KUWAIT INDEPENDENCE DAY, KUWAIT NATIONAL DAY, &THE RISE OF A NEW FACELESS POVERTY ON THE MIDDLE EASTERN LANDSCAPE
By Kevin A. Stoda, Kuwait
Sociologist Dr. Mark Olson at Gulf University in Kuwait recently published an article, “Kuwait’s Rich Man-Poor Man Syndrome”, on the need for the field of sociology to recognize a third definition of poverty.
For years a somewhat dichotomous pair of definitions have suffice in teaching incoming college freshman the distinction between (a) absolute poverty and (b) relative poverty.
Absolute poverty is illustrated through a vignette of his experiences in Africa some 3 decades ago as a Peace Corp volunteer, “Glancing out of a taxi on a gray overcast day in Addis Ababa, I saw a woman head bowed, as she was crossing the street, apparition-like. What was noticeable was that she was dressed in a garment completely made up of plastic sacks.”
Absolute poverty is noticeable by its obvious dimensions—or lack thereof.
When someone is living in absolute poverty she has nothing—or practically nothing to call her own. Moreover, absolute poverty can be marked by many untreated ailments, e.g. leprosy in a society which doesn’t have appropriate medical care, medicine, equipment or standards available. Olson shared of seeing such beggers with only stumps or partially missing appendages in his days in Ethiopia of the 1970s.
Olson turns to South America for his next example in order to illustrate relative poverty.
Olson explains, “Mention Colombia and thoughts come to mind of lush mountain jungles, guerillas in green fatigues, cocaine processing and fatalistic campesinos that plod along life’s rocky paths in sandals even as life speeds past them in caravans of expensive cars and SUVs.”
Olson adds, “These costly vehicles, usually out-fitted with smoke-tinted widows, are occupied by society’s elite, of both political and drug-trafficking origins. From the outside, the occupants are indistinguishable. Some might argue from the inside, as well.”
Because there are many classes, including a middle class, in Colombian society, poverty is referred to there often in terms of relative poverty in most instances. According to Olson, this preference in defining poverty (in terms of relative poverty) in describing Colombia is based upon the fact that “[t]hreats to life expectancy are more likely to come from the criminal elements or agents of state instead of poverty.”
“FACELESS POVERTY” IN GLOBALIZED MARKETS
Historically, Olson writes, “Whatever the imagery that poverty evokes, the point is that poverty has a face. What if, however, poverty fails to evoke a face? To the extent that poverty becomes faceless, should it also fall away as a category in reality?”
It is this manifestation of unmeasured, un-registered, or un-quantified poverty in a global context that Olson focuses on in the rest of his article. He finds inspiration for the concept all around him in the Gulf state of Kuwait, where he has researched and taught in recent years.
Olson continues, “What is remarkable about Kuwait is that [poverty’s face] it’s mostly unremarkable?”
This is partially a reflection of the many lacking official statistical measures of poverty in the less-than transparent Kuwait (member of WTO) society.
For example, most all national statistics focus on less than 33% of the country’s actual population. I.e., National statistics of any kind in Kuwait generally reflect only persons with a Kuwaiti citizenship.
These roughly 900,000 people (Kuwaiti citizens) out of over 3 million residents greatly skew the reality on the ground in Kuwait in terms of reliably measuring and observing poverty–or describe poverty in absolute or relative terms.
Furthermore, both the ghettoization of living space and work space also somewhat makes imaging poverty obscured from the reality or presence of the average student and researcher in sociology as well.
For example, Kuwait, as a social welfare state, on behalf of its citizens “collects 95% of its income from oil revenues”. This same rentier state has “a budgeted surplus of $23 billion or $23,000 for every Kuwaiti man women, and child. The trade surplus has doubled to $40billion. There are assets of $213 billion in reserves.”
Therefore, theoretically, “Kuwaiti citizens could live on the [current] income from the Reserve Fund for Future Generations at $20,000 per capita indefinitely.” This is a socialist’s dream economy!
However, Kuwait in reality may be interesting, but it is not the living dream of socialist values in many facets.
Olson notes that he has time-and-again met Kuwaiti students who on-the-face of it deny all the facts and realities of poverty around them and who adamantly claim poverty does not exist in Kuwait.
