Kuwaiti banks reopen, distribute new currency WAR IN THE GULF


KUWAIT CITY -- For seven months the Kuwaiti dinars lay hidden with gold bracelets and rings in a hole beneath the tiles of his bathroom floor.

Now Abdul Hamed al-Atar was handing over the $8,500 in old currency to the Commercial Bank of Kuwait in return for the freshly printed bills of new Kuwaiti dinars.

"I'm going to go home to show this to my wife and family, and then I'm going to Saudi Arabia to buy some food and a generator," said the 50-year-old government worker as he stuffed the bills into a leather purse.

Banks in Kuwait City opened yesterday for the first time since the country's liberation and began distributing a new currency to replace the old Kuwaiti dinars.

It is an important step in restarting the country's stalled economy. For the first time in the nearly four weeks since liberation, cars flowed to the banks in the downtown commercial district and gave it a breath of life.

There are few stores open in which to spend the new currency. Most stores lack merchandise, employees, or power to light up the buildings.

But for Mr. Atar and others who lined up outside the banks before they opened at 10 a.m., the return of currency was a boost in morale.

"It feels comfortable to have money in my hand," he said as he examined the new orange, green and pink bills. "Nice color."

A return to normalcy is needed for Kuwaitis to heal the wounds of occupation. Mr. Atar learned two weeks ago that his 23-year-old son, a member of the Kuwaiti resistance, was killed by Iraqis.

"I'm proud of him," said Mr. Atar, tears rimming his eyes. "He was brave. He did something for his country."

Behind the glass partition at the Commercial Bank, teller Atef Hamdan, 31, was pleased to be passing out the currency.

"Banks are the backbone of the economy," he said. "When banks are open, there will be a kind of life to the community. People feel more secure, more comfortable, to have some money in their pocket."

The government intends to increase that pocket change. It has announced that all Kuwaiti citizens who remained in the country for the occupation will be given 500 dinars -- about $1,700 -- for the experience.

The bonus will be given only to Kuwaiti citizens, not non-Kuwaitis who live in the country and who also endured the hardships of occupation. Those interviewed yesterday were not apologetic about that discrimination.

"Why not? It's our country," said a man who would not give his name.

"We suffered a lot, so the government gives us a gift," said Ramadan Hashammari, 42. He said that the initial rumor was that the bonus would be a lot more but that "we understand the government has lost a lot of money in this time. So this is OK."

The currency in this oil-rich country remains strong. Each Kuwaiti dinar issued yesterday is initially valued at $3.47.

When the Iraqis took over Kuwait Aug. 2, they continued to operate the banks. They substituted Iraqi currency for Kuwaiti dinars on a one-to-one basis, even though the Iraqi dinar was worth less than a tenth as much.

Many banks smuggled their account records out of the country. Mohamad al-Yaha, general manager of the Commercial Bank, said the account tapes from the bank's central computer were smuggled out in the luggage of an Indian employee and then were transferred to Kuwaiti bank offices in London.

The account balances have been brought back. But most banks do not have their computers in operation. Yesterday they entered each transaction by hand on long ledger sheets. Some of the banks had no generators to provide electricity and conducted business by candlelight.

"We still don't have electricity," said May al-Mudhaf, an officer of the Commercial Bank. "We don't have water. We have no communication with our branches. I don't know how long we can continue to operate this way."

But still, she said, "I've been excited for the last week. We have been waiting seven months to come back to work."

The government decreed that everyone would be credited with the amounts they had in their bank accounts on the day before the invasion, forgiving any withdrawals made during the occupation.

And banks are not exchanging the Iraqi dinars that were put into circulation, to Nizar Kodmani's disappointment.

The Syrian clothing merchant is holding 140,000 Iraqi dinars, revenue from his seven clothing shops.

"Maybe I will take them to the market" and sell them to someone who would take them to Iraq, he said. "Maybe I will get 50 percent for them. Maybe I will get nothing."

But Mr. Kodmani said he was ready to reopen his clothing shops, accepting only new Kuwaiti dinars.

"I am ready to do business again," he said. "Life should become normal."

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