Ali, not his real name, wakes up every day at dawn to pray and rush to the wholesale marketplace. He buy fresh produce with the little money he has, before touring the streets of Kuwait to sell them under a scorching summer sun or during an unforgiving winter, when the temperature drops to freezing levels.
Ali’s perseverance in selling vegetables and fruits is admirable, to say the least. On a good day, he makes a profit of 10 Kuwaiti dinars, ($33), which does not happen often. But the harsh weather is the least of Ali’s concern. There are days when he needs to muster all of his energy and run, leaving behind his precious goods, when he sees a municipal vehicle or a police patrol approaching.
Ali’s fear of being arrested and thrown in jail, is real, simply because he is a bidoon.
Bidoon or ‘without’ is an Arabic word used in the region to describe those who do not have a nationality and are considered stateless.
“I have left my goods behind, on numerous occasions, the moment I saw a municipal vehicle. Because I am a bidoon the state refuses to grant me a license to sell vegetables on the streets, hence my action is illegal,” Ali tells Newsweek Middle East.
“I have no capital to invest in renting a shop or even buying one. Even if I bought a shop, I’d still have to register it under the name of a Kuwaiti citizen, but I don’t trust anyone to do so,” he adds.
Most of the bidoons were nomads, depending on their cattle and trade, and had been on the road when their countries of origin gained independence and naturalized their residents back in the 1960s and 1970s.
Though Kuwait gained its independence in 1961, its Citizenship Law was issued much earlier in 1959, and the naturalization process continued until the mid 1970s. But that did not include many Arab and African nationals who had migrated to Kuwait before and after the declaration of its independence.
Some bidoon live in limbo because their countries of origin do not recognize them either.
Kuwait considers bidoons “illegal residents,” and thus deprives them of most privileges otherwise enjoyed by Kuwaiti nationals and even expatriates.
Over the past three years, only 2,571 bidoons were hired in the public sector, which employs over 50,000 expats, according to official documents obtained by Newsweek Middle East. Those who are lucky enough to be employed are either the offspring of Kuwaiti women married to a bidoon, or bidoons who are in possession of 1965 population census papers, meaning they were on Kuwaiti soil when Kuwait was declared a state.
The Kuwaiti Health Ministry was the top employer of bidoons with a total of 1,005 employees, including doctors and nurses. The Education Ministry ranked second, with a total of 471 employees, most of them teachers.
However, ministries and government related entitites usually hire the bidoons on the basis of ‘remuneration for work’ contracts. Even when hired, they still do not enjoy any benefits compared with expatriates working in the same field.
For example, bidoons do not get an end-of-service pension, are not entitled to paid sick leaves and do not get an annual vacation or an emergency leave.
If a bidoon leaves his or her workplace in a case of an emergency, or for personal reasons he/she risks being fired.
In contrast, Kuwaiti and foreign employees are entitled to up to 12 hours of emergency leaves every month.
One bidoon, who spoke to Newsweek Middle East on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, says that a stateless “woman was fired from work in one of Kuwait’s hospitals because she had given birth but was not entitled to a maternity leave.”
Another bidoon adds that he had to go to the hospital where he worked, on his wedding day, just to log in, otherwise he’d risk losing his job.
K.M. graduated from high school with honors three years ago, but his application to study at the state university was rejected, he tells Newsweek Middle East.
“I tried studying abroad but the state refused to grant me a passport to leave. Now, I work as a cellphone salesman for no more than 150 KWD a month. I do not get any vacation, and if I need to take a leave of emergency, the management deducts [that day] from my already small salary,” he adds. Needless to say, K.M. is a bidoon.
The salary of a stateless person in Kuwait, with a bachelor’s degree and working as a teacher, is estimated at merely 360 Kuwaiti Dinars ($1,181) a month, including bonuses, much less than packages offered to their foreign or Kuwaiti counterparts.
Such discrimination is in clear breach of equal opportunities and the right to work.
Former Minister of Education Ahmed Al Malifi had tweeted that he was “unhappy with the salaries of the bidoons,” saying they should receive equal wages.
“A salary should be paid based on effort and not citizenship,” he wrote.
Bidoons seeking jobs have also been exploited by the private sector which refuses to hire them unless they settle for lower salaries compared with those received by expatriates applying for the same post.
“Just because I am a bidoon they think I should be submissive, work more and accept a lower payment. They don’t want me to ask for a decent living or work in a job that fits my education,” says A.Sh., an engineer.
Only 96,000 bidoons live in Kuwait today, compared to 220,000 before the First Gulf War in 1990, according to Saleh Fadala, head of the Central Apparatus to Resolve Illegal Residents’ Status, (CARIRS).
According to officials, the reason behind the drop in their numbers is that many bidoons have left Kuwait, some have been naturalized, and others admitted to having faked being stateless in the hope of receiving Kuwaiti passports.
In 2013, Kuwait passed a law to grant citizenship to 4,000 bidoons, with the government contesting that only less than a third of those residing in the country qualify for the nationality.
Most Kuwaiti officials, who oppose the naturalization drive, point to those who have destroyed their identification documents in order to claim Kuwaiti citizenship.
Yet this case does not apply to all bidoons, and harms their chances of being finally recognized as legal citizens with full-fledged civil rights. After all, many of the bidoons fought and some have even died to protect Kuwait in the past, including during the Liberation War following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Between 2011 and 2015, the real nationalities of more than 7,000 people claiming to be bidoons were revealed by the government with about 5,000 of them being Saudis, while others hailed from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Jordan among others.
The child of a Kuwaiti woman married to a bidoon is only naturalized if her husband was deceased or if they were irrevocably divorced.
This is a sad reality that has made many bidoon children wish for the fathers’ death at one point or another, so that they can actually live, a number of bidoons have confessed to Newsweek Middle East.
Of the remaining 96,000 bidoons, only 34,000 possess the 1965 population census papers that serve as one of the prerequisites for acquiring the Kuwaiti citizenship.
However, the documents do not automatically entitle them to a nationality, according to Fadala, but merely give them a slight advantage such as studying in Kuwaiti public schools or securing employment in the public sector.
Prior to the 1990 Gulf War, bidoons were regularly appointed to army or government-related posts. They also had access to free education in the University of Kuwait and public schools.
However, these privileges were taken away after the war, until 2010 when they were granted exclusively for the holders of the 1965 population census papers.
N.S., a bidoon man, said his grandfather, his father, as well as himself and his children, were all born in Kuwait.
N.S. is a business administration graduate who also holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering.
The young man painfully mocks his diplomas saying they were “covered with a thick layer of dust.”
After he quit a low-paying job in a private company, N.S. agreed to sell their produce in the city every couple of days with some farmers from Abdali, a town along the Kuwait-Iraq border.
“But one day, the municipality confiscated all my goods before my eyes because I don’t have a license, which I cannot get because I am a bidoon. The farmers told me that I should bear all costs alone, so I stopped that line of work,” he says.
“I have contemplated emigration numerous times. But I am in my 30s and all that I aspire for is a decent living. Not a house, nor a grant, but a decent living with a job,” he adds, the tone of desperation visible in his voice.
Unfortunately, the case of N.S. is not the exception. In 2013, Kuwait’s Juvenile Court sentenced a minor to a month in prison for selling watermelons on the sidewalk without having a license, which he cannot possibly acquire because he is a bidoon.
One Youtube video actually shows a Kuwaiti police car in pursuit of a pickup truck full of watermelon. The driver then jumps out of the vehicle and starts to run, leaving his life’s earnings behind as the police chase him. According to the comments on the page, the police was pursuing the watermelon vendor, arguably a bidoon, as if he were a criminal.
Kuwaitis and expats alike took to social media to denounce the incidents, with one commentator saying the state should be sending drug dealers to prison, not children who may exit jail as future criminals.
The social discrimination doesn’t stop at work, but extends to personal status matters as well. For the longest time, bidoons were deprived from issuing marriage, death or birth certificates, a practice that made the cycle of their lives practically non-existent.
At a later stage, they would be allowed to issue certificates, but not to register them, up until three years ago.
Kuwaiti citizen Abdullah Al Shemmari says the situation was worse before 2010.
“If a bidoon couple wanted to get a marriage certificate, the father of the bride needed to file a charge against his son-in-law that he kidnapped his daughter, and then the Interior Ministry would register their marriage, for honor reasons,” he explains.
Shemmari adds that his brother, who is in the military, wished to marry a bidoon girl, but when he asked for permission from his superiors, as requested by law due to the nature of his work, his request was rejected without providing any clear reason.
“The marriage never took place, and it was not the bidoon girl’s fault,” he says.
“I wouldn’t demand the state to grant them the nationality, as it is a sovereign issue which the government decides upon,” he says, “however, I do believe that the government should be granting them jobs just like it does with expats, or even give them priority over expats.”
After all, he points out, the bidoons will spend their salaries in Kuwait unlike the expats who transfer their funds abroad.
“The bidoons share my tradition and culture and as such can be more adept for professions such as teaching or public relations in government bodies among others,” he adds.
Unlike the blue Kuwaiti passport which means full citizenship, some bidoons have received a brown passport granting them the freedom to study or seek medical treatment abroad. But many others have not been as lucky.
Even that narrow window of opportunity is strictly managed. The passports are issued on a case-by-case basis, mainly to those who have the 1965 census papers and wish to study abroad, or seek medical treatment.
“It is shameful that the bidoon file still persists after almost 60 years in a state known for being humane,” Kuwaiti Member of Parliament, Abdel-Hamid Dashti, tells Newsweek Middle East.
“We will always be chastized in international events for having a 60-year-old [unresolved] humanitarian issue,” he adds.
The MP, who says the number of bidoons has exceeded 100,000 contesting the official figure, describes their continued status as stateless men, women and children as “disgraceful.”
Speaking of the bidoons’ residential areas, Dashti said they “resemble slums,” and urged the government to implement a permanent solution to this humanitarian situation.
Though nothing like the tents and tin houses in the slums of underdeveloped countries, bidoons live in overcrowded old flats with cracked walls and located in poor and narrow streets that overlook the bustling Kuwait City.
The majority of bidoons live in two areas in Al Jahra governorate: Salibiya and Tayma. Most of the houses there were distributed by the state to female Kuwaitis who are married to non-Kuwaitis, bidoons serving in the military, or to Arab gulf nationals. The walls in some of their neighborhoods are filled with verses of poetry and political slogans protesting the injustice the bidoons face: “Until when are we bidoon?” and “where is the right of the bidoon?”
Shemmari says most bidoons work in seasonal jobs that barely let them make ends meet, mostly selling items on the streets such as charcoal, leasing motorcycles to camp visitors, and selling food and grocery items to desert campers. Bidoon women usually sell home-cooked meals, or open small online businesses through which they sell items they order from abroad.
Dashti hopes that the final chapter on this social tragedy be closed by Kuwait’s Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, who was described as “a humanitarian leader” by the United Nations in 2014 for pledging $500 million in aid for Syrian refugees, among the various charity work he has done over the years.
Sometimes, we take things for granted, like traveling, being able to take a leave of absence or having a nationality at birth. Yet there are people in this world who are deprived of their most basic rights. They can be deaf, or visually impaired, or have lost the ability to walk, or they can be bidoon. The first three are all physical handicaps that sometimes cannot be healed, but social injustice can be ended, if not completely, at least eased.