Representative Image: Kuwait Airways (Image source: Company's Facebook page)
Nightmarish visions of hundreds of thousands of Indians queuing up at the Kuwait International Airport, bag and baggage to return home permanently, are exaggerated and alarmist.
Kuwait’s desire to cut excessive reliance on foreign workers is as old as the hills. Within the broad framework of such an aspiration, the desire to reduce dependence on any one or two nationalities — Indians and Egyptians, for instance — is also not new. Kuwait’s long-standing and emotive hopes to ‘Kuwatise’ — that is, bring more Kuwaitis into the active workforce — is not new either.
Whenever these objectives have come face-to-face with the realities of Kuwait’s job market, which is skewed in favour of expatriates, proposals to achieve such objectives have fallen by the wayside. Repeatedly, such proposals have also hit the wall of common sense economics, the free market and a thriving economy, which relies almost entirely on foreigners to turn its wheels.
Kuwait’s economy once thrived entirely on oil, but has since significantly diversified, in no small measure, thanks to the pervasive presence of the United States just across its border in conflict-ridden Iraq — and in Kuwait too, in multiple incarnations, as a solid Western back up to keep Iraq stable.
Kuwait is the steady and reliable supplier, storehouse and sourcing centre of everything that Iraq needs from its post-Saddam Hussein-era allies: from Baghdad’s security needs to health support. The emirate is the ultimate vindication of the adage that bullets are bullish.
The proposed legislation to reduce the number of foreigners from 70 percent to 30 percent of Kuwait’s population has its genesis in the appointment of Hind Sabeeh Barak Al-Sabeeh as Minister of Social Affairs and Labour in 2014. She was then the only woman in the country’s Cabinet. This experience later got her the additional charge of Minister of State for Economic Affairs.
Named three years after her initial induction into the Cabinet, her impressive ministerial record got her the fourth rank among the most powerful women in any Arab government in a Forbes magazine list. Hind was determined to leave an imprint of her first ministerial assignment. She already knew her country’s employment market, having worked for several years as general manager of the Kuwait Industries Union.
She formally proposed the idea of quotas for different nationalities in Kuwait’s expatriate labour force, which hugely outnumbers sons of the soil. She doggedly pursued this as her pet project and in two years, produced a report for the Cabinet. “We have been preparing this study for long,” Hind proudly announced on May 29, 2016, after the Cabinet considered her detailed proposal for the first time.
This was four years ago. During this period, the proposal has gone from one ministry to another for additional data collection, from one committee to another. It is the classic ruse that politicians use when they do not want to do something that can become a hot potato in their hands. Delay, but do not take decisive action.
The ‘Kuwaitisation’ plan and its accompanying nationalities quota plan would have continued its meandering course through interminable bureaucratic alleys and restraining red tape, had it not been for COVID-19, which has changed most things everywhere. Kuwait has the most open political system among Arab Gulf countries. Its politics is more open than most in the entire Arab world.
With elected Members of Parliament never letting go of populism and forever itching to challenge the status quo, Kuwaiti politicians cannot be seen as dropping or sitting on this plan which supposedly benefits their constituents, who are also feeling the pinch of COVID-19 fallout on the economy. With or without this legislation, Kuwait’s expatriate workforce is already shrinking, because many enterprises have downed their shutters from the effects of the pandemic.
This is happening not only in Kuwait, but in every West Asian country. Besides, some of Kuwait’s neighbours in the region have been putting together for some years, institutional arrangements that are variations of Kuwait’s proposed legislation in order to cut their reliance on foreign workers.
Some years ago, when Saudi Arabia took proactive steps to replace more and more foreigners with Saudi nationals in many jobs, there were similar alarmist reports of a looming exodus of Indians from the kingdom. That did not happen in any significant measure until the ongoing departure of foreigners because of the business downturn triggered by COVID-19.
The United Arab Emirates Ministry of Human Resources even had a formal tag added to it for ‘Emiratisation’ some years ago with the intention of bringing more of its nationals into the workforce to replace foreigners. However, there also no significant change happened until coronavirus forced many businesses to close and foreign workers to leave.
Kuwait’s planned quotas also reflect a paranoia it has had for decades of a huge non-Kuwaiti Arab presence overrunning the country. Kuwaitis have unpleasant memories of how its large Palestinian population was a fifth column for Saddam Hussein when Iraq occupied Kuwait in 1990. After liberation, Kuwait expelled most Palestinians for this unforgivable act of biting the hands that fed them for many decades.
If the current pandemic abates and Kuwait’s economy bounces back to pre-COVID-19 levels, the quota bill will again return to its meandering ways of not becoming law or being enacted as a law with so many ifs and buts that ensure continued presence of Indian workers in Kuwait.KP Nayar is a senior journalist who has been covering West Asia for four decades now. Views are personal.