By: Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
August 2015 saw the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which caused a major shock to the Kuwaiti society, and major shocks at the Arab, Islamic, and international levels, and in which the Palestinian residents of Kuwait also suffered immensely. They were forced to flee in large numbers, their community subsequently dropping from around 430 thousand to around 30 thousand within two years only.
Kuwait took in the Palestinians with open arms, even when it was still a British protectorate. Upon its independence in 1961, Kuwait was home to 37 thousand Palestinians who constituted 18.5% of non-Kuwaiti residents, compared, for example, to three thousand Egyptians.
In the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the wake of the 1967 war that led to the occupation of the West Bank (WB) and Gaza Strip (GS), the number of Palestinians in Kuwait increased dramatically. In 1975, there were around 204 thousand Palestinians in the Gulf nation, representing 29.7% of all expatriates in Kuwait, who numbered 687 thousand.
The Palestinians maintained their high numbers compared to other expatriates until the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in the summer of 1990, accounting for 27.9% of expatriates (430 thousand out of 1.542 million.) In general, the Palestinians remained the largest Arab community in Kuwait between independence and the Iraqi invasion.
Palestinians were attracted to Kuwait thanks to the understanding and friendliness of its people, its comparatively broad margin of freedom, its elected national assembly, its dynamic press, the chance to find decent work there, and the security and stability they rarely experienced elsewhere.
The Palestinians contributed effectively to Kuwait’s development and prosperity in all sectors, from government to private enterprises. Their role was not confined to marginal posts, as they were at the heart of the Kuwaiti revival. The Palestinians in Kuwait had a key role as competent and efficient cadres in government ministries and departments, and served as doctors, teachers, pharmacists, engineers, accountants, clerks, and so on.
Their role did not decline until a new young educated Kuwaiti generation emerged, and the government implemented Kuwaitization policies. For example, 49% of teachers in public schools in 1965 were Palestinians; and even in 1975 they still represented a quarter of teachers.
Various Palestinian factions enjoyed a good margin of freedom of movement without significant government intervention, except when the country’s security and stability was involved. Therefore, it is not odd that Fatah emerged and thrived in Kuwait, while many of Hamas leaders abroad were Palestinian residents of Kuwait as well.
The Palestinians had a vital role in the local economy. Unlike other expatriates, most Palestinians spent their incomes in the local market and the local economy. Indeed, most of them lived with their families in Kuwait, spending most of their wages on them. Feeling they are settled in Kuwait, they linked their lives to the local economic cycle, benefiting Kuwaitis in most cases in the form of housing rents, purchases, and living expenses.
Only a limited segment of Palestinians, who had spare incomes or responsibilities, sent regular remittances outside Kuwait.
Furthermore, the social stability and the presence of Palestinian families in Kuwait greatly reduced the problems that usually accompany the presence of single male expatriates. In general, Palestinian expatriates were the least disturbing of the peace and security and the least committing of violations.
The Palestinians in Kuwait did not live in camps. However, there were places where the Palestinian community was concentrated in Kuwait city, constituting the majority of the residents in suburbs such as al-Naqra, Hawali, Khaitan, and Farwaniya, which were among the densest Palestinian communities in the world. As a result, the Palestinians in Kuwait were able to achieve a high level of internal social and political interaction with the Palestinian issue. In addition, Palestinians in Kuwait preserved their traditions, customs, and even their dialect, while engaging positively with Kuwaitis and other expatriates.
Since the early 1980s, the conditions of the Palestinians began to decline as a result of the deteriorating economic situation in Kuwait caused by the slump in oil prices, but also as a result of Kuwaitization and attempts to control the number of expatriates in the country.
Palestinian families had difficulties especially when it came to their children’s education, as Kuwaiti government schools decided to admit only those born in Kuwait. These families also suffered as a result of the high cost associated with sending their children to study in university abroad, when Kuwait University decided (by late 1980s) to admit only those non-Kuwaitis who obtain a grade of 94% and above, on their official high school exams.
Those who were over 21 years of age in Kuwait were no longer given residence permits unless they had jobs, putting thousands of students studying abroad at risk of losing their residence permits in Kuwait and leaving their families at risk of breaking apart. Palestinian (and expatriated) families also suffered as a result of costly rents, which sometimes took over half of their monthly wages.
The tragedy suffered by the Palestinian community in Kuwait in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was a disaster by any measure. This community, 90% of which was harshly and suddenly uprooted, was the largest Palestinian community outside Palestine in the world after Jordan. The Palestinian community in Kuwait was even larger than the Palestinian communities in Syria, or in Lebanon, or in Saudi Arabia respectively.
Even today, tackling that tragedy is still marked by a lot of sensitivity and hesitation. The invasion was accompanied by a huge campaign of political and media incitement. Many who were involved in the issue used an emotionally charged discourse, mired by generalization, distortion, and even hatred. All this has made it difficult to address the issue from an objective angle. In this context, we would like to make some observations on the anniversary of the invasion, to better understand that tragedy.
Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait was a sample of hasty and crude decisions usually made by dictatorships, following miscalculations. The decision brought huge negative repercussions for both Iraq and Kuwait, as well as the cause of Palestine and the region.
