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The Gulf Cooperation Council: free movement for citizens but not for resident migrants

Today we continue our series on regional blocs offering a form of supranational citizenship to citizens of its composing members. Having previously discussed regional citizenship in the South American and African continents, we move our attention to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the Middle East – established in 1981 and consisting of the autocratic monarchies Bahrein, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). An ‘Economic Agreement’ concluded between the GCC members in 2001 states in its preamble that the agreement, among other things, is a response to ‘aspirations and expectations of GCC citizens towards achieving Gulf citizenship, including equality of treatment in the exercise of their rights of movement, residence, work, investment, education, health and social services’.

The GCC indeed offers genuine free settlement to the citizens of the six countries, but not to the foreign population which forms in fact the majority in most of them. In Hélène Thiollet’s calculation, the percentage of foreign non-citizen residents in the GCC ranges between 32% in Saudi Arabia and 89% in UAE. While the website of the GCC lists under its achievements that ‘GCC citizens enjoy equal treatment in respect of the right of residence and movement among the GCC States’, free movement for non-nationals does not appear to be seriously considered and it is merely stated that ‘the competent committees shall develop practical mechanisms, subject to appropriate controls, for facilitation [sic] the movement of certain categories of non-GCC nationals’.

Zahra Babar has therefore rightly noted that ‘throughout the GCC, states face the peculiar dilemma of supporting full freedom of mobility for citizens while also severely limiting and curtailing the mobility of the dominant, non-national population’. Moreover, migrants are subject to stringent rules. For example, they are in principle not allowed to own property; when establishing a company they need a local sponsor who takes at least 51% ownership stake in the newly established company; and hiring foreign employees is dependent on a sponsor system too. This system has effectively led to a situation where robots may have more citizenship rights than humans.

The nationality regime in the Middle East has traditionally been characterized by the following elements: gender discrimination, a considerable statelessness problem, an exclusionary approach to migrants and low levels of naturalisation due to stringent requirements, relations based on kinship-based ties and a tribal ethos, and broad discretionary powers for the authorities (in practice often the individual monarch).

UNHCR has shown that gender discrimination in nationality matters is still widespread in the Middle East. But gender is not the only category that limits the rights of certain groups. As James Sater notes, the Gulf states ‘have substantial populations identified by alleged origin, religion, or language that enjoy fewer civil and social rights than other citizens of these states. In fact, citizenship rights are negotiated through, and dependent on, the wider religious or tribal community to which individuals belong, which also appear in passports’. This means that the demarcation line between citizens and migrants, usually quite clear in other regions, is less obvious in the context of the GCC, where citizens too have different rights depending on their background and life situation. Sater describes it as an internal citizenship hierarchy that extends beyond the simple national/expat dichotomy, and which is composed of many different power relationships that depend on gender, ethnic origin, religion and nationality. This is also the backdrop of a collaboration with Comoros, which ‘launched a programme with the UAE and Kuwait to sell citizenship to stateless people in those countries, known as Bidoon, in return for cash to help develop the poor Indian Ocean archipelago’.

Finally, the GCC countries have made the news headlines in recent years for exercising far-reaching state repression measures, including citizenship revocation, against individuals accused of engaging in anti-regime political protests. In Zahra Babar’s analysis,

Since the start of the Arab Spring protests in 2011, GCC member states have adopted a two-pronged legal approach for enhancing state powers over citizenship revocation. Across the region, both anti-terrorism and nationality laws have been rewritten and expanded to ensure greater legal justification for action against individuals seen to be violating critical state interests. Both sets of laws ensure that citizenship-stripping can be employed as a disciplinary measure to punish those who do not demonstrate loyalty to the state and, by proxy, to the regime.

Citizenship stripping and expatriation, especially when leading to statelessness, have been called a ‘civil genocide’ and compared to the death penalty in the field of criminal law, and have received attention from organisations such as Amnesty International. Citizenship revocation due to ‘disloyalty’ or terrorist activities is by no means limited to autocratic regimes; it is a western phenomenon too witness the examples of the UK, the Netherlands and others. Data of the Home Department show that there is a rising trend: while 14 people were deprived of British citizenship in 2016 on the basis that to do so was ‘conducive to the public good’, 104 people had their citizenship taken away on the same basis in 2017.

Nonetheless, citizenship deprivation has taken a particularly high flight in some of the GCC countries, and Bahrain in particular. There are also signs that ‘deprivation through the back door’, in the form of passport removal, is on the rise as an alternative to the more controversial citizenship removal.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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