Yusuf Jassem is the proud owner of what he calls Kuwait's biggest fish farm, a watery marvel here in the desert. Thousands of fish are raised in his tanks, sustained by the brackish water he draws from underneath the sand. He also grows strawberries so sweet that many Kuwaitis make the 90-minute drive from Kuwait City to buy them.
His oasis happens to be on the very front line of a war that Jassem and his neighbors are sure is coming. Abdaly, the heart of Kuwait's tiny northern agriculture zone, lies on the border with Iraq. Back in 1990, thousands of Iraqi troops poured across the border to occupy Kuwait, in the process all but destroying another farm Jassem owned.
But now, on the eve of a possible new war with Iraq, it is not fear but opportunity that beckons. Many Kuwaitis are wagering that they can get rich by owning land on what was and may again be the gateway to Iraq. The border, once a liability, is now a selling point.
"There is a big boom in Kuwait now," Jassem said, smiling. "Kuwaitis have the feeling that this is finally the end of Saddam Hussein." Just last week, a real estate agent told him that his farm, which he bought a few years back for $150,000, is now worth more than $1.75 million. Jassem says he'll sell, but not for a penny less than that.
The land rush here has not waited for U.S. airstrikes or ground attacks. Real estate prices in Abdaly are going up daily -- and demand has eclipsed supply, according to agent Yusuf Halail. Halail sold six pieces of property in Abdaly last week; his overall sales are running about 25 a month. He has fielded calls from Saudi merchants interested in getting in on the action and from a big Kuwaiti trading firm that has already snapped up three properties along the main road to Iraq and wants "much more."
"The wealthy people are invading Abdaly, buying up land here," Halail said. "They think that Saddam is going to be kicked out."
And it is not just here at the Iraqi border that Kuwaitis are envisioning a post-Hussein boom. In downtown Kuwait City, already a gleaming mixture of American-style malls and marble-halled mansions, real estate prices are also hitting new highs. A half-dozen additional luxury hotels, like the new seaside Four Seasons, are being built. The Kuwaiti stock market ended 2002 up 39 percent and is continuing its climb in the first weeks of the new year.
As Kuwait braces for the possibility of a U.S.-led war to drive Hussein from power, the tiny desert kingdom rescued from Iraqi occupation 12 years ago is roiling with anticipation. Many Kuwaitis are eager for payback against Iraq or convinced that their country will be secure only after the Iraqi dictator who sought to claim their emirate is ousted.
"We're partying here; it's like spring break," said Fawaz Sirri, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and Future Studies in Kuwait. "Everybody thinks it's about time."
But others fear the worst, worrying that their oil-rich country of 2.2 million people will be the target of a chemical weapons attack by Iraq, or that its economy will be disrupted by the crisis and overwhelmed by refugees. Some think the much-touted boom is born more of wishful thinking than solid fundamentals. "We're going to have a war, and this economy is going through the roof?" said one longtime resident of Kuwait. "It should be the opposite."
There are also those who worry that if Hussein is ousted, Kuwait will no longer lay claim to the special relationship with the United States that has ensured its security in the dozen years since the Persian Gulf War.
And then there are those, like Meshry Meshry, a farmer in Abdaly, who are already taking a war that has not yet happened to the bank.
He cashed out last week, selling his farm for 106,000 dinars ($354,000), three times what he paid for it four years ago. His only worry is that he sold too soon. Prices are going up every day, he lamented, and "the jump is not 1,000 dinars, it's 10,000 from day to day."
Going over the numbers one afternoon, Halail, the real estate agent, outlined just how high prices have skyrocketed. A year ago, land here went for about 88 cents per square yard; today it sells for more than $2.45. Soon, he figures, it will hit $3.50. "It's increased by more than 100 percent in one year."
There is no single reason for such explosive growth. Halail and many of the farmers whose land he hopes to sell said there are local causes for the land rush that aren't directly related to war, reasons like new lights on the highway and a promised bridge that will cut the commuting time from Kuwait City. There are also broader economic forces at work in Kuwait that have increased the amount of cash floating around, such as low interest rates and a return of Kuwaiti investment money to the Arab world in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
"After September 11, so much money came back from abroad to Kuwait, and they want to invest it," Halail said of the customers he sees almost daily.
But if the reasons for the land rush are varied, few here doubt the real cause of the soaring prices.
"It's because of security, because now we have Americans between us and Saddam," said Tareq Salem, a farmer living not far from Jassem.
His houseguest, Sabiyah Sultan, was equally sure. "Six years ago, nobody would have dreamed of coming here. They were afraid." Joked their friend Mohammed Bader: "I think this is the most secure place in the world."
The U.S. military is a constant presence in and around Abdaly, its convoys of trucks inescapable reminders of the war preparations that are mostly taking place out of sight, in the large swaths of the Kuwaiti desert that are now restricted U.S. military areas.
Elsewhere in the country, there may be some ambivalence about the prospect of the United States launching a war from Kuwaiti territory, but not here on the front line.
"I'll be happy -- even if they want to use my farm for the American soldiers," Jassem said. To the north, the Iraqi border is just nine miles from his farm. To the northeast, Iraq is just four miles away. "When we see American troops going to the border and trailers loaded with tanks, I feel happy."
As for Halail, he said he always greets U.S. troops on the road with a big thumbs-up. "Because of God in the sky and the Americans on the land, we are here," he said, quoting a modern-day Kuwaiti adage of sorts. "When Saddam is gone, everybody will come to this area."
Already, there are many in Kuwait who envision the rebirth of the close ties that once flourished between Kuwait City and Basra, the city in southern Iraq that is just a two-hour drive away. Abdaly is conveniently on the way.
Some of the border area's land speculators envision new stores or highway facilities for the expected growth in traffic. Others are merchants, looking for storage for the goods they hope to ship into sanctions-starved Iraq after a war. "People are interested in big, empty lands, and they prefer land right by the main road," Halail said.
For the farmers of Abdaly, the thought of renewed traffic with Basra brings back memories of less complicated times. Many Kuwaitis used to spend weekends in the Iraqi city, drinking the alcohol forbidden in Kuwait or just hanging out in the cafes that line Basra's riverfront. Bader grew up there and still waxes poetic about the dates the city was once famous for producing. Jassem's father spent 15 years in Basra when he was young.
And Salem still owns a weekend house there; he hasn't seen it since 1989. Now, he said, he wants to take the Kuwaiti land boom across the border, too.
"I'd like to invest money in properties over there," he said. "The land there is perfect, much richer than here. If it opens up, if Saddam is really gone, there will be lots of Kuwaiti investment there."