Protest and lose your passport: To silence dissidents, Gulf states are revoking their citizenship | The Economist

Western states that revoke citizenship are not in a position to criticize:

SINCE the small Gulf states became independent from Britain in the latter half of the 20th century, their ruling families have sought fresh methods for keeping their subjects in check. They might close a newspaper, confiscate passports, or lock up the most troublesome. Now, increasingly, they are stripping dissidents—and their families—of citizenship, leaving many of them stateless.

Bahrain is an energetic stripper. Its Sunni royals have dangled the threat of statelessness over its Shia majority to suppress an uprising launched in 2011, during the Arab spring. In 2014 it stripped 21 people of their nationality. A year later the number was up tenfold. “Gulf rulers have turned people from citizens into subservient subjects,” says Abdulhadi Khalaf, a former Bahraini parliamentarian whose citizenship was revoked in 2012 and now lives safely in Sweden. “Our passports are not a birthright. They are part of the ruler’s prerogative.”

Neighbouring states are following suit. Kuwait’s ruling Al-Sabah family have deprived 120 of their people of their nationality in the past two years, says Nawaf al-Hendal, who runs Kuwait Watch, a local monitor. Whereas, in Bahrain, most of those targeted are Shia, Kuwait’s unwanted are largely Sunni. Ahmed al-Shammari, a newspaper publisher, lost his citizenship in 2014.

In 2015 a Saudi jihadist blew himself during Friday prayers in Kuwait, killing 27 Shias. A crackdown followed, targetting the many Saudi Salafists suspected of obtaining Kuwaiti nationality in the chaos that followed the ejection of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. “We’re looking for frauds,” says General Mazen al-Jarrah, a member of the ruling Al-Sabah family responsible for the emirate’s Citizenship and Residency Affairs.

The socially more liberal United Arab Emirates does it, too. Fearful of unrest orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the UAE has revoked the citizenship of some 200 of its people since 2011, says Ahmed Mansoor, a human-rights activist now under a travel ban.

The most enthusiastic stripper of all is Qatar. It revoked the citizenship of an entire clan—the Ghafrans—after ten clan leaders were accused of plotting a coup together with Saudi Arabia in 1996. Over 5,000 Ghafrans have lost their nationality since 2004. Many have since won a reprieve, but thousands remain in limbo, says Misfer al-Marri, a Ghafran who is now exiled in Scotland.

The consequences can be severe. Summoned to hand over their ID cards and driving licences, individuals lose not just the perks that come with citizenship of an oil-rich state, such as cushy jobs, but the ability to own a house, a car, a phone or a bank account. Those abroad are barred from returning. Those inside the country cannot leave. The stateless cannot register the birth of a child or legally get married. They might find a sponsor and apply for residents’ permits as foreigners, but if refused they are liable to be arrested for overstaying. “It’s a legal execution,” says one Bahraini, who still has his citizenship. “They’re left without rights.”

Rulers say they are waging war on terror. Among the 72 who lost their Bahraini citizenship in January 2015 were 22 alleged members of Islamic State. But by blurring the boundary between peaceful and violent dissidents, the authorities risk turning the former into the latter. Laws which once permitted the removal of citizenship only for treason (or if people acquired a second nationality) are now much broader. Defaming a brotherly country can cost you your passport in Bahrain. There too the penalty applies to “anyone whose acts contravene his duty of loyalty to the kingdom” or who travels abroad for five years or more without the interior ministry’s consent. Victims include academics, lawyers, former MPs, their wives and young children.

Westerners are in no position to lecture, retort Gulf autocrats. Most EU states revoke citizenship for reasons other than fraudulent applications, in particular for involvement in terrorism. Britain, for instance, allows it if it is conducive to the “public good”. Before becoming prime minister, the then-home secretary, Theresa May, did it 33 times. “Everyone has the right to a nationality,” says Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sadly, not everywhere.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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