When the Nationality Law was enacted in Kuwait in 1959, Article 25, paragraph (d), excluded tribesmenwho entered Kuwait overland from where they used to come to spend their business as usual. Those who settled were known as “bidoons”, which according to the Executive Committee for the Affairs of Illegal Residents ” means ‘stateless’. There are many objections on lining these people to this committee and describe their presence as being illegal, because that paragraph (d) refers to the legitimacy of their presence on the land of Kuwait.
As evidence of the legitimacyof their residency, the Kuwaiti government was recruiting Bedoons in the army, police forces, oil companies and in various ministries. Thus, their generations penetrated into all parts of the state, including the most sensitive ones. In 1987, an amendment to the Nationality Law was repealed. Article 25 was repealed but there was a challenge to the constitutionality of the amendment because it occurred during a period of suspension of the Constitution. In any case, it could not be applied to the Bidoon residing in Kuwait before the said amendment, in accordance with the general legal rules.
In an interview with Sheikh Fahd al-Ahmad, he mentioned the “northern” clans that fought with Sheikh Mubarak al-Kabir, “the founder of modern Kuwait” since the Battle of the Sarif in 1901, and the battle of Jahra in 1920 against the Brotherhood. He named the tribes of Ziad, Bani Hussein (Husseini), Sharafat, Al-Badur, and Alawarin. These are the current Bidoon ancestors. The vast majority of them are of the tribes who came from the northern of Iraq, some of them belong to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Some families are of Iranian origin. All of them fled to Kuwait before oil was discovered and before independence.
According to CIVA data, the population of the unclassified population in Kuwait amounted to 220,000 in June 1985. Their official population declined to about 118,000 according to statistics dated from April 1991, while an estimated number of 120 000 Bidoons remained in Kuwait at the end of the 1990s, 55% of whom are under the age of 15 years. The average dependency ratio in their families is seven, on average, with roughly 87 per cent below the average level and illiteracy increasing after 1990.
A large number of them are also immigrants. According to a human rights activist in the Bidoon case, the total number of registered persons in the Committee was of 135,000 in 2008. More than 15,000 have not been registered for various reasons. Some of them have not accepted to be categorized as illegal residents where they see themselves as citizens, and some other still have his files at the ministers’ cabinet for naturalization, and those the Bidoon committee are not concerned of, and there are those who fear registration even though they have old legal documents, due to this declaration’s consequences.
Until 1970, Bidoon people were counted among the Kuwaiti population, which was of half a million. Then they were taken out of the census, and the number of Kuwaitis reached 300 000. The main reason for this change is the regulation of oil production. OPEC was counting the share of each country according to the number of its citizens, and the integration of the Bidoon in the census was beneficial to the Kuwaiti authorities. After OPEC switched its system to quotas for each country, the Kuwaiti population dropped in Kuwait. However, since independence, the Kuwaiti authorities have treated Bidoon as Kuwaitis except for the enjoyment of political rights. Until the mid-1980s, they hadn’t suffered from discrimination in jobs and rights.
The beginning of transformations:
In the mid-1980s, the Kuwaiti government’s policy began to change towards the Bidoon. In 1986, a secret political committee was set up to manage their affairs. The details of its work were not known until 2003 when Al-Tali’ah published its first meeting. It was presided over by Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad, and members included former Interior Minister and current Crown Prince Nawaf Al-Ahmad. The committee warned the population of the impact of the Bidoon on internal security and proposed policies to impose restrictions on them and withdraw all previous privileges granted them. It also sought to prevent newspapers from publishing their complaints, and aimed to isolate them systematically.
For example, they were removed from public schools, under the pretext of reducing government costs and “improving the status of the Kuwaiti student”, and it was difficult for them to attend private schools for reasons related to high costs. The committee recommended separating them from government jobs and restricting their presence in the private sector, as well as concentrating them in specific areas: Al Sulaibiya, Taima and Al Ahmadi. All of these measures were followed by complex procedures which made their conditions of implementation difficult. They eventually lead to restrictions on their right to housing and work, resulting in an increase in illiteracy among them and the spread of criminality.
Reasons for restrictions:
Iraq’s repeated declaration of its desire to annex Kuwait has raised fears among the Kuwaiti authorities that the majority of the Bidoon are returning to Iraqi tribes. The tension with Iran also had its share, as many Bedoons also return to their historical roots there. The majority of Bedoons are Shiites. There are no official statistics on sectarian affiliations, but unofficial statistics indicate that the proportion of Bidoon Shiites reach 70 percent, because most of those belonging to southern tribes (ie, Saudi Arabia) have been naturalized for a long time, and are estimated at 70 000.
