With the novel coronavirus having advanced well into Kuwait, the country has seen nearly 42,000 cases and 339 deaths despite a total lockdown. The pandemic hasn’t affected Kuwaitis equally, however, with its stateless population in particular having been cut off from state aid and resources for decades. Known as Bidoon people, these individuals constitute a stateless social class in Kuwait, with a sizable population in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Kuwait specifically, however, has adopted a hard-line approach to governing the group, considering them “illegal immigrants” despite their demonstrable domicile in the nation for generations. The group is defined slightly differently by various parties but is generally considered to comprise those who trace their lineage to Kuwaiti tribes who were ostracized at the time of independence.
In 1961, as the British protectorate came to an end and Kuwait became autonomous, tribes in remote areas of Kuwait did not come to learn of the newly-passed nationality law, either due to rurality or illiteracy, which led to their resulting statelessness and manifests in the present day as social division and class inequality vis-à-vis the treatment of Bidoon people.
Countless other Bidoon trace their lineage to other Gulf countries, from which they arrived in Kuwait to fight for the government, seeking pay. At the time, the Kuwaiti government thought it easier to relegate these fighters as Bidoon rather than divulging details surrounding their cross-border military recruiting processes.
Politicians like Marzouq al-Ghanim, the speaker of Kuwait’s National Assembly, have backed legislation to grant Bidoon Kuwaiti citizenship, but only if they reveal their “original nationalities” within a year’s time, a move that could prove dangerous to Bidoon who might subsequently be targeted by other Middle Eastern governments for alleged treason.
Bidoon are able to apply for citizenship, but Kuwaiti law curtails the maximum number of allowed annual citizenship grants to 2000, with actual statistics of naturalized Bidoon falling well below this threshold. In a country in which well over 100,000 citizenship applications by Bidoon stagnate, al-Ghanim’s proposals are characteristic not of solidarity or sympathy, but rather of an apathetic approach to human rights. The past few months have seen especially low approval rates, as the Kuwaiti government cites the COVID-19 crisis as a justification to allocate resources away from an already-struggling populace.
Al-Ghanim has also not addressed the problematic nature of Kuwait’s nationality law, which perpetuates further statelessness through its stipulation that children may only inherit nationality paternally. Per this misogynistic code, Kuwaiti women are prohibited from passing their Kuwaiti nationality onto their dependents unless legal paternity is unestablished.
As a result, children that would otherwise be eligible for Kuwaiti citizenship are shunned societally due to parental factors out of their control, while Kuwaitis stigmatize the marriage of Kuwaiti women and Bidoon men, viewing them as illegitimate and a disservice to offspring born out of wedlock. Increased prejudice has been a ramification of this law and has manifested in recent months in the form of denial of essential services to some Bidoon.
A Double-Edged Scalpel
A few weeks back, Kuwait’s Ministry of Interior put out an official call for unpaid medical volunteers, which saw young Bidoon doctors and nurses working tirelessly at medical clinics and testing centres in an effort to prove their societal worth. Nevertheless, this contingent is but an extremely small subset of Kuwait’s medical force as penury, and the absence of documentation needed to secure legal means of earning income and corruption within Kuwait’s public and private education systems, bar most Bidoon from attaining higher education; a necessary prerequisite for medical service. Many of these same Bidoon, due to their stateless status, are also ineligible for Kuwait’s otherwise fully state-funded healthcare.
Some Bidoon are allowed a restricted form of health insurance, though the process by which eligible Bidoon are determined has been mostly arbitrary. Such insurance, however, has limited coverage, unlike that made available to full citizens of Kuwait. Surgical and palliative care, medication and testing are among aspects not covered by this insurance.
The Kuwaiti government maintains that charitable funds exist to cater to the immediate medical needs of Bidoon children and allow underprivileged students educational access, although methods of acquiring these funds have proven to be excessively bureaucratic and undependable.
The alienation of Bidoon has been especially illuminated in past months, as clinics continue to turn away Bidoon with symptoms of the novel coronavirus. Other Bidoon, disdained by the bigoted state of affairs in Kuwait, have accepted their grim fate, remaining holed up in their homes despite exhibiting symptoms.
In the past, deaths of Bidoon due to deteriorating health conditions have been deflected by the Kuwaiti government, which often baselessly casts Bidoon people off as “criminals” or “drug addicts.” Many Bidoon have attempted suicide over the past years, a fact which the government has not addressed. The mental health of Kuwait’s Bidoon is scarcely an afterthought for the Kuwaiti government.
In addition to mistreatment within Kuwait’s borders, countless Bidoon are rendered incapable of leaving the country due to lack of a passport. The Embassy of the State of Kuwait requires that all applicants submit such documents as a birth certificate, which discriminatory red tape bars Bidoon from obtaining to begin with. Some also unfairly extort payments from Bidoon for government services that should operate free of charge. Kuwaitis found guilty of such exaction largely enjoy a life of impunity under the Kuwaiti regime.
A lack of civil identification cards hampers the employment prospects of Bidoon as well, as many cannot be registered as legal employees. Kuwaiti laws also inhibit such individuals from receiving licenses to conduct businesses or owning property in the country, thereby preventing them from pursuing self-employment. Illicit jobs employ Bidoon, but deny them pensions, supplemental salaries for childcare, promotions and bonuses, job security and protection against unjust termination of work. With mass layoffs and abrupt business closings in the wake of the pandemic, the plight of working Bidoon has exacerbated.
