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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Kuwait City

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, March 14, 2003
From the Field
York Geoffrey


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Pictures from Kuwait

An employee at the Kuwait Stock Exchange shows women how to use the computers at the exchange. The KSE has built a special hall for women to trade.
Photo: Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP

Teenage boys cruise through the Sharq Market shopping mall.
Photo: John Moore/AP

Men converse late into the night as a boat passes through a bay built as part of the Sharq Market shopping mall in Kuwait City.
Photo: John Moore/AP

U.S. soldiers participate in a training exercise in the Kuwaiti desert near the Iraqi border.
Photo: Anja Niedringhaus/AP


KUWAIT CITY -- This may be the world's wealthiest and most relaxed war zone. I've covered wars around the world, but I'd never seen the kind of languid comfort that prevails in Kuwait on the eve of an expected invasion of Iraq by the 160,000 U.S. and British troops here.

One evening, friends took me to the Palm Palace, where Kuwaiti men sat beneath the palm trees and sipped Arabic coffee or puffed contentedly on shisha water pipes, cooled by the night breeze from the Gulf. There was not a murmur of alarm at the approaching drums of war.

On another night, I visited a luxurious café where the elite of Kuwait's business and bureaucratic worlds were gathered. Most had been coming here every night for 20 or 30 years. They greeted each other with shouts of happiness as they entered and sat on long wooden benches, leaning back on cushions, while Egyptian waiters scurried in with tiny glasses of sweet lemon tea. Some of the men played cards or traditional board games. Their wives were relegated to a separate pavilion across the courtyard, while their children played video games in a third pavilion.

Life was good. And there appeared to be no worries about the threat of a retaliatory attack by Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons. "Nobody is happy when there is war, but we will be happy if Saddam is gone," one of the men told me.

The wealth of Kuwait is dazzling. The car dealers sell Ferraris, Maseratis and Rolls-Royces. In the suburbs of Kuwait City, I have seen villas so palatial that at first I assumed they must be museums or government ministries. They are actually the mansions of oil-rich families.

The shopping malls are filled with stunning displays of fashion and conspicuous consumption. Yachts are parked on streets in the residential neighborhoods (although the names of the yachts are perhaps less gallant than what you might see on the French Riviera -- I saw one expensive boat that was named "Deceit of Women").

If you stay in Kuwait City, you might never guess that war is brewing. The only clue is the lineup of unmarked trailer-trucks at the Kuwait port, ferrying U.S. military equipment north to their bases in the desert. There are no military markings on the trucks and their cargo is hidden. Nor are there any markings on the military transport planes that roar low over my hotel, heading into Kuwait's airport, sometimes as often as every 10 or 15 minutes on busy nights. The coalition forces are remaining discreetly low-profile, afraid of terrorist attacks or a political backlash against their presence.

While the wealth strikes you immediately, there are hidden layers to this society -- and the layers are sometimes as well-disguised as the foreign troops.

The foreign workers -- the Egyptians, Filipinos, Indians and many others -- are the people in the back kitchens of the restaurants, cleaning the streets or quietly serving the tea. They form a majority of Kuwait's two million people, and many are second-generation immigrants who were born in Kuwait, yet they lack any voting rights.

Women, too, still lack the right to vote. But when I went to a women-only diwaniya -- an evening conversational salon of the kind that Kuwaitis traditionally hold at their homes -- the affluent women assured me that they feel much more free and independent here than they would in neighboring Saudi Arabia, where they would be barred from holding jobs or driving a car.

Religiously conservative Islamists are another layer to this society. You become aware of their presence during the Ashura festival this week, when thousands of black-clad Shia Muslims gather at mosques every night. Their influence becomes more noticeable when you see the stern notices at the Information Ministry, barring anyone from sending news reports to Israel. Government censors pore through the Western newspapers at Kuwaiti hotel shops, using black markers to blot out any reference to homosexuality. (Even the "women seeking women" section of the personal classifieds in a British newspaper has been carefully blacked out.)

All of these elements of urban society seem oblivious to the frenetic activity in the remote regions of northern Kuwait, where American and British jeeps are racing back and forth between the dozens of military camps that now litter the desert.

The Americans are supremely confident, if sometimes a little confused on their exact mission. I talked to one tongue-tied soldier who was entirely unable to give any reason for the looming U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. "I'm here to help," was all he could manage.

Nearby, his fellow U.S. soldiers in an air-assault unit were practising tactics for a possible battle in Baghdad. As they drilled techniques for bursting into rooms to clear out the enemy, they tossed around Hollywood movie references.

One officer cited his favourite cinema model. Clearing enemy fighters from a room, he said, is like the shootout at the OK Corral.

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