This article is part of the series on “COVID-19 in the Middle East and Asia: Impacts and Responses”. Read more ...
Sometime in mid-March 2020, just as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic gained momentum across the world, a rather unusual group of individuals in Kuwait logged on to a Zoom call to coordinate their response to what would most certainly be devastating and uncertain times ahead. In attendance were local migrant community organizers, human rights activists, health care professionals, private sector executives and representatives from the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). For anyone familiar with grassroots community activism and current best practices in humanitarian and development aid, this scene is hardly unique or interesting. Yet in the context of Kuwait, the fact that these individuals were in the same room speaking together as equals was something new, radical even.
Threats and Victims Without a Voice
Kuwait’s response to COVID-19 has reflected two longstanding conceptions about the role and position of non-citizens, particularly that of low-wage migrant workers, in the country. The first positions the 3.3 million non-citizens who make up roughly 70% of the country’s population as a threat to future socioeconomic and political stability. This view finds its most explicit and extreme expression in the xenophobic rhetoric of public figures like former MP Safaa Al Hashem and actress Hayat-Al Fahad. Yet it is also more subtly and pragmatically laced through systemic developments in labor, migration and citizenship policies from the mid-20th century onwards. Ever since the discovery of oil, a reliance on a large migrant workforce has been necessary to sustain the sudden acceleration of economic development. At the same time, increasingly restrictive citizenship laws and unequal labor rights protections have exemplified the conception of the non-Kuwaiti as a cultural and political threat.
The second conception sees non-citizens, especially low-wage migrant and domestic workers, as mere victims of the exploitative kafala system. In everyday conversations, a typical market of this view is the use of the Arabic term “miskeen”, roughly translating to “poor fellow” when speaking about migrants’ poor living and working conditions. This view and the actions that result from it are harder to critique because they often come from a place of good faith. Yet they are simply the flip side of the same coin. While seemingly diametrically opposed, these two narratives often manifest simultaneously in far more implicit ways, with the result that regardless of whether non-citizens are demonized or praised, their voices are almost always left out of the conversation.
As Kuwait — like most of the world — instituted restrictions, curfews and other measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the country received praise from the WHO for acting quickly and decisively. Yet in their execution some of these actions have exemplified the migrant-as-threat disposition as well as extensive ignorance of the lived experiences of the majority of the country’s population. It was evident early on that the country’s majority non-citizen population would bear the brunt of the crisis. While the public sector continued to pay its employees, 74% of whom are Kuwaiti citizens, non-citizens who largely work in the private sector (96%) risked losing (and did lose) their single safety net — their monthly pay checks. Most at risk were the large number of blue collar and working-class migrants who have little in the form of savings as most of their meagre income goes toward remittances and living expenses. Overcrowding, poor municipal services and a suburbanized cityscape meant that neighborhoods such as Mahboula and Jleeb Al Shuyoukh — inhabited primarily by working class migrants — turned into COVD-19 petri dishes in the three months during which they were placed under complete lockdown. The disaggregation of new case numbers by nationality in the Ministry of Health’s daily press conferences during the first three months of the crisis also fuelled a tendency to scapegoat non-Kuwaiti residents. Since the reopening of the airport in August, a ban on non-citizen residents and not just tourists returning directly from 34 “high risk” countries increased uncertainty for the thousands stranded from their work and families, enabling only those who could afford the high cost of a two-week detour in a third country such as the UAE or Turkey to return. An exemption for domestic workers was only recently made. And although the airport and land borders have been closed once again due to the emergence of a strain of the coronavirus, the UK was only recently added to the formal list. The United States is also noticeably missing from the civil aviation authority’s list of high-risk countries.
Listening for a Third Path
In its inability to support the most vulnerable during a global crisis, Kuwait is, of course, far from unique. The pandemic has exposed existing fault lines in our societies and tested decisionmakers’ and institutions’ abilities to manage crises in inclusive and equitable ways. In hindsight, both the strengths and the shortcomings of Kuwait’s COVID-19 response were predictable. However, for some within the country’s small but vibrant civil society sector, the way to break out of this dichotomous and exclusionary framing of non-citizens as either threats or victims is obvious viz. by approaching them as equals and allies.
Let’s return to that Zoom call at the start of this article. In contrast to its pre-oil history as a cosmopolitan trade hub, life in modern-day Kuwait is highly privatized and stratified by class and nationality. The dearth of truly public spaces and a suburban division between commercial and residential areas means that there is scant opportunity for individuals from different walks of life to interact beyond the commercialized context of the market or the workplace. Perhaps ironically, it was the preclusion of in-person meetings that allowed this diverse group of individuals to find themselves in the same (virtual) ‘space.’
The meeting was hosted by the en.v Initiative, a local non-profit dedicated to building community resilience and civil society capacity in the country. Eleanor Burton, a program manager at en.v, described how the organization leveraged its network to bring together stakeholders from the private sector, international organizations, and civil society in order to coordinate a response. The objective, Burton notes, was to ensure that any action the group would take be guided by the knowledge and expertise of local migrant community leaders. Keenly aware of the unprecedented nature of the crisis as well as the risk that the official response would struggle to address the needs of the most vulnerable, the group turned to grassroots activists to understand emerging impacts. This simple decision proved central to shaping how they would respond. Reports form organizers in the Filipino, Indian, Nepalese, Ethiopian, Sierra Leonian, and Burkinabe communities all found that, in addition to the loss of income, food and housing security as well as access to healthcare were going to be critical challenges in the weeks and months ahead.
Moreover, as the Ministry for Social Affairs and a range of local charities set up fundraising and registration platforms to help support those in need, it became evident that non-Arabic speaking singles, especially women, would find it most difficult to access assistance through government channels. According to Burton, this was due to several compounding factors related to how the government communicated and organized aid. To illustrate, consider the provision of food aid. Trucks bearing food supplies would often arrive in neighborhoods home to low-wage workers unannounced, thus leading to a free-for-all. How this aid was distributed, in empty sand pits or parking lots with recipients waiting (or rather crowding) in long queues discouraged single women. While those distributing aid were generally equipped with masks and gloves, the absence of social distancing measures in aid distribution was a further deterrent. Even when official aid registration platforms were first set up in March and April, they were either in Arabic only or explicitly required those seeking aid to register as traditional households. Although some of these shortcomings were later rectified, the need to register with one’s Civil ID made government-organized aid inaccessible to those with expired work permits who feared arrest and deportation. Burton observes that while government officials were eager to respond, the lack of open communication with migrant communities was the key impediment to effective aid delivery. Another instance where the health and lived experiences of migrant workers could have been better accounted for was April’s amnesty period. While it did allow many undocumented workers to leave the country without incurring fines, there was reportedly no pre-departure COVID-19 testing.
In contrast, smaller community-based groups that reached out to their colleagues, neighbors and friends found far more effective and safer ways to reach those in need. The community organizers en.v was able to bring together, for example, were the ones really driving how funds were raised, beneficiaries identified and aid delivered. Other stakeholders — established nonprofits, those from the private sector, and international organizations — offered support where necessary.
Organizers from the Nepalese, Indian, and Filipino communities interviewed anonymously as part of an oral history project, Neighborhood Tales: Kuwait Under Lockdown, shed further light on how they responded. They used a network of volunteers embedded within the different migrant communities to deliver food aid door-to-door in designated neighborhoods to households and individuals who had registered to receive aid. This made it easier to reach those who were weary or unable to queue outdoors. They could also reach non-Arabic and non-English speakers as recipients would register for support by directly contacting community organizers. This also reduced the risk of COVID-19 transmission by ensuring that each volunteer would be able to easily trace their contacts within a specified neighborhood if needed. They and other community groups were also able to tailor the package of staples that an individual or household would receive to their cultural preferences. Beyond food aid, volunteers also attempted to provide emotional support to distressed members of the community. Importantly, rather than only serving their co-nationals as they generally would, local organizers actively sought to collaborate with one another and reach as much of the population in need as their limited resources would allow.
Next to the scale of COVID-19’s socioeconomic impact and the capacities of civil society and development organizations elsewhere, these efforts can seem like drops in an ocean. Yet for a place like Kuwait, these developments are inklings of a nascent if belated shift in how the country’s various charitable, civic, and rights activist groups approach the communities they serve. Another example of this can be seen in how Trashtag, a small group of volunteers passionate about environmental conservation in Kuwait responded to the crisis. Carina Maceira, founder of the organization, pivoted her team to focus on food aid delivery instead of beach clean ups. In collaboration with other volunteer groups, Trashtag developed a shared database of beneficiaries thereby streamlining logistics and putting limited funds to efficient use. They ultimately supported about 500 household over a three-month period. More significantly, the collaboration proved an opportunity for Maceira and her team to learn about how the day-to-day realities of Kuwait’s most vulnerable intersected with broader issues of environmental conservation. For instance, access to drinkable tap water, she realized, was a challenge for many low-wage workers whose housing facilities often have poorly maintained pipes and uncleaned water tanks. Her commitment to waste reduction made Maceira averse to distributing plastic water bottles. So instead she sought a creative, sustainable solution — funding the installation of new water filters in workers’ accommodations. She also describes how the experience exposed her volunteers, many for the first time, to the struggles faced by blue-collar migrant workers and changed their perceptions on how to respectfully interact with aid recipients.
What has distinguished the work of organizations like en.v, Trashtag and numerous others is thus their ability and willingness to work from the bottom-up and to listen to how vulnerable populations themselves describe their needs. Put differently, they approach them as equal partners in solving shared challenges, not merely as helpless workers looking for a handout.
An Inclusive Way Forward
Thinking beyond COVID-19 response and civic aid, the key question is whether this shift in conceptualizing the role of the migrant and the non-citizen in Kuwait can be adapted to the pursuit of wider social, economic and cultural reform within the country.
In August 2020, Kuwaiti author and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Kuwait University, Mai Al- Nakib lamented the state of the country in an essay published in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Even in her pessimism, the only solution Nakib offers is of Kuwaitis pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. “The migrants have nothing to do with it,” she writes, writes when speaking of the country’s demographic make-up. Given Kuwait’s present and historical demographic and political realities, this mainstream impetus to think of non-citizens as peripheral to the country’s future seems short-sighted. Others have written eloquently about the need to abolish the kafala system, how at the root of non-citizens’ COVID-19 experiences in Kuwait lie the inequities perpetuated by it, and how the system handicaps the country’s economic development. Yet while that is the essential first step, it may not be enough if whatever comes to replace it does not account for the voices, expertise, and experiences of Kuwait’s diverse non-citizen population.
Concrete steps that can be taken to facilitate dialogue include measures such as ensuring government agencies have the capacity to maintain ongoing communication with the public in multiple languages (in addition to English and Arabic). Efforts are also needed to reconfigure how the Ministries of Interior and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor engage with migrant community organizations, many of which operate as informal grassroots collectives. For now, the official development agenda for the next fifteen years, New Kuwait 2035, references migrant workers only in the context of the creation of special labor cities and healthcare facilities. Yet, even though framing non-citizen residents within the dichotomous lens of threat-or-victim is certainly politically convenient, it could also mean letting the opportunity for truly sustainable, inclusive and innovative growth sail by.
 “The COVID-19 crisis is fueling more racist discourse towards migrant workers in the Gulf,” Migrant-rights.org, April 5, 2020, https://www.migrant-rights.org/2020/04/the-covid-19-crisis-is-fueling-more-racist-discourse-towards-migrant-workers-in-the-gulf/.
 “WHO praises Kuwait’s swift response to coronavirus pandemic,” Times Kuwait, April 18, 2020, https://www.timeskuwait.com/news/who-praises-kuwaits-swift-response-to-coronavirus-pandemic/.
 Public Authority for Civil Information, “Population & Labor market indicators.”
 Sharifa Alshaifan, “COVID-19 in Kuwait: how poor urban planning and divisive policies helped the virus spread,” London School of Economics Blog, September 16, 2020, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/covid19/2020/09/16/covid-19-in-kuwait-how-poor-urban-planning-and-divisive-policies-helped-the-virus-spread/.
 Abdulla Alkhonaini, “How Covid-19 Stress-Tested Relations between Residents & Citizens in Kuwait,” Gulf International Forum, April 29, 2020, https://gulfif.org/how-covid-19-stress-tested-relations-between-residents-citizens-in-kuwait/#_ftn21; and the Kuwait Ministry of Health, https://www.instagram.com/kuwait_moh/.
 “Kuwait allows domestic workers to return from December 7,” Gulf News, December 1, 2020, https://gulfbusiness.com/kuwait-allows-domestic-workers-to-return-from-december-7/.
 “Kuwait closes border, suspends flights until Jan. 1,” Reuters, December 21, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-kuwait-idUSS8N2HR02S.
 “Kuwait civil aviation authority adds UK to its high-risk list of countries,” Reuters, December 20, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/healthcoronavirus-kuwait-flights/kuwait-civil-aviation-authority-adds-uk-to-its-high-risk-list-of-countries-idUSL8N2J00BN. See also “Kuwait to suspend direct flights to and from Britain,” Kuwait
Times, January 3, 2021, https://news.kuwaittimes.net/website/kuwait-suspends-direct-flights-to-….
 Farah Al-Nakib, Kuwait Transformed: A History of Oil and Urban Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016).
 Eleanor Burton (program manager at en.v) in discussion with the author, October 2020.
 “Kuwait’s amnesty provides a risky reprieve for some migrant workers,” Migrant-Rights.org, April 10, 2020, https://www.migrant-rights.org/2020/04/kuwaits-amnesty-provides-a-risky-reprieve-for-some-migrant-workers/.
 Carina Maceira (founder of Trashtag) in conversation with the author, October 2020.
 Mai Al Nakib,” I Banish You: Reflections on Kuwait,” Los Angeles Review of Books Blog, August 2020, https://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/essays/banish-reflections-kuwait/.
 See for example, Faisal Hamadah, “COVID-19 and Kafala,” MR Online, Monthly Review Foundation, August 17, 2020, https://mronline.org/2020/08/17/covid-and-kafala/; and Oliver B. John, “COVID-19 and Migrant Laborers in Kuwait,” Middle East Institute, November 17, 2020, https://www.mei.edu/publications/covid-19-and-migant-laborers-kuwait.