Table of Contents


The Gulf War:

Overreaction & Excessiveness

By Hassan A El-Najjar

Amazone Press, 2001

The Root of Subsequent US Invasion of the Middle East

How America was dragged into conflict

 with the Arab and Muslim worlds





Following 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 (Chapter X).

     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

members 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. 

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

      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 economic life."[4]

     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 (Table 3).

     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.[5]

        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.[6] 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."[7]

       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."[8] 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.”[9]       

       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.”[10] 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. 

The Nationality Law 

     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

"if 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 nationality laws.”[11]

     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,

“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."[12]    

     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,

"political 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."[13]

     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 citizens.  

     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 Kuwait.[14] 

     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.[15] The plan also targeted the Bedoons, in addition to immigrants. 

The Bidoons' Case 

     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).[16] Then, they were reduced even more to about 117,000, in 1996, and to about 114,000, in 1997.[17]

     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 country.

     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.[18]

     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.[19] 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.[20]

       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.[21]

       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,

"There 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 Act."[22]

     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 stateless."[23]  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 country.[24] Thus, they form an exclusive ruling group that denies access to power and wealth to anybody else, including immigrants, Bidoons, and Kuwaiti women. 

Discrimination Against Immigrants 

     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.[25]

     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.[26] 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.[27] Actually, a guaranteed job for every Kuwaiti became a constitutional right whether a person is qualified or not.[28]    

       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.[29] A typical story was that a newly hired Kuwaiti teacher would soon become the supervisor or the senior of his older and more experienced colleagues.

       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."[30] 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.[31]

     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.[32]   

       Sixth, an immigrant cannot open a business without a Kuwaiti partner or sponsor, a "Kafeel."[33] 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 are deported.

       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.[34] 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.[35] 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 citizens.[36]

     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.[37] 

Consequences of Discrimination 

     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.[38]

       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,[39] 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.[40] 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 against.[41] 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.[42] 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.[43]      

       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.[44]

     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.[45] 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.[46] 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 private sector.[47] 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 class. 


     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.




1957      11,616    3,557   15,173       7.3

1961      25,741   11,741   37,482      11.7       

1965      49,744   27,968   77,712      16.6               

1970      79,934   67,762  147,696      20.0              

1975     107,770   96,408  204,178      20.5

1981      ------   ------  299,710      20.9

1990      ------   ------  400,000*     18.7

1995      ------   ------   26,000**     0.01

SOURCES: Ministry of Planning, Board of Census, Population

        Census 1957; and Annual Statistical Abstracts 1964-

        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 by government

       officials cited by journalists after the war (The

       New York Times, March 14, 1991; USA Today, April 3,

       1991 ). 

   **  United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

       Al-Hayat newspaper (Arabic), July 1, 1997, an

       article titled, "Al-Intishar Al-Filistini."

                The article and the statistics were cited in an

       article by Ahmed Sidqi Al-Dajani in his article,

       "Mustaqbal Filistiniyi Al-Kharij Fi Dhil Itifaq Oslo

        2-4." Al-Khalij newspaper (Arabic) in October





         #        %        #        %

1957   113,622   55.0     92,851   45        206,473

1961   161,909   50.3    159,712   49.6      321,621

1965   220,059   47.0    247,280   52.9      467,339

1970   347,396   47.1    391,266   53        738,662

1975   472,088   47.5    522,749   52.5      994,837

1980   565,613   41.7    792,339   58.3    1,357,952

1985   681,288   40.1  1,016,013   59.9    1,697,301

1989   545,738   26.7   

   *(B)250,651   12.3  1,244,572   61.0    2,040,961

1990   564,262   26.3

   *(B)262,324   12.3* 1,316,014   61.4    2,142,600


  **(B)160,000                             1,817,397***

SOURCES: Ministry of Planning, Kuwaiti Central Statistical

         Office, Annual Statistical Abstracts, 1989,

         Tables 11 and 12 (Cited in Crystal, 1992: 50).

         E Estimated mid-year population.

         KMI (1986: 29).

         Industrial Bank of Kuwait, Labor Force Statistics

         of Kuwait, August 16,1976 (cited in Alessa, 1981:


       * (B): refers to the Bidoons, those without

             citizenship, who started to appear separate

             from citizens in official statistics since

             1989. Human Rights Watch (1995: 11-12).

     ** By 1995, the number of the Bidoons was estimated to

        be between 135,000 (the official figure) and

        180,000 (a more accurate figure). The decrease is

        due to the eviction of or denying many Bidoons to

        return to Kuwait after the war (Human Rights Watch,

        1995: 12).   

