Kuwait – Immigration Policy under Fire
An ongoing power struggle between the elected National Assembly and the royally appointed government will continue to pose an obstacle to implementing long-delayed reforms that are recognized as crucial to diversifying an oil-dependent economy. Not even a boycott of the 2013 elections by most of the opposition groups, which left nominally pro-government lawmakers controlling nearly all of the seats in the 50-member National Assembly, fully resolved an impasse that is in many ways more an institutional turf battle than an ideological struggle.
That said, lawmakers are fully prepared to exploit hot-button issues to generate pressure on the government. In August, Safa Al-Hashem, the only woman to secure a spot in the current legislature at the 2016 elections, threatened to summon the Prime Minister Jaber Al-Murarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah for a legislative grilling and push for the dismissal of his government due to what she claims to be the regime’s bias in favor of hiring expatriates in public-sector positions at the expense of employing Kuwaiti citizens.
Job quotas for expatriates have been a political issue in Kuwait for some time, but debate on the issue has been marked of late by a more general anti-foreigner tone. Al-Hashem is among the most outspoken advocates of populist policies to prevent foreigners from “stealing” jobs from Kuwaitis. Her various proposals include a complete ban on the issuance of visas for the dependents of expatriate employees, a doubling of fees paid by domestic sponsors of foreign workers, and a 10-year limit on the employment of non-Kuwaiti hires.
To the extent that the opposition’s appeals to xenophobia resonate among Kuwaitis, the government risks sowing discontent if it does not take action to limit the employment of expatriate workers. At the same time, an aggressive tightening of restrictions across the economy along the lines proposed by Al Hashem and like-minded lawmakers would carry a risk of spurring a near-term exodus non-Kuwaitis that contributes to shortages of both skilled and unskilled workers.
Kuwait has managed to weather the economic troubles stemming from a protracted slump in global oil prices by dipping into its sovereign wealth fund, but the government is planning to rely more heavily on foreign borrowing to finance its spending going forward. Officials have acknowledged the need to ensure that loans are used to finance productive investment, rather than consumption. However, doing so will require steps to reduce the cost of subsidies and to slash the civil-service wage bill with policies that more aggressively push Kuwaiti workers into the private sector, all of which will face strong resistance even from some pro-government lawmakers in the National Assembly.