"The Racism In The Mirror Is Closer Than It Appears", Source: @A_RahmanBoland, Twitter
Leading human rights and labor organizations- both local and international- acknowledge the injustice and the deeply embedded discrimination of the age-old Kafala sponsorship system established to organize and monitor labor movement in the country. It has been subject to intense scrutiny by those who track human rights violations, with some even calling it modern-day slavery. The cracks in the system are apparent when it comes to the structural pillars that govern the affairs of workers/expats from foreign countries. However though, it is important to clarify as to who the subjects of this discrimination and racism are. The victims of this overt racism aren’t typically those who come from Western countries-might it be a colonial mentality or otherwise-, neither is this discrimination based on a clear distinction of racial superiority. Instead, this system of intolerance is enrooted in a historical classism that has created a constructed reality to sustain itself.
This is what we have come to see in the many micro and macro aggressions inflicted upon the migrant worker population in Kuwait, which coincides with the global increase in discriminatory behavior-by state and individuals- triggered by the pandemic. A couple of weeks ago, local news outlets circulated a video of an Asian gas station worker being assaulted by a Kuwaiti Civil Defense volunteer. Upon investigation, the assaulter claimed the worker refused to fill his gas tank. A day later, another incident occurred by yet another Kuwaiti volunteer, this time brutally assaulting an Asian migrant in a cue for food distribution organized by local authorities. Those incidents invoked deep feelings of anger and disgust by many locals, both nationals and expats. The question arose, why is discrimination a conditioned behavior within our society?
It is inaccurate to place the blame exclusively on the flawed structure of the kafala system, which certainly does promote the discrimination, but it also inaccurate to assume that if every Kuwaiti was given a gun; they would all unanimously and without thought proceed to shoot the innocent. Therefore, our focus will be on understanding the psychological aspect pertaining to the Kuwaiti themselves, why these feelings are in place, and how they came into existence to begin with…without assuming that the systems in place are the sole drivers of this racism.
Nothing Exists in a Vacuum: Affluence and the Creation of the ‘Other’
Referring to the pre-oil Kuwaiti port and market towns, Farah Al-Nakib writes that “…Kuwaitis were accustomed to coming into regular contact with different cultures and lifestyles. The reality of economic scarcity, coupled with the absence of a bureaucratic state, contributed to the complexity of urban life by necessitating the creation of formal and informal networks of cooperation and mutual support among the townspeople.”. The pre-oil Kuwaiti society was characterized by hybridity and diversity, which contrasted sharply with the spirit of 1960s post-oil Kuwait. That shift was marked by the discovery of a national which removed the necessity to interact and cooperate for survival. The new reality was that of extreme wealth, social segregation, and a relative fear of cultural deviance. This within itself, I would argue, laid the foundation for a state being an instrument to satisfy individual desires rather than an intuitive communal institution that rewarded the citizen for merit or hard work.
Fakhri Shehab, former Emir Abdullah al-Salem’s chief economic advisor, witnessed the change in public attitudes and perceptions, stated in 1964: “Young people have lost their perspective, their urge to acquire knowledge, their acceptance of discipline. As a result, the drive, diligence, and risk-taking that characterized the old Kuwaiti are no more. At both ends of the social scale the new citizen is content to enjoy a life of leisure and inertia, and is unwilling that this happy state of affairs should be disturbed. Protected, pampered, lavishly provided for and accountable to no one, he lives in a world of make-believe.”.
This make-believe world, in turn, births in many cases a superiority complex and a siege mentality within the local citizen. On the one hand is the need to reassert and reify the feeling of superiority on a vulnerable subject in the absence of an enshrined merit-based social/state system that rewards hard work and validates a person’s self-worth. On the other hand, is the feeling of constantly being under siege by external threats that seek to exploit, harm and endanger the Kuwaiti ‘honey pot’ of national wealth and prosperity. These deep-seated complexes are sustained in the popular imagination by the Kuwaiti media, who seek to reproduce and recycle the dominant ideologies through exaggerated headlines and the tendency to frame ambiguity as an absolutely potent threat.
Social Distancing as a Method of Social Exclusion
On careful observation, one would realize that historically, Kuwaiti socio-spatial planning has been stretched and expanded to not only exclusively provide what would be described as: the model living condition for the affluent Kuwaiti citizen. Instead, it has also taken on an underlying strategy of separating Kuwaitis from non-Kuwaitis, establishing a self-secluded and self-sustained system of separation from those that are perceived to be different. It seems like a national project aimed at strengthening the identity of a united ‘us’ versus an image of the other, or ‘them’. When prohibited from participating in the dynamic area of discussions and deliberations, the non-Kuwaiti loses their right to occupy space, which makes the subject more susceptible to the constructs of xenophobia and for the Kuwaiti to bask in a relative sense of superiority born by imposing a system of exclusion and exceptionalism.
