Kuwait struggling to rebuild without a vital resource--its foreign workers WAR IN THE GULF


KUWAIT CITY -- The Iraqi soldiers occupying the city demanded to see the manager of the supermarket. Riad Sultan knew if he went with them he would be tortured or killed.

Instead, a Palestinian worker hustled the Kuwaiti manager out the back door and presented himself to the soldiers as manager of the store. The man was taken, beaten and almost died. Said Mr. Sultan, "I owe him my life. He is my brother."

But he may have to fire the Palestinian.

With the country back in its control, the Kuwaiti government wants to remold it in miniature. Officials say they must drastically reduce the population of "foreign" workers, who outnumbered Kuwaitis before the war.

Where the old Kuwait was a country of about 2 million people in which fewer than one in three was Kuwaiti, they talk of a new country with half that population and a majority of Kuwaitis.

The goal would necessitate making non-Kuwaitis leave, or at least preventing many who fled during the Iraqi invasion from returning so they do not outnumber the 600,000 Kuwaitis. The potential for unfairness in that process concerns Western nations.

Furthermore, it may not work. Many believe that the Kuwaitis do not have the skills, the desire or the manpower to run this country without relying on others.

"You can kid yourself by kicking out everybody, [but] this is just not practical," acknowledged the planning minister, Suleiman al-Mutawa.

A new Kuwaiti currency is to be issued today, and banks are scheduled to open, an important step in restarting the paralyzed economy. But Mohamad al-Yaha, who runs the country's second-largest bank, is not happy. Before the August invasion, he had 1,300 employees who ran 35 branch offices. All but a couple hundred were foreigners -- Palestinians, Iraqis, Saudis, Sudanese.

Now he can find only 259 of his workers who did not flee Kuwait. The government has told him to open his bank offices, but it will not open the borders to permit the return of the employees he needs.

"To be honest, I don't know what to do," he said. "I don't think we can operate without them. Not in the foreseeable future."

Mr. Sultan, the grocery owner, has the same problem. Before the invasion, he had 220 employees in five stores. Now there are only 76.

His experience before the invasion leaves him skeptical that Kuwaitis will fill the jobs.

"We'd put ads in the paper saying we need Kuwaitis to work," he said. "But they were not willing to cut meat in the meat department. They were not willing to clean lettuce in the produce department. They are not willing to wash floors. So I go to other nationalities."

Workers from other Persian Gulf countries flooded into pre-war Kuwait for its oil-rich salaries. Egyptian and Indians came to find professional jobs. Governments in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Yemen contracted to send planeloads of workers, whose

monthly checks home were an important source of income.

The pay was good, by comparison. Pryan, a 28-year-old Sri Lankan hotel worker, earned enough in nine years here to become a comfortable business owner at home, he said.

But non-Kuwaitis are denied rights here. They cannot own land, vote or obtain citizenship, no matter how long they live here. Their children born here are not citizens. Workers brought in by an employer can be expelled at his whim.

The largest and most stable non-Kuwaiti group is the Palestinians. Many have lived all their lives here but hold Jordanian passports. Many are well-educated -- the Palestinian neighborhoods are full of alumni of U.S. colleges -- and they typically held technical or professional jobs.

But Kuwaitis especially want them out because of their supposed treasonous sympathies. Kuwaitis tell of Palestinians greeting the invading Iraqi tanks with flowers and food, of informing on Kuwaitis who hid and of helping Iraqis run the country.

The Palestinian population now is estimated at less than half the 400,000 before the war. Very few non-Kuwaitis have been allowed back into Kuwait, even those trying to rejoin family and homes. Palestinians who remain here say they expect to be squeezed out.

"I worked at Doha," a major power plant, said Mohamud Jazzar, a 24-year-old Palestinian mechanical engineer. "During the occupation, all the Kuwaiti engineers hid and did not come in. I provided power to all the Kuwaiti people. But I expect in a month or two to be fired."

Myima and Haitim, two young Palestinian woman who would not give their full names, helped staff the lab at Kuwait City's main hospital during the war and throughout the scary period of allied bombing and liberation. They volunteered to work every day, for long shifts, often at night when others would not risk the curfews. They have not been paid in many months. But when they approached the hospital administrator last week, he said they may not be kept on the staff.

"We are very disappointed," said Myima. "We treated the Kuwaitis when they came in with injuries. Now they don't want us."

But can Kuwaitis fill their jobs? Before the invasion, they typically held top government posts or directorships in family companies. They hired people to run their economy.

"The expertise is not there," said Sgt. 1st Class Sheila Venson, a labor expert with the U.S. Army's Kuwaiti Task Force. There has been no incentive for Kuwaitis to learn workaday skills.

Kuwait has approached the U.S. government for advice on setting up vocational training for Kuwaitis, but how many will enroll is an open question.

"Basically, all the services have been given to Kuwaitis," said Sergeant Venson. "The only way you can change that is if they take those services away and start making them work for it. Whether society will put up with that, I don't know."

"It would be a radical change of the whole way of life," said U.S. Lt. Col. Wilson Baker, a commerce and economic adviser with the Kuwaiti Task Force. "In the short term, I don't think it's possible."

With some exceptions -- such as the investment managers who have turned Kuwait's oil income into a fat portfolio -- Kuwaitis are not known for their working spunk. It is a generalization that even Kuwaitis admit to hold some truth.

They are "a pampered, unweaned child who grows up without standing on his own feet," said the planning minister, Mr. al-Mutawa. "We must change from jobs as an extension of social welfare, to work that is compensated by money."

Kuwaiti managers are legendary for their long coffee breaks. Much of the afternoons are spent in a "diwaniya," a social gathering hall where they sit for hours sipping tea and discussing politics.

"They don't know how to work," scoffed a housekeeper who would not be identified. "They don't know how to cook. They don't know how to clean their own houses. They don't know how to raise their children. Even now, they are coming to us and saying, 'Please give us a girl for a maid. We will treat her very well. This time we will not beat her.' "

Those who advocate a reduction of the foreign labor advance different theories for how it could be done.

"If I reorganize, I think I could reduce my employees by one-third," said Abdul Muhsen al-Farhan, who hired 500 people to run chicken farms near the Saudi border before the war.

Khalid al-Sultan, who owns a large construction firm, believes in a relaxation of the bureaucracy. "A shopping mall can serve a large population with more efficiency and less manpower," he said. "But the government controls are so restrictive, we have a street full of small shops, each of them with three or four employees, most of them not working."

Mr. al-Mutawa believes that mechanization is the key. "Road sweeping and things like that can be replaced with machines," he said.

But the nearly month-long stagnation since the liberation of Kuwait City is not an encouraging sign for the Kuwaiti vision of the future.

The bureaucracy has snarled the return of basic services. Saudi workers coming here to fix the power lines were delayed for two days at the border. Exasperated truck drivers with water and supplies wait in long convoys at the border while regulations seem to change daily.

"It's business as usual," sighed Colonel Baker.

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