Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah attends a parliament session at the national assembly in Kuwait City last month. (Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images)

Kuwait for Kuwaitis

Anti-expat sentiment builds as the country tries to boost its private sector with home-grown citizens

A Kuwaiti parliamentarian is advocating for legislation that would halve the number of non-citizens living in Kuwait to approximately 1.67 million by 2024. It is apparently another step in what’s being called “Kuwaitization,” an ongoing effort by the government to make Kuwaiti nationals more predominant among the population.

According to Kuwait’s Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI), foreign expatriates make up about 70 percent of the population, which is approximately 4,750,000. These foreigners hail mostly from India, Egypt and Bangladesh, with Muslim-majority countries making up six of the top 10 nations of origin.

Prof. Shaul Gabbay, director of the Denver-based Global Research Institute, a consortium of social scientists who conduct research on world issues, told The Media Line that the Kuwaiti government was experiencing a surge in nationalist sentiment.

“Expats [in Kuwait] are perceived to be the quintessential representation of foreign value systems,” Gabbay explained, adding that the government was “walking a very fine line between growing Muslim-fundamentalist sentiments and its strong ties with the West.”

Courtney Freer, a research fellow at the London School of Economics’ Middle East Center, told The Media Line that many Gulf countries have relatively few citizens and require foreign manpower to perform necessary jobs. Some of these countries require relatively large expat populations, and in Kuwait, this has bred resentment.

“There is an idea amongst some Kuwaitis that the massive expat population is making their lives worse. They feel that their standard of living should not be compromised by the large number of expats,” she said.

Parliamentarian Safa Al-Hashem, the only female member of the Kuwaiti parliament – and sometimes referred to as the “Donald Trump of Kuwait” – proclaimed last year that expats “must be charged for everything, for medical services, infrastructure and…for the air they breathe here.”

In recent years, Kuwait has increased the price that expats pay for government-provided health care and has banned the recruitment of college-educated foreign professionals under the age of 30. Only expats in certain professions are permitted to drive, and the cost to obtain a license can be prohibitive.

“As life becomes more expensive, it’s less incentive for people to go to Kuwait,” Freer said.

The London School of Economics researcher contends that increasing the financial burden on foreigners is one way for the Kuwaiti government to sustain the current level of benefits it provides to citizens without feeling the full economic impact.

“Austerity measures can be reduced if expats pay,” she told The Media Line. “It’s a way of kicking the can down the road. Instead of taxing citizens, they put fees on expats.”

According to the Global Research Institute’s Gabbay, “these hardships… do not apply to all, and some expats enjoy much better conditions than others. Hence, you find totally opposing reviews from expats about their lives in Kuwait.”

Yet according to the 2018 Expat Insider Survey conducted by InterNations, a networking platform for current and potential expatriates, Kuwait is the worst place for expats to live. The survey looked into such areas as quality of life, personal happiness, leisure options, and travel and transport.

The Kuwaiti government has also instituted a quota on the number of foreigners in certain private-sector industries. Starting in June, those who hire additional foreign employees must pay a monthly premium of approximately 300 Kuwaiti dinars (about $990) per work permit.

“There is a push to get [Kuwaiti] nationals into private industry,” Freer said. “This is also part of a movement to diversify the economy away from oil.”

Currently, the vast majority of Kuwait’s private-sector workers are foreigners, with only 4% of these jobs held by Kuwaitis. On the other hand, Kuwaitis dominate the public sector, where they account for almost three quarters of the work force.

“There is an expectation amongst Kuwaiti nationals that they will acquire high-paying, comfortable, public-sector jobs,” Freer said, adding that this was problematic because the government can’t keep expanding the sector.

She also argues that the anti-expat push is part of regional trend, saying it is heard for the most part in Kuwait because, unlike other gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, there is an elected parliament and more public debate.

“This is not,” she said, “an issue unique to Kuwait.”

(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies)

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