The Gulf War:
Overreaction & Excessiveness
By Hassan A El-Najjar
Amazone Press, 2001
The Root of Subsequent US Invasion of the Middle East
America was dragged into conflict
with the Arab and Muslim worlds
DISCRIMINATION AGAINST IMMIGRANTS
the 1991 Gulf War, Palestinians in Kuwait were reduced from a thriving
immigrant community of more than 450,000 to less than 30,000 in 1999.
Kuwaitis forced them out of the country using a systematic and violent
campaign of ethnic cleansing. The Palestinian official support for
Iraq during the crisis was used as an excuse for that campaign
In this chapter, this author argues that there was a host of other internal factors that contributed to the expulsion of Palestinians from Kuwait. First, immigration laws made it almost impossible for immigrants to acquire citizenship or permanent residence. Second, the government discriminatory policies in employment, wages, and property ownership segregated immigrants from citizens. Third, these factors reduced social integration and increased social distance between the two groups. This was reflected in the very low rate of intermarriage between Palestinians and Kuwaitis although both groups belong to the same race, have the same religion, and speak the same language.
The outcome of these discriminatory
policies has created a new definition of ethnicity that includes
differences in citizenship. Thus, ethnic identity may be formed in
relation to similarity in enjoying privileges of citizenship. A
population group may resort to ethnic cleansing in order to limit such
privileges to its
and deny them to others. Another outcome of the Kuwaiti discriminatory
policies is that competition for wealth may transcend the
traditionally-assumed unifying factors of race, religion, and
language. Wealthy Arabs in Kuwait persecuted their immigrant brethren
in an attempt to deny them a share in the national wealth.
The chapter starts with an analysis
of the relationship between citizenship and ethnic identity. This is
followed by an analysis of the nationality law. Then, the case of the
Bidoons is presented as an example of excluding a population group
from citizenship rights. The fourth part is a documentation of
discrimination against immigrants. Finally, the chapter ends with a
discussion of the consequences of discrimination.
Directly, at the end of the 1991 Gulf
War, Palestinians in Kuwait were exposed to a terror campaign that
resulted in their expulsion from the country. In fact, this was not a
retaliation against them for their support of Iraq. Rather, it was a
continuation of a long policy of discrimination against immigrants in
general and Palestinians in particular. The Kuwaiti government was
looking for an excuse to get rid of them. Instead of granting
citizenship to qualified immigrants, the government policy before the
1990 crisis focused on discouraging them from staying in the country.
A systematic policy of discrimination against immigrants was adopted
in all aspects of life. The objective was to maintain loyalty of
citizens who did not want to see immigrants having access to the same
privileges of citizenship.
and Ethnic Identity
Since independence in 1961, government policies aimed at
keeping Palestinians as immigrants permanently. They were treated in a
way that made them feel that their presence in Kuwait would always be
temporary. Many of them were denied entry and re-entry visas which
split families forcing many of them to leave. They were denied
permanent residence and citizenship even if they were born in the
country and stayed there for decades. In spite of these policies, the
number of Palestinians did not decline. Actually it was increasing
steadily (Table 1).
The Kuwaiti government took several
measures that aimed at stopping entry of Palestinians into the
country. Visas became so difficult to get that an average employee
could not bring his wife and children to live with him in Kuwait. In
1983, an average Palestinian white-collar employee earned about 419
Kuwaiti Dinars (KD) a month.
This was well below the government standard for issuing entry visas
for dependents. Only those with a monthly salary of KD600 could obtain
visas for their spouses or families. Thus, the vast majority of
white-collar employees could not obtain visas for members of their
families. Moreover, children of residents started to lose their
resident status when they reached 21 years of age or when they left
the country for more than six months.
Because most Palestinians were denied access to Kuwaiti institutions
of higher education, they had to travel abroad for that purpose. In
order for them to maintain their residence status, they had to return
to Kuwait twice a year, which represented a heavy financial burden on
their families. Palestinian immigrants began to realize that after
decades of living in Kuwait, they still did not have any rights for
citizenship or permanent residence.
Moreover, children of immigrants
could never acquire citizenship by virtue of birth in the country. It
would have conferred on them equal rights and equal opportunities.
This resulted in that Palestinians had Ano
guaranteed access to free state education or health facilities. They
compete(d) on entirely unequal terms with Kuwaitis in all aspects of
Thus, denying citizenship to
immigrants has created two segregated population groups. This was not
only reflected in segregated neighborhoods but also in an arbitrary
attempt by Kuwaitis to appear different from immigrants. In fact, the
emphasis on wearing the national uniform has given them the feeling
that they are many, despite the fact that they have become a minority
in their country. They constituted about 55 percent of the population
in 1957. This decreased to about 50.4 percent in 1961, 47.1 percent in
1965, 47 percent in 1970, 47.5 percent in 1975, 41.7 percent in 1980,
and 40.1 percent in 1985 (Table 2).
However, official statistics inflated
the number of Kuwaitis by adding the Bedoons (those without
citizenship) to the number of citizens. For example, the 1988 official
figures showed that there were about 767,295 Kuwaiti citizens
representing about 36 percent of the 1,958,477 people who were living
in the country. The 1989 statistics excluded the 250,651 Bidoons
showing Kuwaitis as about 545,738 thus representing only about 26.7
percent of the total population. In 1990, the Palestinians and the
Bedoons together reached about 662,324 people representing about 30.9
percent of the total population. Kuwaiti citizens were about 564,262
representing only 26.3 percent of the population (Table 2). Actually,
Kuwaitis will continue to be a minority in the country throughout the
21st century. This is going to be the case as long as naturalization
policies do not change while the immigrant population keeps growing
Another reason that made it more
necessary for Kuwaitis to distinguish themselves from immigrants in
general and Palestinians in particular was the fact that Palestinians
are also Arabs and mainly Sunni Muslims like most Kuwaitis. The
Kuwaiti dress became the mark of ethnic identity and a signal
announcing that the wearer was a Kuwaiti, not an immigrant.
