Unlike the majority of protesters in the Arab Spring, protesters in Kuwait have rallied against their government on issues anchored in basic human rights rather than on material needs. Instead of trying to topple the government, the focus has been on checking the authority of the ruling family and holding it accountable to its citizens. Arising from these efforts is the plight of the “Bedoon” – the stateless – of Kuwait, who despite living there for decades, hold no nationality. The Arab Spring protests of 2011 invigorated their demands for citizenship but after months of rallying and campaigning, what progress have they achieved?
A small Gulf country with just 3.7 million citizens, Kuwait has a median income of over USD 48,000, making it the 10th richest country in the world in 2012. Indicative of its wealth, Kuwait provides its citizens with unparalleled benefits including free education, free healthcare, virtually guaranteed employment, and subsidized housing, electricity, and food. In 2011, in celebration of Kuwait’s 50th anniversary of independence and 20th anniversary since the Iraqi occupation, the Emir gave 1,000 Kuwaiti dinars, or USD 3,500, combined with 14 months of free food rations, to every citizen.
However, excluded from this relative privilege are around 180,000 Bedoon who claim Kuwaiti nationality but have not been able to obtain it for the past 50 years. Because Kuwait does not officially recognize statelessness in its constitution, Bedoons have been termed “illegal residents” and found themselves discriminated against in many ways; they cannot obtain marriage licenses, driver’s licenses, or birth certificates, which resultantly makes owning property, traveling outside the country, or legally establishing a family, fairly impossible. Over time, their precarious position has contributed to increasing prejudice, poverty, and growing hopelessness for the future.
The matter of statelessness in Kuwait began in 1959, in preparation for establishing independence from Britain. At that time, Kuwait instituted a new law setting out parameters of eligibility for Kuwaiti nationality, and government authorities attempted to identify and register all residents of Kuwait. However, many residents, primarily nomads living on the outskirts of Kuwait, fell through the cracks. Many failed to register themselves and their families because they were unaware of the nationality drive, or they were illiterate, or they simply failed to put stock in the importance and necessity of gaining citizenship. And indeed, for a time, the Bedoon benefitted from all the same economic and social benefits as Kuwaiti citizens except for the right to vote. But between 1960 and 1987, the government began implementing laws that restricted the rights of the stateless and when the outbreak of the 1980 war between Iran and Iraq threatened internal stability in Kuwait, the Bedoon fell victim to the atmosphere of mistrust. In 1990 with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Bedoon were accused of being Iraqi accomplices even though it is estimated that as many as one third of the people killed by the Iraqi army were Bedoon. This community was then deprived of their rights to education, health care, employment, and any form of documentation. Since then, the Bedoon have been living in slum-like conditions on the outskirts of Kuwait, where they suffer numerous human rights violations.
In February 2011, as Arab Spring protests started spreading throughout the Arab world, Kuwait’s Bedoon also organized public demonstrations. But unlike the rest of the protesters in the Arab Spring, these protesters did not demand the overthrow of the regime but rather, they sought constitutional reforms that would give them their basic rights for citizenship and participation. Thousands of Bedoon began gathering on Fridays, making a concerted effort to maintain peaceful protest by handing out flowers to the special forces guarding the demonstrations, offering tea and coffee to the police, and cleaning up garbage after the gatherings. Nonetheless, State security forces cracked down on these demonstrations, dispersing protestors with tear gas, smoke bombs, and water cannons, beating them with batons, and arresting dozens of protesters. Many women, children, elderly and disabled were detained for weeks on end. In one instance, security forces violently dispersed around 300 protesters in Taima, northwest of Kuwait City, and arrested 14 of them. The Ministry of Interior said protesters had committed “shameful acts,” such as trying to “burn tires and block roads.” But local rights activists told Human Rights Watch that the gathering was peaceful. The detained Bedoon were subsequently freed after nearly two weeks.
By mid-January, Kuwait’s Interior Ministry had issued statements threateningdeportationfor any Bedoon – or any of their family members – who were caught demonstrating. The government also threatened dismissing stateless protesters who serve in the military or police and evicting them from public housing projects. Multiple warnings were issued cautioning Bedoon not to gather in public spaces, citing Article 12 of the 1979 Public Gatherings law, which bars non-Kuwaitis from participating in public gatherings.
Eventually, with the potential for protests to spiral out of control, Kuwait’s government began offering the prospect of reform. In March 2011, the head of the Bedoon committee, Saleh al-Fadhala, announced a package of eleven rights attained for Bedoon’s that included the right to civil documentation, education, health care, and work. The government went even further when in January 2013, it issued national identification cards to 80,000 stateless Bedoons. But amongst critics, these reforms were perceived as being short-term concessions aimed at circumventing further protests; although basic rights are important, the nationality issue must be addressed to ensure an adequate and fair resolution to the underlying problems of poverty, exclusion, and statelessness in Kuwait.
