Kuwait Table of Contents
Traditional dhow, characteristic of Persian Gulf fishing
Courtesy Aramco World
In the summer of 1990, Kuwait had an estimated population of 2,155,000. The most dramatic division in this preinvasion population was that between the national population of Kuwaiti citizens and the larger population, more than 60 percent of the total population, of foreign workers (see table 2, Appendix).
The percentage of foreigners in the population grew steadily after World War II, following the rise in oil revenues and the consequent government development programs with their sudden need for substantial labor. The labor market came to consist increasingly of foreigners for a number of reasons. The most important factor was the small size of the indigenous population and, in the early years, their low level of education. As oil revenues and government investment in education produced a generation of highly educated Kuwaitis, they began to replace foreigners at the highest levels of employment, but even this highly educated population was small. The low participation rates of women in the work force also contributed to the reliance on foreign workers. Restrictions on female dress and behavior in public and consequently on labor force participation are not as strong as they are elsewhere in the gulf, notably in Saudi Arabia. Customary norms, however, coupled with higher family incomes, which reduce the need to employ more family members and lessen the incentive for individuals to undertake the more unpleasant sorts of work, combine to promote a lower labor force participation rate in the national population.
The importance of foreign workers to the economy in the postWorld War II period is difficult to exaggerate. Most of these foreigners are male. Most are employed by the state. Most are in Kuwait for relatively short periods (40 percent stay less than five years); Arabs stay somewhat longer than non-Arabs. Historically, Arabs constituted the bulk of the non-Kuwaiti population. In addition to a large number of Palestinian workers, estimated at 400,000 in 1990, there are numerous Egyptians, Iraqis, Syrians, and Lebanese. A smaller but significant and growing number of workers come from Asia. In the early 1980s, the composition of the work force shifted, and by 1985 slightly more than one-half the foreign workers (52 percent) were Asian and less than one-half (46 percent) were Arab. Africans, Europeans, and United States citizens constitute the remainder. The government favors Asian workers because of their lower labor costs, and, because they are unable to speak Arabic or lay a claim to oil revenues on the basis of Arab nationalism, Asian workers are more apt to return home in a few years, thus raising fewer social and political issues.
The foreign population does not enjoy the economic and political rights of the national population. Not being citizens, they can neither vote nor run for seats in the National Assembly. They are not allowed to own real property. They cannot form their own unions; although they can join Kuwaiti unions, they are prohibited from voting or running for union offices. Acquiring Kuwaiti citizenship is very difficult, and the number of naturalized citizens remains low.
The large number of foreigners creates social tensions between foreigners and the indigenous population. Foreign workers, particularly those who have worked many years in Kuwait, resent the discrimination against them. Citizens often view foreign workers with suspicion, if not hostility. Even before the Persian Gulf War, public debate often focused on a perceived compromise between Kuwait's economic needs and its security needs.
Although the most important social division in the country is between citizens and foreigners, the indigenous population is internally divided along a number of lines as well. The first is sectarian. The majority of Kuwaiti nationals are Sunnis (see Glossary) Muslims; the minority are Shia (see Glossary). Figures have never been published on the number of Shia, but estimates in the 1980s ranged from 15 to 25 percent of the national population. Shia are a diverse group. Some are Arab, many the descendants of immigrants from Ash Sharqiyah (Eastern Province) in Saudi Arabia or from Bahrain. Others come from Arab families who moved from the Arabian side of the gulf to Iran, stayed awhile, and then returned. Others are of Iranian origin, who often speak Farsi as well as Arabic at home and sometimes maintain business or family ties with Iranians across the gulf. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, this Shia community experienced a renewed sense of sectarian identification. The identification resulted from sympathy with their revolutionary coreligionists in Iran and from increasing government and social discrimination. During the 1980s, the tension between Sunnis and Shia, which had erupted occasionally in the past, became somewhat sharper.
Kuwaitis are also divided to a certain extent along class lines. Although the national population is generally well off because of the state's generous employment policies regarding nationals and its extensive social services, important divisions nonetheless exist between the country's economic elite and the rest of the population. The wealthiest Kuwaitis are members either of the ruling family or of what was once a powerful and still distinct merchant class. Many of these are descendants of the Bani Utub, the original central Arabian tribe that settled Kuwait in the eighteenth century. The most important and wealthiest of the Bani Utub are members of the Al Sabah, the ruling family of Kuwait. The economic elite is largely Sunni. However, some Shia families and individual Shia are also wealthy.
Despite these internal divisions, the national population is also characterized by a strong sense of national identity. There are no important ethnic divisions: the national population is overwhelmingly Arab. The major sectarian divisions are subsumed in the larger shared Islamic identity. And unlike many of its neighbors, Kuwait is not a twentieth-century colonial fabrication. It has been an autonomous political and social unit since the eighteenth century. In the intervening years, a strong sense of local identity has arisen. This national sense has been deeply reinforced by the Iraqi occupation.
Data as of January 1993
Kuwait Table of Contents