The Gulf’s Stateless People without Rights Decades after Independence
By Brian Micken
There are few Gulf States that extend full human rights to their citizens, but at least most Gulf residents know where they stand. However for the hundreds of thousands of Bidoon, a stateless population denied citizenship for decades, a terrible uncertainty defines their lives.
Over the past year, thousands of Bidoon activists have gathered in Kuwait to demand full and equal treatment and recognition of their nationality. The efforts of Bidoon activists have been rewarded with a state-led crackdown, arrests, and deportations. In October, the government of Kuwait arrested a number of activists.
The Bidoon – an Arabic term literally meaning “without” – are longtime residents of a state whose families failed to acquire formal documents of citizenship during the region’s rapid transition to modernity. Kuwait is home to the largest Bidoon population in the region, with well over 100,000. However, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are each estimated to be home to tens of thousands.
Without official recognition of their citizenship, Bidoon can be denied even the most basic rights. Despite having lived in these countries for generations, many do not have access to public education, housing, or health care, and struggle to find jobs. In Kuwait, Bidoon cannot own property and are denied travel documents and marriage certificates.
Several non-governmental organizations have recently called on Gulf States to immediately address the rights of the stateless populations within their borders. These governments have little to lose and everything to gain by recognizing and granting citizenship to the Bidoon.
The reasons for denying citizenship to Bidoon are not entirely clear. Kuwait has long claimed it to be an issue of state security. Prominent Bidoon activist Mona Kareem has argued that some fear a disruption to the distribution of welfare benefits. An issue might also be the power shifts that could result from the naturalization of a large rural population – or both, since these issues are almost certainly related. If that is the case it may explain why other Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also reluctant to address the issue.
Unfortunately, outside of human rights organizations the international community has failed to adequately express concern for the Bidoon. By its own admission, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is mandated to prevent statelessness and launched a campaign to address the problem in August 2011, but has not spoken out against recent abuses. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom, both of which have a strategic presence in the Gulf region, have pressed Gulf regimes to address the rights of their stateless peoples.
The Bidoon want nothing more than to be recognized as citizens of the countries they love and access to the basic rights and services that can help make them productive members of their communities. Gulf States must address the concerns of their stateless populations. One important lesson of the Arab uprisings is that ignoring calls for social and political rights can only lead to discontent and instability. It is time for the international community to acknowledge and advocate for the Bidoon’s right to nationality.