As a young boy, the Islamic State militant who would become known to the world as “Jihadi John” played on the rutted streets and sand-blown alleys on the outskirts of Kuwait City.
But to Kuwait’s rulers, he and his family occupied an even more hardscrabble ground: neither citizens nor legal immigrants nor honored guests.
They are known as Kuwait’s stateless: members of the traditional nomadic tribes from the region who – by virtue of tribal disagreements or ethnic ancestry or any number of historical wrinkles – were not included in the ranks of Kuwaiti citizens.
It’s not an uncommon limbo in the Middle East. Many countries have groups of stateless people, often called bidun, who don’t check any of the normal citizenship boxes. But the stateless numbers – and their protests – are proportionally bigger in Kuwait than nearly anywhere in the region.
That’s because much is at stake. Rights activists say stateless status in Kuwait means facing hurdles to access to the country’s oil-funded largesse: cradle-to-grave benefits that include free health care, subsidized higher education and coveted civil servant jobs.
It’s unknown whether the young Mohammed Emwazi gained a sense of this disenfranchised destiny before his family left for Britain when he was 6 years old. But it’s likely it helped shape his world view when, according to British media reports, he returned to Kuwait to work briefly as a salesman for an IT company after his graduation from Britain’s Westminster University in 2009 with a computer programming degree.
Emwazi left Kuwait in April 2010, saying he was bound for Britain. At some point in 2013, he crossed into Syria to join the Islamic State and become the group’s English-speaking reaper: issuing threats on video posts and carrying out some beheadings.
Kuwaiti officials have not spoken publicly about Emwazi or his connections to the country. The Associated Press reported Monday that Emwazi was a member of Kuwait's stateless poplation. The AP report, citing a Ministry of Interior official, also said that authorities were questioning some members of Emwazi’s distant relatives.
The paths lead back to Emwazi’s boyhood district known as Jahra, which is home to many of Kuwait’s stateless community. It’s also a center for ongoing bidun protests – that sometimes turn violent -- seeking rights to citizenship and alleging discrimination in attempts to get state jobs and benefits.
Last month, a Kuwait court sentenced in absentia a bidun protest leader for five years in jail after being charged with insulting Kuwait’s emir -- an allegation that also has been used to jail dozens of Kuwait bloggers and social media activists in recent years.
The suspect, Abdullah Al Enezi, managed to slip out of Kuwait before the sentencing.
Kuwait considers the demonstrations illegal and has sent out riot police as part of crackdowns. But the sheer numbers of the bidun – from the Arabic phrase “bidun jinsiya” or “without nationality” – keep pressure on Kuwait’s leaders.
More than 100,000 people in Kuwait are considered stateless -- a significant population in a country with about 1.5 million citizens.
The grievances go back to the days just before Kuwaiti independence from Britain in 1961. Many bidun – mostly descendants of tribes from Iraq and Saudi Arabia -- missed a registration period to apply for citizenship and their cases then became entangled in bureaucracy and politics – with Kuwait eventually declaring them "illegal immigrants.’’
Some reforms have been enacted.
In 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, Kuwait’s leaders extended benefits and services to bidun, such as free health care and education. But stateless activists say many administrative hurdles remain in place.
A report by Human Rights Watch last month condemned the crackdowns on bidoon protests and urged Kuwait to “create a timely and transparent mechanism to review … citizenship claims.”
So far, Kuwait's government has said 34,000 of the bidun qualify for consideration for Kuwaiti citizenship. In November, Kuwait reached out an unexpected direction to try to ease the protests: saying tens of thousands of stateless people could be offered citizenship in the Comoros islands off East Africa.
There have been no reports of the plan moving forward.