Ahead of the Kuwaiti Parliament’s opening session on Oct. 24, the coalition of tribal and Islamist MPs that forms the current opposition and holds nearly half of Parliament’s 50 seats has already articulated its agenda which includes plans to expand the rights of the bidoon (from “bidoon jinsiya” or “without citizenship”), tribal residents of Kuwait who lack citizenship or voting rights. Tribal ties between the bidoon and Kuwait’s tribal citizens, however, can explain why opposition MPs are just now taking up the issue. In a political environment dominated by discussions of austerity measures in response to the low price of oil globally and the taxation of South Asian expatriates, attention to the bidoon issue keeps tribal concerns politically relevant and engages constituents.
The bidoon exist across the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. In Kuwait, they are members of tribal groups who came from Saudi Arabia between the ’50s and ’80s seeking employment in the country’s rapidly developing oil economy. Some members of these tribes were granted citizenship during this period in order to bolster the ruling family’s tribal support base and grow the size of Kuwait’s security forces. Others were left out of this bargain because they were not part of politically important tribal groups, failed to convince the government they had lived in Kuwait long enough to become citizens, or came to Kuwait to serve in its military and remained in the country after being discharged.
In 2015, Kuwait’s government had registered 110,729 bidoon in Kuwait. These bidoon do not have access to many social welfare benefits the state provides its citizens, and many live in poverty. Since Kuwait’s population is only about 4 million, most of them not Kuwaiti, the idea of granting the bidoon citizenship has always been highly sensitive political issue.
This is even more the case since Kuwait’s tribes have moved from supporting the government to being in the opposition after electoral changes from four votes to one vote per person threatened to reduce their representation. A sudden increase in the number of tribal citizens could potentially upset the balance between tribal and urban constituencies. Urban hadhar (merchant families) in Kuwait collectively support the ruling Al-Sabah family and often see tribal politics as a reversion to traditional loyalties over constitutional politics.
Despite the issue’s fraught political and social nature, in 2015 Kuwait considered a plan wherein Comoros, in exchange for financial aid, would grant citizenship to 34,000 bidoon, who would remain in Kuwait. The plan never went into effect, but the fact it was ever considered illustrates the pressure on Kuwait’s government to find a solution. Yet since 2015 there has been no major plan to solve the bidoon issue. Some bidoon have even left Kuwait, heading for France and Greece as part of larger migrant flows from the Middle East into Europe.
The recent spate of statements from members of Parliament’s tribal opposition urging Kuwait’s government to remedy the bidoon issue is largely driven by political expediency. On Sept. 16, Kuwait’s government agreed to issue identity cards for bidoon that would allow them to access Kuwait’s public health care system and serve as a form of state-provided identification. In an attempt to build upon this political momentum, some MPs have pressured the government to do more. These MPs neither represent the bidoon nor come from the liberal bloc, which sometimes advocates for personal liberties and civil rights. Rather, the importance of tribal and kinship identity in Kuwait’s politics is driving these MPs’ statements.
Tribal kinship is an essential component of Kuwaiti politics. Transnational tribes like the Anazzah, Mutair, Dhafeer and Shammar serve as an important form of political organization in a country where political parties are illegal. The leaders of these tribes are sheikhs who wield personal influence with members of the tribe as well as Kuwait’s leadership, including the emir.
Such influence is critical during times of political contention. For example, when tribe members protested government policies in 2011, Kuwait’s leaders reached out to tribal sheikhs as critical intermediaries to allay tensions. Before elections in Kuwait, tribes often hold primaries, consolidating the votes of tribe members around single candidates in order to ensure the tribe’s interests are represented in Parliament. While these primaries are illegal, the power and political influence of Kuwait’s tribes provides a powerful incentive for the government to turn a blind eye.
While Kuwait has prosecuted some tribes for holding primaries, most face no legal penalty. In the 2016 elections, some tribe members went so far as to publish footage and results of the primaries on Twitter. Moreover, tribal identity can determine access to certain jobs and facilitating requests within a somewhat slow government bureaucracy.
While the bidoon as a constituency cannot vote, they come from these important tribal groups whose MPs must support policies that appeal to voters in these groups, and granting health cards to the bidoon offers an opportunity to focus on their issue more broadly. Promises by MPs to advance the status of the bidoon appeal to these tribes’ citizens who can vote. Promises to advance the bidoons’ social, political and economic status addresses the needs of disadvantaged members of the tribe. They also direct the state’s financial and social resources toward the tribe, raising its status among the plethora of other tribes and political constituencies in Kuwait. This higher status in turn gives the tribe more bargaining power and political influence vis-a-vis the ruling family.
Concern over the bidoon is not driven solely by a social justice agenda, as further evidenced by Parliamentarians’ rhetoric toward Kuwait’s South Asian expatriate population. Kuwait has considered not renewing expats’ residency permits and has placed a new fee on expats who seek medical care at public hospitals, which has reduced the number of expats seeking public health care treatment by 30 percent.
MP Waleed al-Tabatabai, who has otherwise been outspoken in favor of taxing expats, has called on the government to ensure the fee does not harm the poorest among them. Yet other MPs, such as Safaa al-Hashem, support the new fees. MP Khalid al-Otaibi has even suggested an additional KD1,200 ($3,970) annual fee on expats with driver’s licenses.
Neither expats nor bidoon have political representation in Kuwait. However, the recent focus on bidoon rights contrasts sharply with policies toward South Asian expatriates, who are taxed and assessed fees despite being one of the country’s most economically vulnerable populations. The difference is that bidoon are enmeshed in the same tribal structures as citizens whereas expats are seen as primarily a source of cheap foreign labor.
In raising the bidoon issue, MPs are navigating the complex array of national and tribal identities held by their constituents. Understanding the interplay between tribal and bureaucratic politics is crucial for assessing what Kuwait’s coming Parliament session may bring. Tribal MPs are likely to keep up pressure on the government to remedy the bidoon issue, which, while important, has few solutions agreeable to all parties. At a time of austerity, many MPs represent constituents who will be reluctant to spend Kuwait’s wealth on non-citizens. At the same time, it remains to be seen whether the government will engage tribal MPs on this issue in an attempt to appease or coopt them, or attempt to refocus on its austerity plans.
Scott Weiner is an adjunct professor of Political Science at George Washington University. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 24, 2017, on page 7.