Protests Spread to Kuwait Over Rights of Stateless

After half a century of lacking citizenship, Kuwait's 100,000 undocumented residents are demanding equality


Kuwaiti security forces wielding water cannons and smoke bombs dispersed a gathering of 1,000 stateless Arabs in the Kuwaiti city of Jahra on Friday. The protest and crackdown are the first signs that the political unrest that has spread across the region has begun to infiltrate Kuwait.

Unlike in Bahrain, where battle lines have been drawn along religious divisions, Kuwait's demonstrators are members of the nation's class of stateless residents. Referred to collectively as the bidoun -- from the Arabic phrase bidoun jinseeya, or 'without citizenship' -- these stateless Arabs claim to be the descendents of nomadic herders who failed to register for Kuwaiti citizenship in 1961 when the new Gulf state was formed. Unable to secure passports, access to public education, or legal employment, this group of roughly 100,000 stateless residents has posed an increasingly complex set of security and human rights questions for the Kuwaiti government.

Last spring, I met with Abdullah al-Roumi, Deputy Speaker of the Kuwait National Assembly, to discuss the government's bidoun policy. Kuwait's leaders maintain that these stateless residents are citizens of neighboring countries and that they have deliberately obscured their identity to benefit from Kuwait's generous welfare system.

"This is not an issue of civil rights," al-Roumi insisted. "The bidoun are trying to secure the benefits of the citizens of Kuwait: a pension, a plot of land, and guaranteed employment." Seated in the corner of his large, opulent office in the National Assembly building, al-Roumi reached for a long list of bidoun names, separated by country. "Here, these bidoun are all Syrian," he said, gesturing down the page. "And these are Egyptian, Jordanian."

Human rights agencies have criticized the government's stance, arguing that Kuwait has an obligation to protect the basic rights of its stateless residents, regardless of nationality. Last year, the United Nations human rights review board raised concerns over Kuwait's treatment of the bidoun. Domestic organizations have petitioned the government to extend civil rights to the nation's stateless residents: "They should have the right to birth certificate for their children and death certificate for their dead," argues Amr al-Tameemi, president of the Kuwait Human Rights Society. "They should obtain education for their children. These basic civil rights must be granted."

Most bidoun reside in tin-roof shacks in dusty neighborhoods at the outskirts of Kuwait City -- conditions that are jarringly squalid for a country that enjoys one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world. This economic and social marginalization has left the bidoun vulnerable to recruitment from terrorist organizations and foreign intelligence agencies: last May, a stateless resident living in the Kuwaiti neighborhood of Jahra was arrested as a member of an Iranian spy ring, and in 2005 three bidoun recruited by al-Qaeda were involved in a shootout with Kuwaiti police.

The government's efforts in the late 1990s to cull the ranks of Kuwait's bidoun have also led many stateless residents to procure illegal or counterfeit passports from impoverished nations such as Somalia, Bolivia, and Dominica --further complicating the government's efforts to monitor its stateless population. Abu Abdullah, a stateless Arab living in Jahra, bought a counterfeit Somali passport for 500 Kuwaiti dinars (around $1800), and registered with Kuwaiti authorities as a citizen of the war-torn and fractured East African state.

"The authorities, they say 'why don't you leave? Why do you spend your life in Kuwait with nothing?'" says Abu Abdullah. "But we have no passport. We can't leave. This is our only country."

Photo by Yasser al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty