1990s >> 1990 >> no-1035-november-1990

Divide and Rule in Kuwait

Within hours of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Emir had fled to safety in Saudi Arabia in an armoured-plated Mercedes. He was soon joined by his ministers, and by the following day they were able to hold a cabinet meeting. The first item on the agenda was the safety of their colleagues and families still in Kuwait. Within days these, too, had been evacuated to safety.

Meanwhile, thousands of people who worked in Kuwait had to make their own way to safety in grueling heat only to find themselves ending up in refugee camps in Jordan, where they lived in squalid conditions, queuing in temperatures of over 100 degrees for their one meal a day and living in constant fear of a cholera epidemic.

Recent events in the Gulf demonstrate very clearly three points about the society we live in. First, that it is a class-divided society where the majority of us have nothing but our capacity to work which we have to sell in order to live. Second, that this class-divided society engenders deep racist and nationalist divisions between us workers, which the capitalist-owned media nourish and perpetuate. Third, that workers have no country; national governments do not represent our interests but the interests of the tiny minority who own and control the world’s resources.

Workers come to Kuwait

There have been foreign workers in Kuwait ever since the first explorations for oil between the two world wars. But the first major influx of workers from abroad arrived in the early 1970s. The oil price explosion of that period resulted in a huge increase in revenue which enabled the Kuwaiti government to implement a massive programme of development – the building of roads, airports, schools, hospitals and further work on oil installations, which demanded a workforce of a size which the local population was too small to provide.

The incentive for foreign workers was high wages and escape from unemployment in their countries of origin. A professional or skilled Bangladeshi could earn 6-8 times more than in Bangladesh. Sri Lankan housemaids and labourers could command 12 times what they earned in Sri Lanka. Western workers could earn several times what they would get in Britain or Europe, plus additional perks such as rent-free accommodation, tax-free earnings, school fees, and air fares home. It meant that skilled and professional workers could payoff mortgages and debts at home and enjoy in material terms a better standard of living.

By the 1980s over 70 percent of Kuwait’s labour force came from abroad – from labourers to domestic servants through to skilled and professional workers such as engineers, architects and doctors. The largest proportion of this workforce was engaged in the construction industry and the second largest in schools, hospitals and other services.

The Western workers – on whom the British media has largely focused – constitute only a small proportion of the foreign labour force and are mainly highly- trained professional workers. The majority of workers are from other Arab countries and from countries in the Indian sub-continent and South East Asia. These countries encouraged their nationals to go the Gulf states to work, requiring them to remit a proportion of their wages. These remittances overtook commodity exports as the major foreign currency earner. For many Third World countries this was enough to compensate for the rise in the price of oil.

Just as countries grow or produce commodities for export for profits while the basic needs of people in them are not met – coffee plantations while people are starving, for instance – so, similarly, many Third World countries were exporting skilled expertise to the Gulf that their populations were crying out for. Kuwaiti hospitals – the finest in the Middle East – are staffed with Palestinian doctors and nurses while Palestinians in the refugee camps in Lebanon and the West Bank are desperate for medical facilities and expertise.

Divide and rule

The foreign workers’ labour in Kuwait made millions for the multinational companies they worked for. Yet at the end there would be very little to show for it, beyond being able to meet their basic needs at a slightly higher standard than if they had stayed at home – and only as long as they continued working in the Gulf.

Many of the workers in Kuwait were living and working in harsh conditions. Even the highly-paid professionals worked for long hours under a great deal of stress. Life was certainly not one blissful round of expatriate picnics and golf in the desert, as one newspaper article suggested. The non-professionals lived under very spartan conditions. Many construction workers lived in camps built and managed by the multinational companies they worked for, often miles from the town and the rest of the population. South Korean workers had some of the best conditions: 25 square metres per person, one bath-house for every 500, and a volleyball court and table-tennis table for camps with a population of over 50. Out of sheer boredom workers would put in a lot of overtime, and stress and exhaustion (and working in a dry, hot climate) resulted in poor health and accidents.

The Kuwait ruling class was totally dependent on the foreign labour force which by the 1980s was made up of about 68 nationalities. Despite this they were seen as a source of danger, a bridgehead for outside interests and for other countries to lay claim to Kuwaiti territory and wealth. Also, they could be seen as a focus for the development of working class conscious- ness which would demand political democracy, trade unions and so on.

