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An Invisible Nation: The Gulf’s Stateless Communities

[Kuwaiti Bedoon living in the desert near the border with Iraq. Image from I. Piccioni-A. Tiso/Molo7 Photo Agency.] [Kuwaiti Bedoon living in the desert near the border with Iraq. Image from I. Piccioni-A. Tiso/Molo7 Photo Agency.]

The issue of statelessness in the Gulf is as old as the post-colonial oil states from which they are actively being excluded. Until the 1980s, the status of the Bedoon was not seen as a political issue, with the fledgling governments more concerned with state building functions than with further limiting citizenship rights. The oil bust of the 1980s, however, strained the budgets of the Gulf regimes, who responded by constraining social services and restricting citizenship laws. The brunt of these restrictions largely fell on the stateless population—and in some Gulf states on migrant workers as well—who had been allowed health care and public education. Their intent was to force those seeking Gulf citizenship—particularly the Bedoon—to leave and start their lives as citizens elsewhere. These restrictions only served to exacerbate the numbers of stateless subjects, as few opted to abandon their family ties and communities or their geographic attachments in search for a new home country. 

The 2010 UNCHR Statistical Yearbook maintains that there are seventy thousand stateless subjects in the Saudi kingdom alone. This surely excludes hundreds of thousands of Mawaleed, a category which includes both those who are born in the country to foreign parents and those children of Saudi women from foreign fathers. In both cases, there is rarely any activism or reporting on statelessness in Saudi Arabia. It is believed that the seventy thousand includes families living in remote areas who are either unaware of documentation procedures or do not care to be registered in the system.

In Bahrain, considering the politicization of naturalization, the oppressed Shia majority understandably opposes the idea of granting citizenship. In the past decade, stateless Bahrainis and “mercenaries” have been naturalized as the state has sought to shift the demographic balance. Bahraini opposition claims that the regime has naturalized up to 120,000 but there are no official numbers. Those naturalized stateless persons are believed to be residents of Bahrain for two generations or children of Bahraini women who are married to foreigners. The “mercenaries” were naturalized after being brought from Yemen, Syria, Pakistan and other countries to work in security forces. The 1994-2001 popular uprising had resulted in the repeal of the State Security Law and the reestablishment of constitutional rule under the new monarch, thus limiting state power. In response, the Prime Minister expanded political naturalization in an attempt to change the demographics of Bahrain to weaken the Shia majority. He felt that he was becoming powerless and, with the support of Saudi Arabia, led the push for naturalization to further strengthen his role through the police and army. Resultantly, the current number of stateless persons in Bahrain does not exceed two thousand, most of whom are children of Bahraini women.

While the struggles of stateless communities in other Gulf countries remain largely undocumented, Qatar presents a slightly different case. Several reports were released for the first time earlier this year about the stateless population there, estimated at three thousand people who belong to one or two tribes. The reports provide accounts from a number of the Bedoon about their living conditions and in which they contrast the Bedoon’s struggle to the ease with which athletes are naturalized in return for their services. The numbers are comparatively smaller but again, little is known about their plight. Few Qatari Bedoon are politically active online and there are no statistics, official or otherwise, on the number of children of Qatari mothers who have not been naturalized. The reports’ criticism centers on Qatar’s increasing role and intervention in regional politics when the small state should be dealing with its own internal problems, including its major violations of human rights against migrant workers and its stateless community.

Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates present the most interesting cases of statelessness in the Gulf. Kuwait has approximately 120,000 Bedoon, the vast majority of whom belong to Arab tribes that had settled in the desert prior to independence. Kuwait does not grant women the right to pass citizenship on to their children, which has greatly exacerbated the problem of statelessness, since many Kuwaiti women have and continue to marry Bedoon men. Instead of attempting to assuage the increasing tension with and the struggles of the Bedoon population, Kuwaiti authorities issued a secret decision in 1986 to gradually strip this community of all its rights. Denied any form of official documentation in the 1990s, the Bedoon lost all access to formal employment, health care, and education.

In 2008, the Bedoon in Kuwait began to organize politically for the first time (following the lead of activists in the United Kingdom—notably, Mohammed Waly Al-Enizi—and in Canada), and have become increasingly active. They started with sit-ins, but participation was low and they were met with significant opposition from the police. With the failure of organized sit-ins, Bedoon activists turned to awareness campaigns about the plight of their community. They started to sponsor lectures that educated Kuwaiti society and media about the Bedoon, focusing on first dismantling all the existing stereotypes on those who are stateless and shedding light on the forms of discrimination they face. It was not until the 2011 uprisings, however, that things really began to change.

