In light of the recent Human Rights Watch coverage of Kuwait’s bidoon population, we’ve posted Farah Al-Nakib’s background article from Al Manakh 2 (2010).
photo by Jasmine Melvin-Koushki
by Farah Al-Nakib
from Al Manakh 2 (2010)
The crisis of stateless people in Kuwait (known as the bidoon, or ‘without’ nationality) has been the subject of renewed concern and debate in the country over the past year. A special committee of the Kuwaiti Parliament recently drew up a new bill that proposes granting the majority of bidoon a wide range of social rights and access to state welfare services (except housing). The bill was discussed at a parliamentary session on January 7, 2010, during which the cabinet turned it down citing ten legal inconsistencies in the draft including the fact that the legal and civil rights conferred upon the bidoon in the bill, such as state education and employment, were constitutionally reserved for Kuwaiti citizens. Although opposing the new legislation, the government has asserted its determination to resolve the humanitarian and social plight of the bidoon as soon as possible.
This situation has received renewed attention lately in local and international media, but it is nothing new in Kuwait where debates on the bidoon surface periodically without producing any long-term resolution to the crisis. Kuwait has, however, been receiving increased international attention over the past several years with reports by organizations such as Refugees International (2007) and the US Department of State (2008) providing detailed accounts of human rights violations practiced in Kuwait against the bidoon. It is in the context of this heightened international scrutiny that Kuwait is up for Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council in May 2010. The fact that Kuwait may be held accountable for not solving the bidoon crisis since the last review of its human rights record in 2006 has stimulated a renewed concern to address the social, political, and economic problems facing the approximately 100,000 bidoon residing in Kuwait today.
What makes the current debate on the bidoon in Kuwait unique is the socio-political atmosphere in which it is emerging. Questions of national identity are increasingly becoming important and contentious issues in the public sphere, as reflected in recent discussions on problems of dual citizenship and the safeguarding of national unity. One incident in particular brought these concerns to the foreground over the past couple of months. In late December 2009 former parliamentary candidate Mohammed al-Juwaihel made a controversial statement on the private satellite television channel al-Sur that caused outrage throughout the country. Al-Juwaihel identified ‘true’ Kuwaiti citizens as members of the hadhar (sedentary urbanite) community that once resided within Kuwait’s former town wall (the sur), and claimed that the Bedouin tribes currently residing in the area are not ‘real’ Kuwaitis regardless of the fact that they hold Kuwaiti nationality. Although publicly condemned, Al-Juwaihel’s comments clarify two underlying realities of identity politics in Kuwait. First, debates on Kuwaiti national identity are very much based on the politics of social differentiation and exclusion. Second, since the building of the sur in 1920 the country has been divided into a ‘hierarchy of spaces’ whereby notions of social inclusion and exclusion have become inscribed onto urban space.
The sur was built around Kuwait Town in 1920 to fend off an impending attack by the Ikhwan tribes of Najd. As a new physical barrier separating the town from the desert, it developed over time into a psychological obstacle dividing the hadhar on the inside from the Bedouin tribes and villagers on the outside. The building of the sur in 1920 also forms the basis of the country’s definition of citizenship as per the 1959 Nationality Law. The law states that ‘original’ Kuwaiti nationals are those whose families had settled in Kuwait prior to 1920, which inherently means settled inside the sur since the nomadic tribes that moved around and camped beyond the sur were not permanently settled. They were, however, incorporated within Kuwait’s national boundary when it was drawn in 1922 and were historically considered subjects of the ruler of Kuwait. Nonetheless, by restricting citizenship by origin almost exclusively to those who were inside the urban boundary rather than the national boundary and by using 1920 rather than 1922 as the cut-off date for eligibility, the 1959 law codified the social differentiation and exclusion that rose with the sur in 1920.
To put the new law into practice, heads of families were required to register with the government during limited open enrollment periods. While some Bedouin families were able to register as citizens, most were denied nationality and were classified as bidoon because they were unable to furnish adequate proof that they were settled in Kuwait.(1)
Since the early 1960s the bidoon have occupied a grey area between Kuwaitis and non-Kuwaitis. Until the mid-80s they made up the majority of the rank and file of Kuwait’s army and police forces; they were thus used to protect and defend the very state from which they were excluded, ironically replacing the wall that had first relegated them to the outside. The category of bidoon also grew to include mercenaries from other Arab countries (namely Iraq, Syria and Jordan) brought in to serve in the military, ‘lumping together two very different groups of people who served the same national purpose’. This situation lasted until the Iran-Iraq war during which many Iraqi refugees (and increasingly people from other Arab countries as well) took advantage of the ambiguous status of the bidoon in Kuwait by destroying their identity papers and blending into this undefined ‘human pool’.(2)
Despite being classified as stateless, until the mid-80s the bidoon could be described as Kuwaiti ‘citizens without citizenship’.(3) They enjoyed access to free healthcare and education, and those who served in the armed forces had the benefit of free housing (albeit without the right to ownership). The Bedouin majority of the bidoon at that time were similar to the Kuwaitis in tribal descent, dialect and tradition, and in fact the official census until 1989 counted them as Kuwaitis.(4) The bidoon did not require residence permits like other expatriates and they were repeatedly promised future Kuwaiti citizenship.(5)
In terms of spatial distance and contact with the citizenry, however, the bidoon remained firmly on the outside. Beginning in the 1950s with the advent of oil-induced urbanization, new Kuwaiti suburbs were constructed just outside the sur to re-house the hadhar population of Kuwait Town being displaced by urban development. These neighborhoods, occupying the space between the First and Fourth (later Fifth) Ring Roads, were intended exclusively for the Kuwaiti section of the population and therefore rental units were prohibited (non-Kuwaitis cannot own property). Those bidoon who did not have access to a government home therefore had to rent in residential areas designated for non-Kuwaitis, perpetuating their spatial segregation from the Kuwaiti population. Even the bidoon who did obtain rights to public housing in exchange for their armed service were restricted to outlying areas designated for government housing projects away from the strictly Kuwaiti neighborhoods.