But the presence of a majority of
immigrants in Kuwait led to solidarity among members of the minority
of Kuwaiti citizens, particularly the upper and lower classes.
However, this did not apply to Kuwaiti middle-class intellectuals who
participated in some Arab nationalist parties, such as the Arab Ba'ath
Socialist Party and the Arab Nationalist Movement. As the Kuwaiti
intellectual Salman Alessa put it, this middle class orientation was
due to the interaction with Arab immigrants. He maintained that the
"presence of a large population of non-Kuwaiti Arabs -- mainly
the Palestinian Arabs -- has changed the Kuwaiti outlook from a
regionalist-oriented to a pan-Arab Nationalist viewpoint."
In fact, government policies that
discriminated against immigrants have resulted in adverse effects.
"The Kuwaiti population has begun to perceive itself as a special
people who do not need to work." These policies also have
resulted in a "negative impact on both the economy and the
general political stability of the country."
Actually, participation of Kuwaiti citizens in the labor force between
1965 and 1985 was much lower than their percentage in the population
as a whole (Table 4).
The Kuwaiti government was
inconsistent in solving the problem of demographic imbalance between
citizens and immigrants. Between 1961 and 1973, only about 13,570 of
immigrants were naturalized. These were 168 Palestinians, 16
Jordanians, 31 Egyptians, 1,320 Iranians, 1,655 Iraqis, 1,738 from
other nationalities, and 8,642 Bedoons born in Kuwait. However, about
38,000 of the nomadic pastoralists known as Bedu (who are also known
by Western writers as Bedouins) were granted citizenship in the
five-year period between 1965 and 1970. This preference for the Bedu
may be attributed to their loyalty to the ruling family. Thus, the
strict government naturalization policies towards immigrants
"have preserved the privileges of wealth and power for Kuwaitis,
who in turn are deeply supportive of the government.”
In 1985, the Ministerial Council had actually adopted a policy
that "aimed at achieving a balance between nationals and
expatriates (immigrants) in the population. It was planned that the
population mix of Kuwaitis and non-Kuwaitis should be 50:50 by the end
of this century.”
However, the solution was not by increasing naturalization of
immigrants. Rather, the government made the process more difficult so
that immigrants would ultimately leave the country. This is
illustrated in the Nationality Law and its various amendments.
According to Article 1 of the Nationality Law No. 15 of 1959,
people would be considered Kuwaitis if they lived continuously in the
country since 1920. Article 4 of the Law empowered the Minister of
Interior Affairs to grant the Kuwaiti nationality to every Arab or
non-Arab immigrant who stayed in the country for ten or fifteen years,
respectively. However, the same article limited the number of those
who can be naturalized to only fifty people a year.
The Law was revised in 1966 granting
Arabs the Kuwaiti nationality if they resided in Kuwait since 1945 and
non-Arab immigrants if they stayed in the country since 1930. Article
5, Law No. 6 of 1966, solved the problem of how many people can be
naturalized. However, it has only been applied to the Bidoon Bedus
(nomads without citizenship) who came originally from Saudi Arabia
because of their loyalty to the ruling family. They usually serve in
the police and armed forces, which made them the government's heavy
hand against opposition, particularly middle-class intellectuals.
Palestinian immigrants could not be considered as loyal because of
their education, which placed them in the middle-class category that
the government wanted to keep under control.
Several years before the 1990 crisis, three prominent Kuwaiti
intellectuals (two of them were members of Al-Sabah family) criticized
the Nationality Law and called for revising it. They warned that
discrimination against immigrants would lead to instability and
increase dependency of the minority of citizens on the government.
They were clear in their calls to grant immigrants, particularly
Palestinians, citizenship as a solution to the problem of the shortage
of manpower in the country.
Salman Alessa suggested granting
citizenship or permanent-residence to Arab immigrants, particularly
Palestinians. He called the attention to the hazards of discrimination
against immigrant workers arguing that
Kuwait continues its policy of discrimination and alienation of the
majority of its population and labor force (i.e., expatriate labor),
and the Kuwaiti nationals continue to receive special status in every
aspect of life...[Then this discrimination] will increase tension and
it may well be the source of social and political instability. To
avoid such problems there is a need to review and reform the existing
Su'ad Al-Sabah mentioned that in
1980, there were about 84,856 Arab immigrants who have been living in
Kuwait for more than 15 years. If the government adopted a more
realistic policy of naturalization and residency, about 150,000 Arab
immigrants would be able to claim the Kuwaiti citizenship, by 1983.
Because this did not happen, she warned of the problems created by
legal discrimination against immigrants. As she put it,
is clear that economic prosperity depends critically upon economic,
social, and political stability. The absence of that stability in the
case of a nation such as Kuwait threatens not only the prosperity of
the country but also its very existence."
Youssif Al-Sabah also warned of the continuous discrimination against immigrants. He called for revising the Law of Naturalization in an attempt to solve the problem of the chronic shortage of manpower in the country. He argued that,
stability must be seen as a necessary condition for economic progress.
A sense of community cannot be developed under the present restrictive
laws. A sense of continuity and assurance will help the immigrants to
establish and expand their businesses. These conditions are important
for potential successful businessmen and provide a challenge for
Kuwaitis to enter various fields of productive economic activity
rather than to remain mostly dependent on the government."
