Before I went to Kuwait I was given a contact to bidoon activist Abdulhakeem Al Fadhli, and during my short visit to the country was able to meet him – an extraordinary man, aged 36, who has given up his job, his income and his prospects in order to devote his energy to demanding human rights and being (as he put it) “the biggest troublemaker” to the Kuwaiti government. On 18 February 2011, as protests were sweeping across Tunisia and Egypt, Al-Fadhli attended a demonstration for the first time in his life, he explained, only to be faced by water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets. “I knew I needed to fight,” was what he said to me.
As protest organizer for Kuwait’s bidoon community – something he can only realistically do using social media – he has been in and out of jail several times over the last two years, sleeping in different homes almost every night, swapping temporary sim cards in and out of multiple phones, only using an encrypted internet connection, abandoning his car to ride with different friends. He was scathing about the government’s attempts to crush the protests: “copy-paste tactics,” he called them.
As I say in the piece, since I met him Al-Fadhli has been rearrested, and at the time of writing is currently in jail awaiting a retrial on a charge (apparently subsequently withdrawn) of assaulting a police officer, for which he was given a two-year jail sentence in absentia.
There is much more to tell, which I’ll save for another time. While I was with him, Al-Fadhli explained the bidoon story first-hand and took me to meet activists and ordinary people. This short report (below) was the result – the briefest of introductions to a complex tale of injustice.
Click here to listen to audio from BBC Radio 4, or click here to download the podcast (MP3 file: 13MB). A slightly shorter version went out on BBC World Service radio. I have pasted the full text transcript – including material cut from the radio version – here below. It’s a story which needs telling over and over.
The tailor leaned forward, tweaked some wild rocket off the bunch, deftly rolled it together with cardamom-flavoured rice and shreds of lamb, then popped the bite-sized ball into his mouth.
“This government,” he said, between chews, “they are fascists. Face like sheep, heart like a wolf.”
In an airy tent pitched on the desert plains west of Kuwait City I’d been greeted by a circle of plump, middle-aged men. After coffee, dates and tea, the twelve of us squatted on the carpeted ground for lunch together.
The tailor, like the rest, was bidoon – short for bidoon jinsiyya, meaning “without nationality”. Kuwaiti in culture, language and sensibility, he was nonetheless officially stateless, lacking citizenship or rights.
The bidoons’ story starts in the years around 1961, when Kuwait gained independence from Britain – but how some people at that time came to be citizens while others did not remains unclear to this day.
Kuwait’s 1959 Nationality Act granted citizenship to those able to prove residential ties extending back before 1920. This chiefly covered the urban merchant class and ruling elite, but left many excluded. The government line is that newer arrivals either tried to hoodwink officials into granting them citizenship by declaring false information, or simply excluded themselves.
The latter, at least, has the ring of truth. The concept of nationality was unfamiliar at the time, particularly for the semi-nomadic bedouin, who roamed without recourse to border authorities.
Amidst a climate of suspicion during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, Kuwait amended the Nationality Act to define the bidoon as “illegal residents”, expelling many.
After Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait was ended by the 1991 Gulf War, the bidoon who remained found themselves accused of collaboration, sacked from government jobs and increasingly marginalised.
Today the bidoon number at least 106,000 people, though no reliable figures exist. They remain effectively barred from public education and most jobs, unable to get birth certificates or own property. The tailor at my desert lunch explained that he had to register his car and his business in the name of a Kuwaiti friend. Another man showed me a marriage document which gave his wife’s nationality as “under investigation”.
A government committee examines individual cases, but officials – like many Kuwaitis – assert that most or all of the bidoon are foreigners who have concealed their identity to gain the material benefits of Kuwaiti citizenship: free education, free healthcare, no taxes, subsidised housing, lavish unemployment benefit, a monthly food allowance, and more.
Rights campaigner Dr Rana Al-Abdulrazzak, a director at Kuwait’s Central Blood Bank, highlights the role of state-controlled media. “We neglected the bidoon issue because we couldn’t see it,” she told me. “It was never discussed.”
She goes further, accusing the Sunni ruling elite of discriminating against the bidoon, many of whom are Shia. “We’ve been taught to be selfish: Kuwaitis are very racist,” she said.
Such candour is rare, though most Kuwaitis shun the bidoon, either for sectarian reasons, or often through a sense of urban superiority.
At a meeting in Kuwait City, an architect from an elite family – speaking on condition of anonymity – told me: “The bidoon have no leverage, but they are in all senses Kuwaiti. Citizenship is their right.”
He declared a two-cent rise in fuel prices would cover the “negligible” cost of absorbing the bidoon, and described the situation as “shockingly inhuman”.
“It is apartheid,” he said.
I drove with bidoon activist Abdulhakeem Al-Fadhli to Taima, on the outskirts of the capital. Tin-roofed shacks flanked an open drain, flowing along broken alleyways. A patch of waste ground, where bidoon rights’ demonstrators face down the security forces’ tear gas and rubber bullets, has been defiantly renamed “Freedom Square”.
At a diwaniya, or social gathering, in Taima, Al-Fadhli explained his reliance on social media.
“The Arab Spring gave us the biggest motivation to believe we can do something,” he said, emphasising that the bidoon were opposing the government, not the monarch.
“But,” he added, “we know America will not come for us.”
Since I met him Al-Fadhli has been re-arrested following a fresh round of protests, and is awaiting retrial following a two-year jail sentence imposed in absentia. Campaigners allege that he has been beaten and tortured while in police custody.
A constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, Kuwait is generally freer than its Gulf neighbours. Yet having ignored the bidoon for so long, it must now deal with an entire disaffected generation, born in poverty, raised with little or no schooling and now self-educated in human rights.
As across the Arab world, the status quo appears increasingly untenable. Absorbing the bidoon into mainstream society would anger many Kuwaitis. But inaction could be costlier.