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Striking migrant workers in Mahboula in Kuwait

COVID and Kafala

Since Arundhati Roy’s seminal piece on COVID-19, writers from around the world have taken it as a time to reflect on what the disease has uncovered regarding the world we thought we understood. The unprecedented global pandemic has consistently lifted any remaining pretensions regarding the inequality and general degradation of our particular national sites of residence. The best of these writings work by describing the confluence of structural factors exacerbated by the condition of pandemic. In doing so, they teach us about how the generality of structure interacts with the specificity of location. The worst, to use Roy’s lovely turn of phrase, see the writer taking on the role of “a quack epidemiologist, virologist, statistician and prophet,” bundled up into one. I write this in response to a recently circulating article on the LARB blog by Kuwaiti writer and academic Mai al-Nakib, which I desperately wanted to place in this former genre, but which fundamentally misrecognizes the problem in Kuwait. I share much of al-Nakib’s frustration at the situation here and hope to offer a clearer understanding of why Kuwait was always bound to fail in its response.

Al-Nakib begins by comparing her rage at the situation to that experienced by Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. This rage, we learn, is incited by an ‘unrequited love for Kuwait’ which spurs the author to provide a survey of the fallen state of her beloved nation. Yet al-Nakib’s love for the abstract figure of ‘Kuwait’, and the disappointment she feels in that it isn’t reciprocated, calls to my mind another of Shakespeare’s ambivalent characters—Timon of Athens. Timon saw himself as a generous host and model citizen, abstractly loving all those in his demos, giving his gifts left and right until he had nothing left. Stripped of his possessions and his ideals, he thinks he finally sees the world for what it is. He retreats into the wilderness, railing against the society he used to love, where he unceremoniously departs the stage of life. Shortly afterwards, Athens is taken over by Alcibiades.

I have always found the profligate and bitter Timon an apt caricature of Kuwait. Here Timon also represents my problem with al-Nakib’s piece and the local discourses it expresses. They each mischaracterize the problem of social relations as a problem rooted in the mindsets, behaviors and character of others. This can only ever lead us to Timon’s resignation and misanthropy. To some it might be a bit old-fashioned to keep citing Marx, but he and Engels taught us a lesson almost two hundred years ago that clearly needs repeating. It is a simple, and quite basic, starting point.

The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production. (The German Ideology in Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works: Marx and Engels, 1845-47, Vol. 5. (Lawrence & Wishart), p. 42).

The way we make conditions how we live, and how we live conditions how we think. From this standpoint we must start with what Kuwait produces in order to arrive at the definite form through which life is expressed in the country.

The short answer is that Kuwait does not produce very much. This is so much the case that when Japanese artificial pearl production accelerated in the 1930s, in the midst of a global depression, Kuwait’s main source of income was suddenly cut off and the populace was pauperized until the advent of its first oil exports in the mid 1940s. Since then, Kuwait has produced crude oil and its many refined products. For almost a century now, this production was exported and turned into a windfall for the Kuwaiti state, making it possible to fund everything from the salaries of its citizens to its infrastructural projects to foreign investments. The potential paradise that Kuwait seems to represent is an illusion conjured up by petro-dinars. Kuwait’s specific form of development is fundamentally contingent on the environmental degradation of our planet. Concurrent with this mirage of development was the gradual tightening of Kuwait’s border, a tightening that was finally solidified shortly after independence in 1961 with the introduction of Kuwait’s citizenship law and its formalization of the kafala system for regulating migrant work.1 Kafala is not a symptom in a generalized litany of symptoms. Kafala, and the class relations it creates, is the central contradiction of Kuwait. It is not the flamboyant privileges that Kuwaiti citizens are awarded that are the problem but the system that governs migrant labor.

To begin, I distinctly reject the view that reduces kafala to a form of slavery. Kafala might look like slavery. In extreme situations it can often lead to practices of enslavement, but kafala is not itself a form of slavery. Rather, it is a very modern form of international labor arbitrage with its basis in the colonial administration of immigration in the Gulf. It is not an ownership of a migrant’s body, but a commodification of the migrant’s labor-power on the international market, and the policing of it on the local one. It was formalized into its modern shape shortly after independence. Thus, kafala is not a by-product of Kuwait’s status as an oil-producing economy but concurrent with it—in fact, a distinct condition of it. It has been woven into the social relations of production in the state since its modern inception, and likewise, has shaped the definite forms of life in the country. Kafala works by outsourcing management of migrant labor from the state to the citizen; it turns every citizen into a potential employer, manager and border control official in one motion. It generalizes this in order to limit governmental oversight regarding exploitation of labor. It has done this for over a half a century. By tying a migrant’s presence in the nation solely to their work contract with a specific kafil, literally a sponsor, the system works to limit labor mobility both nationally and internationally, and constrict not just the rights of labor, but the right of labor to agitate for more rights. It should go without saying that this fundamental right is the basis of all historical labor reform.

