Badria is a rebel, an iconoclast. At 39 she is sleek, dynamic, funny, outspoken, as animated as an Arabian mare - the Barbara Howar of Kuwait.

She has been allowed more freedom than most women in Kuwait because her mother died when she was a little girl and her father brought her up more as a son than as a daughter.

"I was brought up in a different way," she admits. "I was one of the first five girls to leave Kuwait to study. But I was forced to come back to marry. It was a marriage of convenience. I loved my husband, Al Mullah, but I was not in love with him. His guardian was the ruler of Kuwait.

"The ruler wanted me to marry him. My father said, 'you will make me look foolish in business affairs if you don't marry him,' I said, 'All right, but I don't love him.' I told Bader I didn't love him. (Bader Al Mullah, her ex-husband, died of cancer recently.) But he loved me and he was good to me. So I told Bader, 'If I marry you, I do what you do. If you wear bathing suits, I wear bathing suits. If you go to mixed parties, then I go to mixed parties.'"

She was, she says, the first woman in Kuwait not to wear veil, the first woman to have mixed parties.

"I was the first woman to introduce mixed parties in Kuwait in 1958," she says, curling up in her chair, relishing every moment of the outrage she obviously caused. "My husband Bader was the secretary of state. (He was also fond of parties and was one of the founding members of Anabels', the poshest clib in London.)

So they had to come, I told the men, if they don't come they are the losers. I had parties for the Rockefellers, Paul Getty, and that man from the catsup, what's his name? Mr. Hunt. And I told them if they don't bring their wives, they don't come. I said, 'No man walks into my house without his woman. And no veils.'"

She shrieks with laughter, "Ooooooooooooooooo, I have seen men sweating because their wives are without veils. But their wives are beautiful. They should show their faces."

At any rate, says Badria, she finally decided that as much as she liked her husband, she wanted a divorce.

"I wanted to divorce because I wanted to be independent," she says.

"My father understood. I wanted to be alone. My father didn't mind." But it wasn't that simple for her. "In Kuwait," she says, "there are very few families i.e. good families. "The British Royal family," she points out, "is only hundreds of years old. We are all related, linked. Like any aristocrats in Europe we worry about the family's name. When I lived alone in Kuwait after the divorce, the heads of all the families came to my father and said, 'Your daughter is disgracing us. She must move into the big house, her father's house.' I said, 'Daddy no, please don't make me.' And he didn't make me."

After her divorce, Badria continued to cause a scandal. "People connected me and the American ambassador, who was a bachelor. People talked. I didn't mind. I swear there was nothing sexual between us."

And she was a contact point for visitors who came through Kuwait, unheard of for a woman. "If people come to Kuwait, they look me up. I like that," she says.

But even more shocking was her continuing friendship with her husband, Bader, until he died. "We were very close friends even after our separation. We even went out together," she laughs mischievously. "Oh, how people were shocked."

Badria is sitting in her beautifully appointed suite at the Berkeley Hotel in London. Her family, she says, has always stayed at the sister hotel, Claridges, but she finds it a bit stuffy and prefers the more informal Berkeley.

She is wearing a caftan, little makeup, her ebony hair rampaging around her as she talks, gesticulates, argues, howls with laughter.

She is joined by one of her closest friends, another Kuwaiti, Nadia al Bahar. Nadia is 27, gentle, quiet, intelligent. She is dressed with simple elegance in an Italian designer dress; she speaks softly, her bee-stung lips smile readily and her dark Kohl-rimmed eyes darken just as readily when she becomes angry.

For Nadia, things have been slightly different. For one thing, she is younger than Badria and she doesn't have the same temperament her friend has. Nadia is not a fighter.She would rather just go away and try to find happiness on her own terms.

"I was sent abroad to England for three successive summers to learn English," she says. "Then I was sent to boarding school in Switzerland. The difficult thing about all of this is that we can do things abroad. And so it is unfair for us to be expected to be different when we go home.

"At home," she says, "girls are not allowed to go out at night. They have to stay home. We have a cousin who owns a boutique in Kuwait, she drives her own car, she is in her early 20s. Still she is not allowed to go out with a man at night. Girls have nothing to do but study. That's why the girls do better in shcool and get accepted to the good graduate schools abroad. Not because they are smarter but because they have nothing better to do but study. The boys are spoiled. At a very early age they have all the money, their own cars at 15 and all the freedom."

Nadia tells of a party she was invited to in Kuwait last year to which she went with another friend. "She and I were the only single women there. We didn't tell our fathers because they would have said no, we couldn't go. They next day everyone was talking. They said we were husband hunting. Normally a single girl is never invited to a social gathering. And if the neighbors see a girl coming home at night alone from a date it is a scandal."

Both are from the two best families in that tiny, rich country on the Arabian Gulf. Badria's family is more powerful even than the rulers; Nadia's is not far behind.

