June 27, 2006

Food for Thought: Winning Voters’ Hearts in Kuwait

By Haitham Haddadin

KUWAIT (Reuters) - As Kuwaitis wonder who to vote for in this month's parliamentary elections, they won't be doing so on empty stomachs.

The more than 300 parliamentary hopefuls running in the June 29 election are wooing voters with slick, well organized campaign rallies; billboards of their smiling faces ring the venues and microphones are juiced for fiery speeches.

But it's the lavish banquets served to the crowds of potential voters afterwards that really impress.

This is campaigning Kuwaiti-style and it's giving restaurants across the wealthy oil producer brisk catering business in the run up to the vote for a new parliament.

"Thanks to the election season and the World Cup, walk-in customers are down but our outside catering is up," said Nasser Mohammad, a restaurateur who now gets nightly orders of three giant "shawarma" grilled meat cones from candidates in nearby areas at 50 Kuwaiti dinars ($170) apiece.

Like elsewhere in the Middle East, food plays a key role in social life in Kuwait as part of a tradition of hospitality, so it's nearly impossible to attend events devoid of food on any given day. Most rally invitations make a point of specifying that food will be on offer.

But some observers say the princely meals offered come with strings attached; a sensitive comment amid allegations of vote-buying and other irregularities that some say may mar the elections again.

"Food is an essential part of the ceremony at the end of the evening, so people will go home happy and filled," columnist Muna al-Fuzai wrote in Kuwait Times.

"'Fill the stomach, shame the eye,' is a local phrase that means if you feed someone he will feel ashamed to let you down. All candidates want one thing from you ... to vote for them."


At a rally in Bayan for a former government minister, waiters were seen carrying tray after tray of mineral water, tea and fresh fruit cocktails to a crowd listening to the gifted orator describe his vision for a future Kuwait.

Afterwards, hundreds of men and women headed to separate quarters in air-conditioned tents where a feast awaited: "ouzi" rice-and-lamb dishes, salads, exotic fruits and sweets.

It's a scene repeated at rallies across the country where beams of light from giant lamps cut across the night sky, leading people to the open-air events held after sunset to avoid the punishing June temperatures in the desert state.

At one campaign rally, a few motorists in fancy cars were seen driving up, picking up bags of food and driving off again.

Candidates insist people do not come to rallies to eat, but to hear about plans to combat administrative corruption or introduce electoral reforms.

"The food is not essential but why not have it?" Shaikha al-Ghanem, a U.S.-educated businesswoman, told Reuters at her rally in Qortuba. She insisted there were no strings attached.

"What we offered tonight was nothing spectacular anyway, we were a bit rushed," she added.

Thousands of Kuwaiti women now partake in this night feasting alongside the men; they will vote and run in the election for the first time after winning suffrage in 2005.

In tribal areas outside Kuwait City, the bedouin "mansaf" meal rules the menu. Several men squat around each of the scores of serving dishes, using their bare hands to eat cooked lamb over a bed of saffron rice topped with tangy yogurt sauce.

Tribal candidates in Jahra were at pains to show guests that the meat is prime local mutton, not cheaper imports, and many have pens of sheep and camels nearby to prove the point.

"Those who don't offer dinner buffets get the fewest attendees at their camps," Fuzai noted.

"The (election) losers will be shedding buckets of tears as they add up the heavy restaurant bills they have to pay to reach voters' hearts through their stomachs."