Migrant workers from far-flung and often less economically developed countries come to the oil-rich Kingdom of Kuwait in search of their pot of gold. However, the reality on the ground is often far removed from this ideal; so what exactly is happening on the ground?
By Rosanna J Rafel
The concept of citizenship relates to both a person’s legal status and their official rights and duties. Migrant workers in the Gulf States are refused citizenship, which can result in severe legal and human rights costs. Yet in the oil-rich Gulf state of Kuwait, one of the largest importers of foreign workers in the Gulf, 50% of the total population consists of migrant workers (Longva 1999: 28). The Marxist idea that capitalism has created a surplus in population (Gustafsson 1979: 38) can help to explain this fluctuation of people to the Gulf in search of employment opportunities which they do not have access to in their home countries. Furthermore, the Kuwaiti state has a codified constitution, and it is clear that safeguards put in place to help those migrant workers without citizenship are simply flouted by the employers, recruitment agencies, and the state authorities themselves. None of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, including Kuwait, have signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Their Families, which was created in 1990.
Kuwait is ruled by the al-Sabah family dynasty, in which the Emir chooses the Prime Minister who then selects the government; meaning that those who are within these networks have power. Consequently, migrant workers are left out of the system of citizenship completely. The concept of a ‘rentier’ state; a state that functions economically on foreign rents, such as those who profit from oil income, who are autonomous from their own people, does not need to abide by the concept of ‘no taxation without representation’ as they do not rely on taxation to function financially (Anderson 1987: 9). The Kuwaiti state does not need to gain the migrants’ population’s approval in order to govern; and the state has even less interest in attempting to placate non-citizens such as migrant workers.
The legal status of citizenship within Kuwait has purposefully left migrant workers without adequate protections. The Kuwaiti Constitution has deemed that there should be justice, liberty and equality between citizens; thus not including migrant workers who are not considered to be citizens (Kuwait Constitution, Art. VII). This suggests that legally migrant workers cannot ask for a fair justice system, freedom or an equal status. However, the constitution also emphasises equality and the Islamic principle of ‘human dignity’ for all, regardless of race, origin, language or religion (Kuwait Constitution, Art.XXIX, Cl.2). It is clear that the government does not adhere to this principle of human dignity for non-citizens. Positive rights and duties that support citizens are not available to migrant workers. These include free education, healthcare, housing and social rights (Longva 2000: 183). Therefore, within the constitution and laws of Kuwait, migrant workers are not entitled to basic rights and liberties, which have been set out within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1947. This exclusion of migrant workers in Kuwait from many of the legal rights linked to citizenship can result in many human rights abuses, including physical consequences.
The infamous Gulf-wide kafala system of sponsorship enacted in Kuwait in the 1959 Alien Residence Law, has solidified the discriminatory legal status held by migrant workers in Kuwait (Motaparthy 2010). This system has ensured that only citizens from other Gulf Cooperation Council countries, or those employed by these citizens through a kafeel, a sponsor, are allowed to reside in Kuwait (Longva 1999: 28). This has created an economic and social dependence of the migrant worker to