Middle East

The Bedoons: Kuwait’s stateless minority

“I have a dream: that my child and yours can live as equals, and that my child will not feel inferior to yours.” This is the message that Alaa al-Saadoun recently shared on social media in the hopes that Kuwait will afford citizenship rights to the country’s stateless Bedoon minority. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Kuwaiti nationals also read her appeal on Twitter.

Alaa al-Saadoun is a Bedoon herself. The Arabic term roughly translates to “without nationality,” and refers to a group of people who live in Kuwait, yet have neither that country’s nor any other citizenship. They are a stateless people.

A 2018 report by the group Human Rights Watch says there are approximately 100,000 Bedoon people in Kuwait. A special Kuwaiti state department deals with regulatory issues and renews their security cards, yet these do not count as proper proof of identity.

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Protesters holding banner reading 'Citizenship is the only solution' at protest in 2011 (Getty Images/AFP/Y. Al-Zayyat)Bedoons have frequently protested over the years

Lack of rights

Saadoun is deeply concerned about the future of her children, whose national identity has not been officially certified. They are still too young to go to school. But Saadoun fears they will be refused an education because of their Bedoon status.

Like all Bedoons, she is troubled by being denied citizenship rights. “They are refusing to respect our human rights,” she says. She adds that despite having a Bachelor’s degree in English literature from Kuwait University, she cannot find work because of her legal status.

Saadoun is among Bedoon protesters who were recently arrested by Kuwaiti authorities after a demonstration. The rally was triggered by the suicide of a young Bedoon man. He had been denied an official Kuwaiti ID and subsequently lost his job.

At least 15 Bedoons were arrested in connection with the demonstration. Among them was the prominent human rights lawyer Abdelhakim al-Fadhli. Human Right Watch (HRW) reports that they are accused of having participated in unauthorized protests, abusing communications equipment, disseminating falsehoods and endangering national security.

After the protests, the state reportedly took questionable measures against the activists. One protester who had been arrested was described by the Kuwaiti Interior Ministry’s Twitter account as an “illegal resident.”

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A troubled history

The history of the Bedoons goes back to 1961, the year Kuwait gained independence from Britain. At the time, a number of people living in the region — particularly Bedouins — did not deem it necessary to apply for citizenship. According to Kuwaiti law, they have “undefined citizenship status.” Kuwaiti nationality law has not been reformed since, and many of these “undefined citizens” still have not applied for Kuwaiti nationality. They, along with their offspring, are officially stateless, which has made their lives tremendously difficult.

In addition, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, some Bedoon people sided with the aggressor. Since then, parts of Kuwaiti society reject the Bedoons as disloyal. That some of them fought alongside Kuwaiti nationals against Iraqi forces has done little to dispel this prejudice. Some Bedoon people, incidentally, also fled to neighboring Saudi Arabia when war broke out.

In 1999, former Kuwaiti Emir Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah issued a decree according to which each year, 2,000 Bedoons would be granted citizenship. Yet according to media reports, such a small annual contingent has done little to improve their lot overall.

Bedoon protesters holding Kuwaiti flag The lack of citizenship brings many disadvantages for Bedoon people

Situation ‘worse than ever before’

In an official statement, the Kuwait Society for Human Rights criticizes the situation of Kuwait’s Bedoons as “worse than ever before.” It argues that the “state department responsible for them has taken arbitrary measures and is exerting pressure on the majority of the Bedoon people.”

The recent arrests of Bedoon protesters “aggravates an already tense situation,” says Amnesty International’s Middle East Research director, Lynn Maalouf. She adds that “authorities denying them citizenship are denying them a range of basic rights, including the right to health, education and employment. They are also making it impossible for them to become an integral part of Kuwait’s vibrant society.”

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Light at the end of the tunnel?

Alaa al-Saadoun says Kuwaiti “citizenship is the prerequisite for all other rights.” And that is why she wants to “solve this issue as soon as possible, to spare my children such a difficult situation.”

Lynn Maalouf says “it is time that authorities tackle this issue head on. They should ensure that all Bedoon people can make use of independent, fast and fair legal procedures when applying for citizenship.”

Thamer al-Suwait, deputy spokesperson of the National Assembly, also urges that a solution to the Bedoon issue must be found. “The state must recognize their citizen and social rights, while insisting they respect the law,” he said.

The parliament’s Twitter account recently announced that Kuwaiti authorities were looking into solutions and would present the results in the next legislative term. This would bring an end to decades of uncertainty and suffering for the Bedoons.

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