Kafala has been with Kuwait since the start. It has worked historically to fracture what could have been a working class in Kuwait by providing capitalists with a reserve of unprotected labor that they can import and export as the economic cycle requires. It is not a problem of Kuwaitis’ mind-set, but a structural determinant on contemporary and historical social relations in Kuwait, one whose effects on the definite expression of everyday life cannot be overstated. Kafala is a specific—and egregious—form of exploitation that is structurally integral to the mode of production unique to Kuwait.

Like every other capitalist country Kuwait’s mode of production is able to function only by extracting surplus value from labor. To say this would entail looking at Kuwait not through a narrow national lens, but as a part of an international division of labor and a capitalist world-system of production and circulation. Kuwait exports oil and its derivative products, and it imports labor and commodities which are produced by labor in other geographical sites. Local commodity production exists but only accounts for a fraction of the commodities on the market. Without tapping into the international division of labor structured by the capitalist world-system, Kuwait as we know it would be inconceivable.

Kafala has made it so that the form of exploitation in Kuwait is the structural reliance of the economy on the exploitation of migrant labor. This is one of the fundamental contradictions of the global economy today; it can be seen in Singapore (built on a very similar system), in Europe and the United Kingdom (with guest worker schemes and post-colonial migrations), in the United States of America (in its exploitation of Mexican and undocumented labor), in India (with internal migration from poor regions to richer ones like Kerala, where labor, ironically, has migrated to the Gulf). In Kuwait, it is called the kafala system and it has particularities that are impossible to ignore, but it is a general condition of the entire capitalist mode of production in its current point of development. As Mike Davis puts it, capitalism and the state train us to think of borders as walls that constrict movement. Instead, we must think of borders as dams that keep a reservoir of labor on hand, to be opened and closed depending on the particular economic moment. In thinking of it as a problem of labor, and not through abstracted notions of the ‘honor implicit in all work’, we can begin to come closer to actually tackling it. There is no honor in being exploited, just exploitation. This goes further in explaining why, in the midst of recent unprecedented economic straits, Kuwait’s political class is calling for a massive reduction in the amount of migrant laborers in the country. This is literally what the system was built to facilitate.

The abuses of kafala are not just produced in Kuwait. They are made in India where capitalist land seizure has proletarianized a large proportion of peasants, pushing them into migration, both internal and external, in order to subsist. They are again made in India where sectarian violence against Muslims, now codified into law, gives the migration of Indians to Kuwait to work in dangerous and degrading vocations a different light. They are made in Egypt, where forty years of authoritarianism and crony capitalist development has pauperized a large part of a population of almost one hundred million. They are again made in Egypt when the Egyptian state, reliant on Gulf capital to finance its repressive operations, refused the repatriation of laborers based in Kuwait during the pandemic because it could not cover the cost of their quarantine.

To insist on the necessary global dimension of the kafala system is not to let Kuwait off the hook for its role in it, but to look at the structural conditions that uphold the system and to recognize the depth of the challenges we are facing in dismantling it. To reiterate Marx and Engels above, we cannot simply disentangle the myriad ways that people produce their life from the ways that they end up thinking about their world. To my eyes, to think that anything in Kuwait could fundamentally change without first replacing the kafala system is folly. To imagine that kafala could be abolished through a change in Kuwaitis’ work ethic is a dream. To imagine that an exploiting class will give up its status without a fight is a delusion.

Let me put it another way: Was colonialism overthrown because settlers saw the error of their ways? Did apartheid end because whites in South Africa realized they were racist? Was slavery abolished because slave-owners realized the honor implicit in the work slaves were doing for them? No. These systems were each overcome because their cost outweighed their benefit for the exploiting classes, because people that suffered under them never stopped fighting, and because of international agitation.