Olson remarks, “However, to the outside observer, student statements about poverty’s non-existence will seem ludicrous.”
“A drive through some sections of Kuwait will reveal crowded, often dilapidated structures, junk cars and dumpsters teaming with refuse.” Olson extrapolates, “These areas house the expatriate laborers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Philippines and other parts of Middle East and Asian.”
Most workers are so underpaid that many of their own governments are now holding back on permitting their citizens to work in Gulf states, such as Kuwait, until current laws are better enforced or legislation is developed to protect labor.
For example, India has temporarily stopped allowing many of its citizens to travel to the Gulf until better standard minimum contracts are negotiated for the thousands of maids in the petroleum rich countries of the Gulf. Some maids work 80 hours a week for as little as 100 to 120 dollars a month in Kuwait.
India’s Minister of Overseas Affairs, Vayalar Ravi, has recently noted that maids are the most exploited group of the many exploited laborers in the Gulf. The minister is cited as claiming that there are “frequent complaints of harassment, overwork and low wages from female domestic workers.”
Apparently, according to the Indian ministry, maids are not even covered by many Gulf government’s labor legislation at all.
Meanwhile, the presence of over 2million foreign workers who do 88% of the work in the private sector of Kuwait are not only ignored in terms of statistics and labor protection, but they are also often blamed for inflation and other evils in the country.
Worse still is the faceless-ness of their presence, and, therefore, the faceless-ness of their poverty in wealthy Kuwait.
Olson notes that foreigners, to a degree, have themselves to blame for keeping themselves off the radar of the average Kuwaiti--who as well appears to do his best to ignore the foreigner’s existence.
For example, some other foreign governments don’t actually do very much to support their own citizen laborers in the Gulf region because these governments fear that if they would complain too loudly, there is the possibility that all these nationals would be immediately shipped home. i.e. These laborer’s money’s will not be able to generate more economic strength at home.
Moreover, many of the newer and poorer countries on the planet (or older South Sea islands of the Pacific, such as Fiji) even have diplomatic representation in the region.
Olson continues, “Self-censorship by the workers also plays a role. Workers endure exploitation, unspeakable hardships and privation. They accept their misfortunes in the hopes that the exchange rates compensate their self-denial in the end.”
In Kuwait hundreds of thousands of laborers are expected this very 3-day National Holidays (24 to 26 February) to be forced to work throughout each holiday as the Kuwait’s celebrate the nation’s founding 47 years ago (on 25 February 1961) and mark the independence of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation on 26 February 1991.
In short, the day of rest law applies to Kuwaitis and some of their coworkers, but national law does not provide or enforce the masses from being forced to labor without holiday options or without being able to demand overtime.
This lack of recognition of the poorer masses who keep the country running on the most important national holidays in Kuwait symbolizes an endemic problem of “faceless worker-hood” and “faceless poverty” in Kuwait.
“FACELESS POVERTY” & “FACELESS WORKERS” ALL AROUND US
To tell the truth, faceless poverty and lack of recognition before the law by the poorest subject classes on a global stage (i.e. with all in search of work and existential realization of dreams) is not simply a Kuwaiti phenomenon.
Moreover, Kuwait actually apparently has better labor protection on the books than other countries—even if they are not often and vigorously applied in fact.
Meanwhile, in the UAE, i.e. the darling of the investment world for this past decade, the city state of Dubai has a worse reputation for treatment of its poor construction workers than does Kuwait.
Human Rights Watch has stated that even recent draft laws to protect laborers “fall far short of international standards for the rights of workers.”
Dubai’s courts marked the city’s February 2008 Shopping Festival ( big tourist draw in the Gulf) by sentencing 75 Indian laborers to 6-months in prison and expulsion from the country for striking in a land that doesn’t even allow any labor organization for its ill-treated foreign laborers.
To be fair, the phenomena of the migrating “faceless poor” is also somewhat common in North America and North American entities doing business abroad to some degree, too.
Olson reminds us, “Faceless poverty is not limited to any one country of origin. It is seen on Camp Arifjan, Kuwait where American military personnel leave their Taco Bell burrito wrappers and other refuse to be picked up by locally contracted Pakistani cleaning help. It is seen in the stockyards or on South 24 Street where groups of migrant workers wait to be picked up to cut lawns or remodel homes in Omaha, Nebraska.”