Nadia is still studying at Cambridge, still working for degrees she probably will never need. She does so in order to postpone the day when she must return to Kuwait and marry a man her family has deemed suitable, perhaps someone she doesn't even know, almost certainly someone she doesn't love.

Badria al Ghanim has recently become the object of some curiosity in London because of her purchase of the mansion owned by the notorious Lord Lambton. And it means that she will be spending more and more of her time there.

There are many reasons why both women choose to live in London. They have friends, they like the peacefulness, the slow pace of the lifestyle and they both adore the weather.

They both understand, too, that as more and more Arabs move to London, the resentment of the British toward them has been growing. They blame much of it on the fact that because of the war in Lebanon, the less sophisticated Arabs have chosen to vacation in London instead. "My brother," says Badria, "told me, 'I curse the war in Lebanon because it has shown all our dirty linen all over Europe.'"

But aside from these considerations, the main reason Nadia and Badria live in London rather than in their native Kuwait is so that they can have some kind of normal private romantic life without scandalizing the entire community, and to be able to avoid marriage.

"I've had so many people propose to me in Kuwait," says Nadia. "But men have proposed to my parents. They go there to be interviewed. It can't be a natural thing. They marry you because of your family, your money.

"They don't want to marry me because I am Nadia. Men propose to my elder sister and when she says no they propose to me. It's a social contract.

"I had lunch with this boy recently. He drove to Cambridge. He proposed to me. I turned him down. Several weeks later he proposed to this 17-year-old Kuwaiti girl who was on the way to school in Switzerland. It turns out he is in love with a Brazilian girl and by marrying such a young, naive Kuwaiti girl he can carry on his affair. But not me. Nadia is too smart."

Badria is listening silently to this outpouring by Nadia until she can stand it no longer. She sits up in her chair, leans forward and with her arms thrust outward in an impassioned gesture she cries, "For me that kind of thing is a waste of beautiful hours. I have to be with a man I love. I go out with different people but I have nobody I love.And it is very difficult for me to go out with Arabs. If an Arab man says the wall is green I will automatically say no, it's white. Then he will say to me, 'I'll put your head on the ground.' That's an old Arab expression which means to pay homage.

"I say, 'NO! In a million years nobody puts Badria's head on the ground.' The trouble is that nobody wants a strong woman."

Nadia nods her head in agreement, leaning forward and talking more animatedly than she has until then. The waiter continues to bring more wine and sumptuous meal has been brought up on a table in the living room of the suite, gleaming with crisp linen and silver, spread with delicate salmon trout and fresh strawberries and cream.

"Very few of us fall in love with Kuwaitis," she says, "because we have no chance to meet them. Marriage is now just a social contract. And I have passed the normal age of marriage."

"Marriage in Kuwait," says Badria, "is a marriage of convenience. I want love. That doesn't exist in Kuwait. Love is too important to me. If I were in love with an Israeli man I would marry him. The hell with the family. The hell with the fortune!"

She is standing up now, pacing around the floor of her hotel suite lighting one cigarette after another, as is Nadia.

Nadia lights up a cigarette and continues the dialogue. "I was brought up," she says, "with the fact that your virginity is sacred. It's not your honor, it's the honor of your family. I came here. I was mature. If you fall in love you want to be with someone, I want to be Nadia.Not my family."

They begin to talk about the attitude of Arab men toward them and exchange stories of how one girl they know has been living with an Englishman for four years and her parents don't have a clue. They tell another story about how a friend of theirs wanted to marry a Britisher and how, if her father or brothers found out they might well kill her, or at the very least kidnap her and imprison her back home. They say that even the younger Arab men who have been educated abroad come back with even more conservative ideas about how women should behave than they had before.

"My younger brother and my son, who is now 18, won't accept my men friends," says Badria. "It is because they came back to Kuwait. They have a big family and they believe they must protect their sisters."

"You can't pin it down to one country, either," says Nadia. "It's all Arab men. It threatens their egos. They are so intelligent, my brothers, but they don't want an intelligent woman."

Both women do admit, though, that if things are bad for them at home they are worse for the Saudi Arabian women.

"Oh, you should see the Saudi women," says Badria. "How frustrated they are. They must wear veils there. It is much stricter than in Kuwait. Here in London, at least, she has her freedom. Her chance. It's disgusting there."

"You can do what you want abroad," Nadia agrees. "Not at home. The Kuwaiti girls are much more audacious than the Kuwaiti men. If ever I married an Englishman I would never go back to Kuwait. A friend of ours, a Saudi princess, married a Palestinian and her family cut her off. Now none of the Saudi princesses are allowed out. And to marry an Egyptian is worse than to marry an American or an Englishman."

She struggles to find an example and then, her face lights up as she thinks of the perfect thing.

Straight faced, perfectly seriously, she says, "If Prince Charles proposed to me, my family would say, 'No, he doesn't come from a good family.'"