Aug 21, 2012

An Invisible Nation: The Gulf’s Stateless Communities

Image from I. Piccioni-A. Tiso/Molo7 Photo Agency
The issue of statelessness in the Gulf is as old as the post-colonial oil states from which they are actively being excluded. Until the 1980s, the status of the Bedoon was not seen as a political issue, with the fledgling governments more concerned with state building functions than with further limiting citizenship rights. The oil bust of the 1980s, however, strained the budgets of the Gulf regimes, who responded by constraining social services and restricting citizenship laws. The brunt of these restrictions largely fell on the stateless population—and in some Gulf states on migrant workers as well—who had been allowed health care and public education. Their intent was to force those seeking Gulf citizenship—particularly the Bedoon—to leave and start their lives as citizens elsewhere. These restrictions only served to exacerbate the numbers of stateless subjects, as few opted to abandon their family ties and communities or their geographic attachments in search for a new home country.
The 2010 UNCHR statistical book maintains that there are seventy thousand stateless subjects in the Saudi kingdom alone. This surely excludes hundreds of thousands of Mawaleed, a category which includes both those who are born in the country to foreign parents and those children of Saudi women from foreign fathers. In both cases, there is rarely any activism or reporting on statelessness in Saudi Arabia. It is believed that the seventy thousand includes families living in remote areas who are either unaware of documentation procedures or do not care to be registered in the system.
In Bahrain, considering the politicization of naturalization, the oppressed Shia majority understandably opposes the idea of granting citizenship. In the past decade, stateless Bahrainis and “mercenaries” have been naturalized as the state has sought to shift the demographic balance. Bahraini opposition claims that the regime has naturalized up to 120,000 but there are no official numbers. Those naturalized stateless persons are believed to be residents of Bahrain for two generations or children of Bahraini women who are married to foreigners. The “mercenaries” were naturalized after being brought from Yemen, Syria, Pakistan and other countries to work in security forces. The 1994-2001 popular uprising had resulted in the repeal of the State Security Law and the reestablishment of constitutional rule under the new monarch, thus limiting state power. In response, the Prime Minister expanded political naturalization in an attempt to change the demographics of Bahrain to weaken the Shia majority. He felt that he was becoming powerless and, with the support of Saudi Arabia, led the push for naturalization to further strengthen his role through the police and army. Resultantly, the current number of stateless persons in Bahrain does not exceed two thousand, most of whom are children of Bahraini women.
While the struggles of stateless communities in other Gulf countries remain largely undocumented, Qatar presents a slightly different case. Several reports were released for the first time earlier this year about the stateless population there, estimated at three thousand people who belong to one or two tribes. The reports provide accounts from a number of the Bedoon about their living conditions and in which they contrast the Bedoon’s struggle to the ease with which athletes are naturalized in return for their services. The numbers are comparatively smaller but again, little is known about their plight. Few Qatari Bedoon are politically active online and there are no statistics, official or otherwise, on the number of children of Qatari mothers who have not been naturalized. The reports’ criticism centers around Qatar’s increasing role and intervention in regional politics when the small state should be dealing with its own internal problems, including its major violations of human rights against migrant workers and its stateless community.
Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates present the most interesting cases of statelessness in the Gulf. Kuwait has approximately 120,000 Bedoon, the vast majority of whom belong to Arab tribes that had settled in the desert prior to independence. Kuwait does not grant women the right to pass citizenship on to their children, which has greatly exacerbated the problem of statelessness, since many Kuwaiti women have and continue to marry Bedoon men. Instead of attempting to assuage the increasing tension with and the struggles of the Bedoon population, Kuwaiti authorities issued a secret decision in 1986 to gradually strip this community of all its rights. Denied any form of official documentation in the 1990s, the Bedoon lost all access to formal employment, health care, and education.
In 2008, the Bedoon in Kuwait began to organize politically for the first time (following the lead of activists in the United Kingdom—notably, Mohammed Waly Al-Enizi—and in Canada), and have become increasingly active. They started with sit-ins, but participation was low and they were met with significant opposition from the police. With the failure of organized sit-ins, Bedoon activists turned to awareness campaigns about the plight of their community. They started to sponsor lectures that educated Kuwaiti society and media about the Bedoon, focusing on first dismantling all the existing stereotypes on those who are stateless and shedding light on the forms of discrimination they face. It was not until the 2011 uprisings, however, that things really began to change. Bedoon protests started in February 2011. Tens of Bedoon activists have subsequently been arrested, with some tortured, released, tried, and then acquitted. Kuwaiti authorities have responded recklessly, without any sense of direction or long-term plan. On the one hand, they made big promises to the Bedoon in order to diffuse the tension when their protests garnered significant media attention. On the other hand, they violently cracked down on protesters when the media was preoccupied with other things. Bedoon protests are ongoing nonetheless. They are mostly organized in reaction to official statements and the arrest of activists, or to bring attention to their plight. The protests often take advantage of political opportunities and openings, when the country is going through a political crisis such as the latest court decision to dissolve the parliament for being unconstitutional. The Bedoon have achieved little by way of legal gains. Yet, Kuwaiti society is finally getting to know the reality of Bedoon life and suffering and some Kuwaitis are starting to extend their support. Kuwaiti “Group 29” was able to secure one hundred seats for the highest ranking Bedoon students after having a daily sit-in in front of Kuwait University’s admission office last month.
The struggle of the Bedoon in the United Arab Emirates has recently emerged from the political unrest of the Arab Spring. Until last year, the United Arab Emirates had not only successfully managed to block any information about its stateless communities, but was also actively engaged in removing the Bedoon from their homeland. UAE authorities bought passports from the Comoros and gave its stateless community an ultimatum: either accept these new citizenships, or become illegal residents and detained. Surely this inspired their Kuwaiti counterparts who instead purchased Eritrean, Dominican, and Albanian passports. The United Arab Emirates provides no official statistics on its stateless community but according to a report in the Emirati English-language newspaper The National, they numbered about one hundred thousand four years ago. The actual population is likely double this number, without even including the thousands of children of Emirati mothers who are denied passing citizenship to their children. While the United Arab Emirates has recently claimed to have issued a decision to allow female citizens to pass citizenship to their children, in reality, committees were formed to examine their cases on an individual basis.
In the past few years, when communicating online with stateless men from the United Arab Emirates, I was surprised by how terrified they were of speaking about statelessness or even telling me that they are stateless. Some Emirati artists and bloggers do not openly admit that they are stateless for fear of both being judged according to society’s stereotypes against them and being arrested. Their fears are justified, given that the UAE authorities recently revoked Bedoon activist Ahmed Abdalkhaleq’s travelling document, gave him a Comoros passport instead, and exiled him to Thailand. Abdalkhaeq was one of the UAE5 who were arrested last year for demanding reforms. According to The Economist, he also runs a website about the stateless community in his country. So far, the wave of political arrests in the United Arab Emirates has cost the community fourteen members and stripped several of them of their nationalities.
In Kuwait, there are many blogs and forums that allow the Bedoon to speak of their cause. This year alone witnessed the rise of Kuwaiti activists devoted to the Bedoon, their protests, and their rights. The cyber world, however, seems to have no place for the Emirati activists, who are much more fearful of their security regime. However, just the way the UAE5 encouraged others to speak up, Abdelkhaleq seems to be the one who will set up the way for his community to be active and speak out. Abdelkhaleq is one of the UAE5, but he had received little media attention until his detention and subsequent deportation.
Despite all differences, with Saudi Arabia being the most extreme model and Kuwait being the least oppressive example, the Gulf countries look very much alike in their failed policies when dealing with statelessness. This is a region with corrupt and oppressive authoritarian regimes committing political and economic suicide by refusing to heed calls for change. This invisible nation of stateless communities residing in and around the Gulf is becoming increasingly outspoken. Oppression, forged passports, and exile are all methods that do not seem to work with the Gulf’s stateless community, especially when we consider how thousands of young women and men are denied basic rights and have no means to leave their countries. The Gulf states, with the exception of Bahrain, have so far been able to portray their countries as less in crisis than the rest of the Arab region and thus to hide their internal problems from the light of day. This status quo will not long remain, as minorities and communities like the Bedoon continue to mobilize.

