The global pandemic’s effects on Kuwait are notably rooted in xenophobia. Unfortunately, perhaps even befitting these roots, the Gulf state’s social climate keeps bearing rotten fruit as the divide between citizens and immigrants widens. From violence against migrants to viral hate speech, the rise of bigotry pits Kuwait’s identity against one it claims to embody: “A nation of humanity.”
Shushing her viewers in a viral clip, Kuwaiti Snapchat influencer Reem Al-Shammari — no relation to this author — lambasted Egyptians and workers from other nationalities calling them nothing more than “servants.”
“You are mere hired people that are brought over with contracts to serve us, then leave. Why don’t you understand this? I do not blame them, I blame my government and authorities who make [Egyptians] believe they are equal partners in my homeland,” Al-Shammari said in her tirade.
Not without public condemnation, Al-Shammari’s bigoted outburst is also not without precedent from public figures and officials alike.
In 2018, a famous makeup artist complained about the Philippines’ push for more rights to their citizens working abroad during a viral rant. In 2019, a Kuwaiti fencing athlete sparked outrage after posing with British Prince William as a cultural representative while previously calling the nation’s stateless “bacteria.”
Kuwaiti actress Hayat Al-Fahad called for immigrants to be “kicked out” as the pandemic first struck Kuwait in March.
Renowned Kuwaiti actress Hayat Al-Fahad called for immigrants to be “kicked out” as the pandemic first struck Kuwait in March. Anti-immigrant populist Safaa Al-Hashem, who in 2019 said “migrants must pay to breathe Kuwaiti air,” also recently sent a letter to the Ministry of Interior stating “the government’s extra affection with migrants is unacceptable.”
The buck doesn’t stop at famous figures.
Members of Kuwait’s general public have also exhibited this incessant hatred of immigrants. Ironically, their behavior erupted during the holy month of Ramadan – when piety is expected the most, along with an explosive decades-long immigration scandal and a mass detainment of immigrants under wretched conditions. Unsurprisingly, amid all this frenzy, punditry aimed at solving Kuwait’s ailments heaved degrading commentary on the stateless population as well.
A Recent Display of Bigotry
Throughout Ramadan, between late April and late May, an open secret in Kuwait was brought to light. For decades, an underground market of work visas exploited Kuwait’s weak immigration laws creating a demographic layout with a 76 percent labor migrants majority.
For decades, an underground market of work visas exploited Kuwait’s weak immigration laws.
In this criminal venture, which falsifies work permits for foreigners and then extorts both their labor and income, hundreds of Kuwaiti citizens and foreigners alike are already under prosecution.
However, the hundreds of foreigners charged in this case pales in comparison with the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers exploited by Kuwaiti citizens. The extortion process, which some call another form of modern-day slavery, involves feeding off foreign workers’ desire for a better life. Then, the workers are milked repeatedly of large and arbitrary amounts by the illegal visa merchants all the while having to fend for their survival as well.
Also during Ramadan, not only did migrant suicide rates increase and migrant workers on the medical front lines die serving Kuwait, but many of them were also jam-packed in facilities where health conditions were pathetic at best.
Many citizens either boasted about charitably feeding the migrant masses or channeled at them an anger fueled by a declining job-market, while some went as far as resorting to direct physical violence.
In March, three separate incidents happening on consecutive days involved Kuwaiti citizens striking immigrant laborers. One of these incidents happened during a charitable food-drive, where the worker, after taking a beating, ran away and likely did not have access to food that day.
To believe that these anti-immigrant elements in Kuwaiti society and the acts of violence endured by foreign workers are simply random, spontaneous combustion is most foolish. These are symptoms not caused by the pandemic but by a more silent, more dangerous affliction—bigotry, which alongside the coronavirus outbreak, threatens to inflict more severe damage on Kuwait’s economy.
A “mass exodus of skilled workers” will leave Kuwait and its financial future “particularly vulnerable.”
Researchers Shaikha Al-Hashem and Geoffrey Bartin argue a “mass exodus of skilled workers” will leave Kuwait and its financial future “particularly vulnerable,” citing these workers are either leaving or planning to leave in an article published by London School of Economics’ Middle East Centre.
Added to a decreasing workforce, the National Bank of Kuwait predicts a whopping 40 percent deficit to the gross domestic product, the biggest economic hit since the first Gulf War, Bloomberg reported. Comparatively, International Monetary Fund data shows no other country in the world is expected to surpass a 30 percent deficit this fiscal year.
Behind the Mask and Moniker
Kuwait prides itself on being a “Nation of Humanity,” with the United Nations both citing the country as such and rewarding its humanitarian accomplishments. Though, as recent events clearly show, nations cannot be measured by international charity and political posturing alone.
Indeed, as the ancient Roman adage goes, “from a single crime know the nation,” and so Kuwait’s treatment of its stateless people throughout this chaos is a failed litmus test—especially when their humanity is reduced as a substitute machinery for a departing workforce.
“If Egyptian workers transfer $37 billion to their homeland tax-free, then why not replace them with the Bidoon [stateless] and circulate that money in Kuwait,” one Twitter user wrote, sparking the ire of citizens and stateless alike, with a posted picture of a stateless child selling watermelons on a sidewalk.
“I’m telling you, if their youngest sits on a roundabout selling watermelons under 50-degrees-Celsius heat, then so can their eldest,” they added.
For Asseel Al-Ragam, a professor of architecture at Kuwait University, bigoted rhetoric reflects a system fueling “social divisions and current biases,” she wrote in a tweet. Al-Ragam detailed the housing history of Kuwait which constrained its stateless population to be “shanty dwellers” and “singled out” non-Kuwaitis with “no access to housing loans and denied [them] the right to own land.”
“Kuwait’s stateless and a great portion of immigrants suffer the same hatred and systemic oppression African-Americans face in the U.S.”
Speaking to Inside Arabia, Mohammad Al-Yousef, a research associate at the Gulf State Institute, said: “Kuwait’s stateless and a great portion of immigrants suffer the same hatred and systemic oppression African-Americans face in the U.S.”
“The stateless, more than immigrants, are suffocated by the state under a legal umbrella,” Al-Yousef continued. “Manipulating both into being work horses and erasing their identities is a reflection on Kuwait’s mis-governance and an apathetic society.”