Among the many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences of border closures and questions of who “belongs” have contributed to a rise in xenophobia and discrimination in many parts of the world. One region where this has occurred is in the Arab Gulf. While the pandemic continues its march through the region, movements to change discriminatory citizenship laws have gained strength. The outcomes of these efforts could have far-reaching effects on the Gulf and beyond.
The question of citizenship—contested in many countries in the first place—has added complexity in Gulf countries. The rights of “belonging” and the privileges of citizenship are mostly restricted to ethnic Arabs. The high number of migrant workers in the region is well-known, and their status and rights in Gulf countries have come under consistent criticism. There are also large numbers of people who are denied citizenship despite legitimate claims of belonging. These are known as “stateless” people, and in the Arab Gulf they are called “Bidoon”; a literal translation from Arabic meaning “without” due to their lack of citizenship or nationality. It is estimated that the largest number reside in Kuwait and Qatar.
Other long-standing citizenship issues relate to women. While women are traditionally responsible for preserving a nation’s cultural identity and caring for subsequent generations, a range of regulations and legal provisions intervene in the private sphere and exercise control over women’s decisions. Among these is the inability of women to pass on their nationality to their children.
The challenges that face the “Bidoon” and women also overlap, as the laws around women’s rights create more stateless children. These and other issues have received renewed scrutiny during the pandemic, not only because of xenophobia, but also because of the gendered impacts of COVID-19 on education for women and girls, and the inability of women to provide for their families when male head of households lose their livelihoods. Addressing citizenship issues is thus an important first step in remedying larger, systemic challenges.
Citizenship Laws and Statelessness
All states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have nationality laws predicated on a jus sanguinis (right of blood) system wherein nationality is transferred by default to the child through the father, while denying female citizens this right. This system generates high probabilities of statelessness, especially for children born to two Bidoon parents, a stateless father, or a father who is not able to pass down his nationality for any reason.
Two particular issues within family law significantly impact whether nationality, and therefore citizenship, is denied. The first issue is establishing paternity and the second involves marrying foreigners. In terms of establishing paternity, generally speaking the risk of a child being rendered stateless arises when the father either disclaims paternity, the marriage is deemed unrecognizable by the state, the father is willing to confirm paternity but is not married and therefore legally prohibited by the state from verifying paternity, or if the mother wants to confirm paternity but does not have a way in which to force or compel the father to verify paternity.
Marriage to foreigners can render the child vulnerable to statelessness due to discrimination based on gender, which makes it more difficult for female citizens to marry non-nationals than male citizens. Kuwaiti laws on citizenship are illustrative in this regard. To take one example, article 7 of the Kuwaiti Nationality Law stipulates that a Kuwaiti father married to a non-Kuwaiti wife can transfer his nationality to his wife within one year of marriage if she wishes to be considered a Kuwaiti national. Contrastingly, article 3 says that Kuwaiti mothers married to non-Kuwaiti men can only pass their nationality to their children if the father is unknown, paternity is not recognized, or if the non-Kuwaiti father is deceased or has divorced the Kuwaiti mother.
Considering that citizenship and nationality is transferred via the father, limitations on marrying foreigners ultimately affords government’s authority to influence who can marry their female citizens and become mothers of the next generation. These restrictions on women become especially problematic if citizens start to break these rules, as the state may perceive unions between nationals and non-nationals as illegitimate and therefore view the child as non-marital, which also renders them stateless.
Consequences of Citizenship Laws
Gendered citizenship and nationality laws have resulted in a notable increase in Bidoon numbers over the last few decades. Understanding the impact of gendered and discriminatory laws on these people, and society at large, is crucial to starting to address the issue of statelessness and reducing the number of Bidoon.
Once an individual has been rendered stateless their civil and political rights are rescinded, and in turn, their economic and social rights (including the guaranteed right to education, social security, work, and health care) are all also denied. This means that stateless individuals are not allowed to have identity cards, which are prerequisites for receiving public services. In practical terms, they cannot open banks accounts, buy mobile SIM cards, travel by plane, apply for formal employment, participate in national elections, or register businesses, marriages, or death. As a result of these denied rights, stateless individuals cannot, or find it extremely difficult, to generate stable income and subsequently many are forced to survive under extreme conditions and suffer from high levels of poverty. This has profound effects, including rising suicide rates among Bidoon populations.
The issues Bidoon populations face in the Gulf have also often been overshadowed by traditional threats to state security. As in other parts of the world, marginalization and social exclusion of minority groups can fuel violent unrest and lead to insurgencies or extremism. In the Gulf, there are signs that this could happen. For example, in 2015, a bombing of a Kuwaiti mosque was carried out by a group that included 13 Bidoon. Elevating the importance of statelessness is thus important for a balanced society and security, and most importantly for women’s rights.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought renewed attention on many of the problems of discriminatory and gendered citizenship laws, there are also positive signs. Kuwait, for example, has taken steps to naturalize hundreds of Bidoon in an attempt to resolve the challenges they face. Other Gulf countries, such as Bahrain, have demonstrated a willingness to rectify citizenship laws as a right for women and to protect them.
Encouragingly, people in the Gulf region are also not shying away from these renewed challenges. Kuwaiti women in particular are highlighting the difficulties they face in repatriating family members not considered Kuwaiti under the law and being sidelined from benefits citizens are receiving during the pandemic. A petition with more than 17,000 has been put forward to the Kuwait National Assembly and cabinet ministers to grant women the right to pass their citizenship. These steps can hopefully serve as positive examples for other countries in the region.
Dalya Al Alawi is a Policy Analyst in the International Peace Institute’s Bahrain office.