Searching for Ghosts

Ravaged by Saddam, Kuwait put its faith in oil, Islam, and the United States of America.

Perched on the gunner’s seat of a broken Soviet S60 anti-aircraft gun, I surveyed the beach facing Iraq’s Al Faw waterway just a few miles away across the Persian Gulf. The rusting hulks littering the yard around me were all that remained of Saddam Hussein’s war machine on Felaka Island after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait. This gun, along with a smattering of BTR-60s, T62s, armored trucks, and a large-caliber mortar, made it a bit easier to imagine the day when his tanks and landing craft came ashore on what was then a fashionable resort…But Felaka today is a skeleton of its former self; a dusty ghost town where only a bizarre heritage museum, miniature golf course, shabby zoo, and a filthy duck pond give a hint of its gaudy past of nightclubs, fast cars, and luxury townhouses. Just beyond the tourist zone, the Kuwaiti Army stands guard against a repeat performance by the Iraqis with whom relations have never fully recovered. Beyond that, the most vigorous sign of life on the island is the Emir’s camel herd; a collection of the most impressively beautiful animals I had ever seen.

Kuwait Past and Present

Felaka is better known for its past than its present. Millennia before the neon grandeur of the 1970s oil-boom, the tiny island was home to a thriving Dilmun civilization trading outpost. Unguarded ruins of later, Greek settlements still dot the landscape east of the heritage village. Few tourists know about the ruins and even fewer get to see them as they are closed to the public just minutes after the daily ferry arrives from Salmiya. Despite excavation of the site in the 1950s by a Danish archeological team, very little information exists (in English) about the settlement that the Kuwaitis believe briefly hosted Alexander the Great enroute to his final resting place in Babylon. Felaka’s modern ruins are a bit more visible. The wide, tree-lined avenues of the luxury townhouse community next to the duck pond, complete with sidewalks, streetlights, shops, and park benches, must have been a quiet pleasure at the time Saddam arrived. Since then however, bullet holes mar its tiles and interior courtyards, and stunted shrubs grow sadly in sunlit cracks blasted into the concrete floors.

The local bank building, due to its hardened construction, was clearly a holdout for a brave Kuwaiti garrison. Its reinforced concrete façade preserves the damage of thousands of machine gun rounds much better than the brick walls of the adjacent police station do. More than a few holes bored by anti-tank missiles or rocket-propelled grenades give the bank a desperate look as if it received an unanticipated strike – a sucker punch – by Saddam’s Army. Perhaps it did. All of Kuwait did.

As I strolled unmolested through the rubble and the bat droppings I wondered why the Kuwaitis hadn’t revived the place. Far from reviving it, they’ve ignored it. All around me ruined buildings stood just as they were at the end of the battle. Some, like the police station, teetered dangerously in wait for a gust of wind or some mischievous child to complete their destruction. Debris of all kinds was simply swept into courtyards and left. Layers of dust suggest most of the rubble had remained untouched for decades. Perhaps it was full of unexploded ordnance. I kept my distance.

Felaka Island Bank
The ruined National Bank of Kuwait (NBK) building on Felaka Island. Its hardened walls were the scene of a last stand by the Island’s doomed garrison.

Sin and Redemption

I later shared my question with a head-dressed Kuwaiti gentleman on a flight to Amman. Why didn’t Kuwait rebuild Felaka? His answer surprised me. The invasion, he explained, was seen by many as punishment for the sinful ways of a corrupt society. Felaka, with its nightclubs, prostitution, and alcohol, was seen as the epicenter of the problem; a sort of modern Arabian Gomorrah. The idea is not without precedent. When Mongol king Kublai Khan’s brother Hulagu laid siege to Baghdad in 1257, he informed the Caliph that the Mongol horde was God’s punishment for Abbasid depravity. The ensuing frenzy of rape, pillage, and murder left 200,000 dead – Hulagu’s own conservative estimate – entrenching the idea of punitive conquest in the culture of the region. Kuwait had been ravaged because of sin. With penitence in mind, the Kuwaitis responded by reaffirming the strict asceticism of Islam. Alcohol was banned, women seeking to share a hotel room with a man were required to provide proof of marriage, and Felaka was left as a crumbling reminder of God’s vengeance.

Despite strict Kuwaiti conservatism, sin remains, only now it is in hiding. Kuwaitis have a shockingly high incidence of “heart attacks” behind the wheel; a euphemism for those that wreck their cars while driving drunk. Those with the means simply leave the country for a drink. Jordan and Dubai are favorite playgrounds for wealthy Kuwaitis hoping to avoid “coronary” troubles, or for those wishing to enjoy a marriage for the night. Expatriates in Kuwait do things differently. The Europeans are known to make illegal “hooch” in their kitchens, a witch’s brew that gets them through dry periods between trips home. The Argentines host Salsa parties in their apartments; festivities lubricated by wine smuggled a Camelbak at a time.

