By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent (in Kuwait)
KUWAIT: Within less than two decades of liberation by a multi-national force from seven months of Iraqi occupation on February 26, 1991, Kuwait and its people present the image of a nation moving ahead in all walks of life, including the progress of women. Certainly, the people here and the leaders have not yet forgotten the traumatic experience they had, but they have not let history of Iraqi invasion prevent them from getting back to life with a yet greater zeal and a brighter vision for a new tomorrow. Invited to visit Kuwait, this scribe learnt through interaction with men and women from various walks of life about the country having developed tremendously in an extremely short period from the devastating crisis the nation faced in early nineties. â€œWe have put history behind us and are moving towards future,â€ seems to be guiding force behind most Kuwaitisâ€™ approach towards their countryâ€™s development. The spirit is reflected by the well-constructed roads, flyovers, huge malls, numerous towers, beautiful coastal area and of course the people themselves chalking out their priorities for a yet brighter future.
Their vision for future, among many issues, includes strengthening of ties with India, lesser dependence on oil, an alternative to oil income, independence of Palestine and progress of women.
Tracing Kuwaitâ€™s ties with India to history, Minister of Commerce & Industry, Ahmad Rashed Al Haroun said: â€œIndia has been a major partner for trade in Kuwait not just for the past 10 or 50 years, but this relationship is more than 100 years old.â€ There prevails immense potential for strengthening and expanding Kuwaitâ€™s ties with India, he said.
Indians working in Kuwait, form the largest expatriate community here, numbering six million. Bilateral trade between Kuwait and India has been steadily increasing in recent years. During 2008-2009, the trade was $10.4 billion, of which non-oil trade accounted for approximately $1.2 billion. Oil from Kuwait constitutes 11-12 percent of Indiaâ€™s annual import of crude oil. In addition to petroleum and its products, India imports salt, sulphur, stone, plastering materials, cement, iron & steel, fertilizers, plastic, aluminum and copper from Kuwait. The key items of Indian exports to Kuwait are rice, iron/steel products, meat, eggs, tea/coffee, fruits & vegetables, engineering goods & machinery, vehicles, etc.
With the balance of bilateral trade in favor of Kuwait, India has the â€œopportunityâ€ to invest in Kuwait as well as attract Kuwait investment in India, according to Commerce & Industry Minister. It is for India to â€œcompete with othersâ€ and â€œattract Kuwaiti investment,â€ Al Haroun said.
Suggesting that Kuwait and India have still many avenues to strengthen their relations, Assistant Undersecretary for Administration & Financial Affairs, Ibrahim Abdulmuhsin Alnouh said: â€œWe still need to take it (bilateral ties) further.â€
Describing Indiaâ€™s ties with Kuwait spread over several centuries, as â€œexemplary,â€ Indian envoy in Kuwait Ajai Malhotra said: â€œWe will continue this tradition. India has so much to offer, but most important of all is â€“ friendship.â€
â€œThere are so many things we need to strengthen to meet our ambition,â€ that is of taking Kuwait-India ties to yet greater heights, Director of Media Information Department (Ministry of Information, International Media Sector), Khaled H.D. Al-Razni said. With Kuwait being an oil-rich country, Kuwaiti leaders do not deny the fact that India has to compete with other countries to strengthen its economic ties with it. Nevertheless, Kuwait is open to India. â€œWe need more offers from you (India),â€ Al-Razni said.
â€œIndia is a friendly country,â€ according to Counselor (Asian Department), Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rashed Al-Hajri. When questioned on Kuwaitâ€™s stand towards Indiaâ€™s ties with Israel, he replied: â€œIndia is a very important country. Kuwait is hopeful of India supporting the â€œPalestinian people against the inhumane violence they are facing,â€ he said.
Barges Hmoud Al Barges, President of Kuwait Red Crescent Society, described relationship between Kuwait India as â€œmore than excellent.â€ â€œThe bilateral ties are very special. We are brothers,â€ he said. He drew attention to his society providing aid to India when it was hit by the Tsunami disaster.
Interestingly, several Kuwaitis hold the opinion that â€œAmerica is not honest with problems faced by Arabs.â€ With US being controlled by Zionist lobby, they donâ€™t expect Washington to play a major role to solve the Palestinian issue. In their opinion, India can contribute significantly.
