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A New Kuwaiti Experience: Waiting For Gasoline

March 7, 1991

KUWAIT CITY (AP) _ It’s a scene Americans would find rich in irony: hundreds of wealthy Arabs with gas-guzzling luxury cars waiting for hours in mile-long gasoline lines.

The lines form at dawn before the service stations open, stretch around the corner, and are still there when many of the pumps run out of fuel at around nightfall.

″We never thought we’d see this,″ said Ahmed Darweesh as he sat in his white Mercedes-Benz 280 waiting for a fillup. ″A few days ago it took me more than three hours to get petrol.″

One shouldn’t feel too sorry for Kuwaiti drivers. For the time being, all gasoline is free.

Nonetheless, the lines are reminiscent of those American drivers faced during oil crises in the 1970s, when then-powerful OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) had tremendous influence over world oil supplies and prices.

With some of the richest oil fields in the world, Kuwait became a nation of car fanatics who considered it their birthright to have unlimited supplies of gasoline at the equivalent of 50 cents a gallon. Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, Cadillacs, Corvettes, Porches and Jaguars, all looking freshly waxed and polished, used to cruise along the beachfront Corniche in a never-ending display of the nation’s affluence.

Iraq’s Aug. 2 invasion brought some rude surprises, as Saddam Hussein’s soldiers began stealing the cars they fancied, doubled gasoline prices and refused gas to citizens who failed to change their Kuwaiti license plates to Iraqi ones.

Days before the invasion, Jameel Al-Awadhi went to a garage for a minor alignment on his brand new, $21,000, six-cylinder, silver Ford Cougar with leather seats, sunroof and tape player.

When he returned to pick it up, the Iraqi troops at the garage explained that repairs were not a top priority. Al-Awadhi has not seen his car since.

″It had everything,″ Al-Awadhi, 24, said wistfully of his first car.

One Kuwaiti after another tells a similiar story of his beloved car being taken by the Iraqis. When the allies bombed a huge Iraqi military convoy attempting to flee Kuwait City on Feb. 26, hundreds of luxury cars stuffed with looted goods were mixed in among the gutted tanks and armored personnel carriers.

″It’s a lot like the United States - people take their cars very seriously,″ said Al-Awadhi, who was born in Los Angeles.

″You’ve heard the slogan, ’Have wheels, will travel?‴ he asked. ″In Kuwait, we say, ’Have wheels with style, will travel.‴

Big American cars - ″the longer the better″ - remain popular, with Chevrolet Caprice Classics the single most popular family vehicle, Al-Awadhi said.

Because Iraqis needed gasoline too, it was always available during the occupation, but often at a steep price.

Most Kuwaitis refused the Iraqi demand that they change their license plates, but still wangled ways to get gas. In many cases, the people of a neighborhood would agree to change the plates on a single car. That car would fill up daily and distribute the gasoline to everyone in the area.

Still, gas became scarcer as the occupation wore on. In the final days, Fahad Al-Dwaibih, a telegram operator, said he paid Iraqi soldiers the equivalent of $180 for seven gallons of gas so he could visit family members.

With about 800 of its 950 oil wells ablaze due to Iraqi sabotage, Kuwaitis are now relying on gasoline from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. military.

The state-owned gas stations are supplying it without charge. American journalists simply flash their press passes and are waved to the front of the lines by welcoming Kuwaitis.

″I don’t know how long this will last, but we are glad to help get the country going again,″ said Khalid Al-Banni, manager of the gas station in Kuwait City’s Bayan neighborhood.

As Al-Banni spoke, volunteer gas attendants were busy filling tanks at 20 separate pumps, with dozens of cars waiting in an hour-long line.

With the lines already getting shorter and their gas gauges on full, Kuwaitis appear ready to return to their gas-guzzling ways. Traffic gets busier by the day, and one lemon yellow Porsche streaked down the highway with license plates from Missouri that read, ″I AM Q8T.″

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