The Kuwaiti government neither
listened to these Kuwaiti scholars nor learned from the immigration
policies of other societies, particularly in North America, South
America, and Australia. Instead, it insisted on its discriminatory
policies against immigrants in an attempt to keep loyalty of the
dependent citizens. The rulers of Kuwait did not want to strengthen
the opposition, which came mainly from the educated middle class. By
granting Palestinians the Kuwaiti citizenship, the voting power of the
middle class would increase, which would strengthen the opposition.
Thus, the immigration policy was a tool in the hands of the government
to tighten its control over the democratic game in the country.
Analyzing the process of the
immigration policy formulation in Kuwait demonstrates that the process
was influenced by politics and ideology, rather than by market
factors. The rulers of Kuwait designed immigration policies in a way
that discourages immigrants from staying in the country. This argument
is supported by evidence from Sharon Russell’s study (1989), which
summarized that immigration policy evolution in seven phases during
the period extending between 1959 and 1985.
During the first phase (1959-1964),
the government was encouraged by Pan-Arab Nationalists in the National
Assembly to allow more Arab immigrants to come to the country. At the
same time, it appeased Kuwaiti nationalists by assuring them that
these immigrants would neither become citizens nor compete with them
for jobs. The 1959 Nationality Law allowed for only 50 naturalizations
per year. Moreover, the naturalized citizens could not vote or be
appointed to senior government positions until after twenty years of
naturalization. The 1960 business laws assured that the economic
control and the major share of profits would remain in the hands of
During the second phase (1965-1966), the government observed a
large increase in the number of Palestinians in the country. In
response, it issued Law 26 of 1965, which amended the Aliens Residence
Law. The objective was to make it easier for the government to deport
them. The Nationality Law was also amended with Law No. 70 of 1966,
which was used to grant citizenship to more Bedus (Bedouins). As a
result, between 1961 and 1970, about 90,000 Bedus were naturalized.
The third phase (1967-1973) represented an intensification of the
efforts to control the increasing number of Palestinians in the
country. The fourth phase (1974-1977) represented a liberalization in
the immigration policy. This was in response to the sharp increase in
the oil prices resulting from the 1973 October War and the oil embargo
that followed. More Asian immigrant workers entered the country during
the fourth and the fifth phases (1978-1979) than ever before. These
were perceived as posing less security threat and received less wages
than Arab immigrants. However, new limits were imposed on entry of
dependents and on access to social services. The objective was to
discourage settlement of immigrants in the country. This did not
please Pan-Arab Nationalists who accused the government of targeting
Arab immigrants in general, and Palestinians in particular. The crisis
contributed to the dissolution of the National Assembly in 1976.
The sixth phase (1980-1983) was
influenced by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, worldwide recession, and
the collapse of Al-Manakh financial market. The Nationality Law 100
made it even more difficult for immigrants to qualify for citizenship.
It extended the length of residency requirements from ten to fifteen
years for Arabs and from fifteen to twenty years for non-Arab
immigrants. The objective was to justify denying citizenship to
qualifying Palestinians and other immigrants. Nearly one-third of all
non-Kuwaitis had been resident in the country for ten years or more.
Moreover, about 16 percent of them had been resident for fifteen years
or more. Finally, during the seventh phase (1984-1985), over 300,000,
nearly 30 percent of the non-Kuwaiti population, had been born in
Starting from 1985, the Kuwaiti government found itself on
crossroads. According to its own laws, about one-third of immigrants
qualified for citizenship. The issue could not be ignored any longer.
But instead of doing the right thing, by granting citizenship to
qualified immigrants, the government decided to get rid of as many
immigrants as possible, particularly those with the longest stay. That
was the main objective of the 1985-1990 five-year plan that the
government presented to the National Assembly.
The plan also targeted the Bedoons, in addition to immigrants.
The Bidoons are people who have lived in Kuwait for generations
without being granted the country's citizenship. This category
includes descendants of nomadic pastoralists who used to live on the
borders of Kuwait with Iraq and Saudi Arabia. These people did not pay
attention to registration for citizenship in the 1950s because of
their ignorance of the benefits accorded to it. The Bidoons’
category also includes children of Kuwaiti women who are married to
Bidoons. While the Bidoons reached about 262,324 in 1990, they were
reduced to about 160,000 in 1995 as a result of expulsion to the Iraqi
borders (Table 2).
Then, they were reduced even more to about 117,000, in 1996, and to
about 114,000, in 1997.
The case of the Bedoons in Kuwait
provides an example of the injustice created by the 1948 Nationality
Law and its amendments (in 1959, 1960, 1965, 1966, 1972, 1980, 1982,
1986, 1987, and 1993). Had the Law been applied in good faith, it
would have allowed the Bidoons and other immigrants, including
Palestinians, to gain citizenship. Instead, the government kept
amending its own law in a continuous effort to deny citizenship to
those who qualify in every stage. The 1980 amendment, for example,
denied citizenship to children of Kuwaiti women and stateless fathers
thus superseding Article 3 of the 1959 Law, which gave them
citizenship. Article 4 of the same law was stopped altogether in 1966
because it established citizenship as a right on basis of the number
of years an applicant resided in the country. Section 3 of Article 5
was repealed in 1980 because it would allow many Bidoons and
immigrants to acquire citizenship on basis of birth in Kuwait,
continuous residence, and completion of secondary education in the
The 1948 Law considered people to be
Kuwaitis if they "settled" in the country prior to 1928.
