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Kuwait: 'Military Exclusion Zone' Impacts Landowners, Shepherds, Oil Industry

The closure of northern Kuwait to unauthorized civilians ahead of a possible U.S.-led military assault on Iraq is nearing completion. Most civilians who live and work in the restricted zone have already left on the orders of the Kuwaiti government. Meanwhile, U.S. and British military convoys continue to deploy into the area, from which any attack on Iraq's southern flank would be launched. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz traveled to the edge of the restricted zone to speak with civilians affected by the closure.

Northern Kuwait, 19 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Kuwaiti officials have been sealing off the northern half of the emirate during the past week for security reasons amid a massive buildup of U.S. and British troops there.

Since 15 February, the area has been classified by Kuwait's Defense Ministry as a "military exclusion zone." While oil production is considered the most significant sector to be affected by the closure, there also is an enormous impact on the country's agriculture sector. The most fertile grazing land and cultivated areas of Kuwait are in the north.

A few Kuwaitis who own property or businesses in the area are being granted entry permits by intelligence and security officials. But most of Kuwait's land-owning elites are choosing to stay away, for now, due to concerns about Baghdad's threats to retaliate for any U.S.-led assault on Iraq from Kuwait.

Mandil is a Kuwaiti property and livestock owner whose 250 sheep would normally be grazing in the northern exclusion zone at this time of year. Mandil, who asked that his last name not be used, has moved his animals farther south for now.

Mandil said it is natural for Kuwaitis to feel threatened by Saddam Hussein's pledge to retaliate against Kuwait for any U.S.-led attack. "Since Saddam came to power, he started troubles with his neighbors, beginning with the [eight-year] war against Iran, the [seven-month] occupation of Kuwait [in 1990 and 1991], and the attacks [against his own people] in the northern areas [of Iraq,] such as Halabsha. He has, indeed, destroyed the whole region," Mandil said.

For now, Mandil has been granted permission by the Kuwaiti government to let his sheep graze on a restricted military base near the Ahmedy oil refinery, just south of the exclusion zone. But like most Kuwaiti livestock owners, Mandil doesn't do the shepherd work himself. Instead, the work is done for Mandil by Bedouin and Syrian shepherds. For them, the closure is causing hardships and complicating life.

One of those shepherds is a Syrian named Ismail al-Turky. He wears traditional Bedouin clothing to avoid attracting the attention of Kuwaiti officials, who are dismayed by the Syrian government's support for Iraq.

Al-Turky spoke with RFE/RL while watching Mandil's sheep on the military base. As he spoke, he appeared oblivious to the convoys of U.S. and British armor passing on a nearby highway and heading toward forward positions near the Iraqi border.

Even a massive U.S. military cargo plane flying low overhead failed to attract al-Turky's attention as he explained that the broader implications of the military buildup are beyond his concern: "I don't know [about the closure of the north]. I don't care. I'm only here for the grass. Wherever there is grass, I will go [as long as there is permission from the Kuwaiti government]. It makes no difference to me whether the grass is in the north or in the south."

Still, al-Turky said he is happy his boss obtained permission for his sheep to graze on the clusters of desert grass that sprout from the parched, rocky soil of the military base. "The grass here is better for the sheep [than in southern Kuwait]. And when the sheep are well fed, they don't go off on their own searching for something to eat. So my work is more comfortable -- just watching them while I'm riding on my donkey," he said.

Tameem al-Dwasir, a member of the Al-Dwasir tribe in the Jaber al-Ali district of northern Kuwait, is the son of a Bedouin shepherd whose entire family has been moved to southern Kuwait. Ironically, as a security officer in Kuwait's Interior Ministry, al-Dwasir is now tasked with keeping fellow tribesmen and others from entering the exclusion zone. "I had to move from the north when the government decided to deploy some troops in the north two months ago. The government decided [even back then] to block this area and move us to the south," he said.

Al-Dwasir explained that the lack of grazing land in southern Kuwait is forcing Bedouins who have been relocated there to buy grain in order to feed the animals. "Some [Bedouin] shepherds are beginning to cross the borders to Saudi Arabia and settle there. I have heard that in [just] one day [recently], 92 shepherds crossed the borders to Saudi Arabia [with their animals]," he said.

Al-Dwasir also explained that Kuwaitis who own land or property near the border with Iraq are already benefiting from the U.S. and British presence in the country. Real estate prices on the Kuwaiti side of the border are on the rise in anticipation of Saddam's ouster. "Actually, the cultivated land near the Al-Abdali region [in northern Kuwait] is an area where prices [for land] fell after the Iraqi occupation [in 1990 and 1991 and have never returned to the levels seen before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait]. Now, with the prospect that Saddam may leave power, the prices are starting to go back up," al-Dwasir said.

Al-Dwasir noted that many Bedouins will not benefit from an increase in land prices because most do not own the land upon which their animals graze. But he said many of Kuwait's Bedouins do hope for Saddam's ouster. "We hope that, God willing, with the efforts exerted by the [Kuwaiti] government and the assistance of Kuwait's allies, they will manage to force Saddam to leave power and things will return to normal," he said.

In preparation for possible war, the Kuwait Oil Company has moved its oil rigs and most of its workers away from the Iraqi border. Rigs near the northern oil wells at Abdali and Ratqa have been relocated to the south, and only essential workers remain in the north to continue production.

In case of war, officials at the Kuwait Oil Company say production in the north could be shut down altogether. But they say such emergency measures will not affect overall output because added production in the south will compensate for any shutdowns.