Due to cultural similarities and traditional ties continuing to the present age, Kuwaitis â€œtrustâ€ India strongly, according to Yacub Haji and Sulaiman Abdullah Al Onaizi, consultants at Center for Research & Studies on Kuwait. â€œArabs and India had maritime relations even before Islam came,â€ Haji pointed out. Describing Kuwait culture as a part of â€œWest Indian Ocean culture,â€ he said: â€œWe want our relations to prosper.â€ To a question on whether greater diplomatic importance being accorded to developing stronger ties with India is a post 9/11 development, he replied: â€œI am talking of relations between nations, Kuwaiti nation and Indian nation, not between governments.â€
Nevertheless, at the governmental level too, both Kuwait and India are keen to strengthen their ties. The invitation to visit Kuwait extended to a delegation of a few Indian journalists, of which this scribe was a member, by the Kuwaiti government is a part of steps being taken to enhance interaction between the two countries.
Besides, relations between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and India have been steadily increasing. â€œGCC-Indian economic and commercial relations are on an upward trend to the point that the GCC became Indiaâ€™s number one commercial partner in 2009,â€ Kuwaiti envoy in New Delhi, Sami Al-Suleiman stated. The commercial exchange rose to $100 billion in 2009 from $7 billion in 2001, and is expected to reach $114 billion in 2010, he said.
In todayâ€™s Kuwait, the women feel that they have succeeded tremendously in gaining rights that they had earlier been denied. They owe this success to a movement they began in 1960s, which was formally marked by several educated ladies forming Womenâ€™s Cultural & Social Society (WCSS) on February 3, 1963. It was the first womenâ€™s society to be established in Kuwait. The active members of WCSS highlighted their views on several key issues during an interaction with Indian delegation of journalists. Interestingly, the Kuwaiti women do not believe in â€œfeminismâ€ or in fighting with men, but aim to achieve their goals with cooperation of men. As expressed by Lubna A. AlKazi (sociologist): â€œI am against the word feminism, but am in favor of the word activism.â€
Among the most outstanding success of Kuwaiti women is their entry into the Parliament. Four ladies won elections for the first time in 2009 and became the countryâ€™s first lawmakers. Certainly, the success was made possible by what the women activists achieved in earlier years, gradually but definitely, according to Lulwa Al-Mulla, Secretary General, WCSS. Earlier, they did not even have the right to vote. But from seventies onwards they started campaigning for it. They drew attention to difference between what the Kuwaiti Constitution said and the countryâ€™s election law. According to the Constitution, â€œAll Kuwaiti men and women are equal.â€ But the election law permitted only men to vote. They tried getting themselves registered as voters and finally got the right to vote in 2005.
Kuwaiti women are pleased at the entry of women in the Parliament. At the same time, they support only those candidates â€“ whether women or men â€“ who talk of what is best for Kuwait. There are still certain areas, such as the judiciary, where women are not permitted. Kuwaiti women, however, are confident that they will achieve success on this front also sooner or later. They donâ€™t want to rush for too many changes at the same time as that may lead to conflict. They believe in â€œevolutionaryâ€ and not â€œrevolutionaryâ€ changes.
Today, Kuwaiti women have the right to dress as they want to, whether in abaya, jeans or skirts. No dress code is imposed on them. They can drive cars, travel around alone or with people, without any compulsion to have an escort with them. At the same time, they have not questioned the Islamic law, where as witnesses- two womenâ€™s stand is equated with that of one man. When questioned on this, a Kuwaiti lady categorically pointed out: â€œWe donâ€™t interfere with what Islam says. But where business (politics, etc) is concerned we are for equal rights.â€
The WCSS members also pointed out to career-oriented women contributing to the household expenditure. â€œDual income (husband and wife) is now needed to run an average household because of increasing expenditure. Earlier, womenâ€™s contribution to family income was not favored. Now, it is being gradually accepted as a necessity,â€ a WCSS member said. Among other WCSS members who participated in this discussion, were Shamael Al-Sharekh (Board Member and Media Head), Suhaila Al Salem (Media & Culture) and Fatima Al Umran (Undersecretary, Ministry of Education).
This is minor but a definite reflection of Kuwait progressing ahead, without leaving women behind. The women too are playing a major role in the countryâ€™s success!
The Indian journalists were in Kuwait for around a week. They returned to India on May 26.