As thousands of Egyptian migrant workers in Kuwait are frustrated by the decision to ban flights between Cairo and Kuwait, many circles are active on a mission to poison relations between the two countries. When Kuwait announced it will open its airspace and airport for commercial flights with six countries banned, Egyptian carrier EgyptAir announced it will resume its flights to Kuwait on 1 August. Then, Kuwait amended the list of countries banned from flights to and from Kuwait to include Egypt — which was not on the first list. Thus, EgyptAir cancelled planned resumption of flights between Cairo and Kuwait to the dismay of many in the Gulf country who wanted to get back to Egypt.
Egyptian expats in Kuwait, like other expats who constitute more than 70 per cent of the workforce in the oil-rich country, were not seeing their best days even before the crisis of the pandemic started in March. UN and international human rights bodies have been reporting about xenophobia in Kuwait and rising discriminatory attitudes towards expat workers — especially those low-skilled workers who had to put hard effort to earn less.
Some elements in the Kuwaiti society were targeting Egyptian expats in particular long before the pandemic. Though leadership of the two countries played down incidents as isolated, the trend kept rising. Yet, it might be wrong to generalise and assume that Egyptians are not welcome in Kuwait. On the contrary, Egyptian professionals are appreciated by many Kuwaitis. When xenophobic locals target Egyptians other Kuwaitis stand up to them and remind themselves and others of the valuable contributions of Egyptians and other expats.
As an Arab expat in Kuwait, who wanted his name withheld, puts it: “This happens with almost all other expat communities, but social media and publicity focus light on Egyptians.” Even Saudi Arabia, considered the elder of the Gulf, was not spared from xenophobic outbursts or slurs that soured bilateral relations and demanded Kuwaiti authorities’ intervention to punish those involved.
Since the cooperation between Egypt and Kuwait a year ago to arrest a number of terrorists in Kuwait and hand them over to Cairo, social media bots linked to Brotherhood have kept hyping any incident to sabotage relations between the two countries.
Kuwait has been trying to mediate between Qatar and the Arab Quartet, comprising Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain, that boycotted Qatar for its support of terrorist groups. But the Brotherhood is well established in Kuwait and its Kuwaiti leaders were main financiers of the international organisation.
The leadership is neutral in the crisis which it is trying to mediate, but Kuwaiti Brotherhood is siding with Qatar. They have been in contempt about Egypt since popular protests ousted their group from power in Egypt in 2013.
A Dubai-based political scientist agrees with the Egyptian Foreign Mnistry’s latest statement describing calls on social media for torching the Kuwaiti flag as “those who seek to drive a wedge between the Egyptian and Kuwaiti brotherly people”. But he hints that it is not only the Brotherhood saying that the group is part of the political system and can’t go far away from Kuwait’s official position. He cites the fact that new generation of Kuwaitis educated not in Egyptian universities or spending holidays in Egypt are different from older generations who were even taught by Egyptian teachers in Kuwaiti schools.
The government in Kuwait sent a message the Brotherhood are not above the law and their social or political clout doesn’t privilege them to sabotage Kuwait’s Gulf and Arab relations. When tape recordings of two Kuwaiti former MPs linked to the Brotherhood conspiring in the tent of late Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi to destabilise Egypt and Saudi Arabia surfaced recently, Kuwaiti authorities investigated them and an ex-MP is out on bail pending trial.
Back to the plight of immigrant workers in Kuwait, you see Indian media and media of other Asian countries awash with stories of their citizens helplessly suffering in Kuwait during the pandemic. And of course a good chunk of Egyptians there are in a similar situation.
Authorities in both countries are between a rock and a hard place, trying to deal with the plight of expats and in the meantime curb xenophobic attitudes. Saboteurs, whether Brotherhood or those affiliated with Qatar or even Turkey, are exploiting the situation to the maximum.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly