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A Kuwaiti campaign worker before the May elections there. Women couldn’t vote in Kuwait five years ago; today they make up a majority of registered voters. (AP photo)

Iraq’s neighbor to the south continues to play a pivotal role for the American military

COMMENTARY | July 07, 2009

Kuwaitis accept the American presence but aren’t exactly comfortable with it. At the same time, unlike almost all other Middle Eastern Arab countries, Kuwait is moving toward democracy. Signs of it include electing women to the National Assembly when as recently as 2004 women couldn’t even vote.

By Don Capps

When the 15th Amir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, meets with President Obama in early August, 19 years will have passed since Kuwait was invaded by Iraq. Its liberation in February 1991, by a coalition led by the United States, is celebrated as a holiday.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq six years ago, it did so from Kuwait. If you are soldier or Marine and have been deployed to Iraq, you and your family are among the few to even have an idea where the country is. It’s hardly on anyone else’s radar screen. Yet the role that Kuwait plays in the American presence in the region is pivotal. Wedged between Saudi Arabia to the south, Iraq to the north, and with Iran just across the Gulf, Kuwait is more than just a strategic base for American operations, it is one of the few countries in the region to actually be taking steps in the direction that policy-makers would like to see – toward that messy thing known as “democracy.”

The U.S. military presence in Kuwait is much reduced from what it was during the build-up and then the American invasion of Iraq but it is still substantial. Kuwait serves as the main logistics base for supporting operations. A constant stream of convoys heads north, carrying all the items needed to conduct war and sustain it: combat vehicles of every sort, from the Abrams tank, the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, the Up-armored HMMWV, the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle), the Stryker, to the ASV (Armored Security Vehicle); sundries for the Post Exchanges located on the Forward Operating Bases (FOB); paper and printer cartridges for the unit headquarters; spare parts for all the vehicles and weapon systems; and food for the dining facilities. On the way back to Kuwait, these convoys bring the debris of the war – damaged vehicles and equipment rotated out for maintenance or an overhaul, or even returning to its base with the units rotating home.

The convoys stay away from the normal bustle of Kuwaiti life. The port through which the equipment flows is far to the south of the metropolitan areas where the Kuwaitis work, nestled in among oil refineries and largely out of view. While the Kuwaitis understand and accept the American presence in their country, that doesn’t mean they are comfortable with it.

The troops deploying into Iraq also flow through Kuwait. Once headquartered in a group of warehouses not far from Kuwait City, ARCENT—the US Central Command, US Army Central—is now located far to the south of the urban areas, near the port that the supplies flow through.

Out in the Udairi desert, in the northwest corner of Kuwait, is where Army has established its base to support the last-minute training and checks that units undergo before heading into Iraq. This is a sprawling complex that is larger than all the Army combat training centers in the U.S. and Europe combined. The training is under constant review, updated constantly to reflect what the units are expected to encounter in Iraq. 

As American forces draw down and move into bases out of urban areas in Iraq, as the level of outright conflict is lower than it was previously, the problems and realities of the relationships of Kuwait, the United States, and Iraq are moving closer to the surface. Although muted, the animosities stirred by the 1991 invasion still seethe among many Kuwaitis. Having an Iraq with a functional government and a restored military are scarcely a comfort to Kuwaitis. 

And then there is Iran, only 30 or so miles across the Gulf at its closest point. Kuwait has no particular love for Iran but no interest in antagonizing it, either. During the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, ships bound for Kuwait were targeted by the Iranians, which led to the vessels getting U.S. escorts. In recent years, Kuwait has taken pains to keep relations cordial. Several years ago when Vice President Dick Cheney was rattling his sabre at Iran, a Kuwaiti friend of mine remarked that since I had an apartment overlooking the Gulf I would have a great ringside seat to witness the U.S.-Iranian naval battles, something that was then anticipated at any moment. Any calming of American relations with Iran would get the support of Kuwait. Having been a battleground once in recent decades, Kuwait is understandably reluctant to become one again.

There is one aspect of Kuwait that deserves special attention. Kuwait seems to be becoming a functioning democracy, something unique and resisted by other Middle Eastern Arab countries. Indeed, its sometimes stumbling efforts in that direction are being used by its neighbors as a rationale to continue the autocratic rule that is generally practiced in the region.

In May, Kuwaitis held their third election since 2006. When the ballots were counted, four of the 50 National Assembly seats were won by women—a remarkable feat given women were not even allowed to vote until 2005. Also remarkable along the same lines: today a majority of registered voters are women. The election also saw an increase in seats won by what could be called liberals, individuals seeking more open government.

But not all is progressive. Kuwait is included on a blacklist of nations engaged in human-trafficking. Like most of the countries in the Gulf region, Kuwait imports labor under a sponsorship program known as “kafell.” Employers obtain visas allowing foreign workers into the country, but only to work for them. The system operates on fees being paid, influence (“wasta”) often being peddled, and workers tied to their employers. While it often works as it is supposed to, it is also a system ripe for exploitation.

Earlier this year, Bahrain, which has a similar kafell system, announced that it would eliminate the sponsorship program and shift running the system directly to the government. However businesses there successfully waged a campaign to halt the conversion. Eliminating the middlemen – the businesses – in the kafell system has often been discussed in Kuwait, but has always fallen short of the necessary support. It is possible the blacklisting will bring the much needed reform to the system. If this happens, it will interesting to see what develops elsewhere in the Gulf.

In summary, while generally overlooked back in the States for whatever reasons, Kuwait is one of the few countries in the Gulf region that seem to be moving along the path that the United States would like the region being to take. Its movement toward an open democracy is far ahead of any of the others, as messy and frustrating as that can be.  That Kuwait has a press that is given more freedom than elsewhere in the Middle East is not lost on those both within and outside the country. It will be fascinating to watch how Kuwaitis respond when the U.S. role there lessens.

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