Super-wealthy Kuwaitis however take it to the next level, unloading booze and other contraband at private air terminals in the dead of night under the watchful supervision of western “fixers.” More often than not, these fixers are former military officers; men that know how to get things done and who enjoy brief but lucrative careers on the speed dial of some of the Emirate’s most prominent men. Fixers live stressful lives, never knowing whether they are still employed or not, often waiting months for a task or a paycheck until one day their phones suddenly begin buzzing again. One such gentleman I spoke with told me how his employer tasked him to charter a private jet to transport a watch his employer had purchased for €1.2 million. Rich Kuwaitis know how to party.

Kuwaitis also pay their debts. This year the Emirate ran a deficit for the first time ever. Concerned about the negative effects of deficit spending, they conjured up US $18 billion to balance their checkbook merely by rearranging some priorities. They also pay in kind. After the United States liberated Kuwait from Saddam in 1991, the Emir offered 10 acres of prime Kuwait City real estate for construction of a new embassy. Eager to avoid being perceived as exploiting the situation, the American ambassador at the time, Nat Howell, opted for a more modest plot. The Kuwaitis gave America five acres immediately adjacent to the royal palace.

Kuwait Towers
Beautiful Kuwait Towers were a recognizable symbol for Americans eager to defeat Saddam during the drama of the 1991 Gulf War.

Almost 30 years later, Kuwait remains an important ally of the United States. The Emirate quietly backs America diplomatically and provides real support for its military machine in the Middle East. The Emirate hosts the fifth largest deployment of US troops in the world behind Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Afghanistan. Three bases in Kuwait form one of the largest and most efficient military logistics chains on the planet. Camp Arifjan near the Saudi border for example houses acres of sophisticated armored vehicles, trucks, tanks, and artillery destined for combat in Iraq. Huge convoys of trucks enter and leave the facility on a continual basis; seven days a week, 365 days a year, supplying Iraq, the Kurds, and Coalition soldiers from Basra to the Turkish border.

The Kuwaiti commitment is not lost on Americans. The US oil industry pours its best technology into the Emirate’s infrastructure. Extraction, transmission, refining, and onward shipment of oil  and natural gas through ports and ocean  terminals is among the most efficient in the world. As a result, the cost of production in Kuwait is the lowest in the world. Like Camp Arifjan, Kuwaiti oil is heavily guarded. Extravagantly equipped men and women of high discipline and great skill protect the oil fields, the pipelines, the massive al-Ahmadi refinery complex, and the ports. For those that know what to look for, Patriot missile batteries are plainly visible north of Arifjan and south of the Airport; a protective dome against a threat that may or may not actually exist.

Ghosts

In Kuwait, wealth and poverty, sophistication and tradition coexist but rarely commingle. So much so that some visitors become confused by the contradictions. I marveled at the opulence of seasonal nomadic encampments in the wastes north of Camp Arifjan, just 20 kilometers from shiny shopping malls frequented by the locals in Fahahil. The day after surveying war damage at Felaka, I attended a recital by world-class Pianist, Szymon Nehring. The event was attended by very wealthy and well-manicured Kuwaiti gentlemen with a fabulous mix of Arab and eastern European wives. Sadly, even the most sophisticated expatriate wives in Kuwait lead an existence made tenuous by 7th-century chauvinism. They have few rights in marital disputes and cannot get divorced without consent of their husbands, even in the event of physical abuse. In those cases, deportation is the only escape under Kuwaiti law. Later that week I strolled through slums where South Asian workers live in virtual slavery, doing all the jobs Kuwaitis will not do themselves while Kuwaiti Shias of Persian descent live a materially wealthy and socially integrated existence with their Sunni countrymen; a contrast with their increasingly segregated Iraqi brethren just up Highway 80.

Searching for ghosts in Felaka certainly turned up plenty to consider. Alexander, Hulagu, Saddam, the nameless defenders of the bank, and their comrades from the more recent wars next door. All these men impacted this place. Perhaps I did as well in some small way. After all here I was, an officer of the United States in Kuwait, padding silently along a sandy track past a mosque left untouched by the battle that destroyed the bank just a few hundred meters away. The mosque, with the autumn super moon rising above it, reminded me of the rebirth of the wealthy Emirate and the survival of the religion that underpins it. Ravaged by Saddam, Kuwait put its faith in oil, Islam, and the United States of America. Time will tell which of the three provide the best defense.


Stranger PicLino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He recently completed a tour with the Combined Joint Task Force and Special Operations Joint Task Force at Camp Arifjan.

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