When Kuwait became independent in 1961, one third of its population was granted nationality; another third became naturalized as citizens and the rest, like Faraj, were considered ‘Bidoon jinsiya’—without nationality. The Bidoon, as they are known (and in Arabic means without), have been stateless ever since.
Only a small section remains of the original sur or old wall in Kuwait City. Built in 1920, the wall was constructed to defend and protect the lives and interests of the residents of Kuwait and also to delineate those considered to be true Kuwaiti’s from the more nomadic, non-Kuwaiti’s outside of the wall. Over the 20th century, Kuwait grew from a population of 50,000 to several million. It also became one of the wealthiest countries in the world. While Kuwait has expanded beyond the boundaries of the old sur, this small sliver of what remains of the wall sits as a reminder to all in the gulf state that the definitions of Kuwaiti identity erected when the wall was built continue to stand as the foundations of how Kuwaiti identity and citizenship are defined today. The only difference is that now, the protection of the vast interests of those with from those who are without are not achieved through mud, brick and stone but through laws and policy.
In 1959, Kuwait’s Nationality Law extended nationality to those who could show their families had settled in Kuwait prior to 1920 and had lived permanently in the country until the enactment of the Law. At the time, most Bidoon were eligible for nationality, but for various reasons, failed to complete the application process before Kuwait’s formal independence in 1961, hence being categorized as ‘Bidoon jinsiya’. Still, the Bidoon enjoyed many of the same rights and access to social services as other Kuwaitis, such as free healthcare and education. Bidoon worked in the same government offices, wore the same police and military uniforms, carried the same Kuwait Oil Company access badges and were largely seen and treated as equals. But in the mid-1980s, the Kuwait government made several amendments to its nationality laws, gradually stripping the Bidoon of their rights. Up until Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the ensuing liberation of Kuwait, the Bidoon community manned eighty-five percent of Kuwait’s army, yet in 1991, nearly all were fired. In less than 5 years (1986-1991) the Bidoon had become jobless, rightless and reduced to the status of ‘illegal foreigners.’
Today, a huge disparity exists between Kuwaitis and over 100,000 Bidoon who consider Kuwait their home. For Kuwaiti, the government provides sizable benefits, such as: housing subsidies, free healthcare and education, almost assured employment and financial allowances for being married and having children. Bidoon cannot own land and property and live in slum-like settlements on the outskirts of urban areas. Since 1986 Bidoon children have not received birth certificates. Bidoon can only attend private schools, which most families cannot afford. They are prohibited from owning businesses, and companies in Kuwait have been restricted from hiring Bidoon by the government’s ‘Bidoon Committee’. This has resulted in high levels of unemployment and often forces Bidoon to work irregular jobs in the informal sector. Many Bidoon youth remain single because they lack the money to get married or because without money, documents or rights, they feel they’re in no position to offer a future to a family.
With the Arab Spring, Bidoon youth became more vocal in their desire for equal rights and citizenship. Peaceful demonstrations by Bidoon youth in 2011 and 2012 were unprecedented but were met with violent crackdowns by Kuwait security forces and were also overshadowed by the more high-profile democratic movements taking place in the region. Though as Bidoon from the younger generation continue to demand their rights and to be identified as full citizens of Kuwait, many from the older generation continue to battle with the reality of having had this fundamental element of their identity—being Kuwaiti—torn away from them for reasons they are still trying to figure out.