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Handling of Crisis Boosts Kuwaitis' Pride

October 19, 1994|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUWAIT CITY — When Iraqi soldiers massed near Kuwait's border two weeks ago, fears of a rush on dollars here prompted the U.S. Embassy to offer to loan the government $100 million in greenbacks to calm the nervous citizenry.

But the Central Bank politely declined, saying it could handle the crisis. And on Tuesday, as Kuwaitis and foreign diplomats reviewed the past 10 tense days, they expressed surprise that the country had done just that--calmly managed the crisis and strengthened the national backbone in the process.

"From Day One," one diplomat said, "the government took charge of this. It's a totally different country than it was four years ago. There is public confidence here now."

Added another Western envoy: "The way Kuwaitis reacted to this episode might just restore confidence, both inside and outside this country."

Certainly, Kuwaitis were patting themselves and their government on the back this week for their lack of panic in the face of the latest crisis.

A few stockpiled goods, but the stores remained open with shelves full. There were no special roadblocks, and crime rates dropped. Kuwaiti troops were called to service and showed up. Hospitals were open. And political leaders, who once might have hidden in their offices, appeared regularly on television, urging calm.

The most striking feature of the Kuwaiti government's response to fears of an Iraqi invasion could be found at bank tills. Rather than close their doors, Kuwaiti banks opened specially on a weekend day and calmly arranged money transfers and cash withdrawals--mostly in U.S. dollars--for customers worried they might have to flee.

The Central Bank saw demand for money transfers triple over three days. It injected $370 million into the money market, and then took the unusual step of calling a news conference a few days later to talk about it publicly.

"Frankly, we expected more," said Abdulaziz Salem al Sabah, the governor of the Central Bank.

Now money transfers have dwindled to normal levels, and the Kuwaiti dinar has strengthened against the dollar, soaring higher than it was before the crisis, bank officials said Tuesday. But public confidence in the Kuwaiti government, and the arriving U.S. and coalition forces, never left.

Saif Abbas Abdulla, chairman of the political science department at Kuwait University, said he was shocked by the change in attitude among Kuwaitis, and he attributes much of it to the opening of political discourse in this country over the past few years.

After the Gulf War, "we felt betrayed by Iraq, we lamented our bad luck, we blamed our government for trusting Saddam Hussein," he said. "But this has shown that Kuwaiti society has grown tremendously."

"It was just amazing," he added. "For a country that just four years ago was pillaged, it's amazing that we could quietly and systematically deal with this new threat. There was no panic."

Many diplomats, in fact, were more fearful than Kuwaitis about the threat posed by Hussein's military moves. They had expected the worst--that the Iraqi leader would try to make a play for Kuwait City, or even seize some of the oil fields in the north.

Although diplomats acknowledge that Kuwait's 18,000 troops would have been no match for Hussein's 80,000 fighters, they say the local army would have forced Hussein to "at least deploy in combat formation," as one diplomat put it, making it easier for air strikes.

The knowledge that Kuwaiti forces were backed up by arriving U.S. soldiers seemed to be enough to allay the fears of most Kuwaitis. But they know that the threat remains, and most say they would welcome a permanent U.S. military presence here.

"We all still know that Saddam's capacity to harm is great," said Abdulla, the political scientist. "And when you have a neighbor like this guy, you have to keep building up."

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