In Kuwait, they’re wheeling and dealing
On the road from the airport, when he passed the drive-in movie and pressed the accelerator to the floor, Muhammad Hassan felt the second carburetor kick in and he gave a little chuckle of delight. This keeps him here, when all else fails – the eight cylinders humming, the tape deck playing low, they smooth, quiet surge of speed along the yellow-lit roads like fat neon tubes on the desert.
KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait – On the road from the airport, when he passed the drive-in movie and pressed the accelerator to the floor, Muhammad Hassan felt the second carburetor kick in and he gave a little chuckle of delight.
This keeps him here, when all else fails – the eight cylinders humming, the tape deck playing low, they smooth, quiet surge of speed along the yellow-lit roads like fat neon tubes on the desert.
He had come for one year, and that was 1975, just to save a little money and return to Cairo, his home. Now, in the first days of 1978, he was forced to confess in a letter to his girlfriend that it may take another year to have enough money to return.
He does not like Kuwait, he said. You cannot drink in public and you cannot talk to girls. There are no nightclubs and no bars. People stay in their houses and covertly drink themselves sick. Now it is 9:30 p.m. and there is no one on the street.
But on this recent night, and for the moment, that did not seem to matter. He was 24 and on his own, with 20 dinars in his pocket and a shot of Scotch in his blood, Elton John in his ears and 400 cubic inches under the hood of his car.
This night, for the moment, Muhammad Hassan felt very much at home with the spirit of this place – flying through this ancient land where almost nothing is older than he, along this empty eight-lane road at 80 miles an hour and picking up speed, all eight cylinders of his wastrel Buick gulping fuel – and so what?
"How do you like this?" he said, as much to himself as to the visitor at his side. "How do you like Kuwait?"
For this tiny desert nation on the Persian Gulf, and for the thousands of Muhammad Hassans who have moved in from Egypt and Palestine, Iran and Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, the road ends 30 years hence, when the combined effects of need and greed will eliminate the geological quirk that underlies both Kuwait and its current joyride.
Until then, until the oil runs out, it is every accelerator to the floor.
The skyline of Kuwait City changes every day. The roads become wider, the houses bigger and more grotesque.
The building materials, appliances and air conditioners, furniture and carpeting, televisions and cars, graders, cranes, forklifts, computers, calculators, office machines, radios, stereos and telephones, along with every bit of food Kuwait consumes each day, keep arriving at the huge new port from everywhere else in the world.
Not much is made here, with the exception of money, but everything is consumed apace.
As the world's seventh-largest oil producer, Kuwait has the money to spend. Exports in 1976 exceeded $10 billion, more than 90 percent in oil and oil products.
Since world oil prices have tripled in the last four years, Kuwaitis have spent feverishly. They have not yet found a way to keep up with their oil revenues, but they are trying.
The oil revenues flow to the government, and government spending is immense. The ports and the highways take just pocket money compared to the service items the government provides.
There are desalination plants for fresh water (free), pipes for delivery of water service (free), parking garages (almost free), televisions and radio stations (no commercials), hundreds of schools (free), a university (free), and a nationwide telephone service (free within Kuwait.)
Private spending is, if possible, more exuberant.
On the Korniche, or coastal drive, along Kuwait Bay and the Persian Gulf, past the rows of bland new apartments that foreigners rent for a fortune, a quarter-mile of low cement fence partially hides a compound of large cement buildings, connected by air conditioned walkways. There are a gym, an auditorium for movies, a swimming pool and tennis courts. It looks like an ambitious suburban high school. It turns out to be the villa of a sheik.
In the neighborhood of Dehiya, where only Kuwaitis live, each house attempts to outdo the last. This one looks like a 19th-century English Palace, all white stone and balconies. Next door, a Swiss chalet is built at five times scale, of dark wood, white stucco and stone. Next door, all cement and steel, stands a villa that looks like a new medical office building in a suburb with strict zoning laws.
