Migrants in Kuwait stuck between cars they can’t drive and buses they don’t want to take
Acquiring a driving licence is an elaborate process entangled in class and privilege. Coupled with a poor public transport system, many migrants in Kuwait are left without an efficient way to get around. Institutionalised racism underpins Kuwait’s ongoing transportation crisis, affecting migrants of all socioeconomic classes in different ways.
Kuwait is so small that it’s almost undetectable on a map. But getting around the country is still a struggle due to poor urban planning, traffic congestion, and an aggressive summer heat that makes pedestrian culture untenable.
The country’s transportation crisis is frequently in the news, and the finger is often pointed at migrant workers rather than poor urban planning — despite the fact that migrants own fewer cars than nationals, and are more likely than locals to rely on the country’s floundering public transportation system. Non-nationals’ access to driving licences has been gradually restricted over the years, requiring a minimum income, education level, and other arbitrary conditions. Threats to strip migrants of their licences regularly feature in statements by government officials, and some of these threats have been realised.
And while more and more people are being forced out of owning private vehicles, they have virtually no viable alternative for transportation. Limited and unreliable bus services are the country’s only form of public transport, and haven’t seen major investment in over 40 years.
Preferred Commute? Cars In First Place and Buses in Third
According to Census and Economic Information Centre’s (CEIC) Data, the number of registered vehicles in Kuwait has risen dramatically over the past three decades: from 716,800 in 1997 to 2,357,900 in 2020. A 2017 research paper also found that private cars are the dominant means of work transportation for both nationals and non-nationals in Kuwait. Over 60% of those surveyed rely on a private vehicle, while just over 20% reported using taxis or ride-hailing services. Buses were the third most used means of transport, while walking came in last. The research also found a strong correlation between the preferred method of transportation and nationality, gender, age, education and income level: “Men are 2.6 times more likely to use buses, and non-Kuwaiti residents are 6.4 times more likely to use it.”
Migrants are more likely to use buses because of costs, and because most are legally barred from driving. While nationals only need to pass a theoretical and practical test to get behind the wheel, non-Kuwaitis — who form about 70% of the population — must:
- Hold a university degree
- Earn at least KD 600 (US$ 1,950) a month (prior to 2016, it was KD 400 (US$ 1,305))
- Have held a valid residency for over two years
Statistics from Kuwait’s Central Statistics Department indicate that Kuwaitis earn KD 1,504 (US$ 4,910) per month on average, while non-Kuwaitis earn KD 342 (US$ 1,115). The majority of non-Kuwaitis are thus barred from the country’s only reliable form of transportation.
Unaffordable Taxis or Unreliable Buses?
They are then left with few options. Taxis and ride-hailing apps like Careem or Rove or Q8 Taxi are popular alternatives, but they come with a hefty bill. A recent graduate told MR she’s grateful she lives with her dad, or she would not be able to afford life in Kuwait; she spends 90% of her KD 500 (US$ 1,635) salary on taxis just to go to and from work. Jassim Alawadhi of Kuwait Commute, a local initiative aiming to promote bus use, confirms that relying on taxis and ride-hailing apps costs users between KD 450 (US$ 1,470) and KD 600 (US$ 1,950) every month.
Kuwait’s buses are a more cost-effective but far less reliable mode of transport. Tickets cost around 250 fils (US$.80) and blue-collar migrants, whom Alawadhi refers to as “prisoners of transport,” cannot afford anything else. Male migrants aged between 24-29 years, with a monthly income between KD 251 to KD 750 (US$ 820 to US$ 2,450), use the bus more than any other demographic.
Bus stops sit in areas densely populated by migrants, such as Jleeb Al-Shuyokh in Farwaniya, which is visited by more than half of all buses in operation. Around 35% of the rest of the country’s bus routes ply to Salmiya, Hawally and Fahaheel, other areas with large migrant populations. Kuwait City is also a hub for buses, and around 100,000 bus users pass through these routes every day, according to Alawadhi.
Affordability is one of the few advantages of Kuwait’s buses, which are overall unreliable and inefficient. The three bus operators in Kuwait with a fleet of 500+ (KPTC, Citybus and KGL) run on routes laid down when the first bus company was established in 1962. The last expansion happened over 40 years ago, in 1978, when the population was just slightly over a million. There have been no major investments in bus infrastructure since.
The three service providers compete on the same bus lines, in contrast to many other countries, where routes are divided amongst operators for more organised and efficient services. There are also no lanes specifically designated for buses, which further contribute to severe delays. Bus schedules are rarely accurate, and bus drivers are known to rush by bus stops. Alawadhi has experienced bus rides that take four times longer than a car would take for the same trip. Another Egyptian bus rider says that taking the bus feels like an action film, because she has to run and jump into moving buses that don’t slow down.
Aside from efficiency, the stigmas around riding the bus run deep. One Pakistani woman told MR that she fears using the bus because of its reputation for being unreliable, unsafe, and primarily used by men. The safety concerns are very real: another Egyptian woman who grew up in Kuwait says she has repeatedly witnessed indecent behaviour, such as men touching themselves, and so she must always put on an aggressive demeanour to deter harassment.
