Statelessness, state-building and biopolitics: the bidūn of Kuwait

Ines Fernandes, School of Oriental and African Studies
/ 8 mins read

One of the biggest challenges that the current configuration of the world brings is the persistent collisions between a romanticised “global” and a thriving nation-state paradigm, at the middle of which lie the stateless: tightly cornered between the national and the supranational, they seem to be amongst the greatest victims of the geographical and ideological contingencies that permeate the neoliberal world.

What I would like to do with this piece of writing is to try and put forward a hypothesis: that an in-depth study about the meaning of statelessness can shed light on the inner workings and structural problems within governments, nation-states and even the neoliberal world. In order to do this the focus shall be put on the bidūn – short for bidūn jinsiyya, “without nationality” - , the stateless population of Kuwait. Kuwait’s bidūn provide one unnaturally intricate case study, for they do not share many of the traits one usually associates with a stateless population. They do not seem to have deep seated secessionist feelings towards the state they inhabit, nor do they appear to have any specific or easily identifiable ethno-linguistic communality. The bidūn are also not the product of technicalities alone, nor a product of conflicting laws. They seem to be, on the other hand, a group of people who was never considered either the right kind of ‘people’ in the nation-state model, nor the right kind of ‘flow’ in the networked globalised system. The stateless population of Kuwait is somewhat heterogeneous, consisting not only on descendants of nomadic tribes but also on all of those who either did not register for nationality or those to whom it was not granted for a vast number of reasons, with the official statements generally being that sufficient proof of long-term settlement in the past had been provided. The only thing they seem to really have in common is the lack of access to a dignified life – the bidūn do not hold marriage licenses, birth and death certificates, they cannot drive a car, nor can they work or cross any border legally. Also, the Kuwaiti government has started making the bidūn statistically equivalent to the expatriates – both under the ‘non-Kuwaiti’ category since the 1980s, when a massive clampdown on the bidūn started.

Statelessness is a modern condition, one that came alongside the current hegemonic alignment of the individual-territory-state nexus whereby a person is born somewhere, belongs somewhere, and is almost mechanically part of a collective consisting on those who share either her or his territory or have been there long enough to share every other aspect of his or her daily life and main social beliefs. It is because of this paradigm that studying the processes of state-building and state formation may be an important tool in understanding both the existence and the apparent perpetuation of statelessness: if the hegemonic configuration is the nation-state, then how is it possible for people to be constantly left out? Is it not engrained in us that a person is born somewhere and belongs somewhere? How is it possible to belong nowhere? The answer may partly be found in a country’s struggle to gain meaning, cultural and social cohesion as a full-fledged nation-state.

The 1959 Kuwaiti Nationality Law is interesting in the sense that it primarily ties worthiness of membership to a founding moment in the country’s history, which was the erection of a wall in a matter of months to fence off attacks from neighbouring forces in 1921: in order for one to be eligible for first class citizenship (as opposed to naturalisation) one must have proof of residence since 1920. This event cemented the distinction between sedentary (hadhar) and nomadic (badu) Kuwaitis, and since 1959 on the distinction between first- and second-class citizens and ultimately between citizens and bidūn.

The process of state formation in Kuwait was marked by many intricate strategic manoeuvres. Given the country’s geopolitical significance – being oil-rich and having effective access to Gulf waters – throughout history and until its independence in 1961, Kuwaiti rulers have had to deal with empires and strong neighbouring forces eager to absorb it into a wider political structure. The main internal fear that the al-Sabāh ruling family’s had has been the fact that opposing factions would join in against the prevailing status quo. To prevent non-Kuwaitis (who account for more than 50 per cent of the country’s population according to the 2013 Kuwaiti Statistical Review, and out of which around 200.000 are estimated to be stateless) from joining forces with the Kuwaiti opposition, a tiered system of uneven citizenship was created, making sure that all those potentially politicized elements coming into the country (expatriates) were under severe restrictions while promoting the Kuwaitization of the economy.

The discovery of oil in Kuwait enabled a total urban revolution, changing not only the spatial configuration of the country but the individuals who inhabited that space: it was soon used as an exchange tool between the government and the nationals. It is important to look at the geographical process of state formation in Kuwait because it shows that space is partly produced and socialised by the governing elites, and the more control those elites have in the distribution of space – in what concerns not only housing but also education, healthcare or jobs – the more space will be moulded into specific social practices and inhabited by specific parts of the population. Good examples of this statement are the distribution of different parts of the population along Kuwait City’s surrounding Ring Roads, with first class citizens closest and bidūn farther away from the centre, and the fact that when big waves of naturalisations of Bedouins happened, those naturalised were promptly housed in complexes that favoured nuclear families.

The meaning of this brief and somewhat spatialised history of Kuwait in what concerns research about statelessness is threefold:

  1. At the micro level, the Kuwaiti state was the result of an extremely speedy modernisation process that created widespread rentierism, a situation in which nationality tends to get inextricably connected with material benefits. In this situation, apart from citizenship ending up being an economic trade-off, the bidūn appear in alterity to the citizen: one is as important in the cementing of national identity as the other. Concurrently, the process of state-building enabled the securitisation of the bidūn by the government. Using events such as the First and the Second Gulf Wars to portray the bidūn as a fifth column for either Iranian or the Iraqi regime, successive Kuwaiti governments were able to portray the bidūn as a threat while at the same time pushing the existing citizens into non-cooperation with the stateless. On a political level, the Central Agency for Illegal Residents has consistently refused to use the term “stateless” ever since the 1980s' crackdown on bidūn working in the public sector brought up the issue of their rights and their place in the country. Instead, the bidūn have consistently been called “illegal residents”, a term expanded to engulf both stateless and immigrants, with direct policy-making implications.

  2. At the mezzo level, the case of the political treatment of the bidūn – their securitisation and the governments’ unwillingness to bestow nationality upon them (or even to describe them as stateless) – lies many times at the heart of outbound migration from Kuwait: being effectively barred from even the most basic human rights, many bidūn are forced to leave Kuwait either to neighbouring countries, to the United States or to Europe (some estimates may be seen here, although encompassing all non-Kuwaitis). This brings us to the realm of policy-related strategies to cope with and address statelessness within regional blocs such as Europe, to where many bidūn migrate: a daunting challenge which provides no solution to their plight. Although a vast majority of European countries have acceded to the 1954 and 1961 Conventions, few have in place dedicated statelessness determination procedures to identify, let alone protect, stateless persons on their territory. Moreover, it is important to remember that issues concerning nationality still fall overwhelmingly within the sphere of national sovereignty. This is, once again, a situation derived from issues of state formation that seems to draw an even more disheartening picture when looking ahead: where statelessness is not an administrative problem but the result of consistent discriminatory practices, there is a more pressing need to tackle the issue at its roots, either through multi-layered diplomatic efforts or through the international system as a whole.

  3. At the macro level, the case of Kuwait may help to bring forward another way of undertaking research about statelessness: by looking at statelessness as alterity, as an instrument that is managed by governments on the discursive, legal and spatial level, one may be able to notice some of its structural aspects. In the case that was tackled, the stateless population has had an extremely important role in helping the ruling family cement a sense of identity and cohesion at the political and social levels: it may just be that the bidūn are one of the reasons behind the apparent thriving of the Gulf monarchies, who masterfully use these clashes between globalisation and the nation-state, and between modernity and tradition to avoid paradigm-changing reforms. This ultimately means that looking at statelessness through a biopolitical lens and as part and parcel of the process of state-building may help understanding its existence, its pervasiveness and its position as a threshold concept between globalisation and the nation-state, one of the features of statelessness that makes it extremely hard to tackle: if the ultimate right over determination of nationality still falls under the aegis of the nation-state, the tools to fight it all yet belong to the supranational level.

Related topics