Thus, it excluded the nomads who did not live a settled life, which
created the problem of the Bidoons. The 1948 Law authorized granting
citizenship if a person stayed legally in Kuwait for five years. This
period was extended to eight years in 1959, ten years in 1966, and
fifteen years in 1980. The same strategy of successive amendments was
used to deny naturalized male citizens the right to vote (as only men
can vote in Kuwait). The 1959 Law gave naturalized citizens the right
to vote ten years after acquiring citizenship. This period was
extended to twenty years in 1976 then to thirty years in 1986.
The Bidoons' stateless status has
placed them in an enormous disadvantage. It is difficult for them to
receive services in the country and almost impossible for them to
work, go to school, or travel abroad. Realizing that they were in
limbo, the Government announced, in 1996, that it would issue a
residency visa and legal status to any Bidoon who can present a
passport, regardless of the country of issuance. The objective was
removing them from the Bidoon category, which would allow the
Government to deport them to the country that issued the passport. The
announcement prompted many Bidoons to look for passports anywhere.
Actually, some of them bought passports from as far way as Caribbean
countries. The Dominican Republic passports were sold to the
impoverished Bidoons for about $6,700 each.
In August 1997, the Government announced that about 3,400 Bidoons had
found their original passports. As a result, many of them were allowed
to remain in Kuwait as foreign workers. However, some Bidoons were
still denied residency visas despite buying passports.
Thus, the vast majority of the
Bidoons are still in limbo. In 1997, hopes for solving the problem by
granting them citizenship vanished when only 411 of them were
naturalized out of the 114,000 Bidoons in the country. Most of these
served in the military and security forces before the war, or were
children of Kuwaiti women married to Bidoon husbands. Moreover, the
Bidoons are no longer accepted to serve in the military or security
forces, which has closed the door for any hopes to change their status
using this way.
The Kuwaiti courts in the past
rejected the Kuwaiti government's attempts to treat the Bidoons as
foreigners in the application of the Foreign Residents Act of 1968,
and recognized the special status to which the Bedoons were entitled.
The June 1988 important decision of the Kuwaiti Appeals Court showed
that deporting Palestinians and Bedoons from Kuwait was illegal under
the Kuwaiti law itself. The decision stated that,
is no doubt that the foreigner who is subject to deportation according
to Article 79 of the Penal Code and the Foreign Residents Act is the
foreigner who belongs to a state other than the State of Kuwait and
carries the citizenship of that state. Non-Kuwaiti residents of Kuwait
who do not belong to another state and do not hold its citizenship but
who are deprived of Kuwait[i] citizenship for one reason or another --
but enjoying nevertheless the same privileges as Kuwaiti citizens,
except for those privileges that derive directly from citizenship --
are treated in a special way that is distinct from the treatment of
foreigners. They cannot be legitimately considered foreigners in
applying Article 79 of the Penal Code or the Foreign Residents
Kuwait has not ratified the
International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which is
considered a major source for human rights standards. Article 24(3) of
the Covenant states that "every child has the right to acquire
nationality." Article 1 of the Convention on the Reduction of
Statelessness provides that "a Contracting State shall grant its
nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be
Thus, these two international conventions demonstrate that
Kuwait was in violation of these international standards when it
evicted Palestinians from the country. These conventions also
demonstrate that Kuwait was in violation of the international
standards when it denied citizenship to its stateless-born residents,
including Bedoons and Palestinians.
Until this happens, discrimination
will continue as the major characteristic of the Kuwaiti government,
not only against immigrants Bedoons but also against Kuwaiti women.
They are still not allowed to vote, which may explain why they cannot
extend citizenship rights to their children. Apparently, they are not
full citizens of their own society. Only about 82,000 men voted in the
1992 elections and about 85,600 men voted in the 1996 elections in
Kuwait, representing 80 percent of the registered voters in the
Thus, they form an exclusive ruling group that denies access to power
and wealth to anybody else, including immigrants, Bidoons, and Kuwaiti
As a result of denying them citizenship, immigrants and Bedoons
are discriminated against in Kuwait. This discrimination extends to
all aspects of life, particularly the following twelve major areas,
which have been documented by several researchers.
First, social security and
retirement benefits are limited to Kuwaiti citizens, according to
the present social security system, which was created on September 2,
1976. The system was criticized by the World Bank and the Stanford
Research Institute. Whether immigrants worked for the government or
the private sector, they were never given the same treatment as their
Kuwaiti counterparts. Once they reach old age (60-65), their
relationship with their employers comes to an end. Simply, there are
no retirement plans, pensions, or any responsibility towards them from
their employers, or from the state. Moreover, their legal residence in
the country is officially terminated. If they want to stay, they have
to beg a Kuwaiti patron to be their guarantor, or kafeel (See # 6
below). This is one of the most humiliating experiences immigrants may
face. After decades of being born, living, and working in the country,
an immigrant has no right to stay if he loses his job. Thus, begging a
Kuwaiti citizen for sponsorship has become the symbol of the
caste-system created and perpetuated by denying immigrants
citizenship. In comparison, Kuwaitis are covered by retirement plans
and the needy among them receive welfare benefits in their old age.
Thus, while these retirement benefits are denied to immigrants, they
are part of the privileges accorded only to citizens.
Second, Kuwaiti citizens have
priority over their immigrant counterparts in employment. This
has resulted in hiring Kuwaitis in government positions on basis of
birthrights, not qualifications or competence. In 1972, the number of
Kuwaitis employed by the government was 34,588 representing 38.5
percent of all government employees.