[A group of Bedoon activists, seated in a private home in Ahmadi City, are watching the video of their last demonstration.]

Bedoon protests started in February 2011. Tens of Bedoon activists have subsequently been arrested, with some tortured, released, tried, and then acquitted. Kuwaiti authorities have responded recklessly, without any sense of direction or long-term plan. On the one hand, they made big promises to the Bedoon in order to diffuse the tension when their protests garnered significant media attention. On the other hand, they violently cracked down on protesters when the media was preoccupied with other things. Bedoon protests are ongoing nonetheless. They are mostly organized in reaction to official statements and the arrest of activists, or to bring attention to their plight. The protests often take advantage of political opportunities and openings, when the country is going through a political crisis such as the latest court decision to dissolve the parliament for being unconstitutional. The Bedoon have achieved little by way of legal gains. Yet, Kuwaiti society is finally getting to know the reality of Bedoon life and suffering and some Kuwaitis are starting to extend their support. Kuwaiti “Group 29” was able to secure one hundred seats for the highest ranking Bedoon students after having a daily sit-in in front of Kuwait University’s admission office last month.

The struggle of the Bedoon in the United Arab Emirates has recently emerged from the political unrest of the Arab Spring. Until last year, the United Arab Emirates had not only successfully managed to block any information about its stateless communities, but was also actively engaged in removing the Bedoon from their homeland. UAE authorities bought passports from the Comoros and gave its stateless community an ultimatum: either accept these new citizenships, or become illegal residents and detained. Surely this inspired their Kuwaiti counterparts who instead purchased Eritrean, Dominican, and Albanian passports. The United Arab Emirates provides no official statistics on its stateless community but according to a report in the Emirati English-language newspaper The National, they numbered about one hundred thousand four years ago. The actual population is likely double this number, without even including the thousands of children of Emirati mothers who are denied passing citizenship to their children. While the United Arab Emirates has recently claimed to have issued a decision to allow female citizens to pass citizenship to their children, in reality, committees were formed to examine their cases on an individual basis.

In the past few years, when communicating online with stateless men from the United Arab Emirates, I was surprised by how terrified they were of speaking about statelessness or even telling me that they are stateless. Some Emirati artists and bloggers do not openly admit that they are stateless for fear of both being judged according to society’s stereotypes against them and being arrested. Their fears are justified, given that the UAE authorities recently revoked Bedoon activist Ahmed Abdalkhaleq’s travelling document, gave him a Comoros passport instead, and exiled him to Thailand. Abdalkhaeq was one of the UAE5 who were arrested last year for demanding reforms. According to The Economist, he also runs a website about the stateless community in his country. So far, the wave of political arrests in the United Arab Emirates has cost the community fourteen members and stripped several of them of their nationalities.

In Kuwait, there are many blogs and forums that allow the Bedoon to speak of their cause. This year alone witnessed the rise of Kuwaiti activists devoted to the Bedoon, their protests, and their rights. The cyber world, however, seems to have no place for the Emirati activists, who are much more fearful of their security regime. However, just the way the UAE5 encouraged others to speak up, Abdelkhaleq seems to be the one who will set up the way for his community to be active and speak out. Abdelkhaleq is one of the UAE5, but he had received little media attention until his detention and subsequent deportation.

Despite all differences, with Saudi Arabia being the most extreme model and Kuwait being the least oppressive example, the Gulf countries look very much alike in their failed policies when dealing with statelessness. This is a region with corrupt and oppressive authoritarian regimes committing political and economic suicide by refusing to heed calls for change. This invisible nation of stateless communities residing in and around the Gulf is becoming increasingly outspoken. Oppression, forged passports, and exile are all methods that do not seem to work with the Gulf’s stateless community, especially when we consider how thousands of young women and men are denied basic rights and have no means to leave their countries. The Gulf states, with the exception of Bahrain, have so far been able to portray their countries as less in crisis than the rest of the Arab region and thus to hide their internal problems from the light of day. This status quo will not long remain, as minorities and communities like the Bedoon continue to mobilize.

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