The Billion-Dollar Grant
By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent
â€œMoney isnâ€™t everything–as long as you have enough of it.â€
It almost seems as if â€œpennies from heavenâ€ are falling from the skies of Kuwait and straight into the pockets of many a delighted Kuwaiti. This past week Kuwaitâ€™s Emir, His Highness Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, announced an unprecedented gift earmarked for Kuwaiti citizens. To honor the 50th anniversary of Kuwaitâ€™s independence and the concurrent 20th anniversary of Kuwaitâ€™s liberation from Iraqi aggression, both taking place this February, the Emir has decided to grant a monetary windfall to all Kuwaitis regardless of age or socioeconomic status. The gift will include 1,000 Kuwait Dinars ($3599) and 14 months of free food for all citizens. Kuwaitis have met the grandiose gesture with surprise, awe and sheer joy across the tiny Gulf state, which is home to approximately 1.2 million Kuwaitis. Both grants will cost the Kuwaiti government an estimated US$4 billion which is approximately 7.5% of the annual state budget.
Quite notably, the over 2 million strong foreign workforce has been left out of the grant as they have been for all the past grants over the years. Kuwait boasts a cradle-to-grave social welfare system that benefits all Kuwaitis, even newborns. However, foreigners living in the country are legally barred from receiving governmental benefits, financial gifts and are not even permitted to own Kuwaiti land. The grant has been met with animosity and disdain by scores of foreigners all across Kuwait with some airing their frustrations in the media. However, as with any controversy born in our â€˜digital ageâ€™, the voices of disgruntled foreigners living in Kuwait are being aired on the Internet.
On a popular blog in Kuwait, one commenter named â€œVictoriaâ€ highlighted the low wages that foreign workers receive in Kuwait, â€œâ€¦this only reconfirms my disgust for these kind of handouts in a country that has a shameful minimum wage and labor standards.â€ In another comment, a pro-grant commenter defended his right to receive grants from his government and had some harsh words for anyone disagreeing with him. â€œPeople who are not Kuwaiti should not feel angry or jealous because Kuwaitis are getting this money. Weâ€™re in our country and weâ€™re grateful for everything we have! If youâ€™re not happy about us getting this money or all the other things we get, for being a Kuwaiti, then go back to your country and ask your government to share their wealth with the people.â€
Despite the virtual tug of war going on in the media and online, there is an underlying issue that is being completely ignored. Regardless of whether the current grant is necessary or even deserved, there is an underlying problem that will surely pave the future of Kuwait regardless of surplus oil wealth. The low-paid and overworked foreign workforce is suffering with little alleviation in sight. Nestled in between the glittering skyscrapers, designer malls and luxury hotels of Kuwait there is an exploited group of laborers that often resort to digging through the trash to feed themselves or scavenge for recyclables to sell for a couple of bucks. Perhaps the billion-dollar handout could better be utilized to help the less fortunate who are guests in one of the richest nations in the world.
The payouts are expected to commence immediately and the food grant will run until March 2012. As news of the story broke, an obvious soon-to-be urban legend began spreading across Kuwait and was even featured on the front page of the local newspaper even though it has not been verified. The jest of it is that a Kuwaiti man with 4 wives and 10 children from each wife stands to â€œearnâ€ a whopping 40,000 Kuwaiti Dinars courtesy of the grant. However, anyone with a calculator can discern, heâ€™s really getting 45,000 Kuwaiti Dinars!