By 1976, there were 46,769 Kuwaitis employed by the government
representing about 40.2 percent of all government employees. In 1975,
the government was hiring 51.4 percent of the Kuwaiti adults leaving
only about 12.1 percent to be employed by the private sector.
Actually, a guaranteed job for every Kuwaiti became a constitutional
right whether a person is qualified or not.
Third, there is a lack of equal opportunity for promotion.
One area of clear discrimination against immigrants is denying them
promotion, which is available only to Kuwaiti citizens. An example of
this type of discrimination is found in the educational system. The
government wanted Kuwaiti graduates to work in teaching. However, most
of them were unwilling to do so because they perceived teaching as a
tough job with fewer opportunities for promotion. To encourage them to
enter that field, the government gave them bonus salaries and allowed
them to be promoted to administrative positions. Because these
opportunities were limited only to citizens, immigrant teachers became
even more discriminated against than before.
A typical story was that a newly hired Kuwaiti teacher would soon
become the supervisor or the senior of his older and more experienced
Fourth, immigrants are paid less
than Kuwaitis even if they are more qualified. "A Kuwaiti school
guard, for example, will often have a monthly salary three times that
of an Arab high-school teacher who works 48 hours per week.
Furthermore, Kuwaiti guards are usually illiterate, while foreign
teachers must have BA or BS degrees to teach in Kuwait."
In 1976, about 80 percent of Kuwaitis in the government received a
monthly salary ranging between KD120 and KD250. At the same time, only
about 37 percent of non-Kuwaitis received monthly salaries similar to
the Kuwaitis. About 60 percent of non-Kuwaitis received a monthly
salary ranging between KD70 and KD100.
Fifth, according to Law No. 5 of
1965, immigrants cannot own real property. Therefore, they have
no other alternative but to rent houses and apartments from Kuwaiti
landlords, usually in the old areas deserted by Kuwaitis, such as
Hawalli and Al-Farwaniya. Kuwaitis have moved to new suburbs that
provide better communication, health, food, and educational services.
This was a result of the Land Purchase Program the government started
in the 1950s in order to extend some of the oil wealth to landowners.
Land value became so high in the 1960s to the extent that the space
required to park a car cost about $19,600. In the 1970s, an area of
land of about 750 square meters in the desert outside Kuwait City cost
between $150,000 and $200,000. The increase in the price of land has
led to an increase in rent. In the 1980s, the average rent for a
modest apartment reached about $678 per month. The rent for a
centrally air-conditioned apartment ranged between $1,400 and $2,800,
which was out of reach for old as well as newly arriving skilled
immigrants. Typically, they would rent a modest type of housing which
cost them about 60 percent of their income. Unskilled immigrant
workers live either in old deteriorating houses in groups or in shacks
or tents at construction or project sites.
By limiting ownership and building of
houses only to Kuwaiti citizens, the Kuwaiti law has perpetuated
exploitation of immigrants and discrimination against them. They are
forced to be tenants forever, paying Kuwaiti landlords whatever they
decide as a rent.
Sixth, an immigrant cannot open a business without a Kuwaiti
partner or sponsor, a "Kafeel."
The kafeel may become a business partner even if he has not
contributed any money to the business. According to the Industrial Law
of 1965, an immigrant partner cannot own more than 49 percent of the
business. Therefore, an immigrant has to accept a nominal Kuwaiti
partner in order to be allowed to start a business. The immigrant
entrepreneur is usually solely responsible for the failure. However,
if the business is successful, the immigrant partner may have to
continue paying the nominal partner an annual amount of money or risk
losing the whole business to him. Consequently, these governmental
policies have led to discouraging immigrants from making important
entrepreneurial contributions to the Kuwaiti economy. These policies
also have legalized the informal exploitation of immigrants.
Seventh, the Kuwaiti law allows
Kuwaiti employers to treat their immigrant employees in a way similar
to the "indentured servitude" system. The law forces
immigrant workers to stay with their Kafeel during the time of the
contract no matter how harsh the work conditions are. Otherwise, they
Eighth, Article 72 of the Labor Law
(No. 38 for the year 1968), that regulates the private sector,
prohibits immigrants from forming trade unions. However, they
are allowed to join Kuwaiti unions after being five years on the job.
Yet, they are not allowed to vote or run for office. Thus, there is no
reason for immigrants to join Kuwaiti unions, which weakens both
Kuwaiti and immigrant workers alike.
Ninth, immigrants are discriminated
against in education. Starting from the 1970s, the government
decided that public education should be limited to Kuwaitis, then to
children of Arabs employed by the government if there were available
seats. By the 1990s, the public school system has become limited to
children of Kuwaiti citizens. Immigrants have to send their children
to private schools, which are lower in standards than public schools
due to less spending.
The government used to subsidize 50 percent of private education for
immigrant children. This was stopped after the war.
Tenth, only Kuwaiti citizens can
be attorneys. According to Article 17 of the 1964 Law, only
Kuwaiti attorneys could register in the Kuwaiti Attorneys'
Association. A non-Kuwaiti lawyer cannot defend a client in court
without permission from the Minister of Justice. Even then, he is
required to be accompanied by a Kuwaiti attorney.
The legal discrimination against
immigrants is also evident in that only citizens have direct
contacts with rulers to complain or appeal. The shaikhs ruled as
Bedouin tribal chiefs conducting governance through the daily public
audience, known as majlis. There, shaikhs dealt with local affairs,
legal cases, requests, and grievances.
The majlis way of governance has maintained a feudal bondage between
the shaikhs and their subjects. In this case the shaikh's decisions
have replaced the law. This means that the law is mainly applied to
immigrants who do not have access to shaikhs, through the majlis. This
clearly represents a sort of legal discrimination against immigrants.
