Kuwait: Oil, Oil Everywhere, But Not a Drop to Drink

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A month ago the oil-rich sheikdom of Kuwait banned all liquor within its borders, and since then many of its thirsty citizens have been drinking everything in sight from perfume and eau de cologne to rubbing alcohol and Sterno — with predictably disastrous results. By last week, an estimated 150 Kuwaiti had died from alcohol poisoning, several hundred more had been blinded, and Kuwait's hospitals were filled to overflowing. Bathtub gin is flourishing, and bootlegging the real thing has become Kuwait's fastest growing business. A fifth of Dewar's White Label Scotch now commands a sheik's ransom of $50 on the black market.

Prohibition came to Kuwait as deviously as an Arab horse trade. In theory only Christian residents of the predominantly Moslem nation could drink, using ration cards to obtain whisky through London's Gray Mackenzie & Co. Ltd., which has had an import monopoly on Kuwait's liquor flow for decades. In fact, Moslems imbibed increasingly, and drunken-driving fatalities mounted apace. The nation's stricter religious leaders then teamed up with local merchants who resented Gray Mackenzie's lucrative monopoly to introduce a prohibition bill in the Kuwaiti Assembly. With voting a matter of public record in the tiny Moslem land, the bill passed easily, despite its manifest unpopularity and whatever the legislators' private lapses from the temperance of Mohammed's grace might be.

Gray Mackenzie padlocked its doors, and the poisoning cases began to stagger in as sales of after-shave lotions and cologne soared tenfold. Several dozen British and American petroleum engineers served notice that they would not renew their employment contracts if Kuwait stayed dry. Several influential Kuwaitis have applied to remote countries for posts as honorary consuls, hoping thereby to qualify for diplomatic liquor privileges. Many of the thirsty began flocking to Basra in Iraq, 100 miles from Kuwait City. Their pilgrimage has also produced agitation for repeal of the law from their weekend widows left behind. They fear that the forced-draft drinking by the boys and the wiles of the women of Basra may prove a dangerously combustible mix.