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Kuwait Watches Old Enemy Fall: Ambassador Salem Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah
The Washington Diplomat / April 2003

By Larry Luxner

With bombs falling literally in Kuwait's backyard, Salem Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah — the country's ambassador to Washington — nervously follows CNN, worried about the effect this latest war between Iraq and the United States will have on his tiny, oil-rich emirate.

"I'm glued to the phone, much more than the TV, calling officials and friends back home, getting first-hand information. My first concern is for Kuwaiti citizens who are here in the U.S.," he said. "We've established hotlines and networks to be able to inform them of every single development. That's my first priority."

Al-Sabah, who looks much younger than his 45 years would suggest, is a member of the Al-Sabah dynasty that has ruled Kuwait since 1759. Before taking up his post here in August 2001, he was Kuwaitís ambassador to South Korea. He has also served from 1991 to 1998 at various positions within Kuwait's mission to the United Nations in New York, and from 1986 to 1991, he worked at his countryís Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"Ever since I was a teenager, I had an interest in politics," Al-Sabah says. "When people my age were reading comics, I was picking up newspapers and following the news. I've always known I was interested in this field."

Al-Sabah earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in political science from the American University in Beirut, and he speaks Arabic, English and French. In his current job, he oversees 20 embassy staffers including seven diplomats.

Just in case there's any doubt where Kuwait's loyalties lie, hanging in the embassy's reception area is a 1991 framed front page from The Washington Times with the headline of the day in big bold type: "WE WON!"

The ambassador was home in Kuwait — an extremely hot, dry desert country the size of Massachusetts — when Saddam Hussein's troops invaded on Aug. 2, 1990. He then fled to Saudi Arabia, where he joined his government in exile.

Al-Sabah says that during the ensuing Iraqi occupation, which lasted until Feb. 26, 1991, Kuwait suffered "mass murder, mass looting, mass destruction and mass rape" at the hands of Iraqi soldiers. "We still have 605 people missing since the Gulf War. You may think this is a small number, but that's one in 1,300 Kuwaitis. On a U.S. scale, that would be like a quarter of a million Americans missing."

Yet he emphasizes, "We've never had a grudge against the Iraqi people. We've always said our quarrel is with the Iraqi government."

Al-Sabah denied allegations that Palestinians were abused by Kuwaitis following the invasion and that several hundred thousand Palestinians were forcibly deported from Kuwait as retribution for PLO Chief Yasser Arafat publicly supporting Saddam during the war.

"A lot of them left," he says, explaining the Palestinians' departure. "They had jobs. But after the invasion, the jobs weren't there anymore. They had to go find work elsewhere."

At the height of the Iraqi invasion, Saddam declared Kuwait "the 19th province of Iraq." Following the war, such rhetoric died down and Kuwait demanded that the United Nations guarantee its territorial integrity.

"In 1993, the U.N. established a commission to demarcate the border between Iraq and Kuwait," says Al-Sabah. "That commission relied on historical documents dating back to the Ottoman Empire, and made numerous visits to the border areas. That demarcation was adopted in U.N. Security Council Resolution 833, so the Iraq-Kuwait border is the only border in the world that is actually specified by a separate Security Council resolution."

Finally, in March 2002, Saddam officially recognized Kuwait as a separate nation. Yet that doesn't reassure too many Kuwaitis, least of all Al-Sabah.

"What everybody is interpreting as an apology was not an apology. It was a masked attempt to create a wedge between the people of Kuwait and the government of Kuwait," he says. "In his so-called apology speech, he accused us of stealing his oil and robbing him of his wealth. He applauded those Kuwaitis who were shooting Americans. That was an veiled attempt to destabilize our country."

To this day, says Al-Sabah, "We have no contact with Iraqi diplomats whatsoever, social or otherwise. We still view them as a country with ill intentions toward ours."

He adds: "Saddam Hussein is an aggressive, brutal dictator, and I think his ambitions have always been to occupy as many Arab lands as possible and increase his regional and international strength. I think Saddam might use anything in his power. He has done so in the past and will do so again. The important part for the coalition is to make sure that Iraq is not capable of using any of his terrible weapons."

There's no question, says the diplomat, that Kuwait is much stronger now than on the eve of the first Gulf War.

"We have security pacts with the five permanent members of the Security Council," he says. "There's widespread support for the U.S. troops, both on the popular and the government level. If you go to Kuwait, you'd see street signs welcoming the U.S. troops. In the Kuwaiti press, you will not find one single article or column criticizing the U.S. presence. They cannot overstay their welcome because they are there by means of a security pact signed with the United States 12 years ago."

