Elizabeth Warkentin

Elizabeth Warkentin
Montreal, Canada
November 09
Librarian, English teacher, writer and lifelong learner, I have lived and worked in Canada, the Middle East, the Bahamas, Colombia and Europe. A lover of animals, books, film, flamenco dance and learning languages, I'm based in Montreal but am looking for a home where the sun shines 365 days a year.

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FEBRUARY 27, 2011 10:00PM

Kuwait's Shame: The Stateless Bidoun

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Most of us take the right to citizenship for granted. It is a fundamental human right after all. Yet, in Kuwait, this is debatable.

When I worked at a now-defunt "Canadian" school in Kuwait between 2007 and 2008, it took three months and a rather unpleasant four-day trip to Bahrain -- the "Disneyland" of the Gulf" -- before I could get my civil ID (like a social insurance number). Without a civil ID, I could not get a cell phone contract or internet connection, get a driver's license, open a bank account or travel outside of Kuwait. At times, it felt like I could barely go to the toilet without a civil ID.

Such is the case of the wretched Bidoun -- Arabic for "without" and short for bidun jinsiya (without citizenship) -- who, despite having lived and died side by side with Kuwaiti citizens for generations, live their entire lives without this all-important document. Conversely, my colleagues and I, who were only in Kuwait to work for a year or two, were granted a civil ID within three months, yet griped on a daily basis about how long it took and what an inconvenience it was. Little did I know about the deplorable plight of the stateless Arabs.

The approximately 100,000 stateless Arabs of Kuwait are descendents of nomadic herders who did not become registered for Kuwaiti citizenship when the independent state was formed in 1961. Human Rights organizations say that the ancestors of the Bidoun either failed to understand the significance of citizenship or, given their traditional nomadic lifestyle, preferred not to belong to any one country. Others were living outside the city walls or were illiterate, so they did not or could not apply for nationality. However, the majority had and still do possess legal documents that prove settlement in Kuwait earlier than the establishment of the state.

Despite this fact, the Bidoun remain stateless and, as such, are unable to get proper jobs, enroll their children in public schools or have access to Kuwait's free health care system. Not being registered as citizens or having a civil ID also means they cannot rent or buy property, get a driver's license, register a car, travel outside the country or obtain birth, marriage and death certificates. In other words, they have no rights because they don't exist.

I was shocked to learn of this situation while living in Kuwait. How can people not have citizenship rights in their own country? How can someone not have a nationality? It was unfathomable to me.

I recently discovered that the approximately 100,000 Bidoun of Kuwait are not the only ones. There are Bidouns in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq as well. Moreover, there are apparently about 12 million stateless people around the world, people like the Kurds in Iraq , the children of Haitian migrants in the Caribbean, some Palestinians, some ethnic groups from the former Soviet bloc and certain groups in Thailand. In the Middle East, the situation in Kuwait is particularly disgraceful since it did not happen as a result of a war or changing geographic boundaries but, it seems, out of pure malice.

Ironically, though I was born and raised in Canada and have lived more than half of my almost half century on earth in this country, I have always felt that this wasn't where I should have been born. I've always wished I had British or European nationality, or perhaps Australian because of its bright desert sun, blue skies, endless white beaches and laid-back culture. But being able to live and work anywhere in Europe was my real dream. Still, though I wanted to trade in my Canadian citizenship for a European one, I knew I had it to fall back on should anything go wrong. The sad fact is that I've always taken my Canadian citizenship, one that millions would sell their souls for, for granted. How would I feel if, despite being born in Canada and my French-Canadian ancestors having been here for more than three hundred years, had no nationality, no country to call my own, no birth certificate, no state identification or passport, and no right to a state education or health care? What would it be like to "be without"?

Sharing a common language and culture, the Bidoun are indistinguishable from Kuwaiti citizens. Except that they are usually much poorer than the average Kuwaiti. Most Bidoun live in tin-roof shacks in squalid neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Kuwait City, a jarring contrast in an oil-rich nation where the majority live in ostentatious luxury and where, in January, all citizens received from the emir yet another grant, this time in the amount of 1,000 KD ($3,570) as well as free essential food items until March 2012.

Why are the Bidoun treated this way? Because in the mid-1980s, after decades of enjoying the same privileges and services as citizens, the government decided to strip them of their identity and declare them "illegal residents". According to the authorities, the stateless Arabs of Kuwait are actually citizens of neighbouring countries who are deliberately concealing their true identities to cheat the Kuwaiti government and reap the benefits of its generous welfare system. With all due respect, Your Highness, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, are you for real?