However, the source of the problem of the “faceless poor” isn’t only lack of statistics and lack of access to rights and justice.
According to Dr. Olson, the source of his concern with Kuwait’s approach to the poor and poverty, is the pervasive “reticence and self-denial [that] allow Kuwaiti society to go unchecked in absolving itself of any wrongdoing.”
In contrast with Dr. Olson, though, I personally believe the creation of America’s own faceless poverty, especially since the 1960s—i.e.. the last time America tried to build a great and better society--, has occurred, too, through our own lack of analysis of statistics over the years showing that from 1970 onwards poverty was creeping upwards, class divisions growing wider, and standards of living were shrinking.
Instead, we had people declare victory for the free market in the 1980s and again in the 1990s—while never looking at the facts on the ground.
Now in 2008 America has a chance to do better. America needs to move beyond reticence and take the bull-by the horn.
The wealthier halves of society in the U.S.A. also need to do what is needed of Kuwaiti’s today: a little self-denial of one’s own wealth and standing in society in order to see and get to know the poor around us and to do something about it.
Sadly, in February 2008 as Kuwait celebrates its most important national days with music, dancing and flair, all the headlines in the local newspapers indicate that Kuwaiti’s are facing only themselves, i.e. looking inward at individual needs and greed—demanding that all Kuwaiti Citizens get an increase of about 500 dollar a month allowance from the national government—while ignoring the poor and poorer peoples all around them.
It is the poorer non-Kuwait who is being more hurt by inflation and bad government spending than is the average Kuwaiti national.
EPILOGUE: WIZARD OF OZ & KUWAIT and HOMELANDS
On the front page of the 25 February 2008 (i.e. Kuwait’s National Day) the ARAB TIMES daily printed a remarkable piece by Reverend Andy Thompson of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Ahmadi, Kuwait.
The short article was simply entitled “Wizard of Oz” and at first glance seemed to be a cultural piece on the musicals, “Wizard of Oz” and the “Dream Dealer”, the reverend had seen performed the previous week.
However, the good reverend took his journalistic opportunity to ponder what the hidden meanings of these musical dramas were for the many residents of Kuwait.
Thompson writes, “At one point in the show when the principal characters had arrived at the fantastic land of Oz, we were serenaded by a clown, jumping African dancers, a Korean dance troupe, a group of multi-ethnic ballet dancers, disco dancing jitterbugs, a large choir and a marching brass band.”
For this viewer, “Surely the land of Oz represents Kuwait with her multitude of talented and skilled workers from all over the globe. The principle characters represent us. We are a motley crew of travelers arriving in Kuwait to seek security and fulfillment of dreams.”
Thompson adds that there are numerous possible candidates for the Wicked Witch of the West, but his preferred interpretation is “simply all those who seek to use terror and force to intimidate others.”
Suddenly, the reverend turns his writing sword on those so-called benefactors in Kuwait who capture their labor in Kuwait and don’t allow them to return home and/or without their full-pay and earnings in any timely manner.
The reverend emphasizes, “These include several hundred people who are held at the overcrowded detention center.”
Thompson then thanked one of the few active agencies for relief of poverty in Kuwait: “Social Work Society of Kuwait.” He indicated that the society has in the past enabled various workers to return home from Kuwait’s Oz of multiculturalism (and segregation in mind and poverty) to their homeland.
There is no place like home, but both our homelands and our Ozes can be much better if we don’t deny what it is around us and work for a better place in the weeks and month’s to come, long after the music and dancing of Kuwait’s National Day and Independence Days are behind us.
Al-Hajery, Khalid, Al-Enezi, Ayed, & Al-Ajmi, Hadi, “MPs to Fight for KD 150
Hike”, ARAB TIMES, 23 Feb. 2008, p.1,8.
“Delhi Mandates Minimum Wage for Maids Overseas”, ARAB TIMES, 23 Feb. 2008, p.1,8.
“Indian Workers Jailed in Dubai”, ARAB TIMES, 25 Feb. 2008, p. 9.
Olson, Mark, “Kuwit’s Rich Man-Poor Man Syndrome”, The Antelope Valley
Political Observer, February 2008.
Thompson, Andy, “Wizard of Oz” , ARAB TIMES, 25 Feb. 2008, p. 1, 8.