With the diplomatic crisis embroiling the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Saudi– and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed institutions have accused the Qatari government of arbitrarily revoking the citizenship of 55 members of the Al Morah (al-Murrah) tribe, including its leader, Sheikh Talib bin Mohammed bin Lahoum bin Shraim. Though it is as yet unclear if these recent reports are accurate, it is certain that the Qatari authorities have previously targeted this tribe, stripping thousands of their citizenship under accusations of taking part in a failed coup against the former emir. Moreover, this newest row highlights the longstanding problems of statelessness and arbitrary deprivation of nationality across the Arab Gulf region, on all sides of the ongoing dispute.
What is statelessness?
Statelessness is, according to the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, the “most acute violation of the right to a nationality; a well-entrenched principle of international human rights law.” The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines a stateless person as someone “who is not considered as a national by any State under operation of its law,” and requests that governments provide equal treatment to the stateless persons as is provided to their nationals. Despite this legal precept, stateless people are usually at risk of being subjected to discriminatory and unequal treatment in accessing and enjoying their fundamental rights.
According to the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently at least 10 million stateless people. Statelessness can occur for reasons as different as discrimination against particular ethnic or religious groups; gender-based discrimination; arbitrary or punitive revocation of citizenship; the emergence of new states and transfers of territory between existing states; and gaps in nationality laws. No matter the case, stateless people face severe impediments to accessing basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment, and freedom of movement.
Stateless people in the different countries of the GCC face systematic discrimination. Many, known as Bidoon, are descendants of people who lived in the Gulf long before independence but were not registered in censuses once the modern states were formed. There are other cases in which individuals are actively deprived of their citizenship as a result of government decisions or gender-based legal obstacles. These forms of statelessness are particularly common in Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain, where the authorities often strip alleged dissidents of their nationality in reprisal for their perceived political views, sometimes impacting whole families due to gender-based discrimination in the countries’ citizenship laws.
Gender discrimination is a major cause of statelessness in Qatar, as well as the other GCC countries. Qatar’s 2005 Nationality Law holds that citizenship is only acquired through the father, denying Qatari women the same rights as Qatari men and preventing them from passing nationality on to their children. This means that a child born to a Qatari woman and a non-Qatari man will not be able to receive Qatari nationality, increasing the child’s risk of becoming stateless. While Qatar’s Nationality Law allows for the children of Qatari women to apply for naturalization, the process is onerous and not guaranteed. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “even people who meet [the naturalization] criteria have faced difficulty.” Furthermore, the law allows individuals to apply for citizenship after living in Qatar for 25 years and it limits naturalization to just 50 people per year. Together, this makes acquiring Qatari nationality through naturalization very difficult, closing off opportunities for stateless residents to improve their legal situation.
Moreover, as suggested by recent reports, Qatar has used denaturalization and the arbitrary deprivation of citizenship as a tool for political reprisal. Since 2004, the authorities have withdrawn the nationality of over 5,000 members of the Ghafran (al-Gufran), a subgroup of the Al Morah (al-Murra) tribe, following the Qatari government’s claim that ten tribal leaders plotted a coup with Saudi Arabia in 1996. Although approximately a third of them were able to restore their nationality, some remain stateless and are thus unable to access government services, such as public education and health services. They also face difficulty travelling and cannot pass nationality on to their children, making them stateless as well. In June 2017, for example, HRW reported that a member of the tribe, Zayed al-Marri, was trapped at the border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. He claimed that the Qatari government had previously stripped him of his nationality, and that the Saudi authorities were now expelling him as a result of the GCC diplomatic crisis.
Kuwait is home to over 100,000 stateless individuals, amounting to around 10% of the country’s population – a sizable minority among its 1.5 million inhabitants. Many of Kuwait’s Bidoon population are descendants of nomadic tribes who never applied for nationality after Kuwait became independent, Arabs who joined the Kuwaiti army in the 1970s and the 80s but never gained citizenship, and others that have been deprived of their citizenships for political reasons. These groups have traditionally faced significant disenfranchisement and it was not until 2011, following protests and international pressure, that the government granted them access to free healthcare and education, as well as the opportunity to register births, marriages, and deaths.