Like these systems, the problems of Kuwait are distinctly a problem of class and must be addressed as such. Class is not just a national question but a product of an international division of labor and a world-market. Kuwait is very much a part of this system; it is one of its biggest oil exporters and a key destination for the migration of labor. This world market is structurally dependent on the cheap fuel that Kuwait produces. To ask Kuwait to stop extracting and selling oil because of environmental reasons would be like asking the United States to stop producing and selling weapons because of the implicit sanctity of human life.

If there has been no consistent international pressure on Kuwait to replace the kafala system with a more equitable one, it is because Kuwait’s status as a central producer of oil would be put into question; reproduction of Kuwait in this role is intricately tied to the reproduction of the tried and tested kafala system. There has been no consistent international pressure on Kuwait to replace the kafala system because it is a cheap source for the service jobs—and subsequent remittances—it provides to labor-exporting countries such as India, the Philippines and Egypt. There has been no consistent international pressure to replace kafala in Kuwaitas there has been in other Gulf states—because Kuwait, unlike its neighbors, is not hosting football championships or importing American universities and French museums by bulk. On the internal front, amongst the Kuwaiti, there is no movement to call for the end of kafalabecause, simply, the social relations produced by kafala over half a century of life make a world without this system inconceivable. The only way to see the issue is to personalize it, as in recent scandals around ‘residency traders,’ as if the entirety of the migrant labor market in Kuwait wasn’t one big visa trading scheme. Instead of seeing it as such, discourse revolves around the ‘demographic imbalance.’ To ask society to ‘see’ this for what it is—literally, the exploitation that underwrites every aspect of our life—would be like asking white South Africans to have woken up en masse, realized how they were exploiting the indigenous population, and given them their land back.

There are a number of reasons why workers have not  been unable to pushback against the kafala system: 1) it is illegal for migrant laborers to unionize; 2) migrant workers have no substantial political rights; 3) migrant workers make barely enough to meet the needs of subsistence, sending as much earnings as possible back to their home countries to take advantage of the stark differences in cost of living; 4) capitalists play upon the many different languages, religions and nationalities of migrant workers to sabotage attempts to build class unity; and 5) most fundamentally, they are always under threat of deportation. These significant barriers have not prevented an ongoing series of strikes, protests, and calls for action. Laboring classes do not have the luxury of resignation. There is no reason to ignore the workers who have stormed the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor to demand their wages and those who have gone on strike in protest of disastrous living and working conditions or those who rioted at the deportation camps. There is no reason to write as if they are marginal and silent. Their resistance must be valorized, amplified and supported. They cannot go unheard, despite the seductions of resignation.

I want to return to the local scale. While I may not agree with it totally for reasons that should now be obvious, I understand the need to shift the object of critique from the state that makes the laws to the citizens that uphold them. There can be value in this in a place like Kuwait, where much is often made of state corruption, even by those who benefit the most from it, and where state and society are blurred almost beyond recognition. However, to do so completely elides the fact Kuwait has seen a decade of opposition to governmental ineptitude and corruption in confrontational popular movements. While these movements have themselves stopped short of demanding the kind of change I myself would like to see, their failure is a distinct product of the way that authority has been wielded by the state in order quash them. This is the history of Kuwaiti parliamentary democracy in a nutshell, but the latest crackdown following the anti-government protests of 2012 have completely tipped the balance of power in favor of the government. Gerrymandering, corruption, inept administrators, and the entrenchment of a ruling elite condition the  ideology of the population—not the other way around. If there is no room for opposition it is because that room was purposefully crushed. What would have happened had Kuwaitis and migrant labor staged those protests together? Why is that so inconceivable a historical hypothetical? Either we say mindset, or we say the system of exploitation that has worked for decades to keep their demands separate.

Unfortunately, the former is the easier route. It is much easier to blame people’s mindset than to admit that the ideas of the ruling class become the ideas of the popular classes through the mechanisms of authoritarianism and hegemony. Hegemony is, after all, rule by consent. I can make the comparison to the USA. Trump is not some aberration of American democracy, but the product of a bipartisan nativism that has gripped American politics reaching back to the early years of the last century. Broad political economic trends—such as the evisceration of organized labor, deindustrialization, exploitation of a migrant workers and unparalleled control of the apparatus of cultural production and communication—laid the groundwork. Under these conditions, Trump was able to win the presidency simply by weaponizing this nativist discourse. The resurgence and explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement during the pandemic speaks to these conditions directly—as an opposing movement.