It's no surprise, then, that amid the vociferous demands for meaningful democratic change that have blown across the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa, the Bidoun of Kuwait have also jumped on the revolutionary bandwagon. Last week, during the weekend of Friday the18th, hundreds of Bidoun staged peaceful protests to demand their rightful due: citizenship and basic human rights. Each time, the police fired water canons, rubber bullets, tear gas and smoke bombs to disperse the protesters who refused to leave. Many were arrested, and more than thirty people were injured during the first day's demonstrations. It seems some died of their injuries, but the authorities deny this. Many protesters still have not been released.

The government says the recent demonstrations were illegal and that what happened last weekend was "unacceptable", stating there are more "appropriate" ways to ask for something. The stateless Arabs were also told last week to "be patient", that something would be sorted out. The Bidoun have been asking and waiting patiently for decades. How much longer should they be expected to wait quietly?

"The authorities, they say 'why don't you leave? Why do you spend your life in Kuwait with nothing?'" said a stateless Arab named Abu Abdullah. "But we have no passport. We can't leave. This is our only country." (as told to Christine Koningisor in The Atlantic, February 19, 2011).

What must it be like to "be without"? I imagine that statelessness would be much the way Refugees International describes it, "a corrosive, soul-destroying condition that can colour almost every aspect of a person’s life."

Nationality is a basic human right and a foundation of identity, dignity, justice, peace, and security. To be denied citizenship in one's own land is to make one vulnerable, unable to defend oneself against injustice as well as to deprive one of what makes him or her a human being. To be ignored, excluded and invalidated, to be forever "without", must be like being denied a life.


Koningisor, Christina. "Protests Spread to Kuwait Over Rights of Stateless". The Atlantic, February 19, 2011. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/02/protests-spread-to-kuwait-over-rights-of-stateless/71481/#

Kuwait Times. "Amir grants KD 1,000 to every citizen"
January 18, 2011

Kuwait Times. "Interior handling bedoon issue with transparency". http://www.kuwaittimes.net/read_news.php?newsid=MTQwMTg4MjY4Mg==
February 24, 2011

McLean, Jesse. "Life in Kuwait too good a deal for revolt". Toronto Star http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/940130--life-in-kuwait-too-good-a-deal-for-revolt February 16, 2011

Refugees International. "About Being Without" http://www.refugeesinternational.org/policy/in-depth-report/about-being-without-stories-stateless-kuwait

UNHCR. "10 Stories" http://www.un.org/events/tenstories/07/theexcluded.shtml


NB: The Kuwait Times is not necessarily a reliable source, but I've used it here to show what's being written in English in that country. I'm actually surprised at how much they've actually been able to get away with. Many articles have no byline, some articles seem to be from AFP, others from staff writers but often there is no name. Interestingly, the articles that were somewhat more risqué and honest about the protests eem to no longer be posted on the site.



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I posted this late Friday night, but then decided to take it down as it's such an important issue and I wanted as many people as possible to read it. I have also made quite a few changes since then.

The situation of the Bidoun in Kuwait is much the same for the Palestinians and Indians who have lived in and greatly contributed to Kuwait for generations. The government refuses to grant them citizenship.
I had no idea that this was happening. This is so sad and yes we take things for granted. I so agree
rated with hugs
Such an important piece. Many thanks and best wishes re: spreading this story. Rated
I think in Jordan they are considered part of the nation and have the same rights. It is possible that they come by it through Military service. I am unaware.
Linda: I know it is so very heartbreaking. Thanks for reading and commenting. You are such a wonderful supporter! A gift to all of us on OS.

Bonnie: Thank you so much for your incredible support and et on this. Thanks, also, for your good wishes. I find it depressing how little coverage there has been of this. If the Bidoun had had the media behind them the way the Egyptians and other Arabs have lately, maybe the Kuwaiti government would wake up and pay attention.

Muse: Thanks for your support of this important issue. I hope we can spread the story matter to more people.

Sheila: Yes, I think you may be right. The Bidoun of Kuwait were in a similar kind of situation. They were in the military and fought for Kuwait in the Gulf War, even after having their identity stripped -- best not to quote me on this, as I'm not entirely sure. I've been learning a lot in a short time and can't absorb it all. Thanks for reading and commenting. The more the "merrier" for the Bidoun and all the other stateless souls.
You taught me much about an issue I had not even considered. However, I am not surprised. We humans have this consistent thread that runs through almost all cultures. We hate poor people. Brilliantly done article that deserves a wide audience.
What a horrible fate to befall such a proud and upright people as the Bedu, whom TE Lawrence loved so much. Thanks for this -- I had no idea. To call it a disgrace would be an understatement.
I, too, have lived in worked in nearly a dozen different clountries -Perhaps, we've crossed paths.

Yumiko will soon retire her university position, and we are thinking of Phuket.

Cheap and great food.

The most excellent hospitals this side of the world in Bangkok.

An eye-opening and troubling post. I simply had no idea. We complain about big brother this and nanny state that but what a perspective this is. No family recognition at all.

