In sharp contrast to the diplomatic ineptitude that has characterized the Anglo-American march to war against Iraq, military preparations have been systematic, extensive and inexorable. As the military buildup has progressed through the autumn and winter of 2002 and into the succeeding spring, the feelings of Kuwaitis about what virtually all see as an inevitable war have become more and more — ambivalent.

There is little ambivalence about Saddam Hussein. Even young Kuwaitis are living witnesses of the 1990-91 invasion and war, whether their knowledge comes from the stories of family members or, for the older ones, memories of their own terror. Virtually all Kuwaitis long to see the end of Saddam, his regime and the ever present danger that occasionally spilled across their northern border even after the 1991 Gulf war had ended. But the prospect of a third war is not a joyful one. Kuwaitis who were inside the country during the last war have few illusions about what lies in store if fighting is not over in a few days. A desperate Saddam Hussein is likely to turn his weapons against his neighbors. The fighting envisioned is bound to send thousands of refugees streaming across the border. Even those who spent the occupation outside Kuwait have a different picture of the war’s likely course than they might have had a decade ago. Much of this difference in perception comes from the vastly expanded access of Kuwaitis to satellite TV and other mass media.

Hardened Attitudes

In 1990, few Kuwaitis were regular consumers of television news or the radio news services from Voice of America or the BBC. The war changed that, as Kuwaitis inside used CNN to check the progress of the war and outsiders used the electronic media both to get the news and to mobilize support for the rollback of the invasion. Following liberation, satellite ownership expanded rapidly. [1] Along with aerobics programs, game shows and sitcoms, the consumption of TV news programs also rose. “Many if not most apartments or houses for rent include satellite TV hookups. It’s almost like providing access to water, electricity and air conditioning,” reports one observer. “TV is taken very seriously, especially after 1990-1991. Having access to satellite TV is viewed as a way of preventing future occupation, or a lack of preparedness for invasion, war or security threats.” But the change that has had the greatest effect on how Kuwaitis view the impending war comes from al-Jazeera, the television station in Qatar whose news coverage and political broadcasts, including a live call-in show, are luring Kuwaiti news junkies away from CNN and the BBC.

Like other media, television creates imagined communities [3] among regular users but does not provide the same avenues for direct participation and activism offered by traditional Kuwaiti media — newspapers and face-to-face communication. Electronic media screen speakers and opinion-makers, many of whom live abroad, from direct exposure to the general population. Listeners and viewers have fewer cues with which to evaluate the reliability of what they are hearing unless unreliability reaches such high levels that it would be obvious to any neutral observer. Such extremes were reached by US media outlets during the 1991 Gulf war: “Many [Arabs] were turned off by the gloating about the superiority of Western technology and weaponry and the lack of interest in Iraqi civilian casualties.” [4] The subsequent burgeoning of the regional Arab electronic and print press reflect not only the desire to have broader access to cultural products but also to be able to tap into multiple, reliable non-national sources of information.

Some question the Western assumption that higher consumption of television news on Western-format stations like al-Jazeera equates to a better-informed and more engaged public. [5] But what al-Jazeera has done is to provide a differently shaped, although still selective, vision of the world from the one projected by US media. This is most notable in its coverage of Palestine and Afghanistan. Regular — and repeated — visuals of Israelis bombing and bulldozing Palestinian homes and businesses, and shooting Palestinian women and children have hardened Kuwaiti attitudes toward Israel, and negatively altered Kuwaiti views of the US ever since it became an open supporter of the Israeli government. Repetition increases the power of the images to influence the content of the imagined community Kuwaitis share with other al-Jazeera viewers.

Like the incessant replays of the attack on the World Trade Center in the United States, footage showing the sieges of Jenin and Bethlehem is imprinted on viewers’ minds and elicits rage against those who would do such things. The effect of images from Palestine is amplified by coverage of Afghanistan, where repeated scenes of US bombing of villages and the destruction of human life and property it leaves behind are all too easily translated into Kuwaiti images of a future Iraq war that are far from the Nintendo version that so entertained Americans in 1991.

Public Square

If these are the dominant Kuwaiti images of the impending war in Iraq, why is there so little action against such a war in Kuwait’s “street”? Ambivalence is one reason, of course, but another is the availability of a large public square where a broad range of views and analyses can be and are debated. One element in that public square is the national forum provided by the print press. There are five Arabic and two English daily newspapers, many weekly and monthly magazines and, in addition to satellite TV, Internet access brings the Arabic press published abroad into Kuwaiti homes.

The national press reflects elite and middle class opinion across a broad spectrum. Much of it comes from columnists — and there are a lot of them, regulars and guests. Most regulars reflect the political views of the owners, but the full complement of columnists, especially where consumers regularly read more than one newspaper, provides a varied menu of viewpoints on controversial issues. Citizens — women and men — with ideas and ambitions strive to get published in Kuwaiti papers and magazines. Writing a column is a good way to become well known nationally and within one’s profession. Men can parlay a successful column into a successful candidacy for parliament. Women, forbidden by law to vote or run for parliament, use their access to the newspapers to pursue various political agendas, including the suffrage campaign for full political rights. [6]

Kuwaitis read widely and discuss what they read with their friends and neighbors, not only at work but even more often at diwaniyyas, one of the places where imagined and real communities converge. These customary patterns of news consumption spread information and opinion. Increasingly informed by the satellite news services, diwaniyyas help to mobilize activists, nationalize issues and personalities, and contribute to forming coherent, though far from unitary, perspectives on social and political life.

Face Time

Diwaniyyas are regular open meetings that take place in private homes. Nearly always restricted to men, a few, most notably the diwaniyya of Rasha al-Sabah, a cousin of the Kuwaiti ruler and present Undersecretary of Education, are open to women and men. Kuwaiti women have begun hosting their own diwaniyyas. Rola Dashti, a city planner and business entrepreneur, began holding weekly diwaniyyas in 2002. The role of diwaniyyas as political venues explains why they remain integral to the national communication network in Kuwait.

Regular attendance at diwaniyyas produces a lot of “face time,” direct communication among people with similar tastes and interests, and much of this face time is spent with people in government or their close associates. Most have a core of regular participants composed of close friends, relations and clients of the host. Other guests may come frequently or seldom, and some stop at several gatherings in the same evening to see who is there and what’s going on. Some hosts try to increase attendance by putting the word out when they expect important visitors or when they want to discuss a particular topic of interest. Political candidates host their own diwaniyyas and flock to others to campaign and mobilize voters. During campaigns, thousands of people turn out to watch speeches broadcast to spillover crowds over closed circuit television or loudspeakers. Kuwait’s small, two-member districts offer closely knit diwaniyya communities the opportunity to affect elections directly. Members pledge to support a favorite candidate and sometimes, to increase his chances of winning, agree to cast “one-eyed” ballots. By selecting only one candidate instead of two, these diwaniyya members increase the concentration of the vote for their favorite and thereby the chance that he will win — and be grateful for their support. Diwaniyya members are sure to be the first to inform him about that, too. In the same vein, when Iraqi invaders claimed they had found hidden microphones in diwaniyyas, showing that the government routinely eavesdropped on the gatherings, [7] Kuwaiti citizens were not concerned. They expect their political support to be acknowledged and their views to reach the ears of those in power. Indeed, they are angry when they think that politicians are not sufficiently attentive to their actions and opinions.

Out of the Private Sphere

Young men begin attending diwaniyyas with their fathers, every now and again as little boys and more regularly as they grow up. Diwaniyyas are where Kuwaiti youth are introduced to the mores and interests of their social group. They learn to be respectful of their elders, to listen and argue, and also to tolerate if not share the opinions of their father and his peers. Reminiscences about youthful attendance at diwaniyyas are not always sweet, however, and as Kuwaiti youth become more Westernized and self-assertive, their attachment to this kind of socializing seems to be dropping in favor of other activities. According to one report, many young men now prefer to do their hanging out watching girls in shopping malls or driving around town with their friends. Kuwait University professor Shamlan al-‘Isa remarked that a reduction in time spent at diwaniyyas would not be such a bad thing. “The positive aspects are that it helps democracy — men meet every day and talk and complain for two or three hours. The negative aspect is that it replaces the family — men go to work and diwaniyya and never see their wives.” [8] The imminence of war has, if anything, increased diwaniyya attendance. But while adult men find relief and release talking over the issues with their friends, their families feel abandoned. Ali Tarrah, dean of the College of Social Sciences at Kuwait University, sees the grip of diwaniyya culture as problematic for Kuwaiti society. “People feel they have to go to drink tea and talk. We now have diwaniyya addicts.” [9]

Yet diwaniyyas are not the only things that interfere with family life. Internet use in Kuwait is concentrated between 4 pm and midnight, encompassing in addition to the late evenings spent at diwaniyyas, the hours when tea at home and family visiting normally take place. [10] But the Internet, some Kuwaitis feel, at least keeps kids off the streets — they are concerned that many of the new evening preoccupations of youth are confined to their peer groups, reducing regular opportunities for inter-generational socializing. Perhaps as a result, drug use is rising in Kuwait and gang activities are reported in the press. Tarrah links rising drug addiction to Kuwaiti fathers’ absence from the home. [11]Others see fathers’ desertion of the private sphere for the public square as a pri¬mary reason for the growth of Islamist youth groups and gangs. One of the most serious gang attacks was made in the spring of 2000 by a group of young men attached to Islamist Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a man who later showed up as a spokesman for Osama bin Laden. Gang members beat up a Kuwait University student, allegedly for going without a veil, and broke her arm. The same group was said to have preyed on guest workers by taking them into the desert and assaulting them, the source of its nickname, “Desert Flogging Group.” [12]

Fears of Alienation

Violent Islamist activism is blamed for the only real “street” action against the impending war with Iraq. The most severe anti-American response to the military buildup, it comes from Kuwaiti “Afghans,” returnees who volunteered to fight on the side of Muslim co-religionists in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya. Strangely in a country where half the citizenry experienced the violence of a brutal military occupation and many still suffer mentally and physically from its results, there seems to be no awareness of the likely effects of killing, being injured, suffering deprivation and watching the deaths of comrades on these surviving adolescents and young men. Since the US troop buildup began in earnest in October 2002, there have been at least six shooting incidents in which Americans were targeted by Kuwaitis, three resulting in death or injury. In all but one, those accused of the assaults were Kuwaiti “Afghans” or their close associates. Even more disturbing to Kuwaitis, most of whom continue to express a strong aversion to Saddam’s regime, was the discovery in January 2003 that a Kuwaiti sergeant in the National Guard had confessed to passing military information to Iraq, planning bomb attacks against utility installations and plotting to assassinate Kuwaiti officials. Such actions reveal a disquieting level of alienation.

Kuwaitis of every political persuasion insist that these alienated people are exceptions. Even so, in a January 2003 discussion with Georgetown University professor Jon Alterman reported by Kuwait University’s Center for Strategic and Future Studies, unattributed remarks by Kuwaiti participants noted a widespread disgust with overall US Middle East policy across the region, including in Kuwait. At the same time, an overwhelming majority of Kuwaitis would like to see the end of Saddam’s regime. Many believe that the US can accomplish this in a rapid military campaign during which American troops are envisioned as prepared simultaneously to protect Kuwaiti citizens and inflict very limited civilian casualties in Iraq.

Yet, as some Kuwaitis fear, the reality of war might be far different. In this case, disappointment and resentment are likely to blossom and spread, and Americans will not be the only targets of popular dissatisfaction. Kuwaitis are already uneasy at the acute national security dependence of the Kuwaiti regime on US guarantees. Exasperated by the ineffectiveness of a parliament where liberals and Islamists repeatedly check one another’s attempts at long-needed reform and the paralysis of a government headed by an acting prime minister who, like everyone else in the country, is waiting for the two ill and elderly titular leaders to vacate the political scene, they are likely to conclude that their public square is not working very well. What they might do about it is not clear, especially in what is likely to be a fluid security environment. However, Kuwaitis have a hundred-year history of dogged, mostly non-violent persistence in pushing their leaders to be more responsive to their desires and they have shown themselves capable of taking steps that make it difficult for the regime to refuse their reasonable demands indefinitely. Whether the memory of an earlier occupation and the experience of an immediate war will change this modus operandi remains to be seen.


[1] Naomi Sakr, Satellite Realms: Transnational Television, Globalization and the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 2002).

[2] Personal communication from Deborah Wheeler, February 18, 2003.

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991).

[4] Edmund Ghareeb, “New Media and the Information Revolution in the Arab World: An Assessment,” Middle East Journal 54/3 (Summer 2000).

[5] Mamoun Fandy, “Information Technology, Trust and Social Change in the Arab World,” Middle East Journal 54/3 (Summer 2000).

[6] Haya al-Mughni and Mary Ann Tétreault, “Engagement in the Public Sphere: Women and the Press in Kuwait,” in Naomi Sakr, ed. Women and the Media in the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, forthcoming).

[7] Susan Slyomovics, The Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), p. 162.

[8] Ilene Prusher, “Chat Rooms, Bedouin Style: Youth Stay Away,” Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2000.

[9] Tyler Marshall, “Kuwait’s Klatsch of the Titans,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2003.

[10] Deborah Wheeler, “New Media, Globalization and Kuwaiti National Identity,” Middle East Journal 54/3 (Summer 2000).

[11] Quoted in Marshall.

[12] Mary Ann Tétreault, “Kuwait: Sex, Violence and the Politics of Economic Restructuring,” in Eleanor A. Doumato and Marsha Pripstein Posusney, eds. Women and Globalization in the Arab Middle East (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2003), p. 234.

How to cite this article:

Mary Ann Tétreault "Advice and Dissent in Kuwait," Middle East Report 226 (Spring 2003).

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