    *** U.S. Bureau of the Census, International Data Base.





1950       144,774

1960       292,229

1970       747,502

1980     1,369,769

1990     2,128,227

2000     2,420,116

2010     3,160,191

2020     3,560,330

2030     3,850,856

2040     4,024,918

2050     4,124,167


*SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of the Census, International Data Base 

NOTE:    Citizens represented only 26.3 percent of the

         population in 1990.






1965          23.4                    47.1

1970          27.0                    47.0

1975          30.1                    47.5

1980          21.0                    41.7

1985          18.9                    40.1

SOURCES: Shah and Al-Qudsi, 1989: 4, and Table 1. 

* This includes citizens and Bedoons (those without






Upper Class      Shaikhs and Merchants (Kuwaitis)

Upper-Middle     Senior Gove't officials and owners of

                 medium-size businesses (Kuwaitis)

Lower-Middle     White-coller job immigrants

                 Small business owners

                 Kuwaiti government employees

An Anomaly       Kuwaiti welfare recipients

Working Class    Skilled workers (immigrants)

Underclass       Unskilled workers and domestics


*SOURCES: Shah and Al-Qudsi (1989).

          Farah, Al-Salem, and Al-Salem (1980).

NOTE: Kuwaitis represented about 26.3 percent of the

      population in mid 1990.



[1] Al-Qudsi and Shah (1991: 149).

[2] Lubbadah (1991: 31).

[3] Ghabra (1987: 164).

[4] The Economist (1990: 21-23, 30-32).

[5] Lienhardt (1993: 49).

[6] Al-Ebraheem (1975: 122).

[7] Alessa (1981: 52-53).

[8] Alessa (1981: 54-55).

[9] Farah et. al. (1989: 33-40).

[10] Shah and Al-Qudsi (1989:22).

[11] Alessa (1981: 106-111).

[12] Al-Sabah, Su'ad (1983: 28).

[13] Al-Sabah, Youssif (1980: 138-139).

[14] Russell (1989)

[15] Russell (1989).

[16] MEW (1991: 51-53).

[17] U.S. Department of State Human Rights Annual Reports (1996).

[18] Human Rights Watch (1995: 66-79).

[19] Al-Watan Kuwaiti newspaper, November (1996).

[20] U.S. Department of State Human Rights Annual Reports (1996, 1997).

[21] U.S. Department of State Human Rights Annual Reports (1997).

[22] MEW (1991: 53).

[23] Human Rights Watch (1995: 90).

[24] The Economist (October 12, 1996: 50); U.S. Department of State

   Human Rights Annual Reports (1993, 1996).

[25] Alessa (1981: 16-18, 44-50);Brand (1988); Russell (1988);

  Russell (1989); Shah and Al-Qudsi (1989); Farah et. al. (1980);

  Human Rights Watch (1995).

[26] Farah et al. (1980).

[27] Farah et al. (1980).

[28] Alessa (1981: 19).  

[29] Alessa (1981: 24).

[30] Alessa (1981: 44).

[31] Alessa (1981: 45); Farah et al. (1980).

[32] Alessa (1981); Brand (1988: 114). 

[33] 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, 7/9/1997). 

[34] Alessa (1981: 62).

[35] Al-Shahi (1993: 10-13).

[36] Ghabra (1991: 7). 

[37] Human Rights Watch (1995: 80-81).

[38] Alessa (1981: 19); Farah et al. (1980). 

[39] "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 against foreigners. 

[40] An MA thesis at Kuwait University by Wajih Yasin Mohammed, cited in    Ghabra (1987: 96-97).

[41] 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). 

[42] Blau, Blum, and Schwartz (1982); Labov and Jacob (1986); Pagnini and Morgan (1990).

[43] Botev (1994).

[44] Farah, Al-Salem, and Al-Salem (1980).

[45] Shah and Al-Qudsi (1989: 10, 20).

[46] Shah and Al-Qudsi (1989: 24).

[47] Farah et. al. (1980).

Table of Contents, Gulf War: Overreaction & Excessiveness, By Hassan A El-Najjar