The comparison to the U.S. is not without a main purpose in my discussion of Kuwait; nativism and racism, by nature ideological, are constructed by the way men and women produce their lives and which they produce not under conditions of their own making. This is not ‘whataboutism’ but instead a call to confront the world we live in without the blinders of national exception.

I have avoided speaking of COVID, and Kuwait’s failed response to it, on purpose in order to conclude with it. COVID has taught the world one thing; that the international order, as it stands, is unsustainable. Researchers have pointed out how global agribusiness—on which arid Kuwait obviously depends for its life—is fundamental in the production and transmission of novel zoonotic diseases. Others have pointed to the way that environmental stressors affect public health which are stratified, without fail, along racial and class lines. Kuwait is in this, sadly, no different to an entire world cleaved along an axis of exploitation, a world in which—while it easy to forget when peering through the keyhole of national ideology—class travels. That the pandemic has uncovered this in every single place on earth demonstrates exactly what is at stake; not only that class is a public health issue, but class is, without exaggerations, an issue of life and death. It is easy to rant against our compatriots for flouting social distancing rules, but this is not what creates the conditions of pandemic. Instead, everything from the production of the disease to the production of pandemic conditions can be grasped along an axis of exploitation.

Kafala is the main modality through which class is lived in Kuwait. Subsequently, it has been a main determinant in how the pandemic played out. This cannot come as a shock to anyone even remotely engaged with the forms of inequality that shape social relations in the country. To imagine that a country as structurally classist as Kuwait could have ever succeeded in fighting a pandemic that was born from exploitation and thrives on inequality is the kind of naivety one dreams of achieving, so comforting must it be. Research has demonstrated that rising temperatures due to climate change have detrimental effects on migrant workers two to three times as high as on Kuwaitis, creating the comorbidities on which COVID thrives. One researcher spoke to me of this disparity as one existing between two separate populations, despite that fact that migrant labor is guaranteed the same free public healthcare in Kuwait. The geographical ghettoization of migrant labor has been ongoing for decades. The quarantine of the slums where migrant labor lives2 created the conditions for the virus could be transmitted in the early days of the pandemic. The fundamental reliance on migrant workers for ‘essential’ work, particularly in the food commodity sector, further increased this spread. The terror of losing work for migrant laborers which, as I mentioned, leads to deportation and an inability to subsist, makes that threat more severe than working while ill. If the reader recognizes these issues, it is because they are yours too. This is what the novel coronavirus showed us in articulating itself with our ways of life; while the forms of exploitation might differ based on geographical sites and national peculiarities, they fundamentally stem from, and lead to, similarly bleak situations.

Until the international division of labor is eliminated, we must fully recognize how central migrant labor is to our life as we work towards a system that offers migrants a less exploitative working reality. Current talk about reform in Kuwait will not accomplish this as more equitable rights for migrant labor are not the aim of these reforms. Abolishing kafala will mean nothing without more provisions for migrant workers—indeed, for all workers—in Kuwait and elsewhere because migrant labor is not going anywhere. As the late John Berger taught us from the vantage point of the 1970s in Europe “the migrant worker is not on the margin of modern experience. He [and she] are absolutely central to it.” This insight has not changed and is unlikely to change.

We should make exploitation our object of concern, not the unsurprising decadence of the exploiters. The problems we face today are distinctly international in scope and require international vision, solidarity, and struggle and not blinkered nationalism. Love of the homeland, while it might give one a purity of rage that makes for a relatable reading experience is not the urgent reminder we need that we are not unique and that we are not exceptional, less now than ever before. The nations we are told to love are nothing more than structures for the exploitation of others, kept alive by liberal nostalgia and reactionary nativism. If we are asked to show our love for them, we should take a line from one of Shakespeare’s bravest characters and say “Unhappy that we are, we will not heave our heart to our mouth.”


  1. Kuwait’s citizenship law is the exclusionary system that creates Kuwait’s stateless population. I will not, however, speak on behalf of stateless comrades in diagnosing the system of oppression under which they live and against which they struggle, but simply contend that I cannot but read it similarly as a question of class and as a form of exploitation that is adjacent to that which governs migrant labor.
  2. This applies to the migrant laborers who are not employed as cooks, cleaners and chauffeurs who are often housed in their employer’s house.

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