Kuwait’s exiled emir, Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah, extended an emotional greeting to his Cabinet on Thursday as he returned to the liberated Gulf emirate for the first time since fleeing to safety against a storm of advancing Iraqi tanks.
Sheik Jabbar covered his face with his hands as he stepped from a blue-and-white Kuwait Airways jet and then stooped to kiss the ground at Kuwait’s international airport.
“It’s wonderful to be home,” the emir said as a marching band struck up Kuwait’s national anthem. Some of the assembled dignitaries said the soft-spoken monarch was crying.
As the marching band gave way to the rhythmic drumbeats of Gulf Arab warriors, a troupe of Kuwaiti men in traditional dress began waving swords and chanting the words to a traditional victory cry, ecstatically encircling the emir’s black Mercedes. U.S. Army Special Forces units assigned to guard the monarch looked helplessly out from the chanting, cheering, sword-waving crowd.
“This is the completion. This is the final stage,” said Planning Minister Salman Abdul-Razek Mutawa, who has helped oversee Kuwait’s transition from a country of occupation to a functioning nation once again.
However, the absence of many Kuwaitis along the streets as the emir’s car made its way to a temporary home in the Nozha district of Kuwait city evoked the troubled country to which Sheik Jabbar has returned. It is a country in which many Kuwaitis are without electricity, running water, fresh food or basic supplies more than two weeks after liberation.
The ruling Sabah family faces one of the most significant challenges of its 250-year dynasty, with Kuwaitis who remained behind when the emir and the government fled to Saudi Arabia demanding an important place in the returning government.
Sheik Jabbar has pledged to revive the 1962 constitution and restore the Parliament, suspended since 1986, by way of new national elections. But in a country teetering on the edge of instability, with much of the populace armed with weapons abandoned by the fleeing Iraqis, the government has refused to say precisely when it will hold elections and suspend martial law.
Thousands of Kuwaitis have lined up in Kuwait city for permits to leave the country, purportedly to buy supplies and return, but many citizens say they are frustrated that the returning government has not been able to get the country back on track.
“The emir, what can the emir do?” said a 26-year-old computer operator, who identified himself only as Ahmed and said he does not plan to celebrate Sheik Jabbar’s return. “The crown prince is back now more than a week. What did he do?”
“The government comes back, everything is ready for them, without doing (anything).” complained a young banker. “They’ve been sitting there getting paid doing nothing, probably the only time they suffered is how to leave Kuwait. . . . Now, it’s time to take care of the people who stayed here.”
Leaders of the political opposition, a loosely organized coalition of pro-democracy, Muslim and Arab nationalist groups, are using the current instability in Kuwait as a launching platform for their own aims of replacing the Cabinet dominated by Sabah family members and winning seats in a newly constituted Parliament.
Yet, political analysts here say that the prominent opposition leaders who waited out the occupation in London are likely to find as much resistance in Kuwait as the Sabahs. Kuwaitis here, they say, want recognition of their contribution to the country, and they want a country that works again.
Many Kuwaitis say their dissatisfaction with progress in getting the country going again does not mean opposition to the Sabah family.
Saud Samakeh, a Kuwaiti journalist, said that for 250 years, the Kuwaiti people and the government have been “one family. They are very close with each other, and this kind of relation . . . this kind of conflict does not mean that the Parliament or the people of Kuwait want to change the government or to change the Sabah family.”
Government leaders are blaming extensive damage to the infrastructure, holdups at the Saudi border and impossible internal communications for many of the delays in restoring services. U.S. and British officials working with the Kuwaitis concede that these are important factors, but they also say the government failed to maintain a workable operating structure during its seven months in exile in Saudi Arabia and is paying the price now.
“The government has done some things. It’s just that they haven’t done enough, and they haven’t done it quickly,” said one official. “When the government came in, and this is a fault of the government, before they returned, they didn’t pull together their ministry structures in depth. . . . They never really set up a functioning government abroad, shy of the council of ministers.”
Planning Minister Mutawa said the people “have every right to feel frustrated. I am one of them. I have no electricity. I have no water.”
But he said it would be wrong to interpret the sprinkling of only a few dozen Kuwaitis who turned out on the streets for the emir’s return as a political slap because government officials for security reasons did not notify the public until five hours before his plane landed.
“I think it was timed in such a way that we were trying to avoid the overcrowding of the streets. . . . There’s no significance in it. Don’t try to read too much in it,” he told reporters.
Mutawa said the emir will likely return to his traditional role as leader of a village community, traveling to visit families who have lost loved ones during the occupation and extending the government’s condolences. “The recovery is in the hands of the government,” he said. “The head of state is not involved.”
The emir returned on a Boeing jet named Bubiyan, after one of the two Kuwaiti islands that first launched the Persian Gulf crisis, when Iraq sought to take over the islands as a way of access to the Gulf.
With his palaces in ruins, Sheik Jabbar will live in a large meeting center owned by one of Kuwait’s prominent merchant families.
The sheik’s return clears the way for an onslaught of foreign visitors to the emirate, possibly including President Bush, according to U.S. Ambassador Edward W. (Skip) Gnehm Jr. “The President from the beginning has said he wants to go see the emir in Kuwait. Nothing’s going to stop him,” he said.
No date has been announced for Bush’s visit.
Today, a 137-member U.S. delegation headed by Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher is to arrive. The visit is timed to coincide with a bonanza of contracts being let for the restoration and reconstruction of Kuwait, with a price tag that could exceed $80 billion.
In the delegation are the chief executive officers of 20 U.S. corporations, including Foster Wheeler Corp., Fluor Daniel Corp. and Textron Inc.; several members of Congress; former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.; former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, and former House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr.
“The most interesting part has been I don’t know where 137 people are going to go to the bathroom,” quipped one official coordinating the visit.