Kuwait’s ‘Stateless’ Class: A Ticking Time Bomb

Article Summary
Kuwait is home to almost 135,000 “stateless” individuals who are born in Kuwait without citizenship, social support or legal protection. As pressure grows to naturalize this group, political concerns and alleged security fears lead some officials to resist finding true solutions, writes Haifa Zaaiter. 

“My grandfather was born in Kuwait, my father was born in Kuwait and I am a son of Kuwait … I have five children, all born in Kuwait. But I couldn't obtain birth certificates for them, nor could I enroll them in schools... no one accepts to hire me, or even deal with me as a human being. I can not get a driving license... Is my salary a burden on the state? Am I affiliated to a dangerous organization? Where shall I go? What will happen to me?”

Khaled cannot find answers to his questions. He spoke to As-Safir about the overwhelming feeling of defeat that engulfs him and the over 135,000 “stateless” individuals in Kuwait. He said that he puts full responsibility on the government, for it has failed to act on the unfair living conditions he faces in one of the world’s richest oil-producing countries.

Khaled pronounced his words with acrimony as he returned from a protest held by the “stateless” in Tai’ma-Jahra, Kuwait, where the authorities arrested more than 40 participants and forced the rest to withdraw. According to Khaled, these arrests are a common scene in the periodic, tireless demonstrations for basic human rights: acquiring citizenship in the country where the “stateless” are born and continue to live — and for which they have sacrificed. 

The “stateless,” or “bidoun,”  are those living in Kuwait without Kuwaiti citizenship. The Arabic word, “bidoun,” means “without,” short for “bidoun jinsiya” - “without citizenship.” This problem is decades old, and its resolution has been postponed from one generation to another. It has now become a time bomb that could explode at any moment. The issue has sparked controversy at the highest levels of government, and local officials fear the issue’s growing potential impact.

The problem of the “stateless” is one of the greatest challenges facing Kuwait at the social, security and economic levels. But the government’s approach has actually aggravated the problem — it recently changed the official name of this group from “stateless” to “illegal residents.” It also continues to deprive this group of their civil rights, in violation of the constitution which guarantees the rights of everyone living on the territory of Kuwait. It isolates them from the Kuwaiti community and denies them full citizenship as stipulated in the Kuwaiti Citizenship Act.

Kuwait’s racial and national diversity is a product of the country’s political history. Many residing in Kuwait fled the region from neighboring areas such as Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran and Syria, with many other minorities coming from elsewhere as well. Therefore, it is hard to separate the “stateless”  from the social fabric of the indigenous people of Kuwait, since they themselves belong to the same races and nationalities as the majority of citizens.

So what is it that makes this issue, which has remained unresolved for decades, so big and dangerous? There are numerous political, ideological, economic and social reasons.

Who will serve the Kuwaitis once they are naturalized?

The historical justifications for this problem are still up for debate. However, these have been replaced with reasons and constraints even more complex.

Historical reasons for the large amount of stateless in Kuwait include the short timetable set by the government to apply for citizenship, the absence of any  public awareness-raising campaign about the importance of obtaining the citizenship and the limited time period during which the committees are engaged in interviewing applicants. The government considers owning a residence in Kuwait between 1920 and 1950 as a mandatory requirement to gain citizenship. Another hindering factor was the spread of illiteracy among the majority of Kuwaiti rural dwellers as well as the slow government performance in finding solutions throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Today, this issue is in the spotlight and a ministry of the interior committee chaired by  MP Saleh Al-Fadala is examining the cases of those hoping to acquire citizenship. According to the government, the official number of cases is 100,000. Fadala recently declared that the committee would grant Kuwaiti citizenship to 34,000 of the “stateless,” and that it is working to solve the problem within five years.

The Committee’s chairman spoke about how the law would distinguish between between the “stateless” by issuing them cards of different colors dividing them according to their period of eligibility. This statement aroused the indignation of those concerned. They argue that this method is simply a way by which Fadala aims to avoid the issue of the “stateless” and display a “humanitarian” image to the world.

Chamlan Al-Issa, a political science professor at the Kuwait University told As-Safir that “Fadala is stringent  regarding the stateless issue,” and that he expected “the naturalization process to be very slow.” Al-Issa said that “45,000 ‘stateless’ hold Syrian, Iranian or Saudi citizenship, and 10,000 to 20,000 have permanent residency.”

Sheikh Ahmad Sarraf, a member of the Kuwaiti political opposition, told As-Safir that “it is a purely humanitarian issue. These individuals have the right to employment, health care, housing and education… Even though it is true that many are of Syrian, Saudi or Iranian origins, they were born and live in this territory.”

As-Sarraf added that certain political factors were hindering a solution to this issue. Most importantly, the number of  “stateless” individuals living in Kuwait is relatively large when compared to the number of local nationals. Naturalizing the “stateless” will  change the political equation. For this reason, certain politicians are impeding the situation for fear that the newly naturalized “stateless” will simply vote for those who succeeded in granting them citizenship.

As-Sarraf pointed out that the large majority of the “bidoun” are Islamists, either Sunni or or Shi’aa. He noted that Saudi Arabia is not cooperating with Fadala’s Committee when it comes to checking over the list of names of who is eligible for citizenship. It is not in Saudi Arabia’s interest to take back these individuals.

At the regional level, Kuwait has cautiously refrained from fixing the problem because of naturalization’s repercussions and impacts on the population’s composition. Many of the “bidoun”  belong to a non-Arab State in the region with special plans and projects against the Gulf States, in reference to Iran.

In this framework, the government seems to be justifying its treatment of the “stateless” issue with arguments of sovereignty and security at the expense of humanitarian considerations. Some argue that the state has the right to preserve its sovereignty as long as it “does not contravene an individual’s right to employment in the public and private sectors, the right to obtain identification documents such as birth certificates, marriage, divorce and death records, the right to freely move within the territory, as well as the right to travel, education and health care.”

The commission is also being criticized for adding the issue of naturalizing Kuwaiti widowed and divorced women’s children to the agenda. By decree, and upon a proposal from the Minister of the Interior, Article 5 of the Citizenship Act stipulates that Kuwaiti citizenship may be granted to those born from a Kuwaiti mother and a foreign father. This applies to any child residing in Kuwait whose father is incarcerated or deceased, or whose parents get divorced.

Seen as this particular children’s issue is already written into law, it seems strange to lump it in again with that of the “stateless.” Fadala seems to be using this tactic to try and convince the international community that there are active naturalization mechanisms in Kuwait.

In the end, what matters most is what Khaled mentioned about discrimination between Kuwaiti social classes. The “stateless” who now take low-status jobs in Kuwait will perhaps not do the same once they are naturalized. But then, once that happens, who is going to serve the Kuwaitis? 

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