Kuwait City: Kuwait’s parliament on Wednesday passed a bill to grant citizenship to up to 4,000 foreigners in 2013 in a move to resolve the problem of stateless people in the state.
Forty-three members, including all cabinet ministers present, voted in favour of the law while only two MPs abstained without any opposition. To take effect, the law also must be signed by the emir.
Last month, parliament passed the first reading of the law which stipulated naturalising at least 4,000 stateless people, but under government pressure the bill was changed to a “maximum of 4,000 foreigners”.
MPs urged the government to use the legislation to start resolving the humanitarian problems of more than 106,000 stateless people, known locally as bidoons.
“The majority of those to be granted nationality must be bidoons... We will hold the government to account if it commits any violations in this issue,” Islamist MP Khalid Al Shulaimi said.
“Today, we have laid down a roadmap to resolve the crisis of bidoons... who are suffering and being deprived” of many of their rights, independent MP Khalid Al Adwah told the house after the vote.
State Minister for Cabinet Affairs Shaikh Mohammad Abdullah Al Sabah said the government hopes the law will be “the foundation for resolving the bidoon problem”.
Stateless people were born and raised in Kuwait and claim they have the right to Kuwaiti citizenship, but the government says only 34,000 of them qualify for consideration, while the rest hold other nationalities.
The country alleges that bidoons or their ancestors destroyed their original passports to claim the right to citizenship in order to gain access to state-provided services and benefits.
Bidoons have been deprived of basic rights to force them to reveal their original nationalities.
Stateless people have been protesting for the past two years to demand citizenship and basic rights.
On Tuesday, the parliament passed in principle a bill that requires the government to buy billions of dollars of bank loans owed by citizens and reschedule them after waiving interest.
Thirty-three MPs voted for the law, three opposed it while 20 members, including all cabinet ministers present, abstained.
To become effective, the law must pass another round of voting in parliament in the coming few weeks, approved by the government and then signed into legislation by the emir.
The government expressed reservations over the law with State Minister for Cabinet Affairs Shaikh Mohammad Abdullah Al Sabah saying “the law requires fundamental amendments” to be acceptable.
“The government rejects the law in its current form but will abstain from voting as a sign of cooperation,” he told the house just before the vote.
Finance Minister Mustafa Al Shamali said the cost of the bailout under the law is “unknown and it could be between 1.0 billion dinars (Dh12.5 billion) and 4.0 billion dinars.”
Head of parliament’s financial and economic affairs committee MP Yousuf Al Zalzalah said the cost to be borne by public funds is around 930 million dinars.
Under the law, the government will purchase all loans taken by Kuwaiti citizens before March 30, 2008 from conventional and Islamic banks and financial companies.
The government will then waive all interest and reschedule repayment over a period not exceeding 15 years provided that the instalment is not higher than 40 per cent of the debtors’ income.
Based on the bill, at least 66,000 Kuwaiti borrowers will benefit from the bail-out which does not cover expatriates.
During the four-hour debate, several MPs strongly blasted banks for causing the problem by illegally charging high interest on loans and demanded penalising banks by forcing them to refund the extra interest charged.
MPs have also proposed that every Kuwaiti who does not benefit from the debt relief scheme should be given a grant of 1,000 dinars. Native Kuwaitis number 1.2 million.
The government had rejected a similar bill passed overwhelmingly by parliament in January 2010. At that time, the size of debt stood at around $21.6 billion and the interest at $5.2 billion.
The change in government position came amid a bitter political dispute in the nation and after the election of a pro-government parliament in a December poll boycotted by the opposition, which has staged several street protests.
“The issue is not technical only but also political. Let’s give something to the people ... There are people out there who do not want this parliament to continue,” parliament speaker Ali Al Rashed said during the debate.