Bidoon in these situations are also frequently taken advantage of by corporate employers, who coerce them into working long hours in commonly perilous conditions. Violence against Bidoon at workplaces is not uncommon either. Those Bidoon who do not work under-the-radar have no choice but to work as street vendors, local traders, mechanics, construction workers or other manual laborers. These positions pay very little, offer little to no perquisites and lack legal protection from Kuwait’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour. Upward mobility is virtually non-existent for Kuwait’s Bidoon people.
Shortly after the Kuwaiti government established a committee , known officially as the Central System to Resolve Illegal Residents’ Status, to address the predicament in 2010, authorities laid out a list of guarantees that they promised to uphold, such as the mandatory issuing of death and birth certificates and the ability for Bidoon to apply for driver’s licenses in the country. Yet, national legislation is seldom enforced in local jurisdictions, with some regional authorities complicating these processes and others outright denying services to Bidoon.
As a result, Bidoon remain stuck in a perpetually classist society. Seeking asylum in other countries is often not an option either, as much of the international community ceases to recognize the infringement of Bidoon rights as an issue large enough to warrant refuge.
Since Kuwaiti independence in 1961 , the country’s mainstream media has drowned out the voices of Bidoon protesters time and time again, focusing instead on other issues. From the 1982 Souk Al-Manakh stock market crash and the 1983 Kuwait City bombings which killed five people to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the Gulf War, both broadcasted airwaves and publication budgets have ignored Bidoon voices.
Under the jurisdiction of Khaled Al-Sabah, the Minister of Interior, Kuwait has grown into a full-fledged police state over the past decade, the likes of the United States, India, Israel and Hong Kong. Throughout the months of February and March 2011, protesters gathered in the hundreds in Kuwait City  to protest the inhumane treatment of Bidoon by the central government, which later grew into a larger political movement aimed at removing then-Prime Minister Nasser Al-Sabah , an independent politician whose five-year term was viewed largely by Kuwaitis as autocratic.
These peaceful demonstrations were met with baton strikes, tear gas and high-pressure water cannons from Kuwaiti police officers. Several Bidoon were injured and many more were arrested. The dozens of daily and weekly newspapers in Arabic, English, French and Urdu which operate out of Kuwait City reported on the protests as a segment of the larger Arab Spring uprisings, framing them as indicatory of a shift in the Kuwaiti character towards democratic ideals. Such coverage, however, was tone-deaf to the domestic inequality Kuwait’s Bidoon had been and continue to grapple with.
Media and governmental neglect of Bidoon together have engendered oppression of the group as a non-issue in the eyes of the general public, which in turn eschews public support of Bidoon, refusing them adequate education, employment and especially healthcare – the lack of which has made Bidoon particularly vulnerable to deaths related to the novel coronavirus.
Active and deliberate efforts aimed at upraising Bidoon rather than simply quelling activism is vital to the successful resolution of this issue. While university quotas may increase the percentage of degree-holding Bidoon and boost public perception of the Kuwaiti education system vis-à-vis assisting minorities, they do not address the systemic denial of elementary and secondary education many Bidoon children face which bar them from reaching the collegiate level on their own merit. Likewise, it is hardly enough for the Kuwaiti government to express dismay at individual cases of suicide within the Bidoon community without endeavouring to institute accessible and high-quality mental health services throughout the country’s six governorates. It is also insufficient to condemn employment discrimination against Bidoon when the Kuwaiti government and justice system alike often neglect to enforce the equal employment measures the nation’s National Assembly has touted.
Similar to lower-caste people in the Indian subcontinent or people of colour in the United States, a lack of representation in the government and positions of authority has been a notable factor preventing the passing of truly progressive legislation. Virtually no Bidoon work directly for the emirate and a combination of statelessness and anti-Bidoon prejudices in hiring practices have inhibited any such employment. Both these predicaments must be tackled simultaneously with an expedited turnaround time for citizenship applications and the proactive pursuit of Bidoon to serve in cabinet positions across Kuwait’s ministries.
Kuwait’s government is in a unique position in the Middle East in that it is semi-democratic. The aforementioned changes must be spearheaded by Sabah Al-Sabah, the incumbent Emir of Kuwait’s monarchy. Al-Sabah holds the most powerful position in the country and directly selects members of the cabinet. Only members of the Al-Ahmed and Al-Salem branches of the Al-Sabah family are eligible to succeed the throne of the Emir, however the National Assembly of Kuwait reserves the right to make individual decisions on an Emir and remove these leaders from their posts.
Radical change in this context is difficult, but not impossible. The purposeful crafting of a more egalitarian and representative National Assembly can result in the appointment of an equally egalitarian Emir, who in turn may architect a cabinet capable of reforming Kuwait’s education, health, employment and other sectors in such a way that institutionalized discrimination may abate and Bidoon, thereby, may thrive. With regards to Kuwait’s Bidoon question, representation is the conduit for change.
Until Kuwait’s Bidoon are given such representation, the country’s infrastructure, economy and tourism, aspects of Kuwaiti society the government and media aim to disseminate internationally, should not be lauded. Human rights must precede profits and the prerogatives of Bidoon must be upheld. Especially in an era like the present, the valiance of a society can be best evaluated by its treatment of its most powerless.
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