As in Qatar and Bahrain, Kuwaiti women are not allowed to transfer their nationality to their children, who are born statelessness if the father does not hold Kuwaiti citizenship. Additionally, because the hospital’s birth records indicate that the parents are “non-Kuwaiti” in these circumstances, many parents do not sign the documents as it could jeopardize a future claim to citizenship. This makes it extremely difficult for such families to obtain full birth certificates for their children – a problem further complicated by the fact that most Bidoon couples cannot register their union or acquire marriage certificates, which are prerequisites to register a newborn.
In November 2014, the Kuwaiti government presented a plan to solve the Bidoon “problem.” The Bidoon population was offered “economic citizenship” of Comoros, which, if accepted, would also grant them residence permits in Kuwait and other incentives like free education and health care. A similar scheme was also set up by the UAE, which raised concerns about the potential treatment of the new Comorians: international law prohibits the deportation of stateless individuals, but does not provide the same protection to third state nationals.
Despite taking some positive steps to naturalize several thousand Bidoon in previous decades, Bahrain also contains a large stateless population and has increasingly targeted human rights defenders, political activists, and other civil society actors for arbitrary citizenship revocation. Similar to the Bidoon, Bahrain’s Ajam community, a predominantly Shia Muslim ethnoreligious group of Persian descent, endures institutionalized discrimination that has left many stateless and unable to access social welfare or assistance programs available to the rest of the Bahraini population. Moreover, like in Qatar and Kuwait, gender discrimination in Bahrain’s nationality law also increases the risk of statelessness, with Bahraini women unable to pass citizenship to their children. Despite the government claiming that a bill amending the 1963 Citizenship Act had been drafted in order to address this bias, the UNHCR informed in September 2016 that it could not be located and it is thus unclear whether it was still awaiting parliamentary passage. Recent Bahraini media reports in 2017 indicate that the discriminatory provisions remain.
Arbitrary citizenship revocation has particularly increased since 2012, with nearly 500 persons stripped of their nationality in the last five years, including more than a hundred so far this year. Of these persons, the vast majority are members of the country’s Shia majority population, which experiences discrimination across most aspects of Bahraini society. Bahrain’s broad anti-terror and nationality legislation allow the authorities to strip individuals of their citizenship for exercising their basic rights and the Ministry of Interior is empowered to issue administrative denaturalization orders that are typically un-appealable. For example, Bahraini human rights lawyer Taimoor Karimi saw his citizenship revoked in 2012 for participating in demonstrations during the pro-democracy movement, and was deported to Iraq in 2016. Likewise, Husain Abdulla, executive director of Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, was stripped of his citizenship for his international human rights work. Furthermore, arbitrary and politically motivated denaturalization amplifies the negative effects of gender discrimination in the nationality law: when the authorities strip a man of his Bahraini citizenship, his entire family is at risk of statelessness and all of the attendant problems.
Being stateless can lead to other violations of human rights in Bahrain, including denial of employment opportunities, hiring a lawyer, owning property, obtaining health services and education, traveling, or registering a new-born child. Moreover, statelessness puts individuals at risk of being deported, with further difficulties due to the lack of documents or clear authorization to travel. Bahraini authorities have forcibly deported many of the individuals arbitrarily stripped of citizenship since 2012.
GCC states like Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain have failed to adequately address statelessness in the region, while aggravating the problem by maintaining gender-based nationality discrimination and arbitrarily stripping individuals of citizenship. These actions violate states’ obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. All the GCC governments – including Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain – must guarantee access to citizenship and the full rights associated with it, while removing any legislative provisions which might prevent it.
Juan Carmelo Rodríguez Melián is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB
Photo Credit: Getty Images 2011