And the level of shame that is Kuwait's. As rich as it is, to deny anyone.

Thank you for this well-written and revealing piece.
An informative and well-written piece about a "forgotten" people. As Boanerges noted, T.E. Lawrence would be horrified.

Funnily enough, I share your sentiments about wishing I had been born elsewhere, but knowing at the same time how incredibly fortunate I am to have a Canadian passport.
Very interesting information. I couldn't help thinking about the current US struggle over immigration while reading it, though the situations are quite different.
Very interesting information. I couldn't help thinking about the current US struggle over immigration while reading it, though the situations are quite different.
Dr. Spudman: Thank you for your kind words. Sadly, you're right about human nature: we hate poor people. We hate poor people more than what makes them poor.

Boanerges Redux: You're right TE Lawrence would be heartbroken. Thanks for pointing that out. I hadn't even thought of that. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Markinjapan: Thanks for stopping by and also for your PM. I hope you get to Phuket where you like the food and hospitals.

Greg: It really is rather shocking isn't it? Truly unconscionable. And we, here in the first world, do take so very much for granted. Thank you for your kind words.

Bonnie: Thanks for your enthusiasm and words of congratulations. You couldn't have slept that late since you commented by 9:35 am ET and you're in California.

Emma Peel 2: Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Yes, tragically, the Bidoun have been completely dispossessed and forgotten. I know that here in Canada we have a lot to be ashamed of for how we have treated First Nations peoples, but it's still not as bad as what's happening in Kuwait. It's nice to know I'm not the only Canadian who would like to have been born elsewhere, but at least we both know we're lucky nonetheless to be Canadian. I wonder where it is you would have liked to have been born? Me? Probably Italy. Sweden would be cold and dark like here in the winter, but I like the way the Swedes do most things.

Blue: You're right, I thought about the immigrant situation in North America and Europe, too, when researching this. There are similarities. I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment.
Liz, your piece is both very engaging and enraging. I feel for all the "non-belonging" people and how difficult their life must be. You brought up a very good point about how we often take our citizenship for granted. I did that too - my dual one, in fact. Reading articles like this does make me grateful for what we have, and hope for those who lack it. Congratulations on the EP!
Excellent, informative piece, Liz. I'd heard mention of "stateless" people but had no idea the story behind them.

Glad you received an EP for this, so more people will read it.
I was off this weekend and missed this. I'm glad to have caught it. This was something I didn't know, almost like the untouchables in India, except they are citizens. Great Post!
Liz: The beauty of OS, among many other things, is that I learn something new every single day. I had never heard of this issue before. I even felt the sense of exclusion simply by reading your post. How must they feel? Thanks for enlightening me.

Fusun: Thank you for your generous words. I'm glad it both engaged and enraged. To enrage is, of course, the point. I'm glad I was able to get that across.

Cranky: Thanks for finding the time to read on this busy birthday day. I'm glad you found this informative.

Scanner: You're right, the Bidoun are something like India's untouchables but, as you say, they are citizens. Whatever that can mean to an untouchable in India. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Lezlie: I'm so glad I was able to enlighten and that you were able to "feel" the exclusion of the stateless Arabs in this piece. Thanks so much for your comments.
I've long felt that the world should establish standards for citizenship, as it is easy for someone to fall in the cracks. Charlie Chaplin's grandson needed an act of parliament (and got it, as his mother buttonholed Churchill at a party they both attended). The world is full of people who don't neatly fit in the right categories.

Hence, countries that grant citizenship easily have lines at the door. I knew plenty of people going through the cumbersome process to become Russian citizens, because their "native" country is a in which place they don't live, don't want to live, and/or have never lived. Some don't even know the language of their "native" country. Some have never set foot in it.
This sounds sort of like what it used to be like in a lot of places to be Jewish. Even if we had some sort of citizenship, it was often secondary and could easily be revoked - and often was.

That the Kuwaiti monarchy would pull this isn't all that surprising. That sort of thing happens a lot in that area, like conflicts between Palestinians and Jordanians within Jordan.
Congrats on your EP and thanks for the informative article!! Rated
Rated. Excellent piece. It is like 'The Unseen' in many parts of the world, no home, no identity, not even acknowledge by sight of the people.

~shaking head~
I missed this, and an EP too! I never knew this about Kuwait and I always assumed everyone lived like royalty there. I can't fathom what it must be like to not only be unable to leave what you consider to be your country - but to be told you have no country. As you state, it's got to be soul-destroying. This is terrific work, Liz.
Very interesting article, but I think I must point out that the Roma in Europe are not without nationality. Whether they want it or not, they are citizens of the country they were born in -insofar as Europe is concerned.

Please see this article if interested:


I know that most Roma live outside of society in whichever country you find them, but this does not mean they are without citizenship, even if they themselves in many cases don't care for it.

