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Kuwait's disenfranchisement of Bidun leads to growing ISIS threat

Kuwait's disenfranchisement of Bidun leads to growing ISIS threat

Late last month, in conjunction with attacks at a beach resort in Tunisia and a 'lone wolf' attack in eastern France, a suicide bomber struck the Imam Al-Sadeq mosque in Kuwait City, killing 27 and injuring 222 people. In the days after the suicide attack, Government-sponsored billboards began appearing on the streets of Kuwait City. These large roadside posters show a fist wrapped in a Kuwaiti flag with the phrase, in Arabic, 'we stand as one'.

This unifying slogan has dominated social media since the bombing but, in the aftermath of the attack, the investigation has thrown up some information that illustrates why unity in Kuwait is increasingly difficult to achieve. At least two of those already arrested hail from the Bidun of Kuwait, the stateless population that has few rights yet resides within one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

While the suicide bomber was identified as a Saudi national, he worked with accomplices inside Kuwait. Within days, Kuwait's Ministry of the Interior moved swiftly to make the first arrests: 'We have referred five suspects accused of assisting the suicide bomber to the Public Prosecution...They include the driver who took the Saudi bomber to the mosque and the car's owner and his brother, all stateless people or Biduns'.

Bidun is the shortened version of the Arabic phrase bidun jinsiyya, which transliterates to 'without nationality'. It refers to residents of Gulf Arab countries who are stateless, or consider themselves to be.

This large group of disenfranchised people, who the Gulf states have failed to effectively recognise, is now seen as a potential security threat. The fear is that pent up hostilities, fueled by more than 50 years of statelessness and ongoing oppression, could make those at the margins of society willing or malleable accomplices for groups such as ISIS. A matter long relegated to the status of demographic problem and largely fueled by a need to restrict access to government services has now become a security issue. [fold]

Exact numbers of Bidun in the Gulf are not known. While there are an estimated 10,000 to 100,000 Bidun in the United Arab Emirates, their numbers in Kuwait are proportionally larger than elsewhere. In Kuwait, the most reliable estimate is 105,000–110,000, which amounts to about 10% of the population of Kuwait.

While various schemes have been proposed and some implemented, the Bidun community remains a largely marginalised group. Reform of nationality laws has assigned the Bidun different categories of status within the state, delivering limited rights to some and full citizenship to a small number, while others have received no benefits at all. Perhaps the most controversial recent development was to offer the Bidun citizenship of the Comoros Islands, the beleaguered Arab League member which is said to have received millions from the deal.

The Bidun have been stateless for generations. They are not monolithic and have emerged from a variety of backgrounds dating back to Kuwait's independence from Britain in 1961. Some Bidun were entitled to citizenship at independence, but failed to register or did not have the required documents, as many were tribal nomads. Others are ancestors of foreign Arabs recruited into Kuwait's military and police force in the 1960s and 1970s and who subsequently settled in the country. The Kuwaiti Government argues that the majority of undocumented Bidun are concealing their true nationality and they or their forebears entered Kuwait illegally in order to gain access the prosperous oil-based economy and the extensive services that the state provides to its citizens.

There were few discernible differences in rights between Bidun and Kuwaiti citizens until the late 1980s when they were deemed to be 'illegal residents' and access to government services was curtailed. Over the years, Kuwait's Nationality Law has been amended many times to make access to Kuwaiti nationality more difficult. 

The Bidun have been locked out of the largesse of the state. Kuwaiti citizens can access generous benefits from cradle to grave, including free health care, free education, access to prized civil service employment and housing grants. While some registered categories of Bidun can access limited education and health services, they are unable to obtain a Kuwaiti passport and are forced to apply for restrictive travel permits. They have no access to Kuwaiti identity cards and are have to constantly renew short-term security cards that can be withdrawn without due process. They have no vote, have difficulty in obtaining driving licenses, are barred from recruitment to the public sector and are not allowed to purchase property.

The most notorious member of this marginalised group is Mohammed Emwazi or 'Jihadi John', the infamous black-clad ISIS executioner with the thick London accent. Emwazi's early years were spent in the Jahra neighbourhood, a semi-slum district on the outskirts of Kuwait City where many Bidun reside. Local media reports say his family applied for naturalisation as Kuwiati citizens but were rejected. His family later moved to Britain.

While its difficult to know how much this status influenced Emwazi's choices and subsequent radicalisation, we do know that Emwazi returned to Kuwait many times as a grown man and was engaged, at one point, to a Bidun woman. 

The Kuwait Government is once again tightening the restrictions on the Bidun community. Travel permits that are required for Bidun to leave the country have been suspended. Opposing hashtags both in support of the Bidun community and seeking their expulsion have been appearing on social media. While the Arab Spring protest movements of 2011 briefly raised the profile of the Bidun, with demonstrations held in Kuwait for equal citizenship rights, this movement has largely dissipated after a heavy-handed response by authorities. Advocacy groups remain active but the demands of the Bidun community remain largely unanswered.

The Kuwaiti Government's haphazard approach and lack of a long-term planning has added to the festering discontent of the Bidun. It's an issue that now has security implications for Gulf nations, but especially for Kuwait.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Turki Al-Fassam.

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