Kuwait, now one of the richest countries in the world, has been discriminating against 2.3 percent of its population for over half a century. Tens of thousands of Arab people in Kuwait did not receive citizenship after the country gained its independence in 1961. These people are known as Bidoon (a short form of bidoon jinsiya in Arabic, meaning “without nationality”). This pejorative term is also used for migrant workers who settled in Kuwait after independence during the oil boom in the 1960s and 70s.
The majority of the Bidoon population originates from nomadic tribes native to the Arabian peninsula. Most of the Bidoon still live without nationality and without recognition of their citizenship, and the Kuwaiti government classifies most of them as “illegal residents.”
The international legal definition of a stateless person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” Notwithstanding that a number of the Bidoon spend their whole lives–from birth to death–in Kuwait, the state does not recognize them as Kuwaiti citizens and they have never been able to obtain “official birth or death certificates,” according to Kuwaiti activist Rana al-Abdal-Razzaq.
At least 100,000 Bidoon live in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti authorities claim that most of them are “illegal residents” and have deliberately destroyed all evidence of belonging to another nationality, such as Iraq or Saudi Arabia, in order to obtain the generous social benefits Kuwait provides for its citizens. Currently, at about 2.3 percent of the population, the Bidoon are a minority compared to the total number of citizens, which is estimated at 4.5 million.
When the British protectorate ended in 1961, British authorities transferred Bidoon citizenship applications to Kuwaiti administrative committees for processing. These committees have ignored those requests for over 50 years.
The Kuwaiti Bidoon can be divided into three categories, according to a study prepared by Kuwait University professor Dr. Ghanim al-Najjar. The first category includes those whose grandparents and parents did not apply for citizenship or did not have the necessary documents after Kuwait’s independence in 1961.
The second category includes those who were recruited by the Kuwaiti army or police during the 1960s and then settled permanently in Kuwait with their families.
The third category is composed of the children of Kuwaiti mothers and Bidoon or foreign fathers.
The Kuwaiti government has previously pledged to naturalize Bidoon residents. After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Kuwaiti Defense Minister Ali Sabah Al-Salem promised Kuwaiti citizenship to Bidoon who fought against the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, according to a statement published by Agence France-Presse on July 5, 1991. But the government reneged on its promise. Instead, applicants were required to go through a complex process to prove their participation in the resistance, including producing witnesses and proving personal connections, according to the associate director of Human Rights Watch.
To date, the Kuwaiti government has naturalized only three percent of the 120,000 Bidoons.
To date, the Kuwaiti government has naturalized only three percent of the 120,000 Bidoons. Bidoon men who died while fighting the Iraqi occupation received “second-class” citizenship, which conferred citizenship on their children. In contrast, women who died fighting the Iraqi occupation did not receive citizenship. In any event, under Kuwaiti law, women cannot transfer nationality to their children.
Many stateless residents in Kuwait struggle to obtain civil documents and employment. They do not have access to healthcare, education, or other basic social services provided in the normal course to Kuwaiti citizens. Stateless Kuwaiti residents cannot vote due to their undocumented status. As a result of these significant handicaps, many of them are in desperate poverty, despite living in one of the richest oil countries in the world.
In a TV interview in 2013, Salih al-Fadala, the head of Kuwait’s Central Apparatus for Illegal Residents’ Affairs, asserted that he had “evidence that 67,000 Bidoon in Kuwait have other nationalities.” He claimed that “only 34,000 Bidoon are eligible for Kuwaiti citizenship.”
Bidoon have protested their debilitating stateless situation, but the government has quashed most of the protests, according to Human Rights Watch. In September 2017, a Bidoon man set himself on fire to protest the status and conditions of the Bidoon in Kuwait.
After the Arab Spring protests, Kuwait’s government made additional promises to process citizenship requests, especially those the government deemed “eligible” for Kuwaiti citizenship. Under the criteria for this special eligibility category, Bidoon had to provide documents proving that they had participated in the Kuwaiti resistance against the Iraqi invasion in 1990. Yet to date, 30 years later, the government has still not granted Kuwaiti nationality to any of the Bidoon, much less other members of this special “eligible” minority.
Instead, Kuwait established a “package of incentives,” including five-year residency permits, for “illegal residents who adjust their legal status and come up with their original nationalities.” In 2014, Kuwait announced that over 6,000 Bidoon had benefited from such a package after revealing their “real” nationalities. Most of them chose Saudi nationality.
Bidoon activist Abdul Hakim al-Fadhli has questioned the veracity of the government’s claims that there is evidence that Bidoon have other nationalities. Al-Fadhli speculated that if the evidence actually existed, the government would share it with the public instead of “selling us to Arab and foreign countries,” referring to the government’s proposed solution to issue foreign Arab citizenship to the Bidoon.
In March 2018, the Central Apparatus presented to the Human Rights Committee of Kuwait’s National Assembly what it called “a road map to resolve the issue of the Bidoon’s naturalization.” This plan includes dividing the Bidoon into categories, some of them being granted Kuwaiti citizenship, and others being forced to obtain Arab or foreign passports from countries such as Comoros.
Yet, a year later, no action has been taken.
On January 11, dozens of Bidoon protested in the capital, Kuwait City.
On January 11, dozens of Bidoon protested in the capital, Kuwait City. Defying the law that bars non-Kuwaitis from participating in public gatherings, they decried the government’s continuing failure to address their requests for citizenship.
The situation of the Bidoon in Kuwait is only part of a larger regional problem. According to the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, more than 500,000 Bidoon live in the Gulf region.
The United Nations has called on Kuwait to end discrimination against Bidoon residents. In September 2017, a panel of experts on the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination stated that “Bidoon do not enjoy equal access to social services, due process, and legally valid civil documentation.” The committee called upon the country to “find a durable solution” and to assess applications for Kuwaiti nationality “through written, reasoned decisions that may be appealed.”
Despite the government’s promises, the Bidoon have not seen any progress or action by the Kuwaiti government. Naturalization remains a top priority for Kuwait’s stateless residents. Yet, the Kuwaiti government continues to deny its responsibilities towards this minority by encouraging Bidoon to acquire citizenship from other countries with which they have no real connection or links.
So for now, the Bidoon continue to risk deportation from their native land every day by virtue of their mere existence. Meanwhile, the international community remains silent.