Eleventh, immigrants are not allowed
to participate in national sports or subscribe to the
membership of food cooperatives. This type of discrimination is
designed to limit benefits to citizens and squeeze profits out of
immigrants who constitute majority of consumers. Even during the
1990/91 Crisis, cooperatives limited food supplies to Kuwaiti
Twelfth, discrimination against
Kuwaiti women led to discrimination against their non-Kuwaiti husbands
and children. Law No. 35 for the year 1965, regulating
elections to the National Assembly, excluded women from the right to
vote as citizens. Since 1980, if a Kuwaiti woman is married to a
non-Kuwaiti, her husband and their children are treated as foreigners.
However, non-Kuwaiti women who marry Kuwaiti men acquire Kuwaiti
citizenship and their children are automatically Kuwaitis. Several
women-activists, such as Badriya Al-Awadhi, Buthaina Maqawi, and Salma
Al-Zauman, urged government officials to review the gender-based
discriminatory laws. However, government officials stated publicly
that women married to non-citizens should consider either divorcing
them or joining them out of Kuwait.
Discrimination against immigrants and making privileges
available to Kuwaitis only on basis of citizenship, rather than
qualifications and hard work, has its costs. It has created, promoted,
and perpetuated dependency of citizens on the state. Actually, by
1975, about 88 percent of Kuwaiti adults were dependent on the
government. While about 51.4 percent of them were employed by the
government, about 36.5 percent received welfare. A guaranteed
government job or welfare assistance became like a constitutional
right for Kuwaitis.
It has also created and perpetuated
psychological and material barriers between citizens and immigrants,
which have contributed to the deep social distance between the two
population groups. Ultimately, this has led to ethnophobia,
alienation, and instability in society. By the 1980s, social relations
between Kuwaitis and immigrants, including Palestinians, were minimum.
For example, very few inter-marriages occurred between the two groups.
In one study, 92 percent of Palestinian fathers preferred a
Palestinian husband for their daughters. About 80 percent of them also
said that they preferred a Palestinian wife for their sons.
This may be attributed to the fact that both groups have the same
attitudes concerning intermarriage. Both are patriarchal and
endogamous societies. There is a very high degree of male dominance
that allows a man to marry a woman from another group or society. At
the same time, it is very much less acceptable for a woman to marry a
man from another group or society. This means that, among
Palestinians, it is more acceptable for a Palestinian man to marry a
Kuwaiti woman (20 percent of the above sample) than for a Palestinian
woman to marry a Kuwaiti man (8 percent of the sample). Among
Kuwaitis, it is even more rare for a woman to marry a non-Kuwaiti man.
This is so unacceptable that her husband and their children do not
acquire the Kuwaiti citizenship and consequently are discriminated
However, children of a Kuwaiti man from a non-Kuwaiti woman acquire
citizenship automatically. Very few Kuwaiti-Palestinian intermarriages
have ever occurred. This was partly related more to the official
discouragement of intermarriage (denying husbands and their children
citizenship), in addition to the fact that both societies favor
endogamous marriage concerning females. Had intermarriage been higher
in incidence, a lot of fear and tension might have been alleviated
between the two population groups.
Intermarriage between various
population groups in society is associated with cultural integration.
Low rates of intermarriage have been associated with an increased
social distance that may lead to ethnophobia. The war-devastated
Yugoslavia suffered from a low rate of intermarriage. For the three
decades that preceded the civil war, between 1962 and 1989, the rate
was about 13 percent in Yugoslavia as a whole. It was about 11 percent
among Bosnian Muslims, 13 percent among Serbian East Orthodox, and 17
percent among Catholic Croats.
The discriminatory policies of the government against
immigrants, including Palestinians, have created and intensified
alienation, or the feelings of powerlessness and marginality, among
them. The government has done that through its systematic policies of
empowering citizens and weakening immigrants. In particular,
immigrants have felt most helpless towards job insecurity, unequal
treatment before the law, unequal pay, and granting benefits generally
on basis of citizenship, rather than merit. Moreover, immigrants are
denied retirement benefits. They are not entitled to own land, houses,
or businesses. They do not have access to subsidized housing. They are
not allowed to practice some profitable professions such as law or run
for public office.
An analysis of the class structure in
Kuwait may clarify how the government discriminatory policies have
placed citizens in higher-class positions than what their
qualifications allow them to be (Table 5). By 1990, the Kuwaiti
society could be divided into about five major social classes. The
first is the upper class, which is composed of members of the royal
family (shaikhs) and the merchant families. They control leading
government jobs and own major businesses, most lands, and real
property. The second is the upper-middle class, which includes the
highest-ranking government officials and owners of medium-size
businesses. The vast majority of them are Kuwaitis. The third is the
lower-middle class, which includes white-collar job employees and
small-business owners. About half of the Kuwaiti males and majority of
Kuwaiti females employed by the government are members of this class,
as they are guaranteed to have jobs in the government bureaucracy.
Actually 51.4 percent of government employees were adult Kuwaitis.
Arab immigrants represented about 43.2 percent of government
employees, who worked mainly in education, health care, electrical,
and oil services. Thus, they may also be classified as members of the
lower-middle class. About half of Kuwaiti males and a smaller number
of Kuwaiti females employed by the government have non-white-collar
jobs, such as janitorial work.
However, the pay they receive for these jobs is higher than what
immigrants receive for working in government white-collar jobs.
