Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Kuwait argues over Demographic Imbalance

Maids from the Philippines, employed by a Kuwaiti recruitment agency, wake up in a dormitory to start their working day, in Kuwait city, Kuwait. Photo Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photo

We should tax their remittances, they should pay more for electricity, we need Kuwaiti-only hospitals and some of the expats we simply have to kick out. Such is, in 2017, the rhetoric of a group of parliament members of Kuwait, where expats make up about 2/3 of the population.

Restoring the demographic balance seems their highest priority of this group, which insists on a discussion about the ‘expat situation.’ The debate is set for the beginning of February 2017.

What is the problem? That is not entirely clear. It is true that expats are forming the majority of the population, and is it is somehow understandable that being outnumbered in one’s own country may feel unsettling. But that’s more an emotional – ‘racist’ or ‘Trump like’, as some Kuwaiti opinion-makers call it – problem, than a material one.

It is not a historical problem either, but rather something new. Before the discovery of oil in the country and the boost it provided to the economy, Kuwait used to be a small maritime nation, with an open view to the world and a mixed population. It is besides the scope of this article to explore why this has changed, but writer Farah Al-Nakib convincingly argues in her book ‘Kuwait Transformed: A History of Oil and Urban Life’ that it has to do with post-oil urban planning, which effectively segregated Kuwaiti citizens from foreigners by resettling them in separate neighbourhoods.

Leaving aside where the anti-expat sentiment exactly came from, some parliamentarians have turned it into a financial issue. Kuwait is suffering from the decrease of oil prices and must find a way out of its one-sided economy. The main idea is that reducing expats would – at least partly – help. Again, it is not entirely clear what this argument is based upon.

No figures are presented and it is difficult to understand how expats would be a financial burden to the country. It is true that all expats have near free access to health care and don’t pay any taxes. But that’s about it – and they also are not allowed to own their properties or invest directly in Kuwaiti companies. If anything, they spend money, create economic activity and keep the country running.

Furthermore, none of the expats came to Kuwait to just try their luck; they were all brought in by Kuwaiti employers/sponsors, a point often made by the many Kuwaiti’s, including many MPs who are openly opposing the current anti-expat climate:

They also invariably point out that Kuwait could not manage without its expats. That may not be entirely true. To a certain extent, it could. There is an unknown amount of jobless migrant workers who were lured by dubious agencies to Kuwait under the pretext of getting a job, which then never materialised. The agencies make their money, but the workers end up jobless and without the means to fly back home.

‘It would better for them if the government actively sent them away,’ says a well-educated Kuwaiti, ‘at least they should be given a plane ticket to fly home. Poor people.’ Many agree on this and the government is trying to put an end to the practices of the agencies, especially those for domestic workers. A law was passed in January 2017 regarding the employment of domestic workers. But so far, not much has changed.

In any case, it would not restore the demographic balance. After all, this matter only concerns a small group of people. The same can be said for low-paid workers who do have a job, but share it with too many people. It is not uncommon to witness the activity of, for instance, a tree being cut by six people, most of them standing around the tree, watching. Streets are cleaned manually by large groups of street cleaners and some restaurants seem to have more waiters than customers.

From a purely economical view, the country can do without these unemployed or hidden-unemployed workers, because they would not need to be replaced. But they still are only a small part of the expat population. What about the hundreds of thousands of expatriates who work as construction workers, teachers, domestic workers, doctors, administrative staff, accountants, and more?

They are dispensable, too. Under one condition: Kuwaiti’s should replace them when they leave. Now, that is unlikely to happen any time soon. Either Kuwaiti people do not want to do the jobs at stake, or are not qualified to do them (yet). A Kuwaitization program, aimed at attracting more Kuwaitis to the private sector, has mostly failed over its ten years of existence, and many educational institutions offer programs that do not match the market-demand.

Hence, apart from the telecom and banking sector, most job sectors show little to no improvement when it comes to numbers of Kuwaitis employed. According to Kuwait’s Central Statistical Bureau, many Kuwaitis, up to 58 per cent, prefer a few-hours-a-day-job at a ministry rather than working long hours for the same salary at a private company.

This deadlock situation, which the government has created, now turns out difficult to break. For the time being, it seems unlikely that the government will indeed drastically cut the amount of expats. On the short term, at least, it seems very unlikely – if only because the country would run aground.

Whatever its outcome, the debate in the Kuwaiti parliament will be heated. The issue has caused a divide between parliamentarians, especially after one of them called expats ‘settlers’, a term usually reserved for Israeli’s occupying Palestinian land. Comparing expats to Israeli settlers, the opposing MPs said, is one step too far.

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