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Kuwait, The People of Kuwait

Arab headdress, Kuwait National Museum, bidun, dishdasha, maritime sports

In 2002 Kuwait had an estimated population of 2,111,561. The average population density was 119 persons per sq km (307 per sq mi). Most of the population is concentrated in cities near or along the Persian Gulf coast. Approximately 45 percent of the people are native Kuwaitis, while the remainder of the population, for the most part, are foreign workers. The majority of immigrants are from other Arab countries as well as Iran, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. Kuwait also has a significant population classified as bidun (Arabic for “without”), who are not citizens of any country. Many bidun claim to have lived in Kuwait for generations without receiving citizenship, while Kuwait claims they are recent immigrants who should not be granted full citizenship. Among Kuwaiti citizens the population growth rate is very high, probably owing to Kuwait’s prosperity and high level of health care and social services. Nearly 50 percent of the population was younger than 25 years old in 1997.

The capital and original settlement, Kuwait city, is small in both area and population. Most of the country’s people live in this city’s suburbs and a few outlying towns. Even most of Kuwait’s Bedouin—Arabs who are traditionally nomadic—have settled into permanent residences in the districts outside the capital. Thus, virtually the entire population is urban. Kuwaitis often refer to “inner” Kuwait with its more liberal and cosmopolitan atmosphere and “outer” Kuwait, farther from the central city, where conservative Bedouin and tribal influences are stronger.

Kuwait’s official language is Arabic, which is spoken by all citizens. Both Arabic and English are taught in Kuwaiti schools, and English is widely used among Kuwait’s many foreign communities. Because Islam is the official religion, all Kuwaiti citizens are Muslim, and Islamic practices, such as fasting during the month of Ramadan, are widely observed. Sunni Muslims make up about 45 percent of the population while Shia Muslims make up about 40 percent. Foreigners living in the country are free to practice their own religions, but conversion by a Muslim to another religion is not allowed. Although Kuwait follows the Western calendar for business purposes, Islamic feasts and festivals, which follow the lunar Islamic calendar, dominate the year.

Oil revenues have allowed Kuwait to build an extensive educational system, yielding a literacy rate of 93 percent. Public school is free and compulsory from the age of 6 to 14, and several private schools also teach this age group. Kuwait University (founded in 1966) is also free and offers programs in a wide range of professional and scientific fields at several campuses. Both the extensive library system at Kuwait University and the collection at Kuwait National Museum (1957) were heavily damaged and looted during the Iraqi occupation in the Persian Gulf War.

Kuwait offers free medical care to all residents, including citizens of other countries. The government also provides several other benefits, including housing subsidies, without levying taxes. As a result, many Kuwaitis depend on the government for support, but poverty, unemployment, and crime are low by global standards. However, affluence and rapid change have brought their own difficulties. By hiring many foreign workers, Kuwaitis have made themselves a minority in their own country. Relations between Kuwaitis and immigrants are sometimes strained, and foreigners often complain of unfair treatment in the workplace. Obtaining Kuwaiti citizenship is extremely difficult, further widening the gulf between the two groups. Among Kuwaitis, the rapid expansion of educational opportunities, wealth, and foreign travel has led many older people to feel estranged from the younger generation.

Kuwaitis tend to have strong attachments to their families. A house is designed to show little to the outside world, and often has a nearby structure, called a diwaniyya, for receiving guests. Men spend much of their evenings in the diwaniyyas with friends and associates while women are usually inside the house. In large part because cultural life is centered around home and diwaniyya, there are few theaters or other places of public entertainment.

Most Kuwaiti men wear a modified form of traditional gown called the dishdasha along with Arab headdress. Kuwaiti women wear a wide variety of clothing, from jeans to loosely fitting gowns and head coverings. Foreigners tend to dress the way they would in their home countries, although more revealing clothing, such as shorts, is frowned upon. Thanks to the large immigrant population, many types of food are available in Kuwait, especially Lebanese and Indian food. In accordance with Islamic teaching, alcohol and pork products are banned. Team sports, especially soccer, are popular in Kuwait. Many Kuwaitis also enjoy maritime sports such as sailing, yachting, and fishing.

Men and women are often treated differently under Kuwaiti law, sometimes, but not always, leaving women at a disadvantage. Women face no formal impediments to any field of employment, and it is not unusual to find women in senior positions. However, women do not serve in the army or police, nor as judges, ministers, or members of parliament. Kuwait is also one of the few countries in the world where women are not allowed to vote. Kuwaiti women have access to the same free education as Kuwaiti men. Women are limited neither in how they dress nor where they may appear in public, but many conservative families forbid women from leaving home at night and require women to wear traditional clothing. Men face some restrictions in public places like restaurants and shopping malls that are sometimes restricted to families—that is, unaccompanied men may not enter.

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