The emir of Kuwait will emerge from exile, no doubt, once the Iraqis retreat from his country. He will then descend from his mountain -- the posh Saudi vacation spot of Taif, where the 65-year-old ruler has been staying since August. And the ruler, Sheik Jabir Ahmed Sabah, will join his wealthy countrymen, the 600,000 or so exiled Kuwaitis, in returning home. The throne has been his since 1977.
But will he stay in power?
Kuwaitis are divided about this.
Kuwaitis have realized that their reclusive ruler made no effort to prepare them for the invasion. The censored press -- while freer than in many other Arab states -- never reported an Iraqi threat. The Kuwaiti military was never put on guard as Iraqi forces began building on the border (military officers, for instance, were allowed to take their summer vacations). And while only 20,000 make up the Kuwaiti army, no clear effort was made to strengthen ties with neighboring military powers.
And the emir's quick exit from Kuwait -- stage right to Saudi Arabia -- hasn't helped his image back home. The rumor spread that he got wind of the invasion from Saudi King Fahd and took off a couple hours before it began. While members of the Kuwaiti resistance movement stayed to fight, all but a few members of the Kuwaiti royal family fled the country. (And this royal family is huge, having ruled over the desert city-state since 1752.) Only one of the family -- Fahd Jabir Sabah, the emir's brother and the commander of a paratroop regiment -- has been reported killed.
From a Western standpoint, the emir has other problems fitting into the New World Order sought by President Bush. He has demonstrated a certain wariness of democracy. Women can't vote. No political parties are allowed. The press is censored. In 1986 he dissolved the parliamentary-style system of government and suspended the 1962 constitution. Nepotism abounds: There are royals by the hundreds in every branch of government.
The positive side? While Saddam Hussein claimed -- and he broadcast this on Iraqi TV again and again -- that the Kuwaiti royals were corrupt rulers, this does not appear to be true. No gross sums of money are believed to have been salted away or squandered -- certainly nothing like the $240 billion that Saddam blew to wage a pointless war with Iran. And aside from the slow marginalizing of the Shiites, there aren't the stories of brutality -- torture, political murder -- that abound in Saddam's regime.
The emir's only indulgence, in fact, seems to be women. As a young man, he enjoyed -- when this was still a positive epithet -- a reputation as a playboy. Islamic law allows him four wives, and he's taken advantage of this freedom. (According to an article by Chris Dickey in Vanity Fair: " 'Three of them are more or less permanent,' said a spouse of a U.S. ambassador in Kuwait, 'and then there's a revolving slot.' ") Kuwaitis believe him to have as many as 36 sons.
Aside from this extravagance, the emir seems to live moderately -- compared with the Saudi royal family, and considering his personal fortune of an estimated $4.8 billion. He wore a $20 watch for years, and his official car -- until 1985, when his life was threatened by a suicide bomber -- was a Chevrolet Caprice.
"The emir will come back, no doubt," says Robert Neumann, director of Middle East programs at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The Sabah family existed and ruled long before their land was a country called Kuwait, but whether it will become a constitutional monarchy -- or the more of the same -- that is in contest."
He guesses that Kuwait will return to a constitutional regime, and probably to a parliamentary system, with the emir continuing as ruler.
Yahya Sadowski, Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, believes that the emir will return to much criticism, but will find a place in Kuwait's future. "The real question is not whether he will remain in power, but whether he will have a day-to-day decision-making involvement," says Sadowski. And while the Sabahs have done well "grabbing at power" and retaining influence since the invasion, once returned to the throne, the authority of the emir, guesses Sadowski, "will erode very quickly."
Changes will be inevitable, but perhaps slow. "Kuwait will probably go to a constitutional democracy," predicts Sadowski. But since the monarchy controls the $100 billion in overseas investments for the country, the royals could "use that to buy off certain segments of the Kuwaiti population." (Buy offs like a very generous reconstruction program.) "So exactly how long it will take to resist that, and push the emir back into a more subordinate role, we'll have to see."
Will the United States get involved?
"There will have to be some changes," says Neumann. "The U.S. may play a role, but if it were my decision, we'd leave this to the Kuwaitis."
"The United States will inevitably be involved," says Sadowski. "Perhaps just to embarrass the monarchy to become more modern -- as is already happening in Saudi Arabia... .
"But whether we like it or not," Sadowski says, "the U.S. will soon be caught up in the future of the Kuwaiti democracy -- just one of many things I don't think that the Bush administration thought about when it started down this road."