So a thoroughly efficient system of divide and rule was set in operation. Kuwait was to be exclusively for the Kuwaitis. The rights of foreign workers were largely restricted to the terms and conditions of their work contracts and it was made very clear to them that they were only in Kuwait to provide labour and should not look upon it as their home. They were not allowed to join trade unions unless resident in Kuwait for over five years. In recent years many workers were restricted to short-term contracts of two years. Also, workers could only live in the country for as long as they were working there, and could only bring in dependents if earning more than a certain level of salary.

The right to Kuwaiti citizenship was restricted. In 1959 the Nationality Law defined Kuwaitis are being basically the descendants of those who inhabited Kuwait before 1920. These had the right to vote (men only). A second category of citizenship was created for those who arrived after 1920, with no right to vote. Kuwaiti citizenship was very difficult to get and this always remained a grievance for the Palestinians living in Kuwait, many of whom have been there for more than 30 years. Kuwaitis had other privileges denied to foreigners: the sole right to own property, to open businesses and to receive social security. However, not all Kuwaitis were happy to accept this system of divide and rule. In 1963, Dr Ahmed Khatib proposed that the privileges enjoyed by Kuwaitis be extended to foreign labour.

A policy of residential segregation was pursued. Already in the 1950s the official town plan set apart housing zones for foreigners. While strictly speaking it was not actually forbidden for foreigners to live in Kuwaiti areas, people were encouraged to congregate in different areas.

As well as the division between Kuwaitis and non-Kuwaitis, racial prejudice also divided the foreign labour force. A three–tier system of racial superiority operated, with the Europeans at the top, Arabs in the middle and Asians at the bottom. This reflected the salaries of the respective groups and their economic position in society. The highest paid workers in Kuwait tended to be the professionally qualified workers brought from the West by the multinationals. The lowest paid tended to be domestic servants and labourers from Third World countries such as Bangladesh where wages are very low, making it easy for them to be recruited as cheap labour. Low economic status was generally ac- companied by derogatory views. For example Bangladeshi maids were considered to be “less clean” than their slightly more expensive Filipino counterparts.

The racial division between white and non-white workers also had its roots in Europe’s history as a colonial power in many of the Third World countries which sent labour to Kuwait. The more naive amongst the European workers saw themselves as a sort of new raj, and found it difficult to accept that Kuwaitis could tell them what to do and to take instructions from their equally highly-qualified and experienced colleagues from Third World countries.

The British media’s coverage of events in the Gulf has continued this prejudiced view. For the first few weeks of the crisis, media coverage focused almost exclusively on the Europeans trapped or held hostage in the Gulf. Stories of brave, heroic escapes or of innocent victims caught up in a war that didn’t concern them were prevalent, as though no other workers lived there.

Workers have no country

Workers, whether born in Britain, Kuwait, Egypt, Sri Lanka or the Philippines, have no country. Nation-states are created and destroyed as the capitalist class in different parts of the world struggle to control the resources of the globe, with no regard whatsoever for the lives of people, let alone their cultural and linguistic identity. Kuwait is a perfect example of this.

The Kuwaiti Planning Minister has talked of how sad it would be if future generations of Kuwaitis did not have a country and so of it being worth spending part of Kuwait’s $100 billion investments on the multi-national force. Perhaps he should be reminded that there has not been a country called Kuwait for that long. Certainly, there has been a place called Kuwait since at least the 18th century, with an economy based on pearl-diving and fishing, but the modern boundaries between Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia were drawn up in 1922 by Sir Percy Cox. So, in effect, present- day Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia were created by Western colonial powers in order to protect their own political, military and economic interests in the area, with the help of local ruling families who were interested in preserving their own power over the local population.

The Kuwaiti leaders are putting on quite a show of patriotic bravado. The crown prince declared from the safety of his London home that every member of the ruling family would be prepared to die for his country. In fact it is those workers who could not afford to get out of the war-zone who are already suffering and who will be the first to die as innocent victims caught up in a battle that does not concern them as their homes are bombed and their children die of dehydration and cholera when they flee to refugee camps. Others will die as soldiers conned into believing that they are fighting for their country.

This potential war, as with all wars, is yet another conflict brought about by the squalid interests of the minority who own and control the resources of our Earth. War will bring only misery and death to workers, whether they be Iraqi, Kuwaiti, British, American or from anywhere else in the world. Workers’ interests are best served by their refusing to slaughter one another at the behest of their capitalist masters. Instead they should overcome nationalist and racist divisions and join in the struggle to overthrow capitalism and put in its place a society where all people have free access to all they need and an informed democratic voice in how we run our planet.

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