic political leader Abdul Razak Shuyji, are
ambivalent. "All around the Arab world, people have negative feelings
toward America. In Kuwait, we have a special case, a paradox: How can we
be thankful toward America for what it did for us in '91 and at the same
time against America's current plans for a war in Iraq?" Shuyji asked
one recent afternoon. 

The scene in his garden suggested the dilemma. Being anti-American now
is not just a matter of politics, Shuyji said, it's about "this American
way of life" surfacing in Kuwait, about it undermining traditional
relations between men and women. In other words, "it's not the fast
food, the malls," but the change in Kuwaitis' behavior. "I notice that a
lot of people in Kuwait buy shirts for their children with slogans they
can't read because they don't know English. Even such things are ways of
transferring ideas and culture." 

As he was saying this, between sips of fresh-squeezed pomegranate and
mango juice, his young son walked in, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with
the English-language logo "Action Man." When the irony was duly noted,
Shuyji could only laugh. "We care about colors mostly," he said
apologetically. 

As for Mutairi, he has become perhaps the most public example of how far
the Kuwaiti government is willing to go to defend its alliance with the
United States. In a country where officials often tout freedom of
speech, Mutairi is standing trial because of a television interview in
which he criticized the war in Afghanistan and the Kuwaiti government's
alleged torture of citizens who had fought there on the side of the
Taliban. Twelve Kuwaitis are interned by the United States at Guantanamo
Bay, Cuba, for taking part in the war, and Mutairi said in an interview
that he believes the U.S. government may have pressured the Kuwaitis to
make a case against him. 

Recently, he confronted the United States directly, meeting with a
senior embassy official here. His account of the conversation suggests
just how broad a critique of American policy some here are now offering.


"I told them, 'You should understand why people, not just in Kuwait but
also Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, why they are very angry. They
start to think about how we can solve this problem of colonialism,' "
Mutairi related. 

His American interlocutors, he said, framed the issue differently. 

To them, it was a question of Kuwait's gratitude for a freedom it could
never have secured without the United States. "They said, 'We are
friends and we made you free from Iraq.' I told them, 'We thank you for
everything you have done for my country, but you can't make this a
reason for colonialism,' " Mutairi said. "America came to protect our
country, but now America uses this area to attack another country." 

Source:  The Washington Post

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