By the time this paper goes to press over 13,000 oil workers in Kuwait will have been on strike for four days.
Strikes are exceedingly rare in the oil producing oligarchies of the Gulf States. The workforce, made up of mainly migrant workers, usually have appalling living conditions and no civil or trade union rights. This is the first major strike in Kuwait in many years, although the last months have seen growing activity from a number of Kuwaiti unions in tourism and from municipal workers.
There was a flurry of public sector strikes in September-October 2011 leading to street protests, the resignation of prime minister, the dissolution of parliament, and new elections. These strikes come at another time of crisis across the Gulf states. This time low oil prices and economic deficit is the background. The cost for the Gulf States is high.
Kuwait has a population of less than four million, nearly half of whom are migrants. It has lost 60% of its revenue, with a deficit estimated to rise to $40 billion this year — $20,000 per Kuwaiti citizen. Average income in Kuwait is frequently reported as being amongst the top five per capita incomes in the world, but there are huge inequalities. Migrants, some of whom have been there for 40-50 years, live in dire poverty; there are increasing hardships for indigenous Kuwaitis. As in all the oil states the public sector and the oil industry is generally used to distribute wealth lavishly and opaquely to the ruling elite. The wealth is not used to diversify or develop the economy.
In Kuwait as in Saudi Arabia, the ruling class have decided to reorganise their economy. The public sector, including Kuwaiti oil, is being privatised. They hope to shake off some of the rentier wastages while retaining the capitalist concentration of wealth among the ruling class. There are regimes far more brutal and undemocratic than Kuwait, but it is no democracy. The Emir is head of state, the Prime Minister is appointed from the Emir’s own royal family, the oil company executives are generally from families close to the Emir. And despite there being a somewhat independent parliament there are increasing restrictions on free speech and little possibilities for workers or the rest of the population to form political parties.
In July 2014, in response to growing protests, the cabinet pledged “an iron fist policy and a decisive and firm confrontation with whatever could undermine the state. Scores of human rights and democracy activists, journalists, online critics have been arrested and imprisoned usually on the pretext of “insulting” the Emir, Kuwait’s ally Saudi Arabia, or Islam. Particularly under attack are the 100,000 Arabic Bidun, who had legal nationality prior to 1985 but are now designated stateless despite having been in Kuwait all their lives. There have been hundreds of arrests at Bidun protests, and deportations. Prominent activists Abdulhakim al-Fadhli, who was repeatedly arrested and detained on a range of charges between 2011 and 2014, and ‘Abdullah ‘Atallah, was sentenced on 1 July 2015 to five years in prison, including for “insulting the Emir”.
The ruling elite are in total political control and the proposed reorganisation of the economy will therefore inevitably consist of attacks on working class livings standards. And that is what the oil workers see with the current attacks on their pay and benefits. The Kuwait rulers have already started to pull in overseas oil workers from India and Egypt to break the strike. Last year they got voted through parliament the option of using troops in the oilfields if national supplies are put at risk. Despite their comparatively low number — 13,000 on strike — the oil workers enjoy wide support. They have felt confident enough to declare an indefinite strike. This strike may go on for weeks. Even if the oil workers are not victorious in the first instance, but especially if they are, it will send powerful messages to workers across the oil states of the Gulf and even Iran. The workers in this part of the world are again on the march.
Postscript - 20th - 12:00
The Kuwait oil strike is over for now but will the government concede any of their demands in agreed talks? On pay maybe, but possibly not the significant benefits given to the striking oil workers who are all Kuwaiti nationals
It is unclear why the union, the Oil & Petrochemicals Industries Workers Confederation, called off the strike. A hard line was taken right from the onset of the strike by Kuwait's Finance and acting Oil Minister Anas al-Saleh with talk of the strike being illegal and assertions that there would be no talk and no concessions made whilst they were on strike.
The only reason given for the end of the strike by the union (by tweet) was because of respect for the Emir. This may imply some direct contact from the Emir. Imprisonment in Kuwait has happened frequently when the Emir is alleged to have been 'insulted' so that may have caused concern. Whether the strike was called off through fear or out of naive expectations of action from the Emir, it is impossible to tell from this distance.
The unions in Kuwait have been reluctant to be pulled into politics. On a number of occasions they have been called on by the diverse Kuwaiti political opposition to call a general strike for political change and have refused.
A sizeable fraction of the Kuwaiti oil workers are migrants - none of these could legally be on strike. The action already started by the government to bring more migrant workers in to replace the striking workers might have been unexpected by the union and shaken their confidence.
It is likely that a fear of ending up either in a political battleground or in a battle to integrate migrant workers in their struggle has impacted on the union leadership. It is unlikely that the calling off of such a strike would not have been met with argument.
If there is to be development of union struggles in Kuwait or the other Gulf states, the unions have to factor in to their plans that strikes will become 'political' very rapidly. They must also find a way of helping migrant workers get represented and fighting alongside them for their common interests as workers as well as the particular oppression of migrant workers.