We noticed you're blocking ads.

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker.

Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us

Font Size

- Aa +

Mon 13 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

Font Size

- Aa +

Born identity?

Claire Ferris-Lay investigates the plight of the UAE bidoon, a community of stateless people who are tied to the land their grandfathers once roamed.

Born identity?
Born identity?
Granting UAE citizenship to bidoons would allow them access to a range of state benefits.

Claire Ferris-Lay investigates the plight of the UAE bidoon, a community of stateless people who are tied to the land their grandfathers once roamed.

Roya Hassan was born and raised in the UAE. When she became the first female to graduate in law from Al Ain’s United Arab Emirates University in 1982 she should have had a glittering legal career ahead of her.

But, unfortunately for Hassan, the year she finished her studies was the same year she found herself unable to renew her temporary UAE passport — the vital document which would allow her to practice law.

Instead she has been forced to make do in an alternative career and has worked for the same state-owned company for the last 22 years.

Hassan is a bidoon, Arabic for ‘without’. She is just one of thousands of people living in the UAE who have no passport and no other legal documentation. She is officially stateless, which means she cannot open a new bank account, cannot leave the country and cannot do what she wants to do more than anything; practice law in her home country.

“When you are a bidoon you cannot do so many things. You are not expatriate or a local; you are in-between,” she tells Arabian Insight.

Hassan’s grandfather and father came to the UAE from Iran in 1953, she explains. In 1971 her grandfather was given a Sharjah passport and at the end of the year, when the UAE was formally established, he was given a temporary UAE passport, which had to be renewed every six months. But in 1982, when she tried to renew her passport, the application was denied, and Hassan has been forced to live as a bidoon ever since.

Hassan’s story is not unusual. Thousands of stateless persons living in the UAE can trace their roots back to the days when bedouin roamed the desert and border controls were non-existent. Illiteracy meant many failed to register themselves after Britain gave up its colonies in the 1960s and 1970s and the Gulf states were formed. Some are descendants of fisherman and merchants who also settled in the country.

According to anecdotal evidence, nearly 50 percent of Arab bidoon’s fathers were born in the GCC while around 30 percent of their grandfathers were born in the region. Others observe that some families can trace their heritage back three or four generations, each of whom was consecutively born in the Gulf. Today they find themselves in no man’s land.

“[A bidoon] could be someone who finds themselves in that situation for a number of reasons; their family may have lived historically in the country, but for some reason was not documented or chose not to be documented at the time; it could be someone who entered the country seeking asylum…There is no one stereotypical situation; it really is a diversified community of individuals,” explains Maureen Lynch of advocacy group Refugees International.

Although there is no official number of bidoons in the UAE, estimates vary from 10,000 to 100,000. Despite the numbers, like Hassan, all bidoons claim to be Emirati. “My life is here; all of my close friends are Emiratis. I know more about the UAE than I know about Iran. It would be impossible for me to live anywhere else,” she says.

It might not be her dream job, but Hassan has been able to work — like most bidoons. But that doesn’t mean being stateless doesn’t have its problems. As a bidoon living in the UAE, it is impossible to send your children to state-run schools and access healthcare as UAE nationals can. In some cases a lack of basic education has forced many into a life of crime with no fear of ever being brought to justice as the authorities are unable to trace their whereabouts.

“Nationality is a fundamental human right, which is really overlooked,” says Lynch, adding that having such a large group of uneducated people is hampering emiratisation efforts to boost the national workforce. “Even if a person is able to regain or gain nationality you almost cannot make up for the lost time. You cannot go back and get educated at the level a person might have and then just get stuck into the workforce — you remain at a disadvantage over a substantially longer period of time.”In October 2006, the UAE president HH Sheikh Khalifa Al Nahyan pledged to resolve the issue. During the period between his announcement and March 2008, 1,294 people received citizenship. In September 2008, the government established a series of registration centres across the emirates in a bid to tackle the problem. For two months thousands of bidoons came from all across the emirates to submit papers they hoped would grant them UAE nationality.

So far the naturalisation process has been slow, and only a minority of bidoons have been granted citizenship. Brigadier general Nasser Al Alowidi, general director of the immigration and naturalisation department in Abu Dhabi, explains that the biggest reason for the delay is because many bidoons registered their application under a series of varying names on more than one occasion, believing they would be more successful. “Some thought registering was a lottery, which is delaying those who have valid bidoon status.”

More significantly, he adds that the vast majority of those who claim to be bidoon are in fact illegal immigrants, some of whom crossed the border during the oil boom in the 1960s and 1970s, who have destroyed documents from their home country in a bid to be granted UAE nationality. “There are some who are real bidoon, but unfortunately they get mixed up with the vast majority who claim to be bidoon,” he explains. “People coming illegally to the country or those that come legally and then destroy papers are forcing us to look at each case individually.”

Dr Hamad Bin Seray, an associate professor in the department of history and archeology at UAE University in Al Ain, echoes Al Alowidi’s concerns. “Many of these people came here in the 1980s and destroyed their documents to stay in the emirates [because] they don’t want to leave the country. They came to the country for political reasons and many came into the country illegally.”

He also adds that because of the high number of illegal claimants, the true figure for genuine bidoon could be far below estimates. “The [total number of bidoons] could be thousands, but not hundreds of thousands.”

It is unsurprising that so many are claiming to be stateless or that the UAE is dealing with the applicants on a case by case basis. Granting UAE citizenship to bidoons would allow them to benefit from a whole range of state benefits. In addition to being granted a passport, UAE nationals receive free healthcare and education as well as subsidised utilities. Other benefits include $19,000 payment towards wedding costs. According to research by Zayed University, the average Emirati male receives benefits of around $55,500 a year.

The bidoon’s plight is not limited to the UAE. According to a 2005 report by Refugees International there are more than 11 million people without nationality worldwide. “There are bidoons in Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and probably in Iraq as well,” says Lynch. In the Gulf, the problem is most acute in Kuwait, where Refugees International estimates there are between 80,000 and 140,000 people living stateless.

The UAE is considered the most forward thinking Gulf state for tackling the problem head on. But it is not the only country to do so. Bahrain is often considered the pioneering Gulf state in actively granting citizenship after it naturalised 2,090 bidoon of Iranian origin in 2001.

In May 2000, up to 36,000 bidoons in Kuwait were granted citizenship. Lynch, however, claims that these figures are likely to be exaggerated. “Although there is a standing law [in Kuwait] that is enacted annually [stating] that certain thousands of individuals would receive citizenship, usually the full number does not receive citizenship and it may not be of the bidoon community; it may be other individuals.”

Other unsuccessful attempts at tackling the problem have also been recently reported. In a bizarre ruling last July, around 4,000 Arab bidoon families failed to get citizenship for the tiny Indian island of Comoros. Despite the country’s best efforts to attract foreign investors through a naturalisation process, the move was attacked by opposition who claimed the country was “auctioning off” its nationality.

In a 2008 report entitled ‘Honour nationality rights of the Bidoon” by Refugees International, the Washington-based group warns that those countries who fail to tackle the problem, risk losing their country’s nationality. “Unless Kuwait takes steps now to grant citizenship to bidoon children at birth and undertakes the process to naturalise existing bidoon cases, coming years will witness a dwindling of the Kuwaiti proportion of the population thereby potentially threatening the sustainability of the national itself,” states the report.

According to the Oxford Business Group, UAE nationals account for just 20.1 percent of the country’s total population. While efforts are being made to increase the national population, the decision to grant someone a UAE nationality will not be taken lightly, says Al Alowidi. He says temporary UAE passports were issued to many bidoons for humanitarian reasons such as medical treatment abroad and are not automatic claims to UAE nationality.

Offering hope to all those who registered, Al Alowidi says that those who can prove they’re genuine bidoon will be helped. “[The 2006 directive] included three conditions for people to get citizenship. One of them was to prove they have been in the UAE consistently since before 1971. People who show us real documentation and cooperate with us and prove good intentions, the country will give them a hand.”

Hassan, who was interviewed in November, says she expects to find out if her application was successful or not in July. If it is, she plans to finish her PhD and hopes to practice law. “It will mean a real life for me. It’s a dream I have been waiting for.”

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall