Citizenship and Civil Rights in Kuwait

Against the Current, No. 31, March/April 1991

interview with Mahmood Ibrahim

Mahmood Ibrahim was born in Ramallah, Palestine. He teaches Middle Eastern History at Cal Poly Pomona and is the author of Merchant Capital and Islam (University of Texas Press, 1990). He has been active in the Palestine Aid Society and was the chair of the Department of History at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank from 1985 to 21989. John Barzman interviewed him for ATC. He spoke with him in early January, just a few days before the war began.

Against the Current George Bush has presented the Emir of Kuwait as the legitimate ruler of a sovereign nation state, but most people know very little about Kuwait. For instance, what is its population?

Malunood Ibrahim: Kuwait’s population figures, like those of almost all states of the Arabian Peninsula, are a state secret Saudi Arabia has never taken a census because the results would be too politically sensitive. But while the precise figures are hidden, half the “foreign” Arab population is Palestinian, with the rest Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqi.

ATC: The emir of Kuwait’s immigration policy has been described as “population engineering.” What were the criteria used in recruiting workers?

M.I.: The majority of people in Kuwait were not given citizenship. Arabs born outside the country could never become citizens, no matter how long they lived there. To work in Kuwait one needed to obtain the sponsorship of a Kuwaiti citizen, company or agency. Without such sponsorship one ran the risk of not being employed. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a great demand for teachers, skilled workers and professionals, from carpenters to oil workers.

The children of these workers, born in Kuwait, had to leave the country when they turned eighteen, until they could find a Kuwaiti sponsor of their own.

ATC: Was the recruitment of Filipinos, who were Catholic, Sri Lankans, who were Buddhist, and Pakistanis, who were Muslim but did not speak Arabic, a deliberate attempt to prevent the formation of collective action?

M.I: I would assume they were simply cheaper. Sri Lankans and Filipinos were recruited mainly for domestic work or very unskilled jobs (waiters, street cleaners). Their families were barred from Kuwait. These workers were at the total mercy of the household or agency that sponsored them.

I know of cases where immigrants had to turn over their passports to the agency and found it almost impossible to move about Kuwait. Completely dependent on their household, they were subjected to abuse and women to sexual harassment. Any complaint was answered by, “Here’s your passport, get out of the country.” This happened not only to Sri Lankans but to Palestinians.

1989 Estimates of Kuwaiti Population

Total Kuwaiti citizens: 400,000
Arab residents of Kuwait 1,000,000
Others: 700,000
Total population: 2,100,000
Male Kuwaiti citizens with the right to vote: 40,000
Female Kuwaiti citizens with the right to vote: 0

ATC: What was the status of Palestinians in Kuwait?

M.I.: They could never become citizens. Like other non-citizens they depended totally on the goodwill of their Kuwaiti sponsors. The Palestinian family was constantly threatened with disruption because of the rule that children had to leave the country when they turned eighteen.

When Palestinians were able to organize in Kuwait it was despite the efforts the regime. Any political activity, even by Palestinians on Palestinian issues, was considered eye-opening and subversive by the Kuwaiti and other regimes of the Arab peninsula. But the Palestinian question is very sensitive in the Arab world and these regimes could not publicly oppose the formation of a Palestinian state.

ATC Did the Kuwaitis and Saudis support a particular tendency among the Palestinians?

M.i.: The Saudis and Kuwaitis always supported the right wing of the Palestinian movement. Saudi Arabia was so anticommunist that it only recently began to consider the possibility of recognizing the Soviet Union. Kuwait established relations with the Soviet Union only during the Iran-Iraq war. Palestinians who professed any kind of Marxist leanings were hounded as heathen or atheists. Kuwait supported Islamic tendencies, in particular what is called “conservative moderate” Islam, which could easily ally with the United States.

ATC: What was the status of other civil rights I under the emir?

M.I.: The status of women in Kuwait was within the range of situations found in the Arab world, which of course has variations. Palestinian women, for example, are more advanced in terms of their rights than peninsular women. Peninsular women are not even be visible. They have to veil themselves. This is not an Islamic veil but a traditional male supremacist veil.

The emir tried to portray Kuwait as a liberal monarchy. it is true that in the early 1980s, when Beirut sank into civil war and publishing declined in Lebanon, there was a tendency for more books and periodicals to be published in Kuwait But this was quite limited and within the context of a general lack of freedom.

ATC: Would you say that repression could be kept to a minimum because population engineering preemptively eliminated the slightest possibility of dissent?

M.L: Yes Palestinians and others were supposedly only there to work. Kuwaitis told them, “You have a job, what more do you want? If you don’t like it here, get out.”

ATC: Could you describe Kuwaiti parliamentary opposition?

M.i.: There was a group of people in Kuwait who could vote for a parliament. Like other parliaments in the Arab world, it reflected the wishes of the ruler rather than being an independent policy-making body. But even this parliament was suspended and the constitution abrogated by the emir. Some members of parliament thought they should have some measure of independence from the emir, but the fact that they met in Saudi Arabia and did not even discuss issues like citizenship shows their real loyalty is to the regime Why not grant citizenship to the people who have really built this country for the past fifty years?

ATC: Would you say that Kuwaiti citizens are hostile to the Palestinians? A recent item in the L.A. Times reported that the U.S. army had recruited 500 Kuwaitis to act as interpreters during the planned invasion of Kuwait to help identify Palestinians by their accents.

M.I.: They may be hostile in the sense that the very presence of the Palestinians is a radicalizing factor, an eye-opener for the Kuwaitis who wish to be free, and for the other workers. Most Palestinians who come to this area have a tradition of wanting to organize both trade unions and political groups. But any attempts to form unions are squashed harshly.

The Kuwaitis and others want to make the Palestinians pay for everything. About 150,000 Palestinians have had to leave Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates since the August 2 invasion because of the pressure on them from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. They have lost nearly $10 million because they have had to flee the country and because of currency devaluations. The Palestinian middle class in Kuwait was wiped out by the Iraqi invasion and is very resentful.

The Palestinians have been used as scapegoats and have been accused by both parties of acting as the fifth column? For instance, at one point after the invasion, the PLO may have asked the Iraqi government to allow the Palestinians in Kuwait to be armed. This was to protect themselves because they are now at the mercy of the Iraqis and Kuwaitis and they will be at the mercy of the United States if an invasion occurs. The Iraqi government refused.

ATC: So Saddam Hussein has refused to arm the Arab masses?

M.i.: Of course. If he were truly on the side of the masses he would have called for elections the minute he entered Kuwait. But he does not trust the Arab masses. Even now, he has not called on the Arab masses to rise; he talks only in vague terms of jihad.

Another important thing to point out is that the current Kuwaiti resistance against Iraq is largely the work of the CIA. There is an active battle going on in Kuwait, with cars being bombed and similar incidents, organized by the CIA. As a result, Palestinians are suffering in both Iraq and Kuwait, and they will continue to suffer unless the Kuwaiti parliament says, “These are our brothers and sisters who have been living with us for fifty years.” But that is unlikely.

ATC: The recent demonstrations by Saudi women driving cars brought the existence of an opposition to the attention of the Western media. How fragile is the Saudi regime?

M.i.: if it was fragile, it no longer is because the United States will do everything in its power to keep the Saudi monarchy in place. As the Gulf crisis unravels, many regimes will be destabilized, but the last to go will be Saudi Arabia because it is so valuable to the United States.

Saudi Arabia also has a lot of immigrant workers. The image that the Saudis and the Kuwaitis don’t do anything themselves is really accurate. The Saudis, though, are beginning to invest more in their own country and educate their citizens more. So there is a conscious effort to close the gap. Nevertheless, they have so much wealth why should they bother?

What little opposition that existed in Saudi Arabia was confined to the ideological level: student groups, some even Marxist or nationalist, and fundamentalists, whether Shiite or Sunni, who see through the Saudi claim to represent Islam, like those who were crushed during the uprising at the Mecca Mosque.

Perhaps women demonstrators hoped to use the presence of U.S. journalists to get attention and had illusions that the United States would support the opposition; little did they know! The United States wants to preserve the status quo.

The code of behavior issued by the U.S. army to its troops reflects the fact that the Bush administration wishes to avoid even the slightest embarrassment to the Saudi family.

ATC: What is the relationship between the existing Arab states and Arab unity and self-determination. Are there, for instance, any real Kuwaiti national particularisms?

M.i.: Not really. If you are looking for something distinguishing Kuwaitis from Saudis, Bahrainis or Iraqis there are really no differences in terms of features, history, general outlook, accents, word use or religion. After 1961, when Britain made Kuwait an independent state, you must have had some people who started identifying as Kuwaiti as opposed to Iraqi, Bahraini or Saudi.

There are differences between Egyptian and Palestinian accents and the Kuwaiti. The distinctions correspond to regions rather than to existing states.

This is a question that intellectuals and activists in the Arab world are going to have to face: What is the value of nationhood, or rather “existing slate-ism” as opposed to Arab unity and identification with the Arab nation? The invasion has brought it back to the fore. Should unity be achieved by force, as Saddam Hussein seems to propose? Should it be pursued at all? What is the meaning of belonging to a state?

ATC: Can distinctions be made between existing Arab states in this respect?

M.L: It is strange for me to be talking about Jordan in this sense. As a monarchy, Jordan has always been a state that did not require the consent of its people. But in the last year and a half, since the elections, parliament has begun to reflect the sentiments of the people, though the government not yet. There is a separation between the prerogatives of the parliament and those of the monarch. The march toward true parliamentary democracy is not yet over in Jordan, but a step in the right direction has been taken.

ATC: So you’re saying that these situations are fluid—an originally illegitimate regime can evolve into greater legitimacy, and an originally legitimate regime can turn against the people.

M.i.: Exactly. I don’t believe there is any legitimate regime in the Arab peninsula. That includes Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The Gulf states are artificial creations. They exist only thanks to outside labor, including Palestinian labor. All white-collar and blue-collar jobs are performed by outsiders. The traditional crafts of these areas, like diving for pearls, continue as before, with divers suffering the worst abuse. These peninsular states have no foundation in democracy. Their talk about “tribal democracy” only means that someone can come in and petition the sheikh for something.

A Brief Chronology of Kuwait

7th to 13th centuries: Part of Arab empires are based in Damascus and Baghdad
13th to 19th centuries: Part of Iraqi province under Turkish rule
1899: Britain detaches and establishes protectorate over Kuwait
1921: Iraq gains independence but Britain maintains Kuwait as protectorate
1950s: Oil boom begins
1958: Iraqi nationalist revolution begins
1961: Britain gives Kuwait independence with Emir al Sabah as its ruler
1976: Kuwaiti parliament suspended by Emir
1980-88: Emir funds Iraq in war against Iran
1985: Eight political detainees die under torture
1986: Parliament suspended by Emir
1990: Iraq invades

Yemen, on the other hand, is more legitimate, though in Egypt political freedom is only a facade. The ruling party wins about ninety-five percent of the seats and the “opposition” is a very loyal quiet opposition. The real opposition is one or two percent, and easily crushed.

ATC: What makes Yemen more legitimate than Saudi Arabia?

M.L: Well, though the unity of North and South Yemen was achieved very quietly and was perhaps orchestrated by the ruling elites in both countries, it does represent, to some extent, the wish of the Yemeni people and of the Arab people as a whole.

You could have a similar unity between the Sudanese and the Egyptians, or between the Tunisians, Algerians and Moroccans. You could have four regions: the Maghreb, Egypt and Sudan, the Fertile Crescent and the peninsula. Variations within a single region are easier to overcome than in the entire Arab world. Once these divisions are overcome you can unite the whole nation. This is a two-layered and very long process though.

This is not a whim of intellectuals. Though it is difficult to imagine at this point, and therefore seems fanciful, it is correct and the sentiment does exist. The objective conditions and the many contradictions of the Arab world have always made the realization of this dream difficult. But the dream could become the reality under the right conditions.

ATC: What are the long-tens prospects for these states?

M.L: The speed of their evolution will depend on whether the war will become a shooting war. If there is away, you can be sure that the regimes which collaborate with the United States will be destabilized. The weakest is probably Egypt which will be the first to go, followed by Syria. The last to go would be Saudi Arabia but in the process the monarchy of Jordan would disappear. The whole crisis will bring the role of the Arab masses and concern for individual rights back to the fore.

If there is no war, the balance of forces in the region will also shift. The same destabilization process will take place, but not as soon and suddenly as with a war. The nineteenth century in the Arab world was one of colonial domination. In the twentieth century the Arab world has attempted to free itself from colonial domination, but with Israel and other factors interfering. The twenty-first century will see the fight for individual freedoms become much more pronounced in the Middle East.

March-April 1991, ATC 31