What we’ve come to see finally, during this tumultuous period in which Covid-19 has spread rampantly through the inner and outer cities of Kuwait, is the reality of the perennially existent living conditions of these low-wage migrants. The living quarters in which the construction workers, contracted cleaners, and many other low-paid migrants reside in; have, throughout the course of history, been a sight of small, suffocating, and sometimes overcrowded areas. Tiny rooms often accommodating up to 10 workers at once with limited access to essential utilities like: clean water, proper sanitation facilities, and proper air conditioning, social distancing becomes a near-impossible task. When allowed to leave their homes, during the designated two-hour period allocated for outdoor exercise or otherwise, the images of the workers crowding the street are constantly monitored by social media and state news agencies; who frame these images as a threat to public order and safety. These striking images exist to elucidate a reality of an inescapable entrapment, where the worker/’wafid’ is in essence confined to these dilapidated living quarters, and then upon wanting to leave the cramped confines; is then labelled as a ‘threat’ or ‘danger’ to national interests and Kuwaitis.
Living conditions of some of the resident migrant workers in Kuwait. Headline Translation: Amidst the Coronavirus... 12 expats are living in one room
Source: Sarmad Network
The space of appearance as coined by Hannah Arendt, was described as a public realm of action and speech set up among a community. This space is not allowed for the migrant workers, who are viewed homogeneously without an opportunity for distinction or an ability to voice essential grievances and concerns. Instead, the ‘foreigner’ or ‘wafid’, exists solely in a transactional/service-based sense. This normalizes to the local; that the role of the domestic worker or migrant worker in general, is to be servile and obedient to the Kuwaiti employer, who grows conditioned to the transactional relation of matters. This in turn blurs the line between professionalism and humanism, which explains the insidious, volatile nature of the Kafala system.
There is also need to place a semiotic lens (study of how words create meaning) on the analysis of commonly known, normalized modes of behavior, attitudes, and even the use of certain words or symbols that may act as unconscious vehicles of discrimination and exclusion. The barrage of connotative words like “wafid” “khadim/khadima”, the labelling of a person based on their nationality- “Hindy” “Filipeeny” “Masry”- and the clearly enforced ethnic lines based on occupation, speech and appearance- like the adornment of the dishdasha and ghitra- always resonate in our minds as what makes us ‘us’, and what makes them ‘them’. This resonates within the consciousness, and even if communicated without the ill-intention of degrading or dehumanizing it still lingers in the deeper subconscious, creating hierarchical mental structures and discriminatory biases that perpetuate social exclusion.
Filipina nurses board Ministry of Health buses. Filipinas and migrant workers, in general, have formed the bulk of Kuwaiti's frontline medical force against the threat of COVID-19.
Looking deeper within this context, we also find there to be engrained stereotypes that are not viewed by one’s own self as being harmful or malicious in intent. For example, the perception that the migrant worker is ‘miskeen’ or a person that is in need of help. Although this view or attitude isn’t necessarily perceived as being detrimental to establishing equality between the foreigner and the Kuwaiti, when placed under a semiotic lens, we can come to understand that this places the general perception of foreigners on a rigid binary of two parts: the first part is overt racism and the second is pity as a form of discrimination that subconsciously favors being Kuwaiti. Regardless of intent, both of these angles create a static, flat, and non-dynamic mental image of who the ‘wafid’ is, stripping them of any agency, identity, and individualism instead asserting a uniform, homogenous image detrimental to the image of equality in our own cognitive senses.
For a Better Kuwait: A Quick Note
We currently exist in a context that is ripe for health-based analogies. Coincidentally, when faced with accusations questioning my nationalism and loyalty to this country based on the conducting of field studies, research, or investigative work-as many Kuwaiti researchers do-I always have the same reply. Should you have a loved one that is sick (God forbid), and that same person is unaware of their own sickness. Will you let that sickness fester within that person’s body, bringing a slow and tragic downfall? Or will you inform that person of their condition? Helping nurse him/her back to full health, wellness, and prosperity?
Mubarak Al-Sabah graduated from the American University of Kuwait with a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and continued to pursue his Masters Degree in Middle East Politics at SOAS, University of London. Mubarak’s primary focus during those years was to establish an understanding of the connection between identity and the effect of constructed realities. Through doing this, he realized the importance of not forming perceptions on rigid ideas, but rather flexible ones that allow for a dynamic understanding of these concepts. Mubarak views social consciousness and advocacy as tools that cannot exist independent of one another, but instead both equally needed to identify important matters that are not given a comprehensive, multidimensional approach. Having previously advocated for Bidoon rights, Mubarak recognizes the dangers of exclusionary policies and behaviors and how they enable intolerance and discrimination.