KUWAIT — This Persian Gulf sheikdom offers its citizens a grand life style, all paid for with its oil wealth: Everyone is entitled not only to one of the highest standards of living in the world but to free medical care, a government-subsidized house, even a college education at state expense.
And so a Western ambassador was startled recently when 28 Kuwaiti families approached his embassy to request permission to emigrate and to leave the good life here behind.
"It's always been unthinkable for Kuwaitis to want to give up their citizenship, with all the benefits that implies," the envoy said. "Well, people are thinking the unthinkable."
Despite the vast oil reserves that seem to assure a rosy economic future, these are troubling times for Kuwait's 1.6 million people--of whom, according to recent statistics, only 600,000 are actually Kuwaiti citizens. (The others, mostly Palestinians, Egyptians and Asians, are permitted to live here because of a severe shortage of domestic manpower and share, to a limited extent, in the government largess.)
"The thinking Kuwaiti is beginning to realize that the past is gone, that something is in the wind with major political consequences," one Western diplomat said. Only a handful have expressed a desire to emigrate, but many others are clearly shaken by the latest turn of events in the Persian Gulf.
For seven years, anxiety has steadily increased as the rumble of the Iran-Iraq War approached ever closer to Kuwait, a nation the size of New Jersey situated between the two antagonists at the northern end of the gulf.
Then, in October, three Iranian missiles scored direct hits--on two oil tankers and an oil-export platform--at Kuwait's Sea Island loading facility. The material damage can be quickly repaired, but the Iranian strike at the symbolic lifeline of Kuwait's only real industry translated anxiety into towering fear, and it will not quickly subside.
"Kuwaitis are scared now," said Ahmed Khatib, a prominent nationalist intellectual who was active in the country's fledgling Parliament before it was closed by the ruling Sabah family last year. "They see rockets falling, bombing every day. They know they can't defend themselves. They're so scared they can't even think reasonably."
Some Kuwaitis blame the government for inviting the United States last July to re-register 11 Kuwaiti oil tankers--half the national fleet--under the U.S. flag so that they might have a U.S. Navy escort on the increasingly perilous 550-mile journey up the Persian Gulf.
"The policy of re-flagging was a fiasco," said a newspaper editor who is usually one of the government's staunchest supporters. "We have been dragged by the United States into an open confrontation with Iran."
For many Kuwaitis, the anxiety created by the American presence in the gulf was compounded when the United States announced that it would not retaliate against Iran for attacking Kuwait's Sea Island terminal as the Navy had done when an Iranian missile hit an American-flagged ship next to the terminal a few days before.
"By drawing this distinction," a Kuwaiti leftist said, "the United States gave Iran the green light to attack Kuwait. Now, instead of attacking Kuwaiti shipping, which had little impact, the Iranians know they can attack Kuwait itself with impunity. How is this an improvement for Kuwait?"
Some Kuwaitis said they could see no practical alternative to Kuwait's seeking outside protection last July to fend off Iranian raids and that in any case it was too late to reverse the policy. But they remain critical of the slowness with which the government seemed to respond to the missile threat.
Delay in Action Questioned
It was only after the third missile attack on the Sea Island terminal that the defense minister, Sheik Salim al Sabah al Sabah, announced that Kuwait "is considering appropriate measures," according to the official Kuwaiti news agency.
"It makes you wonder what the government was waiting for," said an oil executive who expressed frustration at the apparent lack of defensive measures around the oil industry.
In the end, the government moved some of its U.S.-supplied Hawk missiles to Faylakah Island, about 10 miles northeast of Kuwait city, in the hope that they could shoot down Iran's Silkworm missiles, which are being launched from Iranian-held positions on Iraq's Faw Peninsula.
A day after this step was announced, a small bomb wrecked the downtown ticket offices of Pan American World Airways, a blunt reminder to Kuwaitis of their vulnerability to sabotage and of the connection with the United States.
Since early in the Iran-Iraq War, terrorists have been attacking targets in Kuwait, starting with the December, 1983, bombing of the U.S. and French embassies and the local headquarters of the Raytheon Corp., suppliers of the Hawk missiles.