Over 3,000 Egyptian migrant workers in Kuwait were rounded up by police and packed off to desert internment camps at the end of last month, following two days of street troubles on October 30-31. The incident took place in the Khaitan region, 20 kilometres south of the capital, where 60,000 Egyptian workers live in crowded living quarters far from the cosy world of indigenous Kuwaitis. The region is virtually a shanty-town of migrant workers from different countries.
The troubles began when an Egyptian broke a plate in a shop owned by a Bangladeshi, and refused to pay for it. The two men exchanged words and the police were called. The arrest of the Egyptian led to rioting by other Egyptians. But the clumsy and unnecessary crackdown, in which 120 people were injured, lasted for two days, widening the circle of rioters and angering most of the 274,000 Egyptians in Kuwait.
The authorities compounded their initial over-reaction by rounding up more than 3,000 Egyptians and packing them off to camps in the desert. Even the normally dormant Arab Organization for the Defence of Human Rights issued a statement on November 4 condemning what it called ‘the violations against the Egyptian demonstrators’, and deploring the fate of migrant workers in Kuwait.
The episode shook Egyptian-Kuwaiti relations. But the severely embarrassed governments of the two countries moved quickly to contain the fallout by establishing a committee to examine migrant workers’ conditions. This, however, is mere tinkering and needs to be seriously addressed. Egyptians are not the only migrant workers being oppressed in Kuwait, and Kuwait is not the only oppressor of migrants.
Of Kuwait’s total population of 2.2 million, 1.4 million are foreigners. The episode has also been taken as a warning in the other countries of the GCC, where there are 10.2 million foreigners out of a total population of 27.7 million.
Many of the Egyptian workers arrived after the Gulf War in 1991, when Kuwait expelled 400,000 Palestinian and Jordanian workers. The workers’ admission to Kuwait was part of Egypt’s reward for its role in the ‘liberation’ of Kuwait, which included a pledge by the emirate and other Gulf States to spend US$15 billion on development projects.
The promised funding has failed to come through, and many Egyptian workers seeking jobs in Kuwait have fallen victim to fraud by their sponsors and employers. Many are unskilled workers, who were forced to sell their lands and property in rural Egypt to pay agents who promised to find them jobs, only to find out on arrival either that there are no jobs or that working conditions are unbearable.
With Cairo claiming an economic miracle, and Kuwait posing as the most ‘democratic’ Arab country, the picture of thousands of Egyptian workers rioting for better working conditions is a public relations disaster for both.
Muslimedia: November 16-30, 1999