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Expatriates’ Rights in Kuwait between Rentier Economy and Civil Society

The relationship between rulers and ruled stands at the forefront of the socio-economic environment in oil-rich countries like Kuwait.  This ‘rentier’ relationship is usually typified by a patron-client relationship between elites and the citizenry. Benefits for and rules on both parties in this relationship provide social and political stability. As a result, much has been written about the rentier state, discussing the various factions and groups involved, as well as the model’s long-term impact on economic development.

But what about the other clients in this paradigm? In the case of Kuwait, the non-citizen expatriate workers who make up 68.2% of the population of the country, do not fit into the ‘rentier’ relationship.

The rules may be widely different for these two different clients, but the patron remains the same. While expatriate workers are not politically enfranchised, they play a significant, but silent, role. Rentier states that require large quantities of foreign labor must maintain a certain equilibrium with foreign residents that resembles the relationship with their citizens. Steady jobs, free healthcare, and subsidized food, water, and electricity are all  part of the social contract. Kuwait, by law, guarantees basic amenities to all through food cooperative societies and price controls on basic staples such as flour, oil, bread, and rice sold at other private and public food outlets.

Exacerbating Social Divisions

Scholars of the rentier model point to how the distribution of oil wealth leads to divisions between certain factions in society, as the primary opportunities for enrichment are granted by individuals to others within their group. While their presence is heavily criticized by the general citizenry, expatriates hold the most critical posts in power plants, oil rigs, and maintenance services. In addition, they operate many essential departments in banks, public healthcare, other financial institutions, or large companies, often as managers and CEOs. As the largest single demographic within Kuwait, expatriates find themselves at odds with the entire citizenry—one of the rare forms of citizen unity in a society divided by sectarianism and tribalism. The increasingly populist Kuwaiti Parliament exemplifies the backlash against the expatriate population. Former parliamentarian Safa Al Hashem stated that expatriates “must pay even for air they breathe” and the parliament almost weekly announces rafts of legislation aimed at punishing expatriates. Reforms that make it difficult to  receive a work permit without a university education or other ageist policies, get equal medical care, obtaining driver’s licenses, or increase the risk of deportation for mental health issues, are just some of the announced reforms that target expatriate populations.

Perhaps more than at any other time, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the shift in the fortunes of expatriates. Aside from being blamed in the media for the spread of the virus, expatriate neighborhoods that were quarantined and set behind checkpoints faced the harshest social and economic burdens of the pandemic. Perhaps unsurprising in retrospect, the utter lack of care or willful ignorance of many in the business community, including the country’s fastest-growing frozen yogurt chain and one of its top burger chains, was stark. Expatriate workers went without food or pay for months—many for over half a year. From May to June 2020, many had no contact with the outside world, unable to pay for a phone line. Suicides within expatriate communities have increased , and the full costs of this period have yet to come to light. This negligence is systematic.

On top of these actions rang a cacophony of tabloid headlines and announcements that seemed to celebrate the pandemic as an opening to rid Kuwait of expatriates. Media outlets in Kuwait likened expatriate workers to an infestation, often using the word wafidin (expatriate) as a slur—a problem to be removed, a source of the country’s ills—to be resolved only with their punishment and violent removal.

Disparities in the treatment and stereotypes of expatriates are wide. Some nationalities are considered “submissive,” and are often celebrated, while other nationalities are stereotyped as unclean, corrupt, and unwelcome. Westerners and citizens of developed states are treated as an entirely different category and remain largely unaware of the plights of their peers.

Threats and xenophobia are commonplace and any expatriates who raise their voice, even on the most innocuous topic, such as complaining about the weather, can be threatened in an extra-legal fashion depending on the temperament of their kafeel (sponsor). On social media, especially Twitter, expatriates are treated with contempt and are threatened by citizens with deportation, or worse.

No Help from Civil Society

Where are the Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), the protectors of human rights and ethics, in a country often lauded as home to a vibrant civil society? At the organizational level and as advocates, Kuwaiti CSOs are inert, ineffective, and insulated from the realities of the situation for expatriates. Listless and shallow statements or a short-lived Twitter campaign of support are the best to be offered to expatriates in Kuwait. Instead, most CSOs conduct a series of endless, repetitive workshops that serve a merely symbolic role, rather than a constructive use of organizational resources.