Therefore, it is inaccurate to classify such Kuwaiti government
employees as members of the working class. Rather, it is more accurate
to classify them as members of the lower-middle class. The fourth is
the working class, which is composed of immigrants with blue-collar
jobs. This includes such workers as electricians, mechanics, and
maintenance workers. This class is evenly composed of Arab and Asian
immigrants. The fifth is the under class, which includes people who
work for the least wages. This includes such immigrant workers as the
unskilled daily workers, domestic servants, private cooks, private
drivers, and guards in construction sites. The vast majority of these
are Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Iranians, and Egyptians. In
1985, there were about 63,000 domestic servants in Kuwait, mainly from
Southeast Asia, working in about 70 percent of the Kuwaiti households.
This phenomenon demonstrates that the vast majority of Kuwaitis does
not cook their own food, clean their own houses, or take care of their
children. Other people perform these tasks for them.
Finally, there is a category of
Kuwaitis that represents an anomaly in this classification. About 36.5
percent of adult Kuwaitis neither work in the government nor in the
Many of these may be classified as welfare recipients. However, the
government assistance they receive places them in a higher class
position than that of the working-class immigrants. This is different
from the situation in many societies. In the United States, for
example, welfare recipients are classified as members of the under
class whose income is much lower than that of members of the working
The Bidoons and immigrants in Kuwait, including Palestinians,
were denied the right to acquire citizenship or permanent residence.
This deprived them of several privileges citizens are entitled to. The
government discriminatory policies contributed to the creation of
material and psychological barriers between immigrants and citizens.
In particular, these policies might have contributed to the low rate
of intermarriage and the tense work relations between the two
population groups. This resulted in an ethnophobic Kuwaiti attitude
towards the alienated non-Kuwaitis, particularly Palestinians, that
set the stage for adopting a policy of getting rid of them.
The Kuwaiti government was successful in freezing the growth of
the Palestinian community through the adoption of tough entry and
residence measures. However, this did not lead to ending the
Palestinian presence in the country. Therefore, the government kept
looking for an excuse to get rid of the Palestinians altogether. The
opportunity came when the PLO voiced its support for the Iraqi
position, during the 1990 crisis. Following the war, Palestinians in
Kuwait were subjected to a terror campaign and several other measures
that reduced them to less than 30,000.
Kuwait lost a hard-working and skilled Palestinian immigrant
community whose members also lost everything. Only about 26,000
Palestinians were left in Kuwait by 1995 from a thriving community of
about 450,000 people. They have been dispersed all over the world. The
injustice that was committed against them has not been addressed yet.
The Kuwaiti government still has not changed its discriminatory
treatment of immigrants, particularly concerning citizenship,
residence, and denying them equal treatment with citizens.
Ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in
Kuwait showed that ethnicity may be defined in relation to
citizenship. As Arabs, both Kuwaitis and Palestinians belong to the
same racial group. Both groups speak Arabic and the vast majority of
them are Sunni Muslims. Thus, ethnic identity in this case is not
drawn on the traditionally cited religious or linguistic lines, such
as in the cases of Bosnia, Chechnya, or Northern Ireland. Rather, it
is drawn in the case of Kuwait on basis of citizenship, as the major
distinguishing ethnic factor. It follows that ethnic cleansing, in his
case, is an attempt by citizens to deny long-term immigrants access to
the privileges they have been enjoying.
The Kuwaiti government has adopted a
policy of systematic discrimination against immigrants in the country,
Arabs and non-Arabs alike. Actually, the oil wealth tempted most
Kuwaitis to distance themselves from their Arab brethren. The attempts
of Kuwaiti intellectuals to influence the government to adopt more
Arab-Nationalist policies in dealing with Arab immigrants did not
succeed. In fact, discrimination against immigrants and the emphasis
on the “Gulfer,” instead of the Arab identity have led to
strengthening the sovereignty of the state and the weakening of Arab
nationalism, as argued in Chapter IV. Moreover, the strict
naturalization policies kept the middle class under tight control,
which allowed the ruling elite a continuous control over the
democratic game in the country.
It is amazing to observe that the
main factors contributing to ethnic cleansing in many parts of the
world, namely religion and language, are not present in the case of
Palestinians in Kuwait. Here, economic privileges accorded to people
by citizenship have created an ethnic identity. The Kuwaiti
ethnophobic attitude became a mechanism that was used against
immigrants in general, and Palestinians in particular. The objective
was to keep a distance between the two segments of the population and
preserve the status quo in favor of Kuwaiti citizens.
Immigrants deserve to have a clear
process of immigration that enables them to change their status from
temporary to permanent. Kuwait denied most Palestinians and other
immigrants that process. This policy has led to discrimination against
immigrants in various aspects of life. It has nothing to do with the
argument that granting citizenship to Palestinians may be used to
support the Zionist solution of the Palestinian refugee problem, which
calls for the integration of Palestinians in the Arab societies. If
this was the case, then other non-Palestinian immigrants would have
been granted citizenship. In fact, Kuwait has punished immigrants for
their hard work. Thus doing, it has not solved its demographic problem
like other recipient societies. The United States, Canada, Australia,
North Western Europe, and several other societies, for example, use
citizenship as a tool to reward hard-working and qualified immigrants
to come and stay. Only when citizenship is used as a tool to include
rather than exclude immigrants, Kuwait and other recipient societies
that practice similar immigration policies may enjoy social,
political, and economic stability. Until this happens, these societies
will continue living in caste-systems where immigrants are exploited
and discriminated against.
IN KUWAIT, 1957-1995
Ministry of Planning, Board of Census, Population
Census 1957; and Annual Statistical
1975 (cited in Alessa, 1981: 34).
Al-Iktissad Al-Arabi, No. 71, June-July 1982, P. 15.
