KUWAIT CITY (AP) — Kuwait on Wednesday expelled the Philippines ambassador and recalled its own envoy from Manila over a growing diplomatic dispute sparked by complaints of the abuse of Filipina housemaids and workers in the country.
The highly unusual move came as a surprise in the typically sedate and oil-rich Gulf Arab nation, both a long target of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's criticism and heavily reliant on Filipina nannies and maids.
The two nations had been negotiating an end to the Philippines' ban on workers from heading there following the shocking discovery in February of a Filipina stuffed into a freezer in Kuwait City for over a year.
But the arrest of two Filipinos associated with the embassy earlier this week over allegedly convincing maids to flee their employers' homes and Ambassador Renato Villa's comments reported in local media over the effort appears to have been too much for Kuwait to accept.
"Expelling the ambassador of the Philippines is a correct measure that should have been taken when the Philippines president first started his threats," conservative Kuwaiti lawmaker Shuaib al-Muwaizri wrote on Twitter. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should not accept any offers made by the Philippines president or his foreign affairs secretary."
The Philippines called Kuwait's decision "deeply disturbing," saying it "reneged" on an earlier agreement to work together.
"In discussions at every level with Kuwait, the Philippines has always emphasized that the wellbeing of Filipino nationals wherever they may be will always be of paramount importance," the Philippines Foreign Affairs Department said in a statement.
In its own statement, Kuwait's Foreign Ministry accused the Philippines' mission in Kuwait City of a "flagrant and grave breach of rules and regulations that govern diplomatic action where staff helped Filipina house helpers run away."
The ministry also said it had declared Villa, who it previously summoned twice, persona non grata and had ordered him to leave Kuwait within a week.
Local media earlier quoted Villa as saying his embassy moves in to help abused maids if Kuwaiti authorities fail to respond within 24 hours. Online video later surfaced purportedly showing a Filipino from the embassy helping one maid flee.
He offered a public apology Tuesday over those remarks, as did the Philippines foreign minister over the comments. Two Filipinos associated with the embassy also were arrested this weekend for allegedly encouraging maids to flee their employers' homes, Kuwaiti police said.
There have been prominent cases of abuse of Filipino domestic workers in the past, including an incident in December 2014 where a Kuwaiti's pet lions fatally mauled a Filipina maid.
Since becoming president, the populist Duterte has repeatedly criticized Kuwait for not properly addressing the abuse of Filipinos.
"I do not want a quarrel with Kuwait. I respect their leaders but they have to do something about this because many Filipinas will commit suicide," he said in January.
The Philippines banned workers entirely from Kuwait after the discovery of Joanna Demafelis' body in a freezer in February. In late March, Lebanese officials said 40-year-old Lebanese national Nader Essam Assaf confessed to killing the woman along with his Syrian wife, who remains at large. Both were sentenced in absentia to death by a Kuwait court early this month, though the verdict can be appealed.
More than 260,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait, many of them as housemaids. Kuwait and the Philippines have since been negotiating for new rules governing Filipino workers there.
Philippine officials have demanded that housemaids be allowed to hold their passports and cellphones, which is normal for skilled workers like teachers and office workers. But many Kuwaiti employers seize their phones and passports.
The Philippines is a major labor exporter across the world, especially in the Mideast, with about a tenth of more than 100 million Filipinos working abroad. The earnings they send home have bolstered the Philippine economy for decades.
It's likely both sides want to negotiate an end to the dispute, especially ahead of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan that begins in May. Kuwaitis particularly rely on Filipina maids and cooks during the period as they abstain from water and food during daylight hours.
"This is a clash of two rising nationalisms: the tough-guy Philippine president defending his people abroad and Kuwait resenting the insolence of a subordinate," said Kristin Diwan, an expert on Kuwait and a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
"The expulsion of the ambassador is a hardball tactic on the part of Kuwait, which hopefully will lead to a negotiated settlement. Both countries ultimately benefit from this relationship."
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.