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A woman is pushed on a wheelchair as she arrives at a Kuwaiti health ministry containment and screening zone for coronavirus disease for expatriates returning from Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon, in Kuwait City on March 15, 2020. (AFP)

How Covid-19 Stress-Tested Relations between Residents & Citizens in Kuwait

As Kuwait announced its first COVID-19 case on February 24, it stress-tested relations between citizens and residents. The discovery of the virus simultaneously occurred with Kuwait’s National and Liberation Days (February 25th and 26th, respectively), causing many residents and citizens to be caught off guard while abroad on holiday.

Two weeks after the initial public response to the virus’s arrival in Kuwait, all the recorded cases were Kuwaiti nationals until March 9 when the first resident tested positive returning from a trip to Azerbaijan.[1] This announcement immediately increased xenophobic rhetoric against residents and regulations were swiftly enacted that have caused both confusion and tension among Kuwaiti nationals and residents alike.

The circumstances created by this crisis have reinforced the institutionalized process of spatial and social segregation between citizens and non-citizens. The relationship between the non-Kuwaiti residents (low-wage workers, Bedoons & expatriates)[2] and the citizens in Kuwait during the coronavirus pandemic has become tense due to structural issues related to governance, sociopolitical dynamics, and civil society relations.

Confusion of Policies During Travels and Visas

Government policies and the way in which they portray residents can have adverse effects on the national sentiment towards minority groups. Policymakers enacting disconcerting policies coupled with the manner in which public messaging surrounding coronavirus was conveyed has caused disproportionate vulnerabilities for residents.

The first confusing policy emanated from The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and required any residents returning to Kuwait from ten selected countries to present a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test certificate at the airport counters.[3] However, due to the inability of those traveling to apply for this type of examination, the DGCA canceled their policy just two days later.[4] This act was followed later with the announcement the airport was closing for commercial flights, thus leaving many residents stranded outside Kuwait and unable to return home.

Another policy that caused more bewilderment was from the Minister of Interior (MOI) which announced an amnesty period for any resident overstaying their visa to leave Kuwait without paying violation fines and return to their home country.[5] However, this decision was not adequately coordinated with their respective governments.[6]

Government Should be Vigilant of Messaging

Disingenuous or not, government etiquette and practices have caused messaging that negatively affected many of Kuwait’s residents. One illustration of this is when members of parliament (MPs) were skeptical about the government’s tactics and the official number of reported cases. These MPs raised the question of whether there was foreign political pressure behind the cancelation of the PCR test.[7] In response, the government announced a major medical examination requirement for residents of selected nationalities who had arrived in country after February 27. A total of 23,000 tests were conducted across all of Kuwait’s governorates[8] with no major rise in the number of cases at the time.

The pandemic’s impact on the residents was not fully and directly addressed during the daily government briefing and updates, which compounded xenophobia against specific nationalities. From the start of the outbreak in Kuwait, the government has conducted daily press conferences to announce the number of new COVID-19 cases, but also to communicate any new regulations such as the imposition of curfews.

However, in these announcements, officials have used nationality as a means of identification. For example, during the daily Ministry of Health (MOH) briefing, rather than announcing the total number of cases, they break down the statistics by nationality.[9] Similarly, in the daily announcement shaming curfew violators, the MOI identifies individuals as either ‘Kuwaiti’ or ‘Other Nationality.’[10] This practice over time has inadvertently caused xenophobic social media posts against certain nationalities to be deported from Kuwait or banned from specific jobs such as home delivery drivers.[11]

Systemic Economic Inequalities became Salient

For residents in particular, circumstances associated with COVID-19 crisis have afflicted them disproportionately since their livelihoods and living conditions render them more susceptible to the pandemic’s adverse consequences. Although residents are among the main contributors to the economy, they are the most affected by the social distancing measures implemented by the government such as the shutdown of public places, the public sector, and private businesses including restaurants, gyms, salons, and malls.[12],[13] All of these restrictions directly impact residents’ sources of income, particularly the low-wage workers who run most of the affected businesses.

A revealing example of the unbalanced socio-economic impact of the pandemic is how bank practices such as loan deferments and temporary relief were instituted. A decision from the Kuwait Banking Association (KBA) about refinancing and rescheduling loans did not include residents. It was first announced that only Kuwaitis can reschedule loans and credit card payments for up to six months.[14] Later, KBA amended their decision to include stateless (Bedoon) and children of Kuwaiti mothers while remaining residents would be handled on a case-by-case basis.[15],[16]

The most vulnerable are the low wage workers who live in densely populated areas such as Jleeb Al Shuyoukh near Kuwait International Airport, which is home to an estimated 450,000 people dwelling in condensed dorm-like quarters as small as 8 square kilometers and in some circumstances can consist of 20 persons in a single room.[17] [18] In the current environment, the government has issued a full lockdown of these areas where there has been a spike in workers that have tested positive for COVID-19.[19]

Civil Society A Vital Player During the COVID-19 Outbreak

A positive facet of the COVID-19 outbreak has been the vital role-played by civil society and co-ops.[20] A total of 41 civil society organizations and charities launched a national call for donations to assist families in need, including citizens and residents alike, which collected KWD 9.1 million ($29.2 million USD) in just 16 hours,[21] although it was unclear how the funds would be distributed.

Similarly, co-ops have called for volunteers to join and help with food deliveries, organizing, and more. Initially, the call for volunteers only pertained to Kuwaitis located within the same area as the local co-op since the law does not allow non-citizens to register as members of a co-op or civil society.[22],[23]

With the rise of cases among low-wage workers, the co-ops have laid them off and replaced them with volunteers.[24] The decision only lasted for two days before it was suspended and workers laid off were relocated to stay in nearby schools.[25] These legal and institutional confinements demonstrate the lack of agency among non-citizens in the decision-making processes.

Despite these limitations, there are informal groups actively working behind official scenes to help different resident communities.[26] These informal groups are rarely acknowledged by official media or in connection with ‘official’ civil societies. This is due to the disconnect between the formal and informal spaces and requiring them to hold official registration permits from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MOSAL). However, in times like these, blending the two systems (informal groups and state institutions) together is essential in reaching the different communities within the resident spectrum.[27]

The Way Forward

Kuwait has been facing an active and dynamic situation that will continue to evolve as the health crisis persists and socio-economic effects spread. The spread of COVID-19 in Kuwait is a reminder of the xenophobia present across Kuwaiti social and institutional realms. Kuwait must readjust the ill-balanced exercise of power in the socio-political context between citizens and residents.

The kafala, or the sponsorship system between residents (who make up 70% percent of Kuwait’s population) and citizens underscores the deeply embedded social tensions that have risen to the surface as side effects of the pandemic. Kuwait must reexamine the laws on residency, sponsorship, civil society, co-ops, and others. The pandemic has shed unfavorable light on this overdue change, which demands a truly inclusive, collective, transparent, and accountable process.


Abdullah al-Khonaini completed his M.A. in “Power, Participation, and Social Change” from the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University. He co-founded ‘Raqib50’, an online parliament watch that holds Kuwaiti parliamentarians accountable by making their voting records accessible to the public. His research interests are the role of informal and formal civil society, grassroots movements, means of participation, and postcolonial identity and belonging in the Gulf.

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


[1] Aljarida (2020). First case not from Iran. https://www.aljarida.com/articles/1583688102415813800

[2] The term “residents” in this article will be used respect to the non-Kuwaiti population as a whole and the term “low-wage workers” in regards to specific residents who are often labelled ‘migrant workers’ and who are segregated spatially and socially within the greater context of society. Saraswathi, V. (2020). Structured to Perfection: Racism in the Gulf. Migrant-Rights Organization.