As for you comment on citizenship being a basic human right, although it would be a nice idea, I have to disagree.

According to the UNHCR's website: "Nationality is a legal bond between a state and an individual, and statelessness refers to the condition of an individual who is not considered as a national by any state."

Since any modern State is a social creation, as such, it exists because of a set of made-up rules. Those who make up the rules get to choose who can, and can't, participate.

Unfortunately, too many people today -around 12 million- are considered "Stateless".

Although I am no defender of the undemocratic Gulf states, I have to wonder why the Bidoun are now asking for something which was offered in the first place but they refused.

Of course, that is not to say that you can play with a people's nationality, but I have a couple of friends who live in Bahrain who tell me that, as you mention but don't seem to believe, many Arabs from other countries do settle illegally in Kuwait, Qatar, etc etc etc, who do try and pass themselves off as locals.

Do they have a right to citizenship? Well, in my eyes they do, of course, if they live and work there, but you can't just say that the Government of Kuwait is lying about their origin unless you know for a fact that they are.

Nonetheless, it is not my intention to post anything negative here, and I dully understand your concern for the Bidoun. I just wanted to make those clarifications.

Using a illustration from a book or a photo from a copyrighted publication to illustrate your own column is a violation of copyright and does not fall under the 'fair use' clause.

Fair Use allows the reproduction of a piece of art when it is the object of analysis or attempt at education. Here it is being used as illustration, the very purpose for which it was created and not 'fair use.'

Giving a reference to it does not satisfy the copyright law, either.

I did like the article.

Liz, I'm so sorry I missed this - you must have posted it just after I logged off for a few days. At any rate, what a fascinating article - and you make such a good tie-in with your relationship to your own nationality - I hear ya. Excellent writing and congratulations on the very well deserved EP!
Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

" (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality."
This is a late reply but I just saw it on Google searches and decided to make an account, so that I could reply to you.

As a Kuwaiti, I understand my country's problems and indeed there are things waiting to be fixed, not least of which is the nationality issue.

Nevertheless, I suspect during your short time in Kuwait, you failed to understand/comprehend the bigger problem.

Picture this, what would happen if every nation in the Western world decided to naturalize illegal immigrants? What would happen to the dozens of nations in Europe, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand if all these nations decide to grant illegal immigrants citizenship?

I'll tell you what's going to happen, more and more people from poorer countries are going to decide to ignore proper procedures of applying for immigration, and instead they're going to focus their energies on finding ways to sneak into your countries. Then of course, after settling there and having children, they can rightfully acquire citizenships, until your countries find out they can no longer sustain a huge population of people or provide them any services either. Meanwhile, nations like India, Pakistan and many more will be better off knowing that millions of their own people migrated elsewhere, even if it was illegally.

Kuwait is too small in size and population to sustain naturalizing immigrants left and right. Kuwait is set up differently as a country. Kuwait's government is granting its citizens an excess of services, for free. No taxes, nothing. Personally, I'm against it. I think it's time Kuwait becomes more efficient as country. But here's the deal, if we naturalize many people, our country will no longer be able to provide these services over time. And since they wont be able to, it makes the whole point of getting a Kuwaiti nationality useless for the immigrant, since I doubt they'll care about becoming Kuwaitis if it weren't for the luxuries they're seeing the government grant these days to its small population of people.

You don't understand our country or its capacity to sustain itself or even our history. You think it's ludicrous for us to believe that many stateless people come from other countries. That is the case, whether you like to believe it or not. People in the government and outside the government have proved it time and time again, released documents of stateless people and proving they had citizenships in other countries (mostly Iraq during its Kingdom years), etc.

The government of Kuwait made it clear back in the 60s that it was going to give benefits for the citizens of Kuwait who suffered for many generations in that plot of land, before the years oil was discovered. Many people took it to their advantage to claim Kuwaiti citizenship after they heard about the benefits. But too bad for them, they were caught with their other nationalities and none of the citizens of old Kuwait even recognized them.

I don't mind naturalizing the stateless bidons who served Kuwait during the Gulf War. As someone who resisted in Kuwait during those 7 months of occupation, I appreciate the efforts of the individuals who served Kuwait and I think they deserve the nationality.

As for Indians and Palestinians who served Kuwait, many of them were naturalized. But not all of them, not even most. But that's natural for a small country like Kuwait that does not want to exceed its limitations when it is already too stretched out.

Until we decide to implement heavy taxes on people, cut back on the excessive luxuries that the government has to offer and simply emulate Western systems, then we shouldn't be naturalizing many people in the first place. It's only suicide to our country's economy and, dare I say, demography. We're conservative about keeping a hold of our country's family ties and we'd like to keep it that way for now. Who knows what the future holds for Kuwait, but in the mean time we cant risk throwing our country away.