* In 1990, Palestinians in Kuwait were estimated at
about 400,000 representing about 18.7
percent of the
total population (Al-Yahya, 1993:
114). However, the
number was estimated about at 450,000
officials cited by journalists after
the war (The
New York Times, March 14, 1991; USA
Today, April 3,
** United Nations
Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
Al-Hayat newspaper (Arabic), July 1,
article titled, "Al-Intishar Al-Filistini."
article and the statistics were cited in an
article by Ahmed Sidqi Al-Dajani in
"Mustaqbal Filistiniyi Al-Kharij
Fi Dhil Itifaq Oslo
2-4." Al-Khalij newspaper
(Arabic) in October
POPULATION OF KUWAIT
12.3* 1,316,014 61.4
Ministry of Planning, Kuwaiti Central Statistical
Office, Annual Statistical Abstracts,
Tables 11 and 12 (Cited in Crystal,
E Estimated mid-year population.
KMI (1986: 29).
Industrial Bank of Kuwait, Labor
of Kuwait, August 16,1976 (cited in
* (B): refers to the Bidoons, those
citizenship, who started to appear
from citizens in official statistics
Human Rights Watch (1995: 11-12).
** By 1995, the number of the Bidoons
was estimated to
be between 135,000 (the official
180,000 (a more accurate figure). The
due to the eviction of or denying
many Bidoons to
return to Kuwait after the war (Human
*** U.S. Bureau of the Census, International Data Base.
KUWAIT POPULATION IN A CENTURY*
U.S. Bureau of the Census, International Data Base
Citizens represented only 26.3 percent of the
population in 1990.
OF KUWAITI CITIZENS IN
LABOR FORCE AND THE POPULATION
Shah and Al-Qudsi, 1989: 4, and Table 1.
This includes citizens and Bedoons (those without
STRUCTURE IN KUWAIT*
and Merchants (Kuwaitis)
Senior Gove't officials and owners of
medium-size businesses (Kuwaitis)
White-coller job immigrants
Small business owners
Kuwaiti government employees
Kuwaiti welfare recipients
Unskilled workers and domestics
Shah and Al-Qudsi (1989).
Farah, Al-Salem, and Al-Salem (1980).
Kuwaitis represented about 26.3 percent of the
population in mid 1990.
Al-Qudsi and Shah (1991: 149).
Lubbadah (1991: 31).
Ghabra (1987: 164).
The Economist (1990: 21-23, 30-32).
Lienhardt (1993: 49).
Al-Ebraheem (1975: 122).
Alessa (1981: 52-53).
Alessa (1981: 54-55).
Farah et. al. (1989: 33-40).
Shah and Al-Qudsi (1989:22).
Alessa (1981: 106-111).
Al-Sabah, Su'ad (1983: 28).
Al-Sabah, Youssif (1980: 138-139).
MEW (1991: 51-53).
U.S. Department of State Human Rights Annual Reports (1996).
Human Rights Watch (1995: 66-79).
Al-Watan Kuwaiti newspaper, November (1996).
U.S. Department of State Human Rights Annual Reports (1996, 1997).
U.S. Department of State Human Rights Annual Reports (1997).
MEW (1991: 53).
Human Rights Watch (1995: 90).
The Economist (October 12, 1996: 50); U.S. Department of State
Human Rights Annual Reports (1993, 1996).
Alessa (1981: 16-18, 44-50);Brand (1988); Russell (1988);
Russell (1989); Shah and Al-Qudsi (1989); Farah et. al.
Human Rights Watch (1995).
Farah et al. (1980).
Farah et al. (1980).
Alessa (1981: 19).
Alessa (1981: 24).
Alessa (1981: 44).
Alessa (1981: 45); Farah et al. (1980).
Alessa (1981); Brand (1988: 114).
A "kafeel" may also be translated as a guarantor (Van
Hear, 1995; Lesch, 1991). However, "nominal partner" is
more accurate in the sense that a kafeel may not contribute money.
Rather, it is his signature on government papers that makes him a
partner. The irony was that, after the 1991 Gulf War, many Kuwaiti
nominal partners claimed loss of businesses that they had never
contributed money to. As a result, they qualified and received
United Nations-administered reparations from Iraq (Al-Hayat Al-Jadeedah,
Alessa (1981: 62).
Al-Shahi (1993: 10-13).
Ghabra (1991: 7).
Human Rights Watch (1995: 80-81).
Alessa (1981: 19); Farah et al. (1980).
"Ethnophobia" is a term that I have coined to express the
state of exaggerated fear and distrust that members of one ethnic
group feel towards members of another, in the same society. Ethnic
groups belong to the same race but they are different in some
acquired cultural characteristics such as language, religion, or
citizenship, like in this case. Thus, ethnophobia is different from
xenophobia in that fear and distrust in the latter are forwarded
An MA thesis at Kuwait University by Wajih Yasin Mohammed, cited in
Ghabra (1987: 96-97).
Some Kuwaitis started to criticize this form of discrimination. Most
recently, a member of the Kuwaiti National Assembly, Jamal Al-Kandari,
called for extending equal treatment to children of Kuwaiti women
(The Kuwaiti newspaper, "Al-Watan," October 10, 1996).
Blau, Blum, and Schwartz (1982); Labov and Jacob (1986); Pagnini and
Farah, Al-Salem, and Al-Salem (1980).
Shah and Al-Qudsi (1989: 10, 20).
Shah and Al-Qudsi (1989: 24).
Farah et. al. (1980).
Table of Contents, Gulf War: Overreaction & Excessiveness, By Hassan A El-Najjar