Asian labourers work in a street in Kuwait City on September 10, 2008
Asian labourers work in a street in Kuwait City on September 10, 2008
Last updated: April 29, 2013
Mohammad F. Almutawa: Blame it on the foreigners

“Scapegoating the expats for Kuwait’s troubles is the flavor of the month“

Following the opposition’s boycott of last year’s election and the lowest turnout in election history, the Kuwaiti parliament is fighting hard to establish itself as credible and legitimate. The parliament held special sessions to discuss important issues such as road traffic, deteriorating healthcare, and the country’s unstable balance sheet which is dependent solely on the price of oil. Their conclusion for all these issues is to blame it on the expatriates.  

Kuwait is home to 2.6 million expatriates, foreigners who have voluntarily moved here. Kuwaiti nationals make up only a third of the total population, most blue collar and many white collar jobs are handled by the expats. According to the latest government data, non-Kuwaitis make up a staggering 83% of the nation’s labor force. An oil executive jokes about the makeup of the labor force, saying that if Kuwaitis didn’t show up for work oil output won’t be affected.

Nonetheless Kuwait’s newly elected parliament has singled out expatriates as the main cause for traffic congestion, poor healthcare and inflated budgets.

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In the past two months, several MPs have put forward draft laws targeted against expats who make up two-thirds of the country’s population. The first was a recommendation by MP Nawaf Al-Fuzai to give priority to Kuwait nationals over expats at healthcare facilities, and although it was brushed off as ridiculous at first, many people were shocked when the ministry of health decided to implement it as policy. It is part of a greater ministry scheme to institute racism, as the government gets ready to tender Kuwait Health Assurance Company, a project that will build three hospitals for expats, thus ultimately segregating healthcare in the country.

During a parliamentary session on reducing vehicle street traffic MPs suggested raising car registration fees and fuel prices on foreigners, meaning that you had to present ID at the gas station. Thankfully, the recommendation didn’t pass.  Another recommendation included deportation of anyone who commits “serious traffic violations.” 

However, some other policies targeting foreigners have been put in place. One that already went into effect is the tightening of rules on expats wishing to get a driver’s license, including a requirement that you must be a legal resident for at least two years, have a university degree and earn at least KWD400 (US$1,400) per month. Moreover, in another attempt at combating the demographic imbalance, expats can no longer enter Kuwait on a visitor visa then switch to a working one.

The biggest surprise came from the newly appointed Minister of Social Affairs who said in a statement that Kuwait is looking to lower its expat population by 1 million citizens over the next ten years. Minister Thekra Al-Rasheedi believes her idea is achievable at a rate of 100,000 expat per year.  A committee set up by the minister is looking into possibly setting up quotas based on nationalities, as well as term limits for expats working in Kuwait; low skilled laborers get a 5 year limit, medium skill get 7 and highly skilled get 10 years. Another committee, this one in parliament, is looking into cutting subsidies and introducing VAT on foreigners.

Such comments and proposals have angered many. The Kuwait Trade Union Federation called the government’s approach “random” and “indicates a lack of government.” An unnamed senior official at the Ministry of Social Affairs said that the minister’s statement “lacks clarity’ as the ministry doesn’t have the power to carry out some of what the minister is suggesting, including cancelation of work permits and deportation.

It remains unclear whether an unknown force is pushing a xenophobic agenda or if it’s a series of unrelated acts. Sadly though, it seems that scapegoating the expats for the country’s troubles is the flavor of the month. For politicians, expats are easy targets because they have no political representation, and risk deportation for partaking in any political activity. Back in November 2012, Kuwait deported 20 other Egyptians for “illegal gatherings” as they were members of Egypt’s Constitution Party and celebrated the Islamic New Year.

Thankfully, the new parliament hosts some veteran parliamentarians, like Adnan Abdulsamad, who know a few things about legislation. Dubbed “the voice of the foreigners” by one newspaper, Mr. Abdulsamad spoke critically against the recommendation to remove gas subsidies on foreigners, telling parliament that foreigners already pay for so much that such increases could risk the departure of families from Kuwait. The recommendation didn’t pass, however, xenophobia in the Kuwaiti legislative assembly lives to fight another day.

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