Higher-income individuals who are not forced to rely on public transportation thus avoid the bus. The lack of interest from Kuwaitis and wealthier migrants in using bus services explain, in part, the lack of pressure for public funding and higher standards. Although the companies are working to enhance their services by offering newer air-conditioned buses with internet access, there is little political energy to improve public transportation. Thus, routes continue to cluster around the areas lower-income migrants live and commute for work, but lack regard for reaching governmental buildings, hospitals, schools, universities, or tourist sites. While support for mass transit is slowly gaining traction, implementation remains a chimaera.
"Men are 2.6 times more likely to use buses, and non-Kuwaiti residents are 6.4 times more likely to use [them]."
Driving is a ‘privilege’
Instead of investing in public infrastructure, efforts are concentrated on blaming migrants for the country’s congested roads. These accusations are patently false: while there are three times as many migrants as citizens, Ministry of Interior figures from 2019 indicate that Kuwaitis own over a million cars while non-citizens own just 600,000. Nonetheless, the claim — made in local media and by some parliament members — has gained traction and justified new restrictions on non-nationals’ access to driving licences.
These restrictions have taken different forms over the last several years. For example, until 2015, a driving licence had a ten-year validity. Now, a non-national’s licence is valid only for the length of their residency permit, which ranges from one to three years renewable, and is cancelled at 60 years of age except in certain cases.
The consequences of limited-validity licences are more far-reaching than they may appear. Once expired, the licence requirements will need to be met again, which is not always possible if one takes a pay cut or other circumstances change. For example, if one obtains their licence as a university student, and then graduates and accepts a job earning less than KD 600 (US$ 1,950), they would be unable to renew. One female graphic designer born and raised in Kuwait laments that her “close friend was lucky enough to be born six months before me and was of legal age to get a licence that lasted 10 years before laws changed,” but her own licence “will only survive 12 months.”
A loophole in the system surfaced when online renewals were launched at the end of 2019, which required only a civil ID copy and no other documentation. The relief was short-lived. In 2022, the MOI Traffic Department integrated its data with the Public Authority for Manpower (PAM) to ensure migrants maintain the job and salary requirements required for driving licences. The e-versions of civil IDs and driving permits, which are carried on the government apps Mobile ID and Sahel, now automatically reflect changes in residency and driving permits. For example, if a taxi driver changes careers to become a barber, he would lose his driving licence even if it has not expired yet. Over the course of this year, over 10,000 licences have been revoked.
One Indian national told MR that his licence was recently withdrawn due to a career change. He has decided against driving without a licence, like some of his acquaintances do, in fear of deportation. But he needs to find a sustainable way to commute to and from work and school, and cannot afford to rely on taxis. For now, he feels lucky that he can send his children to school with a teacher he is friends with who lives nearby — though this dependency on someone else is taxing, as every morning, he must rush to this neighbouring teacher to ensure his children go to school (The minimum salary to sponsor a family in Kuwait is KD500 (US$1630) — KD100 less than is required for a licence). As for commuting to work, he relies on public bus services that have made him late several times.
According to Gulf News, 800,000 of Kuwait’s 3,000,000 non-nationals hold driving permits. When the new integrated system came into force, the Ministry of Interior estimated that around 250,000 licences would be cancelled.
Even when legal requirements are met, there are secondary sociopolitical barriers, often in the form of institutional racism, that migrants must overcome.
In a society where “Egyptian” and “Indian” are thrown around as slurs, and where migrants are blamed for all public issues, xenophobia is deeply entrenched in systems and governance. The key to bypassing these obstacles is wasta, an Arabic term that means using personal connections with political or affluent figures to obtain favours. Wasta exists within the core of Kuwaiti culture, and this phenomenon accentuates differences in class and race; individuals who are well-connected are more likely to move further in work and life. Those new to the country quickly realise the need for this tactic to accomplish basic tasks, and many will, over time, develop connections to connections to secure wastas.
Getting a driving licence is no exception. A 33-year-old Egyptian software engineer, Ahmed,* recounted his experience to Migrant-Rights.org: in 2017, he witnessed his work colleagues failing their driving tests over and over again. Apprehensive that he would also fail, he sought out a well-connected individual who would lend his wasta for KD 100 (US$ 325) in return.
Though unlawful, such strategies are pervasive given the roadblocks in place. Those without the means, or the wasta, are the ones forced to queue at driving test centres for hours, several times over.
Arbitrary restrictions on mobility have also pushed non-nationals to obtain licences through irregular channels.
One Egyptian woman says that after graduating and working several jobs that paid less than KD 600 (US$ 1,950), she has not been able to get her licence again. Many of her friends in similar positions have procured licences illegally. But under new regulations, expats found to have obtained licences fraudulently — such as by bribing individuals or submitting false employment or university documents — will be deported. Previously, driving with an expired licence came with a mere KD 5 (US$ 16) fine. A penalty once equivalent to the price of a cinema ticket now entails loss of jobs, family unity, financial security, and residency.
Resolving Kuwait’s transportation — and climate — crisis does require fewer cars on the road, but this must be accomplished through reform and investment in public infrastructure, not by discriminating against non-nationals. For transit planning and policies to be effective, they must be equitable and rights-based, and take into account the needs of all residents.