[3] Alhurra (2020). Kuwait requires PCR test from residents flying back. Retrieved from https://www.alhurra.com/kuwait/2020/03/03/

[4] Arab Times (2020). Cabinet Suspends Coronavirus Free Certificate for Arrivals – Confusion Mounts. Retrieved from https://www.arabtimesonline.com/news/cabinet-suspends-coronavirus-free-certificate-for-arrivals-confusion-mounts/

[5] Gulf Business (2020). Kuwait to allow repatriation flights, amnesty underway for expats without valid visas. Retrieved from https://gulfbusiness.com/kuwait-to-allow-repatriation-flights-offers-amnesty-for-expats-without-valid-residencies/

[6] Middle East Eye (2020). Egypt to cover quarantine costs of returning nationals after uproar. Retrieved from https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/coronavirus-egypt-cover-quarantine-expenses-nationals-returning-abroad-after-uproar

[7] Aljarida (2020) MPs are skeptical about the announced numbers. Retrieved from https://www.aljarida.com/articles/1583949728695075000/

[8] Kuwait Times (2020). Medical Examination of expats continues for second day. Retrieved from https://www.timeskuwait.com/news/medical-examination-of-expats-continues-for-second-day/#

[9] KUNA (2020). New 23 cases in the past 24 hours. Retrieved from: https://www.kuna.net.kw/ArticleDetails.aspx?id=2882349&language=ar

[10] MOI (2020). Total Number curfew violators. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/Moi_kuw/status/1250680697880301568?s=20

[11] Comments/replies from the MOH daily tweet on the cases and their nationalities. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/KUWAIT_MOH/status/1250718977841598464?s=20

[12] Aljarida (2020). Partial curfew is under discussion. Retrieved from https://www.aljarida.com/articles/1584291648161393700/?utm_source=whatsapp?utm_source=whatsapp

[13] Ibid.

[14] Aljarida (2020). KBA announced payment reschedule for stateless and children of Kuwaiti mother. Retrieved from https://www.aljarida.com/articles/1585392564867223500/

[15] Ibid.

[16] The Bedoon represent a stateless population while the children of Kuwaiti mothers are considered residents on official papers.

[17] Alkhaledi K. (2020). Jeleeb AlShuyookh the chaotic city. Retrieved from https://www.alaraby.co.uk/society/2017/7/11/

[18] Aljazeera (2020). Corona has sparked the migrant workers issue in the Gulf. Retrieved from: https://www.aljazeera.net/news/politics/2020/4/10/

[19] KUNA (2020). MOI are ready to provide the locked down areas with necessities. Retrieved from: https://www.kuna.net.kw/ArticleDetails.aspx?id=2884598

[20] co-ops are shareholder cooperative societies run by an elected board to provide services such as grocery markets, offices, and shops in each residential area.

[21] Aljarida (2020). Faz’at Alkuwait collects 9.1 million in 16 hours. Retrieved from: https://www.aljarida.com/articles/1585480863356478500/?utm_source=whatsapp?utm_source=whatsapp

[22] Aljarida (2020). Volunteer in Co-Ops, Retrieved from: http://m.aljarida.com/articles/1585845737220277500/

[23] Al-Nakib F. (2016), Kuwait Transformed: A History of Oil and Urban Life. California: Stanford University Press

[24] Alkhaleej (2020). Kuwaiti Charities are a great tool against Coivd-19. Retrieved from: https://alkhaleejonline.net/

[25] Ibid.

[26] Kuwait Times (2020). Stories of people living under lockdown in Mahboula, Jleeb. Retrieved from: https://news.kuwaittimes.net/website/stories-of-people-living-under-lockdown-in-mahboula-jleeb/

[27] Wilkinson, A. (2020). The Impact of COVID-19 in informal settlements – are we paying enough attention?. IDS, UK,

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Abdullah al-Khonaini completed his M.A. in “Power, Participation, and Social Change” from the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University. He co-founded ‘Raqib50’, an online parliament watch that holds Kuwaiti parliamentarians accountable by making their voting records accessible to the public. His research interests are the role of informal and formal civil society, grassroots movements, means of participation, and postcolonial identity and belonging in the Gulf.

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