In April, the U.S. State Department published its annual human rights report on Kuwait. Of course, Foggy Bottom releases human reports on every country, including each country in the Middle East. The Kuwait report highlighted serious human rights violations, including allegations of torture, dehumanization of certain demographics, and weak enforcement of laws that ensure human dignity for all Kuwaitis and expatriates living in the country. Some of these are well-founded. State security forces often curtail freedom of assembly, and less often restrict freedom of expression. The most important finding of the report, however, dovetails with what the local press and citizenry in Kuwait have called attention to for years: holding those in power accountable. Many in Kuwait believe that elites benefit from preferential treatment before the law. Combined with general governmental ineffectiveness, the public’s views of political leaders have worsened in recent years.
Violations in Kuwait
The report also recognizes increased hostility toward expatriate communities from the local population—particularly during the spread of COVID-19 and the societal tension brought about by the pandemic. Indeed, some unmarried expats were evicted from residential buildings and neighborhoods to make space for families. Some faced basic administrative obstacles, like the rejection of driver’s license renewal applications. The report acknowledges that the Kuwaiti authorities have work to do to address the scourge of human trafficking and equal labor laws for expatriate workers—many of whom face maltreatment and even sexual assault by their Kuwaiti employers.
Often, the information cited in the report came from the Kuwaiti government itself. The Kuwaiti Parliament’s Human Rights Committee has repeatedly accused the Ministry of the Interior and other government entities of complicity in human trafficking. The Human Rights Committee has also drawn from the testimonies of local organizations, which have complained of poor monitoring and reporting mechanisms for human rights violations.
The report also discusses the status of the stateless (Bidoon) population, which is estimated to number about 90,000 persons according to United Nations statistics. The stateless population lacks access to the judicial system to address their concerns or remedy their complicated legal situation. This failure inhibits the integration of the Bidoon into Kuwaiti society.
Liberties in Kuwait are Better than Other GCC States
The report shines a light on the issue of gender equality in Kuwait. While gaps in opportunities and freedoms for women persist, Kuwaiti women have made significant strides in society in recent decades. Women in Kuwait have occupied high positions running corporations, financial institutions, and ministries for more than three decades. However, as the report finds, Kuwaiti women lack the ability to pass citizenship to their children.
Despite these critical issues, the report still casts the Kuwaiti government in a decent light, especially when compared to the region’s other states. A close examination of the U.S. report reveals a far more moderate and hands-off state in Kuwait. The U.S. report does not report tyrannical behavior from the government in Kuwait. Unlike in most of the Arab world, where citizens and expatriates face arbitrary arrest and a fundamental lack of privacy due to state surveillance, Kuwait exhibits a general respect for the freedoms of the residents of the country.
Yet, the report misses two important and unique situations that help contextualize the human rights situation in Kuwait. First, the number of expatriates living in Kuwait is double the number of citizens. This is a serious security concern for the authorities. Despite human rights violations against the expatriate community by the state and certain employers, the expatriate and native populations live side-by-side in peace. Indeed, many expatriates prefer to remain in Kuwait rather than move to other Gulf states because of the freedom of expression and economic opportunities in this country that do not exist elsewhere in the region.
Second, though Kuwait seeks peaceful mediation to resolve differences domestically and regionally, the historical memory of the Iraqi invasion still colors Kuwaiti domestic political life. Hence, the Kuwaiti authorities remain hesitant to embrace foreign-born populations and pursue more progressive naturalization and immigration processes. Though the State Department’s Human Rights Report offers helpful and constructive criticism of human rights in Kuwait, such context is necessary to grasp the unique circumstances of the country.
Indeed, the fact that civil society organizations and parliamentary watchdogs like the Human Rights Committee can report these violations bodes well for the future of human rights in Kuwait. Transparency remains a key factor to reform, as reported violations often spur legislative, legal, and normative changes. Furthermore, the influence of important states pushes Kuwait toward a future where human rights and equality among citizens and expatriates are enshrined in law. Foremost among these is the United States, which is a strategic partner of Kuwait.
The U.S.-Kuwaiti relationship is extraordinarily close, and even predates U.S.-led efforts to liberate Kuwait in 1991. Of course, it remains important for the United States to monitor the status of human rights in Kuwait and promote American values. At the same time, Kuwait should recognize the importance of the United States to the country’s security and attempt to implement reforms that bring Kuwait in line with the values of the United States, thereby strengthening the partnership.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.