There are Still Slaves in 2018

Think slavery is a problem of the past? Think again.

By Edy Cohen |
Bidoon
Photo: Photo: AP

There are still slaves in the world today, and many of them can be found in the oil-rich Persian Gulf emirate of Kuwait.

In what is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, poverty and the abuse of human rights run rampant. This same country claims to be the most democratic in the region, and prides itself on close ties to the West, but is also home to more than 100,000 forced laborers. These slaves are known as the Bidoon. They are entirely undocumented, enjoy absolutely zero rights (for instance, they can’t marry, be buried in the country, or receive medical care or education), and primarily live in tents.

Kuwait’s rulers regard the Bidoon as opportunistic migrants (though some have lived within the current borders since before Kuwait’s establishment in 1961) who want to exploit the country, and so refuse to recognize them under any legal framework. The problem has been known for decades, ever since Kuwait’s independence and the end of the British protectorate. Already then, the ruling class denied citizenship to thousands of people. Recently, Kuwait’s parliament passed a bill that would grant citizenship and rights to at least part of the Bidoon, only to have it quashed by the speaker of the National Assembly, Marzouq Al-Ghanim, a 49-year-old billionaire who many describe as the emirate’s de facto leader.

Now, this brand of injustice and inequality has been a staple of life in the Middle East for millennia. The real question is why the West, especially so-called human rights organizations, are effectively turning a blind eye to the fact that it’s still going on today? More than that, why is the West doing business with these countries? Some have claimed that the Kuwaitis use their vast wealth to bribe foreign powers in order to keep the situation out of the limelight. And, of course, most leading Western nations wouldn’t want to disrupt Middle East stability and their own economic interests in the Persian Gulf for the sake of a few slaves.

From Israel’s point of view, the real absurdity is that Kuwait frequently criticizes the Jewish state for supposedly violating the rights of the Palestinian Arabs, as does the international community, all while the Bidoon are ignored. It is inconceivable that in the 21st century a state like Kuwait can hypocritically attack Israel even as it maintains a slave population, all while keeping cozy company with the world’s most powerful nations.

Dr. Edy Cohen is an expert on Middle East affairs who appears regularly on Arab media outlets. He is head of the Kedem Forum for Israeli Public Diplomacy.

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