Reports show that in the last 20 years, only 16,000 citizenship applications for Bedoon have been approved. Following the Arab Spring protests, interior minister Sheikh Ahmad Al Humoud Al Sabah, said they would start to naturalize some of the Bedoon, with as many as 34,000 stateless people
qualifying for citizenship under Kuwait’s nationality law. Still, this number falls considerably short of the estimated 180,000 Bedoon that live in Kuwait and so far, implementation has been slow. In March 2013, two years after the protests started, Kuwait passed a law to naturalize 4,000 Bedoon. State Minister for Cabinet Affairs, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah al-Sabah, said the government hoped it would serve as a “foundation for resolving the Bedoon problem”. However, these naturalizations have yet to happen and after the bill was issued, the wording was changed from 4,000 “Bedoon” to just 4,000 “foreigners,” which could essentially exclude the Bedoon or at least limit the number of them that eventually receive citizenship.
Today, the statelessness issue remains one of the most hotly contested in Kuwait. On one hand, local activists condemn the humanitarian consequences of Kuwaiti government policies towards the Bedoon. On the other hand, some Kuwaiti citizens have protested against naturalizations that have already occurred, expressing that they would have had the effect of bolstering particular tribal constituencies. Regardless, government inaction towards the plight of the Bedoon means that there are yet to be policies instituted that work towards remedying the problem. Thousands remain deprived of their basic political, economic, and social rights, limiting their ability to contribute to Kuwaiti society. As Mona Kareem, a Bedoon rights activist stated, Kuwaiti officials continue to emphasize that naturalization is “a sovereign decision and a right for the state to decide in accordance to its higher interests.” But instead, what must be clarified is that the naturalization of Bedoon does not need to be a sovereign decision, but a systematic process that meets the basic needs and demands of the Bedoon themselves.
All links accessed on 27/05/2013
Khouri, Rami, “Kuwait’s Historic Civil Disobedience,” Agence Global
, (20/4/2013) http://www.agenceglobal.com/index.php?show=article&Tid=3015
 Saudi Gazette, “Qatar richest country in the world in 2012”, (14/3/2012) http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&contentid=20130314156732
 McLean, Jesse, “Life in Kuwait Too Good a Deal for Revolt,” Toronto Star, (16/2/2011) http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2011/02/16/life_in_kuwait_too_good_a_deal_for_revolt.html
 Refugees International, “Without Citizenship – Statelessness, discrimination, and repression in Kuwait”, (13/5/2011) http://refugeesinternational.org/sites/default/files/120511_Kuwait_With_Citizenship_0.pdf
 Human Rights Watch, “Prisoners of the Past – Kuwaiti Bedoon and the Burden of Statelessness”, (06/2011) http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/kuwait0611WebInside.pdf
 BBC, “Kuwait MPs Pass Law to Naturalize 4,000 Stateless Bidun”, (20/3/2013) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-21857431
 Refugees International, “Without Citizenship – Statelessness, discrimination, and repression in Kuwait,” op.cit.
 Kareem, Mona, “Is Kuwait Serious About Bedoon Naturalization,” Al Monitor, (27/3/2013) http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/03/kuwait-bedoon-naturalization.html#ixzz2SulNbvk7
 Khouri, Rami, op.cit.
 Refugees International, “Kuwait: Bedoon Nationality Demands Can’t Be Silenced”, (3/5/2012) http://www.refintl.org/policy/field-report/kuwait-bidoun-nationality-demands-cant-be-silenced
 Human Rights Watch, “Prisoners of the Past – Kuwaiti Bedoon and the Burden of Statelessness”, op.cit.
 Bedoon Rights, “Human Rights Watch: 180 Bedoon were Tried”, (28/2/2013) http://www.bedoonrights.org/2013/02/28/human-rights-watch-180-bedoon-were-tried/
 Hilleary, Cecily, “In Kuwait’s Arab Spring, Bidun Fight for Citizenship”, Middle East Voices, (23/1/2012) http://middleeastvoices.voanews.com/2012/01/in-kuwait%e2%80%99s-arab-spring-bidun-fight-for-citizenship/#ixzz2T5htCK2C
 Bedoon Rights, “Human Rights Watch: 180 Bedoon were Tried,” op.cit.
 Valdini, Claire, “Kuwait Issues 80,000 ID Cards to Stateless Arabs,” Arabian Business, (20/1/2013) http://www.arabianbusiness.com/kuwait-issues-80-000-id-cards-stateless-arabs-486541.html
 Refugees International, “Without Citizenship – Statelessness, discrimination, and repression in Kuwait”, op.cit.
 Valdini, Claire, op.cit.
 BBC, “Kuwait MPs Pass Law to Naturalize 4,000 Stateless Bidun,” op.cit.
 Amnesty, “Kuwait: Small Step Forward for Bidun Rights as 4,000 ‘Foreigners’ granted citizenship”, (21/3/13) http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/kuwait-small-step-forward-bidun-rights-4000-foreigners-granted-citizenship-2013-03-21
 Human Rights Watch, “Prisoners of the Past – Kuwaiti Bedoon and the Burden of Statelessness,” op.cit.
 Kareem, Mona, op.cit.