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Social Inequality in Kuwait

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According to social anthropologist Anh Nga Longva, one of the most astute observers of contemporary Kuwaiti society, Kuwaiti society as a whole has been raised to a higher material level with the coming of oil. The age-old class differences have not been erased in the process, because a new underclass, consisting of migrant workers, has simply been added beneath the whole existing structure of pre-oil Kuwaiti society. With the coming of independence, the subordinate position of the latter group was formalised by nationality laws. A practically impassable boundary has thus been created between ‘citizens’ – those lucky inhabitants who acquired full citizen rights, including all material and immaterial benefits of the new welfare state – and the less fortunate ‘non-citizens’, who were left with limited civic rights and economic opportunities.

Because the nation’s citizens have always viewed the majority of non-citizens as a cultural and political threat, their presence has served to soften and partly to cover up the social, ethnic and sectarian divisions within the citizen group itself. The presence of a large group of ‘foreign’ inhabitants without full rights of citizenship has thus helped keep pre-oil social structures and divisions in place. Again according to Longva, it may even have hindered the emancipation of local women, for the perceived threat from large numbers of foreigners with ‘loose morals’ has rationalized the old patriarchal notion that decent local women are in constant need of protection – and thus oversight – by their male relatives. Likewise, because most citizens seem to agree that the nation’s demographic balance should be tipped in their favour in the near future, the image of Kuwaiti women as valuable but passive biological reproducers has been reinforced, to the detriment of a more modern view of women as valuable and active economic assets.

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