Kuwait -- SOCIETY
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
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
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