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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 January 2006, 12:43 GMT
Conservatism threatens Kuwaiti reforms
By Jonathan Fryer
BBC News, Kuwait

Following the death of its ruler, the Emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad last Sunday, Kuwait has entered a 40-day period of official mourning and appointed a new emir, Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah. Jonathan Fryer looks back at how some of the reforms Sheikh Jaber made are now under threat from traditionalists.

Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah (Photo: Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images)
Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah came to power in 1977
For nearly three decades, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah presided over one of the richest little countries in the world.

With a population of only two million, Kuwait sits on a 10th of the globe's oil reserves.

It does not even have to work very hard to extract this great wealth.

The oil is under such natural pressure that it comes spouting up of its own accord and as the wells are sited on a slight incline, it then just flows down through pipes to the seaside refinery by gravity.

No wonder Kuwaitis regularly thank Allah for the blessings He has given them.

The remarkable thing is that only 70 years ago, Kuwait was amongst the poorest and most inhospitable places on Earth.

Pearl fishing, which had largely supported the community for 200 years till then, had gone into decline.

And there was no air-conditioning to alleviate the searing heat of summer.

Oil changed all that, after World War II.


Burning oil field in Kuwait in 1991
Iraqi troops set fire to Kuwait's oil wells during the Gulf War

From the late 1970s onwards, Sheikh Jaber oversaw the rapid expansion of Kuwait City, where the bulk of the population lives, into a modern metropolis, complete with shopping malls and 10-lane highways.

Covetous of this blatant prosperity, Saddam Hussein sent in his army in August 1990, to annex Kuwait as Iraq's so-called "Nineteenth Province".

Sheikh Jaber was evacuated to Saudi Arabia, while the Iraqis comprehensively looted his country, before setting hundreds of the oil wells alight.

The US-led international coalition restored Kuwait's freedom and enabled Sheikh Jaber to return.

Women's suffrage only came into being last May, to some continuing protests
Part of the tacit understanding with Washington was that once reconstruction was complete, political reforms would follow.

The Kuwaiti parliament, which had only functioned very briefly and ineffectually before, was reconvened and the emir backed the enfranchisement of women.


Kuwait City skyline
Kuwait City rapidly modernised after the discovery of oil
It was at that moment that democracy backfired.

Kuwait's members of parliament, all men, of course, flatly rejected the idea of giving women the vote. Indeed, women's suffrage only came into being last May, to some continuing protests.

This is symbolic of a bizarre dichotomy within Kuwaiti society, between modernisers and traditionalists.

The latter are well represented in parliament, and have gained the reputation of killjoys among more liberal Kuwaitis.

Life for fun-loving young Kuwaitis is pretty bleak
Alcohol was banned in Kuwait many years ago, as being incompatible with Islam.

But much more recently, live music has also come under prohibition.

A year ago, the then minister of information had to resign when three parliamentarians accused him of failing to protect the country's values and morals by permitting a pop music concert.

Several high-profile Arab singers, such as Lebanon's Nancy Ajram and Egypt's Ruby, are banned in Kuwait.

Map of Kuwait showing Kuwait City
As there are no nightclubs, and the mixing of the sexes is frowned on by conservative Muslims, life for fun-loving young Kuwaitis is pretty bleak.

About the most exciting legitimate social activity boys and girls can indulge in is to go for a coffee at Starbucks, or a pizza at the Hilton Resort at Mangaf, and make jokey comments to each other from their respective tables.

"This is why we have so much juvenile delinquency," Mohammed, a young Kuwaiti health worker friend of mine, pronounced emphatically, as we washed down our pizzas with mango juice there the other day.

"'They're bored out their minds, and frustrated."

Those who can afford to, will fly off to more liberal Gulf States, such as Bahrain or Dubai, or even to London, to let off steam every so often.

But for many Kuwaiti youths, the main outlet for their pent-up energy is their cars.

Dangerous driving

Earlier this month, the level of car ownership in Kuwait officially passed two per driver.

Young Kuwaiti men cruise round town for hours every evening, often at hair-raising speed.

Tail-gating - driving right up close behind the vehicle in front - is something of a national sport.

I travel everywhere by bus, which is considered deeply eccentric by my Kuwaiti neighbours
And every day, by the side of the main highway that runs to Kuwait City from the oil town of Ahmadi where I stay, there are fresh mangled carcasses of cars that have been completely written off.

Providing they escape serious injury, some of the drivers of these vehicles treat this as a huge joke.

After all, an accident is a good pretext for buying an even more up-to-date replacement.

Bad behaviour

I travel everywhere by bus, which is considered deeply eccentric by my Kuwaiti neighbours.

They believe buses are only fit for low-paid expatriate workers, or local schoolboys, who are too young to drive.

The latter sometimes make even rowdy British kids seem well behaved. I try to avoid the 1540 bus that picks up a handful of Kuwaiti boys as they come out of school.

Invariably, they jump up and down on the seats, hang out of the windows, and taunt some of the Indian workers, who dare not retaliate.

The last time I got a bus on which boys were misbehaving, one Indian did remonstrate quietly.

As the bus later drew away from dropping off the boys, suddenly there was an explosion as its windows caved in under a hail of stones they had thrown, showering all of us passengers with glass.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 21 January, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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