May 30, 1991 12:00 PM

As legend has it, Amthal, the sister of the Emir of Kuwait, found her brother a new bride—virtually every week—before the war. On Thursday night the Emir would marry her. And on Friday they would be divorced. This system allowed the Emir, 64, to stretch the Islamic law that allows a man four wives. Since only three of his spouses were permanent, he could change the fourth as frequently as he changed his kaffiyeh. “He’s a very religious man,” says one well-placed Kuwaiti with ties to the royal family. “He doesn’t fool around on his wives.”

The arrangement provided an endless supply of willing virgins for the Emir. Not only did they achieve a special status in Kuwaiti society, but they received a monthly salary and a car. “If he stayed married to a girl for a really long time, usually less than a year, she got a house.” his subject says. If one of his countless wives bore him a child, she was royally lavished with a game-show assortment of loot. How many children does he have? “That’s hard to tell,” the Kuwaiti says. “Maybe 30 to 50 under age 18. Over 18? I don’t think even he could tell you.”

With eccentricities like these, it’s no wonder that the Emir has been an embarrassment to the U.S. since the Iraqi invasion—or that he is in trouble in his own country. Since the end of the war he has come under heavy criticism for imposing martial law, for refusing to fix a date for elections in 1992, as he promised, and for allowing those suspected of collaborating with Iraq—especially Palestinians—to be detained, tortured or killed. These allegations so concerned Washington that Secretary of State James A. Baker III went to Kuwait in April to press for reform.

The Emir has also taken considerable heat for his actions during the war. On Aug. 2 he escaped by car to Saudi Arabia and sat out the war in an artificial oasis of green grass and pink gardenias in Taif, the posh resort town favored by Saudi royalty. After the war, he refused to return until crystal chandeliers and gold-plated bathroom fixtures could be reinstalled in Kuwait City’s Bayan Palace. “Most people in Kuwait don’t seem to blame the Emir for leaving,” says Middle East analyst Daniel Pipes, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “Had he stayed, he would have been killed. But he shouldn’t have stayed away so long.” Though he permitted himself no personal hardship, the Iraqi invasion is said to have left the Emir emotionally devastated. In his despair, he turned over day-to-day control of the government to his cousin. Crown Prince Sheikh Saad al-Abdallah al-Salem al-Sabah, and returned to his reclusive lifestyle, perfected before the war broke out. Despite the Emir’s affection for luxury, his daily existence is in some ways surprisingly ascetic. He doesn’t drink coffee or tea, he doesn’t smoke—and Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol. He rises each morning at 4 A.M. to pray and then partakes of a herder’s breakfast of bread and camel’s milk with a spoonful of honey. “He’s a picky eater, and he’s weird.” says a palace insider. “He lives in a world of his own.”

The Emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, wasn’t always a shut-in. He worked in several government jobs after his father pulled him out of school in the fifth grade. After he became Emir in 1977, he often toured his country in a Chevy Caprice. Then in May 1985 he was almost killed when a would-be assassin, an Islamic fundamentalist, drove his car bomb into the Emir’s motorcade in Kuwait. Although the Emir escaped with minor cuts, the incident seemed to have had a lasting effect. He bought an armored Mercedes and started having his food tasted. Reportedly he even suspended his Thursday night nuptials for a while. “He became paranoid,” says a Kuwaiti-American. “He stopped going out into the streets and visiting people in the markets. He constantly worried that someone was trying to kill him.”

He also became politically repressive. Five years ago, when he thought that Kuwaiti opposition to the Sabah family, which has ruled the country since 1752. was getting too powerful, he simply disbanded the parliament.

His countrymen grudgingly went along—after all, they were living far better than their Arab neighbors. Now that Kuwait’s oil is literally going up in smoke, their tolerance is no longer assured. “I would be surprised if the Emir survives the year,” says a Middle East analyst in Washington. “You’re talking about a man who can’t bear to breathe the air of his homeland and hasn’t even bothered to go out and make sure his people have running water. But you’ll never find American diplomats saying that, or else someone will start asking. “Why did we save this guy’s neck?’ ”

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