Wed, Feb 22, 2017 - Page 5 News List

Kuwaitis bemoan ‘too many foreigners’

AP, KUWAIT CITY

Jaber Hospital, about a 20-minute drive from Kuwait City, is pictured on Jan. 25.

Photo: AP

Kuwait’s first new government hospital in more than three decades is soon to open its doors — but only to Kuwaiti citizens.

It is the latest in a series of steps targeting foreigners, including laborers who build high-rise towers, sweep the roads and clean toilets in the tiny oil-rich emirate: a group that far outnumbers the native population.

The 304 million dinar (US$997 million) Jaber Hospital, about a 20-minute drive from downtown Kuwait City, is expected to open in the coming months. It will be the first government hospital built in Kuwait since 1984, taking some pressure off an overburdened health system.

US ally Kuwait, like other oil-rich Persian Gulf states, has for decades offered free cradle-to-grave healthcare for its citizens, along with plenty of generous perks such as subsidized utility prices and housing grants, but services have been fraying in the past few years — despite the cushion of several hundred billion dollars that Kuwait has been building since the 1970s, mostly in a fund for future generations.

That money, which stays out of the state budget, is meant to provide for Kuwaitis when the oil runs out. It carried Kuwait through the expenses of the seven-month Iraqi occupation and the 1991 US-led Gulf War that liberated it.

Expatriates with residency and work visas in Kuwait get subsidized healthcare. A foreign laborer — usually from another Arab nation or an Asian migrant — would pay 1 Kuwaiti dinar, about US$3.20, to see a doctor at a public hospital. His employer would typically pay for him an annual health insurance to the government of 50 dinars, or about US$160.

Western expats who live and work in Kuwait tend to go to private hospitals as part of lucrative healthcare packages provided by their employers. Many see the new, citizens-only hospital as a step too far.

“They were granted their workers’ visa. They deserve to be treated with dignity,” Yousef al-Muhanna, a 34-year-old general surgeon, said of the migrant workers.

The discrimination goes against the Hippocratic Oath, he said.

“We are not supposed to look at their passports — we are supposed to deal with their medical conditions,” he said.

The shift started sometime last year, when hospitals and clinics in Jahra, west of the capital, and the Amiri Hospital in Kuwait City began barring expatriates from morning visits for non-emergency services.

Lawmaker Safaa al-Hashem told reporters at Kuwait’s parliament that “expats are crowding our hospitals and competing with us for the air we breathe in hospital waiting rooms.”

She complained that many foreigners bring families on visitor visas to enjoy Kuwait’s healthcare benefits, including deliveries of babies, gastric bypass surgeries, cancer treatment and other procedures.

“Isn’t time for us to put an end to this? We must reform the current system; we must impose taxes on expatriates, not on Kuwaitis,” she said.

It is not just healthcare. Kuwait’s government and politicians have grown more wary of foreigners in other sectors as well, adopting or promoting a series of policies that target the roughly 3 million expats living and working in the nation.

Legislation in April last year increased the price of electricity and water in all residential buildings, but exempted Kuwaiti nationals.

Social media posts and tweets by Kuwaitis and even statements from officials blaming expats for everything — from traffic congestion to the raiding of open buffets by wedding crashers — are becoming all too common.

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