Sometimes conformity reigns for half a mile as identical houses, all huge, line up behind a uniform fence. This is the compound of a Kuwaiti who decided to build a house for each man in the family.
There are an average of six antennas on every Kuwaiti house, presumably to feed the gadgetry inside. The most expensive antenna, and consequently the most popular, is a 15-footer in the shape of the Eiffel tower.
The cars and the yachts also sprout antennas, some for radios and some for radiotelephone service, which also is free in Kuwait. The cars tend to have leather and fur upholstery. The yachts tend to have Persian carpets soaking up the salt spray on the decks.
Any Kuwaiti can become rich. Even a moronic Kuwaiti can live comfortably.
The government gives each adult Kuwaiti a home or the money to build one. For 1,000 dinars, about $3,500, he gets a plot of land. At the moment of sale, the land already is worth more than $100,000.
Only Kuwaitis can own property. Foreigners must rent from Kuwaitis, which is bad luck for foreigners. A one-bedroom unfurnished apartment in one modern building on the Korniche goes for 450 dinars a month, about $1,500.
Rentals and land values have been going up so fast that even the Kuwaitis have noticed.
The Chamber of Commerce here has just revealed its plan for controlling inflation in housing: Compulsory doubling of the rent after five years and compulsory rent increases equal to the original rent every five years thereafter.
The plan means that a foreigner who rents for 40 dinars, or $1,400 a month now, would pay $2,800 a month at the start of 1983 and $4,200 a month in 1988.
Majed Jemaleddin, secretary of the Chamber, said that his plan was designed to serve the interest of tenants.
"If landlords stop investing in real estate," he said, "there will be another housing shortage and another crisis like that of the past two years, when rents went up by more than 500 percent."
Even a stupid Kuwaiti can be a man of business, since foreigners cannot own businesses.
"What happens is, you have to find a Kuwaiti and tell him, 'Look, you be my partner," said Ausaf Achmad, a Pakistani. "You tell him, 'Look, you won't have to put up a bit of money or do anything and we'll pay you at home, say 1,000 dinars a month.' Then he signs, provided he can sign, and he's in business."
More and more, say the foreigners here, the Kuwaitis are taking over the operation of the businesses and 100 percent of the profits themselves. The enterprising Kuwaiti can become very rich indeed. A dozen old families – merchants or landholders in the days before the oil started to flow in 1947 – have built empires during the boom of the last 30 years.
The method is simple. Exclusive distributorships are the rule in Kuwait. One family handles Chevrolets and GM heavy equipment. Another handles Hitachi electronics and another, Telefunken. There is no direct competition of products and the markups start at 100 percent.
On some commodities, the markups are higher. Since liquor is banned by the law of the Koran, there are no official channels for supply. On the other hand, you cannot walk into a house in Kuwait without the host insisting on pouring out a dose of Scotch that would make an ox wobble. The result is the $50 bottle of Johnny Walker Red.
No one knows, or no one will say, which family brings in the Scotch, but it is a safe bet that one family is running that show, as with most of the others in Kuwait.
"This is a very touchy subject in Kuwait, the families," said Faysal al Muqqadam, 32, who studied for nine years in America before returning to take a job with the largest and richest of the family companies, Jusuf Ahmad Alghanim and Sons. "This is a form of segregation, of dividing the society, but the sole policy of Kuwait is that it's one family."
It is clearly the goal of the Kuwait government, led by Shiek Jaber al Ahmad al Sabah, to keep the 500,000 Kuwaitis separate from the 600,000 foreigners who live and work in the country.
There are separate neighborhoods, separate clubs and rigorous rules of custom keeping foreigners from mingling with natives. In addition there are the economic and special political privileges accorded the native Kuwaiti.
Only Kuwaitis can vote and hold office. Citizenship for newcomers is out of the question.
"I don't have the nationality of Kuwait," complained Ali Reda, 20, a sophomore geology student at Kuwait University. "I was born here and my father was here for 40 years. I have no Kuwait nationality. I have no nationality. I am just up in the air."
It is also the unwritten law of Kuwait that the native is always right.
"If you make an accident in your car with a Kuwaiti, even if he comes and hits you – pam – just like that, he is right and you are wrong," said Jules Iskandar, 41, a Lebanese who runs a contracting business along with some Kuwaiti partners."
Foreigners, for the most part, do not get rich. Foreigners are paid substantially less than Kuwaitis for the same work in the same offices. How much the foreigners are paid depends on their national origin.
"If you bring in a Pakistani, he will be very happy with, maybe, 150 dinars (about $500) a month," said Raoul Gemayel, a Lebanese who runs a building supply business – along with some Kuwaiti "partners."
"If you bring in an Egyptian, he is not happy without a little bit more. You bring in a Lebanese, it would be five times more; and an American, I guess, 10 times more."
Gemayel has prospered since he came to Kuwait in 1952. He spoke in the living room of his house, built for him on land owned by his Kuwaiti "partners." As he spoke, the stereo (Japanese) and the television videotape recorder (Dutch) both played simultaneously. Gemayel sat in a soft leather couch (Italian) and surveyed his carpets (Persian) and large brass pots (Indian).
"Yes, it's nice," he said. "But a man who comes for 200 (dinars a month) now has to share a flat with four people to be able to live. Two years ago the rent was 40 and now it's 200. It's impossible. It has got beyond the salaries of most people.
"I'm glad I came, but that was 1952. Now, for foreigners, it's rather late."
The official and unofficial discrimination sours some foreigners.
"This is one of the ways this country kills your personality," said Mariam Noukain, a young Egyptian who works for the Alghanim Family Travel Agency. "Sooner or later, you just accept not to fight, and then you are dead. They have killed you with money."
Like many who have traveled to Kuwait to work, she sees a large gap between the material progress of the nation and the social attainments of its owners.
"At the travel agency," she recalled, "we had a contract with the Grand Metropolitan Hotels to send them Kuwaitis on tours. We paid top, top rate, more than anyone."
"But the Kuwaitis went and made such a mess in the hotels that they called up, the Grand Metropolitan, and canceled the contracts.
"The Kuwaitis are unbelievable. They cooked their own rice on the floors in the hotels and when they eat, it's with the hands. They make a little ball with the rice in their hand and then, pah, they throw it in the mouth. The hands never get in the mouth, so they're throwing rice all over the room. Then, they break the furniture...Ahh, they're unbelievable.
"The hotel called up and said the cleaning staff was on strike and it was costing them more to repair the furniture and the rugs, with the fires, than they were getting from the contract, so, alas, it's finished."
Miss Noukaim is going home this week to Cairo, where she will earn 10 times less as an employe of Swissair. "It doesn't matter," she said. "This country has no culture. They are Bedouins from the desert and all the money won't change that."
There are some, like Iskandar, the contractor, who are more tolerant of the Kuwaitis. Iskandar has stayed for 20 years.
"Kuwaitis in one generation will be completely different," he said. "Every month, they are changing. They are seeing, they are learning. Their sons are all coming from universities – engineers, medical doctors. No matter how stupid they are, if they come from (a) university in America, they have to change a little."
But Iskandar, like most, says that he will leave, just as he has said every year since 1958. He switched off the episode of "Rich Man-Poor Man" that was playing back on his videotape recorder and talked about his plans.
"To Lebanon, yes, I will go home," he said. "Next year, or perhaps at the end of this year. This is very comfortable, but my children are ready for school now and I don't want them to learn in a place like this."
And so said Muhammed Hassan, the Egyptian, as he cruised down the road toward the Wimpy stand for a hamburger.
"Cairo is my homeland," he said. "I will go as soon as I make just a few hundred pounds."
"You see this," he said, as he pulled two 10-dinar notes out of his pocket. "Sometimes I make this a month in Cairo, sometimes less. Here, I make this in two days."
And how long will it take him to make his few hundred pounds?
"I don't know," said Muhammed Hassan. "I may try first to buy a color television. I have now only the black and white."