Since 1991, Kuwait has spent an estimated $12 billion on military hardware, most of it from the United States. It also poured untold billions into restoring the country's oil industry and basic infrastructure, which was destroyed by the Iraqis. In order to do this, Kuwait tapped into its $100 billion Fund for Future Generations, established back in the early 1970s. Today, the fundówhich includes investments in real estate and several choice properties in Florida, New York and Californiaóis worth an estimated $60 billion.

"Ten percent, and sometimes more, of the proceeds of the oil we sell goes into that fund, which is invested internationally. It's a nest egg for the whole country," says Al-Sabah. "That fund proved its value when we were occupied. It made it possible for the government to keep functioning abroad, and start the reconstruction process as soon as Kuwait was liberated."

Kuwait today has 2.1 million inhabitants, of which only 800,000 are Kuwaitis. The rest are foreigners — mainly Egyptians, Indians, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis and Filipinos — attracted by the relatively high wages they can send to their families back home.

In fact, oil is the fiscal mainstay of Kuwait, providing 99 percent of the nation's income. Petroleum exports pay for free medical care, education and social security. Kuwaitis pay no tax of any kind, and per-capita income is around $15,000 a year — not as high as the oil boom of the early 1980s, but still one of the highest in the developing world.

Al-Sabah says he was at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York when the city was attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. In the wake of 9/11, he says, "There was a massive outcry of support from the people of Kuwait. They held vigils outside the U.S. Embassy. Queues formed outside blood banks. We were deeply hurt and touched by what happened. We shared the grief."

Since then, he says, "We have become an active member of the international coalition in the fight against terrorism. We have reformed our charity organizations to have more transparency. Now all charities are under the control of the Central Bank."

Even though virtually all Kuwaitis practice Islam, the country's laws and government are based not on sharia (Islamic law) but rather a secular system with executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Meanwhile, Al-Sabah says his country has been busy consolidating democratic and economic reforms, pushing ahead with womenís rights, and trying to open up the fledgling private sector.

"Women don't have the right to vote yet because our parliament, by only two votes, rejected a bill the government presented to give women the vote," he said. "The government tried, but it was our democratic process that did not let that happen."

At the moment, he concedes, around 97 percent of all Kuwaitis are employed by the government, with foreigners doing the menial work that Kuwaitis either cannot or don't want to do.

Al-Sabah says he is unhappy when people accuse the United States of acting in Kuwait's interest because it produces oil, while ignoring atrocities in other countries such as Rwanda that are impoverished and have no natural resources.

"In Rwanda, it wasnít one country invading another; it was internal strife," he said. "In the case of Kuwait, it was a flagrant violation by one country against another. If you had let that stand, the social international order would have crumbled." During this latest conflict, Kuwait – a staging ground for more than 200,000 U.S. troops — has already been attacked at least four times by Iraqi missiles, though no injuries or deaths have been reported.

At press time, the Kuwaiti government was also helping douse oil wells blazing in Iraq's vast southern Rumaila field just north of the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border.

A crack team from the Kuwait Oil Co. is tackling seven wellheads on fire at the southern end of the 50-mile-long oilfield, which accounts for half of Iraq's petroleum production. Aide from the burning wells, another 10 to 15 have been mined, Reuters reported. The team could take up to four weeks to finish the job.

During the first Gulf War, Iraqi troops set more than 700 Kuwaiti oil fields ablaze; some of them burned for months.

Mindful of his two and a half years as Kuwait's ambassador to South Korea, Al-Sabah says he strongly disagrees with those who think the Communist regime in North Korea is more dangerous than that of Iraq.

"I see many parallels, but the Iraqi regime is much more dangerous," says the diplomat. "Saddam has demonstrated that he has no scruples about using weapons of mass destruction. We haven't seen North Korea actually using them. Since the end of the Korean War, North Korea has not attacked neighboring states. But in the past 20 years, Iraq has invaded two of its neighbors and used weapons of mass destruction on numerous occasions."

He adds, "We have a death penalty, but we havenít executed anyone in a long time. We have names and lists of these people, and Kuwait tried very hard to create a criminal court for Iraq, just like Rwanda. I hope all those in the Iraqi leadership who were responsible for these atrocities will see their day in court."

If given the chance, Al-Sabah predicts that "with outside help, the Iraqi people will definitely rise up against Saddam. Whenever they see a chance, they'll definitely rise up."

And if Saddam is overthrown, who should take his place?

"That's up to the Iraqi people," he says. "They have to be given the opportunity to choose their own leadership. We just hope it will be representative of all the people of Iraq."

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