An Africa Business Community
Feeling thirsty in an ocean full of water
Expatriates lament ugly side of Kuwait
By Chidi Emmanuel
KUWAIT: Oil-rich Kuwait is not an exception to criticisms. Just like other nations in the region, Kuwait has its ugly side. Having been slammed many times by civil society organizations on the issues of human rights, women's rights, democratic rights, religious freedom and bedoons among others, expatriates in Kuwait are voicing their frustrations on the other things these bodies could not have seen. With huge record budget surpluses year after year, most expatriates find themselves feeling thirsty in an ocean full of water. "We cannot make ends meet here as we struggle to survive day by day. Things are very expensive now - ranging from house rent, food items, etc. With inflation biting deeper, the government only takes care of its citizens and no one cares for us (expats). We are stuck here. We can't go back home because we have nothing to start life afresh with-and staying here is a struggle as things get harder," Abdul Aziz, an Egyptian expatriate who chose to go by only his first name, said. Most people Kuwait Times interviewed for this report opted to stay anonymous or use only their first name to avoid being targeted. Some of the expats lamented on the things that hurt them most. Here are some of the issues:
Wasta-as it is infamously called in Kuwait is a baptismal name for corruption, bribery, favoritism and nepotism. "Without wasta, you can hardly do things in Kuwait. You need wasta to get your driver's license, car registration and even to pay your bills sometimes. If you don't have wasta, you may end up spending months or even years before you get little things done in Kuwait ministries," Nada, a Lebanese said. "If you have it (wasta), you will smoothly by-pass all the rigorous bureaucratic processes-but without it, they will keep telling you bukra! bukra! (Come back tomorrow, come back tomorrow). One of the staff at the immigration department in Farwaniya asked me to come 'bukra' on a Thursday (with Friday being a non-working day)," Hana, Nada's friend added as they narrated their ordeals at Kuwait's ministries.
STIGMA, LACK OF RESPECT, PASSPORT
"Actually people seem to place more emphasis on nationality here. It's not only Kuwaitis that are blameworthy in this case, even some expatriates have jumped onto the bandwagon. The first thing a cab driver will ask you is your nationality-from which he will then weigh your worth. If you tell him you are American or British, he will accord you some respect. But if you tell him you are African, Indian, Filipino etc, he will just light his cigarette carelessly and rudely without giving a damn," Khan, an Indian computer engineer said. Some complained of prejudice at workplaces. "Many (Kuwaitis) see Filipinos, Ethiopians, Bangladeshis and Indonesians only as domestic helpers. Can you imagine, many people don't believe me when I tell them that I am a doctor," a Filipino doctor working in a private clinic in Salmiya told Kuwait Times. "It's horrible here-you will be treated according to your nationality. Sometimes, there seems to be a different salary structure for different nationalities. Indians, Filipinos, Egyptians, Pakistanis etc can never rub shoulders with their Western counterparts in the office irrespective of their higher qualifications and years of experience. They (Westerners) will always be placed above them," Khan added in dismay.
A 52-year-old Egyptian engineer summarized Kuwait labor laws as "milk them (expats) when they are young and kick them out when they get old." "They need you when you are active and as soon as you get old, they will find an excuse to replace you with either a Kuwaiti or a younger person, and then kick you out of Kuwait. Without any form of pension scheme for you here (Kuwait) and in your home country, you will then spend the rest of your life in misery in your home country," he said. "Kuwait doesn't give permanent residency to expatriates and as such, we will all leave one day with only the Kuwait-style indemnity-which is only half of your salary for the first five years and one month's salary for all other years you worked in Kuwait," he explained. "My brother and I left Jordan for greener pastures in the same year (1990). My brother went to the US and I came to Kuwait. My brother is now an American citizen even though he is not in a Muslim country but I cannot boast of a permanent residency in Kuwait (a Muslim nation). I have spent 22 years here but every year I have to renew my residency," Ahmed, a Jordanian, lamented.
FREEDOM OF RELIGION
Although Kuwait touts religious freedom, Hindus and some Christians see things differently here. "There is not a single Hindu temple in Kuwait. It is forbidden even though we have a large Hindu population here. Is this what is called religious freedom?" one Indian Hindu faithful queried. "They indirectly force everyone to fast during the holy month of Ramadan by making it a crime to eat during the fasting time. Does this reflect religious freedom?" Clement, an Ethiopian Catholic asked. Similar views were echoed by some of the non-Muslims expats who were interviewed in this report.
At the Salmiya clinic, Waleed, a Pakistani teacher, showed Kuwait Times one of his medical appointment papers on which it is boldly written 'NON-KUWAITI'. "This paper says it all. You will just be treated as such. This is my third time here. They keep giving me appointment dates," he said. "Even after increasing the health issuance fee to KD 50, and after paying another KD 2 and KD 1 to buy stamps, anytime we go to the hospital and clinic, we are still being given prescriptions to buy drugs that cost less than KD 5. It is terrible. We hope the new government will do something to alleviate the suffering of many expatriates here," Waleed's friend added.