CSOs struggle to transition from identifying a problem to implementing an actual plan. Instead, endless platitudes cover up inaction over issues that have persisted for decades. CSOs focus on “raising awareness” and often straw-man the government, blaming elites for their inaction while taking little criticism for their inefficacy. Some CSOs also promote misleading narratives that minimize severe violations of human rights or lack of government oversight as “cultural misunderstandings,” or as the responsibility of the embassies of the affected expatriates, instead of the country of residence.

But the main factor that contributes to the ineffectiveness of CSOs in Kuwait is that they are jealously guarded by elite citizens whose long tenure in charge of these organizations is only overshadowed by their failure to move beyond petty squabbling, personal enrichment, and individual ambitions. As a result, human rights advocacy is often simply a hobby, not a serious endeavor. As rentier activists, these elites can afford to wait. Those who need protection cannot.

Most international organizations such as the International Organization of Migration and International Labor Organization are incapable of making tangible changes to this pattern. Similarly, most embassies do not carry out any serious policies to protect their citizens from abuse and mistreatment, instead focusing on building close relationships to activists who offer them a potential connection with elite political circles. Aside from concocting slogans or launching short-term initiatives, they remain disinterested in human rights or protecting their citizens. A notable exception is the Philippines government that stands out in its efforts to protect its expatriates.

The gross negligence and mistreatment of expatriates have led to two trends. The first was a mass exodus of many expatriates in 2020 and 2021. Upwards of 200,000 were officially announced to have left, but the number is probably far greater; over 280,000 were trapped outside during the pandemic and lost their residencies. The second, more wide-reaching trend is the long-term decline in hiring. Despite the fact that labor shortages across all sectors in Kuwait continue to damage an already weakened economy, and salary inflation has made it difficult for businesses to maintain operations, the government continues to reduce expatriate worker numbers. During the pandemic, the state oil industry paid the highest price. A confluence of issues, including oil field depletion, delayed projects, reduced demand, and surging labor costs, have stopped critical upstream and downstream projects. It has also become more challenging to push companies to bid on tenders, and a lack of inspectors, maintenance personnel, and qualified engineers to maintain current operations continue to hamper production.

A Better Way

Legally speaking, the tools to protect expatriate populations in Kuwait are all there. Free speech in Kuwait for “every person” is guaranteed by Articles 36 and 37 of the Kuwaiti Constitution, and expatriates could set up organizations with the right local partners to help build a better tomorrow. An essential first step would be for the government to crack down on online racism and xenophobia. It should also enforce existing legislation aimed at protecting human rights in Kuwait. Article One of Kuwait Law No. 19/2012, the National Unity Law, criminalizes hate stating that “any hate or contempt, to any category of the community, such as to raise sectarian or tribal disorder or to propagate ideas calling to the excel of any race, group, color, origin, religious faith, gender, kinship, broadcast, or publish any content by any means of expressing may lead to the imprisonment for a period of seven years and a fine that may reach one hundred thousand dinars or by either of these two penalties.”

Before COVID-19, a steady stream of employees coming from abroad canceled out the high turnover of mistreated employees. However, the pandemic, widespread populist rhetoric and the parliament’s Kuwaitization policies have drove labor away. As Kuwait seems to be rejecting any pretense of being an FDI-friendly environment, neighboring countries such as the UAE have already begun moving in the opposite direction, offering permanent residencies, 100% ownership for foreigners, and standardized e-government, all of which encourage investors and expatriates to move  to the UAE.

Furthermore, Racism and xenophobia against expatriates have become a national security crisis, damaging Kuwait’s reputation worldwide at the very moment it needs to improve its relationship for the sake of the country’s future without the revenues from fossil fuels. Furthermore, removing the specter of populist laws, such as the unconstitutional demographic law that was struck down earlier this year, is paramount to repairing relationships with expatriates.

The Kuwaiti government needs to start taking its relationships with its largest demographic more seriously. Expatriates are more important to its economy than anything other than Kuwait’s natural oil resources. No street remains clean, oil well, hospital, power plant, or desalinization facility operational, or shelf stocked with medicine or food without them. Moreover, protecting expatriates’ legal freedoms preserve continued economic growth. And in the rentier state, the distribution of rents to the most important clients creates political stability. It is time Kuwaiti policy reflected this reality.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Geoffrey Martin is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of Toronto, entrepreneur, and economic analyst based in Kuwait. His focus is on political economy, food logistics, and labor law in Kuwait and the wider GCC. He tweets @bartybartin

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