The status of the bidoon as ‘citizens without citizenship’ lasted until 1986. As a reaction to the influx of newcomers who were destroying their identity papers to become classified as bidoon, the Kuwaiti authorities abruptly reversed the policies that had granted the bidoon access to state education and healthcare. Throughout the next decade, particularly after the Iraqi occupation of 1990-91, most of the country’s bidoon were stripped of their former rights, were fired en masse from government jobs, and were discharged from the military.(6) Their status changed from ‘without citizenship’ to ‘illegal residents’ and they were no longer issued civil identity cards, driver’s licenses or travel documents, severely limiting their freedom of mobility and travel.(7) Because they were declared ‘illegal’ they became vulnerable to constant harassment, exploitation, eviction and the risk of deportation. It also became very difficult for them to obtain birth, death and marriage certificates, turning them into virtual non-entities within and outside the country.
Aside from a few minor amendments their situation has remained unchanged. One exception is that the bidoon are now permitted to renew their driver’s licenses, but many still refrain from doing so because they will be classified as ‘illegal’ on the document. Many bidoon therefore tend to limit their movement to their own neighborhoods in order to avoid checkpoints and harassment, living under what has been described as ‘self- imposed house arrest’.(8,9)
As they are barred from employment in the government sector, most bidoon are currently unemployed or can only obtain intermittent low-paying jobs in the private sector; they therefore live in virtual exile ‘in squalid housing projects’ in Sulaibiya, Jahra, Ahmadi, and ‘the rundown neighborhood’ of Jleeb al-Shuyoukh.(10) Despite having next to no income the bidoon have no choice but to pay rent for undersized accommodation in these areas. Up to four generations often live in one house and unless one of the occupants is a government employee (which is rare) the house must be registered in the name of a citizen.(11) In stark contrast to the ‘built-up network of highways, shopping malls, luxury hotels, markets, and mosques’ of the urban center, these outlying areas suffer from inferior municipal services such as street cleaning, maintenance, and road upkeep compared to the suburbs that are closer to the city.(12) Furthermore, without civil ID cards the bidoon do not have access to state services such as subsidized healthcare or free medication dispensed at local clinics, and because only Kuwaiti children can attend free local government schools the only option for bidoon children are private schools, which are both expensive and located far away from the areas where the bidoon usually live. It is the denial of these basic human rights that the proposed legislation on the matter seeks to address, but due to the increased politicization of this humanitarian crisis the question remains unresolved.
A September 2009 World Focus article on the bidoon highlights the extent to which the memory of the city wall continues to perpetuate social exclusion despite being demolished in 1957: ‘Historically, there was a wall around the main urban area of Kuwait City to keep out lower status social groups’.(13) The fact that this has become the perceived purpose of the sur vividly captures the symbolic weight it carries not just for those who use it to uphold their own elitism but also for those who have been consistently pushed outside of its socio-spatial limits.
This article was published in Al Manakh 2.
1. Maureen Lynch and Patrick Barbieri, ‘Kuwait: State of Exclusion’ (Washington, DC: Refugees International 2007). At http://www.refugeesinternational.org/policy/fieldreport/kuwaitstateexclusion (accessed December 7, 2009)
2. Anh Nga Longva, Walls Built on Sand: Migration, Exclusion, and Society in Kuwait (Boulder: Westview Press 1997), p. 51.
3. The 1995 Human Rights Watch publication that uses this phrase in its title says that it was a description given to the bidoon by the Kuwaiti Criminal Court in the Abdali District on December 7, 1987.
4. Anh Nga Longva [note 2].
5. Aziz AbuHamad, The Bedoons of Kuwait: ‘Citizens without Citizenship’ (New York: Human Rights Watch/Middle East 1995), p. 3.
6. For further analysis of the plight of both the bidoon and the Palestinians in Kuwait, with particular reference to the occupation of 199091 and its aftermath, see Mai AlNakib, ‘Outside in the Nation Machine: The Case of Kuwait’, Strategies 13, 2, 2000, pp. 201220.
7. Aziz AbuHamad, p. 2.
8. Patrick Barbieri, About Being Without: Stories of Stateless in Kuwait (Washington, DC: Refugees International 2007), p. 2.
9. Aziz AbuHamad, p. 9.
10. Patrick Barbieri, p. 13.
11. Idem, p. 15.
12. Maureen Lynch and Patrick Barbieri.
13. ‘Q&A: A Kuwaiti Bidoon Suffers from Statelessness’, World Focus. At http://worldfocus.org/blog/2009/09/03/qaakuwaitibidoonsuffersfromstatelessness/6701/ (accessed December 7, 2009).