Kuwait Fears the Northeast

Kuwaitis fear another war – this time not from neighboring Iraq, but from the one next door, Iran

kuwait palace311 (photo credit: Eldad Beck)
kuwait palace311
(photo credit: Eldad Beck)
IT’S A BLISTERING SUMMER afternoon on the island of Failaka in the northwest Persian Gulf. A light dust storm partially conceals the scorching sun, casting a yellow-orange hue across the entire sky.
In these fire-hot days of August, I traverse the streets of Failaka, taking whatever scant refuge is on offer from the sun’s unforgiving rays. The heat, though, is barely quelled.
Failaka, which lies some 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the shores of Kuwait City, is a veritable steam-producing furnace in the summer; almost 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in the shade, with humidity exceeding 60 percent.
During the reign of Alexander the Great, the Greeks built a settlement and houses of worship in Failaka. The island now holds Kuwait’s most important archaeological sites; in the 1950s, excavations uncovered several stunning finds. In the last century, Failaka also became a paradise for holidaymakers: Kuwaitis and foreigners reveled in its long stretches of beach, and sumptuous villas dotted the shoreline.
But 20 years ago, the good life in Failaka came to an abrupt end. On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and radically changed the Middle East landscape. Iraqi soldiers seized Failaka, expelled its residents and laid mines across its beaches.
Kuwait became Iraq’s 19th province in a matter of hours. After eight months of hell, it was liberated.
NOW KUWAITIS FEAR ANOTHER war – this time not from the neighbor on the northwest, but from the one on the northeast, Iran.
Kuwait has good reason to fear its neighbors. Iraq may have been taught a painful lesson arising from its reckless adventurism under Saddam, but the tiny kingdom’s imposing northern neighbor is hardly stable. America’s impending exit from Iraq only adds to the concern.
And above all, Kuwaitis feel imperiled by Iran. Many feel the provocative behavior of Iran toward its neighbors, as well as its determined quest for nuclear weaponry, could cause an international conflagration with untold consequences. No surprise, then, that Kuwaitis are concerned that it’s only a matter of time before a major conflict again breaks out in their region.
A leading Kuwaiti analyst has come out firmly saying that in the event of a military confrontation between Iran and the US and Israel over Tehran’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons, Kuwait should join the effort against Iran. In the meantime, Sami al-Faraj, president of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies and a former ranking officer in the Kuwaiti military, tells The Jerusalem Report that harsh sanctions, even including a naval blockade, should be imposed in order to stop the Iranian drive to obtain nuclear weapons.
If there is a military attack by the US or Israel on Iran, Kuwait “will not be able to simply stand on the sidelines. Either we will have to contribute to the military campaign, or we will be shunted aside. We cannot accept a nuclear Iran,” asserts Al-Faraj.
The distrust of Iran is intense here; a mysterious explosion on an oil tanker a few weeks back was immediately attributed to the Iranians. The assumption: that Iran was reminding the regional players of its ability to seal shut the Straits of Hormuz, the strategically important waterway connecting the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and play havoc with international oil supplies.
(As it happened, “foul play” was not involved – the tanker simply hit a reef.) Furthermore, an extremely sensitive trial, that could have extensive repercussions, is soon to get underway in the emirate.
Kuwait is about to bring before its courts seven members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard arrested last May and accused of espionage and terror. The seven defendants include three Iranians, a Kuwaiti soldier, a Syrian citizen, and two “stateless” persons. They are accused of spying on Iran’s behalf, although all seven contend that the Kuwaitis extracted their confessions through torture. Iran denies all connection, claiming the episode is part of an American plot. Either way, it’s an affair that has the Kuwaiti public greatly agitated.
The trial comes at a time when Kuwaiti citizens are fully aware of the dangerous sparks of conflict nearby. The recent border clash between Israel and Lebanon received widespread publicity here, as did the alleged attempt on the life of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Demographics and ethnicities play an important part here, too. A third of Kuwaitis are Shi’ite. During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, most Shi’ites sided with Iran, which is over 95 percent Shi’a. Some Shi’a Kuwaitis have even engaged in terror at home. Added to the mix are the vast numbers of Iranian foreign workers and émigrés who reside in Kuwait, their formidable presence obvious wherever goods are traded in the kingdom.
“IN THE GULF REGION, THERE used to be parity between the Persian and Arabian powers,” al-Faraj explains. “Predating the Islamic Revolution [of 1979], Iran was an important state for demographic, political and military reasons. The parity that existed before the Iraq-Iran war was subsequently breached and has not been restored.
