Kuwait - Society

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.

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 Muslims; the minority are Shia. 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.


In 1993 Kuwait's population was highly educated, both in comparison to other states in the region and in comparison to its pre-oil education levels. The impressive education system was brought about by a conscious government decision, made possible by revenues from oil that began in the 1950s, to invest heavily in human resources.

Although the pre-oil education system was modest by 1993 standards, it was still impressive, given the limited finances at the time. In the early 1900s, education consisted largely of Quran schools offering basic literacy training in the context of religious instruction. This system provided some formal schooling for nearly all boys and most girls. Wealthy families often sent sons abroad for further education. In the first decades of the twentieth century, merchants anxious for more extensive training for their sons opened a few private schools, notably the Mubarakiyyah School in 1911 and the Ahmadiyyah School in 1921. In the 1930s, merchants established the Education Council and expanded the system to include four new primary schools, including one for girls. The government soon took over this growing system and, with new oil revenues after World War II,rapidly expanded the system. In 1956 the government laid down the basis of the education system that still existed in 1993: kindergarten and primary, middle, and secondary schools. A 1965 law, largely enforced, made education compulsory until the age of fourteen. A small system of private schools also developed. Public education, including preschool and higher education, was from the beginning free for all nationals and for many foreigners. The government absorbs not only the costs of schools but also those of books, uniforms, meals, transportation, and incidental expenses. In preinvasion Kuwait, the majority of the students in the education system were non-Kuwaitis.

The apex of the public education system is Kuwait University, which the government established in 1966. More than half the students at Kuwait University are women, in part because families are more likely to send boys abroad for study. The government also subsidizes hundreds of students in university study abroad, many in the United States.

As a result of these efforts, the school population and the literacy rate increased steadily. By the mid-1980s, literacy and education rates were high. Although only 55 percent of the citizen population was literate in 1975, by 1985 that percentage had increased to 73.6 percent (84 percent for males and 63.1 percent for females). In 1990 the overall literacy rate was 73 percent. The total number of teachers increased from just under 3,000 at independence in 1961 to more than 28,000 in academic year 1988-89; the number of schools increased from 140 to 642 during the same period.

The education system has its problems, however. For example, it relies heavily on foreign teachers. In the late 1950s, almost 90 percent were non-Kuwaitis. Despite a long-standing government effort to indigenize education, the system continues to rely heavily on foreigners. The system also often fails to train graduates in fields that correspond to Kuwait's most pressing labor needs. Especially in higher education, the system produces many graduates with training in liberal arts and few with training in vocational subjects.

Health and Welfare

The health care system and health conditions also improved dramatically in the years after oil revenues brought wealth to the country. Kuwait's first attempts to introduce a modern health care system date back to the first years of the twentieth century when the ruler, Shaykh Mubarak Al Sabah the Great, invited doctors from the Arabian Mission of the Dutch Reformed Church in the United States to establish a clinic. By 1911 the group had organized a hospital for men and in 1919 a small hospital for women. In 1934 the thirty-four-bed Olcott Memorial Hospital opened. Between 1909 and 1946, Kuwait experienced gradual, albeit limited, improvement in health conditions. General mortality stood between twenty and twenty-five per 1,000 population and infant mortality between 100 and 125 per 1,000 live births. After the government began receiving oil revenues, it expanded the health care system, beginning with the opening of the Amiri Hospital in 1949. The Kuwait Oil Company (KOC) also opened some small health facilities. By 1950 general mortality had fallen to between seventeen and twenty-three per 1,000 population and infant mortality to between eighty and 100 per 1,000 live births.In the 1950s, the government introduced a comprehensive health care system offering free services to the entire population. Free health care was so extensive that it even included veterinary medicine. Expenditures on health ranked third in the national budget, after public works and education. As with education, the system relied heavily on foreigners. Most of the physicians were foreigners, particularly Egyptians. Critics charged the designers of the system with paying undue attention to acquiring the most modern and expensive medical equipment, without regard to the country's health priorities, and favoring treatment over prevention. Nonetheless, improvements in available health care and in public health were dramatic. The number of doctors grew from 362 in 1962 to 2,641 in 1988. The doctor-to-patient ratio improved from one to 1,200 to one to 600. Infant and child mortality rates dropped dramatically; in 1990 the infant mortality rate was fifteen per 1,000 live births. Life expectancy increased ten years in the postindependence years, putting Kuwait at a level comparable to most industrialized countries. In 1990 life expectancy for males was seventy-two years and for females seventy-six years.

In addition to a comprehensive system of health care, the government provides residents with one of the world's most encompassing social service systems. Not only does it indirectly support the national population through guaranteed state employment and subsidized services (such as water and electricity), but it also supports those most in need through direct subsidies. These include the disabled, the elderly, the unemployed, students and their families, the widowed, the unmarried, and even the families of prisoners.

By 1990 Kuwait had an extensive welfare program, exceeded perhaps by no other country. Citizens receive free medical services from highly trained practitioners in modern facilities; free education through the university level; subsidized food, housing, utilities, and transportation; and various other benefits. For all this, they pay no taxes: the system is supported by oil revenues from outside the country. On the eve of the Iraqi invasion, the United Nations Development Programme placed Kuwait at the top of its annual human development index with a life expectancy of 73.4 years, an adult literacy rate of 73 percent, and a real per capita gross domestic product of US$15,984. The benefits of the welfare system, however, are unevenly distributed among the population. Noncitizens in particular benefit much less, and many, especially those from Arab states and those who have worked many years in Kuwait, resent their disadvantaged position.


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