One of the most prominent features of this decision was that Saddam deliberately confounded his differences with Kuwait with the claim that the occupation of Kuwait was part of the project for Arab unity, the liberation of Palestine, and resistance against Zionism and US imperialism. However, Saddam did not have a real vision for unity and liberation, not the means, capabilities, and infrastructure that make him eligible to play such a role.
His dictatorial regime was incapable of winning the support of people and unite them under its banner. For this reason, Saddam exploited the Palestinian issue to gain popular support. Saddam was able to gain broad sympathy, especially in Palestine and Jordan, where people usually respond positively to those who raise the banner of Palestine and profess animosity to Israel and U.S. imperialism.
The position of the PLO leadership under Yasir ‘Arafat siding with Saddam Hussein in the war against the US-led Arab and international coalition to liberate Kuwait had a hugely negative impact on the position of the Kuwaitis and the Gulf nations vis-à-vis the PLO and even the Palestinian people.
Making matters worse, Saddam brought in a number of Palestinians affiliated to the Arab Liberation Front, a Palestinian faction backed by the defunct Ba‘thist regime in Iraq, and deployed them at some checkpoints along roads in Kuwait. Although Hamas and other segments of the Palestinians rejected the Iraqi occupation, and called for resolving differences in an Arab framework away from foreign intervention, the negative image of the Palestinians remained stuck in the Kuwaiti mind.
The position of the overwhelming majority of Palestinians in Kuwait was against the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. What they saw firsthand was not a project for liberation or unity. The Palestinians were upset by the suffering of their Kuwaiti brethren, and by the loss of security and the deterioration of facilities and services. Their economic life, jobs, and businesses were also disrupted, and their salaries suspended. Banks soon closed, and the Palestinians and others lost access to their savings. This is while many Kuwaitis had better safety networks that covered some of their needs.
At the same time, many Palestinians—especially those working in education—came under pressure from the Iraqi regime to resume their posts, in tandem with Kuwaiti pressure to strike and paralyze civilian life.
Therefore, more than half of the Palestinian community (200–250 thousand) found themselves obliged to leave, especially to Jordan, before Iraq pulled out from Kuwait, while 30 thousand returned to WB and seven thousand to GS.
On the other hand, the Palestinians played an important role in running essential services to sustain normal life in Kuwait, from electricity and water to healthcare, etc. This helped the Kuwaitis and others to endure in exceptional circumstances. There were many instances in which Palestinians risked themselves to hide and protect Kuwaitis, or in preserving sensitive files and archives. Some Palestinians joined or supported Kuwaiti resistance against the occupation. According to some figures, the Iraqi forces detained a total of five thousand Palestinians during their presence in Kuwait for various reasons.
The relentless incitement in the media left a negative perception of Palestinians among most Kuwaitis. When the Kuwaitis regained control of their country, Palestinians in Kuwait were punished for the positions of the PLO leadership, even though they had not endorsed them and had nothing to do with them.
The rest of the Palestinians lived in tough security and economic circumstances, and most of them were barred from returning to their jobs. According to Palestinian sources, around six thousand Palestinians were detained in the months that followed the liberation of Kuwait. Within a year, around 150–200 thousand more Palestinians had to leave the country, leaving behind only 30 thousand Palestinians. Some observers saw the pressure on the Palestinians as being part of a deliberate policy, concerned about permanent resettlement and naturalization of Palestinians in their host countries.
In general, Egyptian, Syrian, and other labor soon replaced Palestinian labor. Figures released by the Kuwaiti Interior Ministry published in Al-Anba’ newspaper on 11/12/2014 show the number of Jordanians in Kuwait as 58,694 (10th largest expatriate community), compared to 7,292 Palestinian refugees holding Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian documents, and 626 Palestinians with documents issued by the Palestinian Authority.
Assuming most Jordanian expatriates are of Palestinian origin, the approximate number of Palestinians in Kuwait stands at around 60 thousand, taking into account Palestinians who hold European, American, and Australian passports.
The same figures indicate there are around 533 thousand Egyptians, 145 thousand Syrians, and 43 thousand Lebanese in Kuwait… Non-Arab communities are led by Indians at 787 thousand, Filipinos at 186 thousand, and Bengalis at 181 thousand. In general, the proportion of Palestinian labor in the general expatriate workforce is no more than 2.5%, less than tenth of the proportion that existed in 1990.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians thus lost their incomes, as Kuwaiti popular and official support for the Palestinian issue receded, especially in the first few years after the invasion. Incitement and mobilization enshrined mistrust towards the Palestinians… On the other hand, Kuwaitis lost huge Palestinian skills that once served their country with dedication and loyalty, and lost a community that spent most of its income inside Kuwait and stimulated the local economic cycle.
With time, Kuwaitis started moving on from that negative perception of Palestinians, dealing with them with realism and pragmatism… Al-Aqsa Intifadah and the heroic Palestinian resistance restored some health to the relationship between the two peoples, and helped a number of Palestinians to return to work in Kuwait.
The Kuwaiti people, like the Palestinian and Iraqi peoples, are authentic people belonging to the same Arab and Muslim nation, which must show solidarity and cooperate. It should not pay the price for the positions of regimes or the mistakes of individuals. Incitement that spreads sedition and enmity must be avoided.
Last but not least, the experience of Palestinians in Kuwait is worthy of further coolheaded and transparent studies and evaluations.
The Arabic version of this article appeared on Al Jazeera.net on 25/8/2015.