The Authority used to encourage and intimidate the Bidoon from improving their situation, including their right to obtain passports from countries that “constitute their historical assets,” although most of Kuwait’s population is generally of the same origin as neighboring countries. And the purchase of passports from Dominican countries under the threat often, especially for the category of military who were threatened to be dismiss from their work, some agreed and others refused to be dismissed already. The purchase of passports of those countries is promoted in the corridors of the Central Organ of Bedoon with full knowledge of the Ministry of the Interior.
According to the Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, in 1999, Kuwait promised to provide social benefits and five-year residency permits to Bidoon individuals who waive their claim to Kuwaiti citizenship. The late Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Jaber Al-Sabah, issued a decree in 1999 granting citizenship to 2,000 Bidoons annually. But the work of the decree was stopped on the pretext of re-examination in the Kuwaiti National Assembly. In May 2000, the Kuwaiti parliament passed a legal amendment that makes less than a third of the Bidoon eligible to apply for Kuwaiti citizenship. Human Rights Watch said at the time that the number of people who had successfully acquired citizenship was very small, and that many of those who had acquired citizenship were not Bidoon. It is intended to naturalize people from neighboring countries.
In 2011, the “Committee of Illegal Residents” became the “Central Agency of Illegal Residents”. The Central Agency sent a letter to the bodies and ministries encouraging them not to deal with the «stateless». It claimed that the aim of its work was to preserve the rights of illegal residents illegally- “No one can take any measures to deal with the situation of illegal residents without coordination with the agency …”
Attitudes and trends on the issue:
The position of the deputies in the Kuwaiti National Assembly varies between supporters of naturalization, which constitute a minority, supporters of the granting of civil rights to the Bidoon and those who reject naturalization under the pretext of “prejudice to sovereignty”. Some MPs, because of their association interest groups the executive branch, had originally refused to grant civil rights to the Bidoon. Since there have been demonstrations between Bidoon families and other Kuwaitis, a number of deputies have used the election period to defend naturalization, only to forget these promises later.
In 2009, the parliamentary majority agreed to recognize the civil rights of the Bidoon category. This was in the process of holding a parliamentary session to vote on this issue, which embarrassed the executive branch, especially since Kuwait had signed many international human rights treaties. The National Assembly was besieged by a large number of police and army forces, and its gates were closed. Thus, the quorum in the National Assembly was not completed and the scheduled session ended up being canceled. The adoption of the law was delayed.
There is a more complex problem. The interaction of Kuwaiti society itself with the Bidoon issue is weak, and part of it agrees with pro-government positions. The policy adopted by the authorities after 1986 succeeded in isolating the Bedoon from other components of society. This, in addition to the media blackout, led to the neglect of the issue and ignorance of society. The fear that dominated many Bedoons as a result of the threats has had an effect on their cessation of any movement aiming to further their cause. In addition, some of them have been misled by either their opportunism or their modest ability, which has contributed to the loss of opportunities that could have been exploited to meet demands.
The impact of the migration of elites and holders of higher and more powerful Bidoon diplomas beyond Kuwait after 1991 cannot be denied as a result of the tightening policy. The government has recently promoted the idea of linking the Bidoon issue to the issue of sovereignty, undermining Kuwait’s internal security, social stability and perpetuating the theory of the leak of many Bidoons to Kuwait during the 1990 Iraqi invasion. However, there is general sympathy for the civil rights demands adopted by Kuwaiti civil society organizations.
On the other hand, Bidoon immigrants worked on this cause, the circle of human rights activity expanded and several international organizations showed interest. In 2012, Human Rights Watch criticized Kuwait for mistreating about 100,000 Bedoons, saying the state failed to recognize their right to citizenship or permanent residence while they had been living in the country for a long time. “They face restrictions on access to jobs, health care, education, marriage and family formation,” the agency said, calling on the Kuwaiti government to recognize their right to citizenship. The organization also called for the release of those arrested after demonstrations, which were completely peaceful but were still met with tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring many in the process. This began in February 2011. Since then, other Bidoon demonstrations have taken place, many calling for the right to marry because the authorities do not extract marriage certificates, nor official evidence, birth certificates or even death certificates.
By: Eman Shams El Deen
Writer and researcher