KUWAIT CITYAt 16, Amer Shawaf is too young to remember much about the last time war came to town, and, as war again looms nearby, his immediate concern is finding the latest P. Diddy CD at the new, glitzy Virgin Megastore. "Why should I be afraid with all the American soldiers in the desert to protect us?" asks Shawaf, sporting baggy khaki pants, a two-sizes-too-large T-shirt, and a "No Fear" baseball cap that rides sideways on his head to emulate an inner-city rap artist.
"No Fear" pretty well captures the mood in this oil-gifted, ultra-affluent Persian Gulf nation. The ugliness of war may be around the corner, but for now, Kuwait City seems, well, normal. Yes, Kuwaiti military troops have set up posts along Kuwait Bay, training the guns of Bradley fighting vehicles out over the placid waters. Kuwait's newspapers also make note daily of the busy preparation going on here and in the United States for Saddam Hussein's bloody downfall.
What's surprising is that the anxiety level isn't higher, given that Saddam's missiles, possibly with chemical warheads, may be within striking distance and his agents or sympathizers could be moving undetected. The Bradleys are few and far between, and the soldiers mainly seem to be hanging out and catching rays. Kuwait's expensive restaurants still fill with well-heeled residents. The hotels of Kuwait City still attract a multitude of Asian businessmen hoping to do deals. And construction of new hotels, malls, and mosques continues unabated. This January, Kuwait's airport registered a 5 percent increase in traffic compared with a year ago, and import-export airfreight rose 36 percent, with more than nine tenths of the goods coming into Kuwait.
So many people wanted to visit the new Virgin Megastore here one recent day that consumers backed up traffic for half a mile on Gulf Roada six-lane monster that snakes around this tiny emirate's sandy coast. For now, the only colonel that seems to be on Kuwaitis' minds is the one who heralds the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain; its downtown outlet continues to snarl traffic.
OK, a few people are concerned that Saddam might unleash a chemical or biological apocalypse on Kuwait. But these worrywarts tend to be Americans, and even this group of fragile soulsonly a few who say they will be leavingnote that the main concern is not with President Bush's "evildoer," Saddam. It is the idea of terrorists taking potshots at them as they head out for a snack at T.G.I. Friday's or Applebee's, or take in a movie at the cinema. "What takes place internally is much more of a worry than the war," said Don Auchey, an American project engineer, as his wife, Hala, and his 19-month-old daughter tried out perfumes at the Dior counter in one of Kuwait's malls. He added that even though two American schools have extended holidays through the likely conflict dates, the family has no plans to leave. Most of his friends plan to stay as well.
The main pressure to leave the country comes from family at home, said Al Wright, a 34-year-old teacher, who lounged away Friday afternoon (Kuwait's version of our Saturday) watching Lord of the Rings with his 4-year-old son, Adam, in a glassed-in room at the Virgin Megastore. "They only hear one side, the hype on the news," he said.
Some of the problem may be that while Kuwait's newspapers shout that war is near, they also underplay the danger. One recent Kuwait Civil Defense fact sheet, published in the Arab Times, told readers that "wet towels . . . provide suitable protection" from inhaled chemical weapons. It added: "Some say it is necessary to have certain medicines and vaccines. We stress and warn that it is very dangerous to believe so."
So many Kuwaitis, like Amer Shawaf, feel sheltered by American military muscle. Might it be better for Kuwait to defend itself? Amer's cousin, Nafa, 19, answered quickly. The young don't want to join the military, and most get out of military service even when it is required. "Only the strong should be in the Army"a term he used several times as a substitute for "Americans""I am afraid to go into the Army. I don't want to die."