By Geoffrey Martin
Rai Insights Contributor
Kuwait: The expatriate community in Kuwait is a vibrant and multifaceted group of people that numbers in the millions (roughly 70% of the population of 4.2 million). There have been a wide variety of editorials and news about the expatriate community in Kuwait recently (see a recent one here). One must only look to see two sides of an often-lopsided debate: expatriates being blamed for the poor economic development of the country and the unhappiness of expatriates.
The latest annual Expat Insider survey compiled by InterNations ranked Kuwait bottom out of 64 countries. Polls of expats in Kuwait are consistent: expatriates are unhappy with the country in terms of leisure options, personal happiness, and social environment, quality of life and feeling welcome; Kuwait only scored high on job security and language.
The last five years have been a difficult time for many expats, burdened with increased fees for healthcare and government services concerning residency, as well as rising inflation on rents, consumer products, and food. The impact of the Arab Spring, which resulted in deflated tourism, foreign direct investment, increased government spending, and general uneasiness impacted Kuwait as much as any country in the region. The general instability hit Arab expats, particularly Egyptians who send large sums of money home, leading to a search for cost savings at the very time costs have been increasing in Kuwait.
Since 2011 there has been sweeping new government policies that target expats, that could explain the “sustained” unhappiness. The 300 million KD new Al-Jaber hospital will give treatment only to Kuwaitis. Shortages in healthcare are a major problem in Kuwait for nationals and non-nationals alike. Hospitals and clinics in Jahra and the Amiri hospital in downtown Kuwait also have begun giving preferential hours and treatment to Kuwaitis. Furthermore, legislation last April increased the price of electricity and water in all residential buildings for expats from the current flat rate of two fils per kilowatt up to 15 fils per kilowatt. Last year, new regulations on obtaining driver’s licenses and minimum salaries have also added strain, making it more difficult for those with salaries under 500 KD to drive. The impact of increased fees for residency (raised from 250 KD to 450 KD per year) have yet to be felt
In the National Assembly, rhetoric has also been prominent and has created a pervasive sense of uneasiness. I wouldn’t argue that it is increasing because the topic of expats has been a major source of contention in Kuwait for decades. But recently the topic has intensified, as these things usually do when oil prices drop and budgets are strained as happened in the 1980s. Lawmaker Safaa al-Hashem recently stated that “expats are crowding our hospitals and competing with us for the air we breathe in hospital waiting rooms.” After al-Hashem’s comment, another MP Abdulkareem al-Kandari said there is an “alarming increase in the number of expats versus Kuwaiti nationals” going on further to note that “We refuse to be a minority in our own country”.
A major segment of public sentiment aligns with this trend. On Twitter and Instagram, tweets and posts by many Kuwaitis, usually from the younger generation, criticize expats for traffic congestion, crashing weddings, raising crime, inflating prices among a long list of other ills.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MOSAL) noted these calls. The minister for MOSAL, Hind al-Sabeeh, promised a plan to “balance the demographics of the country over the next five years, without disrupting the balance of work.” This statement does not redirect or signify a policy shift from long-term strategies, which outline the objective of reducing the expatriate population by 1 million over the next ten years. It is not clear how the 350,000 Kuwaiti citizens (80 percent of them work in the government sector), would replace and approve of lower salaries and service sector jobs, which are dominated by expatriates. Replacing the foreign workforce is the seminal challenge of Kuwait’s future post-oil economy.
Many outsiders and insiders have commented on the potential for large amounts of expatriates to flee the country, which would cause an economic catastrophe. This will not happen in my opinion. Expats have been dealing in fluctuations in pricing and in legal regulations for decades. And while the polling and anecdotal evidence illustrates an assumption that expatriates are very unhappy the truth is the majority of expatriates stay for years or a lifetime regardless of their complaints.
Policy changes will put pressure on expats, but as a recent Arab times poll demonstrated, a majority of expatriate respondents (41%), shared the fact that they had no option to pay the increased gas prices. Like other price and policy changes this is part of the price of living in a country where the highly inflated currency gives tremendous buying power outside.
And in the long-term I think that most expats actually agree with pricing changes as they see more than most Kuwaitis that the future of the economy post-oil can only survive through the a reduction of subsidies and increase fees and taxes. Reductions in rent and many consumer products will come with the reduced inflation that is natural for a oil-rich economy.
* Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student at the University of Toronto and currently is a visiting researcher at the American University in Kuwait. He currently resides in Kuwait.