“After Iraq was pushed out of Kuwait, the Gulf States looked to remedy their poor strategic position by relying on conventional arms, which only made us more dependent on the Western powers. And now Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons puts us in a very inferior position – not unlike what we faced on the eve of Iraq’s invasion,” says Al-Faraj. “Without the aid of outside [Western] forces, the balance of power won’t be restored. And we won’t be able to counter Iran, militarily – or in ordinary ‘civilian life’ as well.”
Al-Faraj discusses the strategic and geopolitical importance of Kuwait’s petro-chemical industry. “As for the infrastructure of our petrochemical industry, we are in a better position than Iran. We need to preserve what we’ve built, and continue to develop our technological capability. In the 1960s, we used our petroleum profits to help develop not only our own economy, but the economies of states far afield.
We didn’t stop those activities during the Iraqi invasion. But we won’t be able to continue if Iran threatens us by either conventional weapons or non-conventional. The Iranian regime is not looking to promote peace; it has gotten Hamas and Hizballah to take more extreme positions, and is causing instability in Iraq, Yemen and Sudan.
“We certainly don’t want a new arms race, which will have implications for our foreign policy,” al-Faraj emphasizes, but adds, “Iran’s foreign policy is the total opposite of our own. So we simply can’t conceive what life would be like under the shadow of a nuclear Iran. Iran’s intentions of hegemony already speak loudly enough. And when Iran becomes a nuclear power, those tendencies will only increase. For us, a nuclear Iran is a national threat.”
Al-Faraj says there are a variety of options to counter the Iranian threat. “One is to impose extremely harsh sanctions on Iran that will keep its military capability in check. As it is, their economy is in bad shape, and we need to take full advantage of that. The US and European Union have already decided to step up sanctions; now, they need to ensure those sanctions are enforced. I am talking about sanctions, which will be severe enough to drive home to the Iranians the extent of world resistance to their nuclear plans.
The sanctions won’t be effective enough unless they include a full naval blockade that cuts off the supply of refined petroleum to Iran, he continues. “This move, which will be the first material threat to Iran, will have a very important psychological effect on the Iranians.
It will drive home that the international community’s position is clearcut: either peace – or war. The Iranian opposition will then have to stop supporting the nuclear policy of the current government, and try to neutralize the Iranian regime’s internal and external capabilities.
The current regime now rules over a very divided country. And the regime has to choose between completely quashing the opposition, or changing policy.
“Iran continues to threaten it will block the Straits of Hormuz, and thus, severely disrupt oil supplies to the West. We don’t want to turn the Gulf of Oman into an area of conflict. But that’s where the international community can make their point to Iran – from there, sanctions can be most effectively enforced.”
Al-Faraj was unequivocal regarding the possibility of the military option. “Obviously, if sanctions don’t work, that leaves only the radical option. That is, a military attack by America, or Israel, or by the two together. If that happens, we [Kuwait] will not be able to simply stand on the sidelines. Either we will have to contribute to the military campaign or we will be shunted aside. We cannot accept a nuclear Iran – what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to go to the international market and purchase nuclear weaponry for ourselves? I hardly think so; we are not prepared to do so on any count. So, we have no choice, but to attain security. Which means, agree to a [Western] war [against Iran].”
Iran, he accuses, is “conducting a destabilization machine in the Middle East – via Hamas in Gaza, Hizballah in Lebanon, the Huti clans in Yemen, terror cells in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, and of late, in Kuwait. This machine will be activated, irrespective of whether Iran is strengthened or weakened. It’s like a cancer where growths pop up throughout the whole region. We have to ensure this hegemony drive by Iran ends. So far, very little has been done to stop it. There’s been quite a bit of intelligence cooperation between a few of the Gulf States and Israel and Turkey, resulting in some operational success. We need to step up this cooperation,” stresses al- Faraj. “Neither Kuwait, nor the Saudis, can do this on their own.
“Iran will use terror to fight back – which is already an admission of failure. Iran hasn’t fought a conventional war since (the Iran-Iraq war in) 1988. The Iranian regime might then try to start a war between Syria and Israel using Hamas and Hizballah, which would be a grave mistake. We certainly have no interest in seeing the Syrians drawn into a conflict. That’s not to say we aren’t apprehensive about Israel; we perceive as a threat the possibility that war could erupt between Israel and Hamas, Hizballah and Iran. We have to close off all of Iran’s options.”
IMEET C, A FORMER OFFICER IN the Kuwait Air Force, at a café in a Kuwait City mall. These ubiquitous cafés, often chains, have sprung up all over the country and are fast turning the traditional diwans, the century- old tribal meeting places, extinct.
Old-timers still meet up in the diwans, but the youth far prefer these new cafés. Given the proliferation of cell phones and the Internet – as well as every other means of communication under the sun – there’s hardly a need to rely on a diwan to interface in today’s world. Not to mention the major bonus the cafés offer: it’s where boys and girls can meet up, something strictly off limits in the more traditional tribal settings.
C was captured at the start of the Iraqi invasion and spent seven months in an Iraqi prison camp. Luckily, he did not share the fate of the hundreds who simply disappeared after capture, executed and buried in unknown graves.
“To this day,” he says, “many Kuwaitis won’t forgive the Iraqis. But we know the attack was instituted by the Saddam regime, not by the wider Iraqi public. That’s why, when America invaded Iraq in 2003, we offered to help Iraq in whatever way we could. We even offered them water, despite the fact that Iraq has more water than we do.”
C still has qualms about the looming threat from the north. “If America exits Iraq anytime soon, terrible events could unfold. There’s no strong government today in Iraq. There’s the very real danger – that Iraq could fracture into three separate parts. AShi’ite state in the south, under the strong influence of Iran – which is the last thing we need. We’re not concerned about our own Shi’as; they’ve been living here for 300 years and see themselves as Kuwaitis. Moreover, most of them are wealthy and won’t do anything to endanger their homes or bank accounts. What everyone needs is a strong stable government in Iraq; one that will take things in hand and invest in infrastructure.”
C agrees that Iran poses the principle threat to the region. “The threat doesn’t come from their spiritual leaders. The mullahs aren’t the ones calling the shots in Iran. The people really in charge are the ‘Revolutionary Guard’ – they have both considerable financial resources and military capabilities. And they are highly unpredictable. That’s why it would be so dangerous if Iran acquired nuclear weaponry. If they get the bomb, they will threaten the entire region. And it could happen right out of the blue. We could wake up one morning to discover they already have the bomb. Exactly as happened with Pakistan.
“Military action against Iran is both possible and necessary,” continues C. “You don’t have to attack the actual nuclear sites. Rather, target their attack capability and ability to respond – that means their missile silos, their launchers and their speedboats that are up and down the whole Gulf coast. After all these are taken out, what will Iran be able to do? The Iranians are already afraid. It’s no coincidence that after the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen recently announced that America has a concrete plan at its disposal to attack Iran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced he was ready to meet US President Barack Obama in New York. That’s a sign of fear.
“The Iranian regime is a ‘survivalist’ regime,” C notes, “just like that of Saddam. All you need to do is end the supply of refined fuel to Iran, and that will be the end of this government.
They know that the Iranian public will pour into the streets. And unlike last summer [when the regime suppressed the opposition], this time there’ll be no going back. What’s more, Iran is made up of several different ethnic groups. So the country could just break into pieces.
“You don’t need an extremely large force to take on Iran,” contends C. “All you need is the right technology. Saddam had a million men under arms and that didn’t stop the Americans from toppling his government very quickly.
The Egyptians also had a huge army in the Six Days War, but the Israelis overcame them in days. However, the Americans must not repeat the mistake of 2003 in Iraq – where they left a large vacuum. Breaking up the Iraqi army was a colossal error. Hundreds of thousands of former soldiers found themselves jobless, so many had little choice, but to become mercenaries of Al-Qaeda or join remnants of the Ba’ath [Saddam’s party].”
TWENTY YEARS ON, AND Failaka looks as if time has stood still.
Even at a distance, from the decks of the ferry that reaches its shores, Failaka looks rundown and deserted. Disembarking, the neglect comes into sharp focus. Next to the small port lie remnants of battered cars, windscreens smashed, license plates cleaved off.
Potholed roads take the few visitors past the vandalized, desolate villas, their walls pockmarked, their floors littered with shell casings.
The invading Iraqis transformed the island’s graceful villas into barracks and shooting ranges. Somehow, just prior to the incursion, Kuwaitis managed to cover Failaka’s priceless archaeological digs with sand and prevent their destruction at willful Iraqi hands.
The archaeological sites are closed out of fear of wanton desecration. “Under this earth lies a formidable treasure,” sighs a Western archaeologist, looking on with evident pain.
She has managed to secure a special permit to visit one of the locales.
Failaka looks as if the invasion occurred yesterday. The military campaign to free Kuwait, led by the US and an international coalition, is a war that Israelis also remember too well; dozens of Scud missiles launched by Iraq slammed into the greater Tel Aviv area.
The occupation over, Kuwait offered generous compensation to the owners of the destroyed Failaka villas. But almost no one returned. Seven years ago, operation Desert Storm finally toppled the still-feared Saddam regime; the demise of the Iraqi dictator gave Kuwait’s rulers the confidence to pledge $3 billion to restore Failaka to its former luster as an international resort. But little has been achieved; only one hotel – worthy of two stars, if that – has resumed service. The sojourners who frequent the place are mostly foreign workers, spending just a few hours to catch a swim and ride horses.
Failaka is a graphic example of Kuwait’s paltry success in recovering from the devastation Iraq meted upon this small desert kingdom.
The brutal occupation left in its wake death and destruction; the country’s petroleum complexes were incinerated, and hundreds of Kuwaitis simply disappeared, never to be seen again. Prior to the invasion, the kingdom was one of the richest and most developed states in the Gulf; today, Kuwait looks with envy at its southern neighbors, which have supplanted its role as economic and political regional leader.
“We taught the other Gulf States everything,” laments a top Kuwaiti official to The Jerusalem Report. “They were still living in mud dwellings, and we sent them teachers."
Their students went on to study at our universities and became well versed in our efficient banking system. We were a safe harbor for all; Kuwaitis never used to lock their doors. In fact, the gold merchants used to close shop in the afternoon, cover their wares, and go off to rest – without fear their stores would be robbed. All that changed with the invasion; we lost our sense of community solidarity. Everyone now lives by himself and for himself, concerned only with personal profit.
“Corruption pervades everything; no longer is there a desire to contribute to country. The two million foreign workers further dilute our feeling of national identity. As for our ‘democratic parliament’ which everyone is always lauding, well, all it does is reinforce the feeling we are mired and going nowhere,” the official says.
Kuwait’s main airport augurs that all is not well. The airports of the other Gulf States strive to outdo each other in grandeur and spaciousness, but Kuwait City’s is a throwback to the 1980s, cramped with out-of-date interior fittings. Even the city’s signature landmarks fall short. The three conspicuous Kuwait Towers, one of which has a rotating restaurant, were ostensibly restored after the liberation from Iraq, yet don’t quite have the expected sheen. On the 90th floor of the main tower, a somewhat pathetic exhibition of photographs portrays Iraq’s “barbaric invasion.” (One photo caption reads “… they even destroyed the central ventilation system” in its litany of Iraqi crimes.) On the way up to the top floor, where there is a magnificent panorama of the emirate’s capital, bits of velvet carpet that once graced the steps of the stairwell are still visible. The carpet was ripped off by the Iraqis; 20 years later, it has still not been replaced.
Similar problems beset Kuwait’s national museum, which was totally ransacked by the Iraqi forces. One of the conditions of surrender set out by the coalition allies was that the Iraqis had to fully restore all the halls and exhibits.
But Kuwait’s Al-Sabah rulers have not played their part in the restoration; the ruling family no longer exhibits its dazzling treasure of Islamic art, which once constituted the centerpiece of the museum. Only a tiny part of the collection is on display.
The museum’s air-conditioned exhibition chambers are largely empty. The lighting appliances need repair, and even the toilets don’t function. Hardly what one expects from the showcase museum of one of the richest countries in the world. Kuwait has proposed a grandiose scheme for a replacement museum, but like most of the kingdom’s plans, the initiative is bogged down. Parliament and government can’t agree; and ministers and museum management can’t get their act together either.
Signs of revival are visible only in the ‘city,’ in the capital’s business zone. Banks and companies, both local and foreign, are constructing sleek skyscrapers, lending the city skyline the same bold look as the other powerhouse Gulf states.
“Right after the liberation in ’91, the government announced it was establishing a $50 billion fund to rebuild the country,” explains a Kuwaiti businessman to The Report. “In retrospect, that sum was too large. In any event, it didn’t give private entrepreneurs an incentive to invest. People were scared of a new outbreak of war as long as Saddam remained in power. It was only after he was toppled, in 2003, that foreigners and local Kuwaitis felt secure enough to put money back into these projects.”
Indeed, Kuwait City now has the “largest shopping center in the Middle East.” The huge Avenues mall located on the city’s perimeter is not yet complete, but already boasts the largest aquarium in the Arab world – replete with penguins.
The enormous Burger King in the Avenues is not to be ignored, either. But while the “biggest and best” syndrome of the Arabian Peninsula has now seized Kuwaitis, too, it carries a discordant note. Two full decades after the Iraqi invasion, the country has yet to recover from the trauma; like the victims of gang rape, Kuwaitis remain tormented by foreboding and mistrust.