* Published in Jadaliyya

Aug 16, 2012

Exile is Not the Answer to Statelessness!

A year ago, many Bedoon activists wouldn’t have been able to answer questions about the status of their counterparts in the United Arab Emirates due to a media blackout that the country was able to maintain until this year when they decided to send Bedoon activist Ahmed Abdul-Khaleq into exile. The Bedoon in the UAE number at least 100,000. Many of them are children of citizen mothers who are not allowed to pass citizenship to their children or spouses. Abdul-Khaleq was one of the five arrested last year for demanding reforms and democratic changes in the country. Since his release, the government has been planning to get rid of him as he calls on other Bedoon to speak up for their rights.

* Continue reading this post in Al-Akhbar's "The Subaltern." 

Aug 3, 2012

Saudi Women and the Need to be Political

Since the 1990s, Saudi women have been demanding the right to drive cars, travel alone, and abolish the male guardianship system. The struggle was limited to certain women from less conservative communities. After the Arab Spring, with the driving campaign, Saudi women were able to make their demands heard through a larger number of people involved and with the help of media exposure; western and Arab. It was believed that they were leading what can be called a ‘Saudi spring’.
Right after the Egyptian uprising, Saudi women worked online under the name ‘Saudi Women Revolution’ and although they started with bigger demands that sought radical changes to their status, gradually, the mild voices among them were able to dominate because they were less controversial and ‘more reasonable’, as some claim. Women were arrested and this was the easiest way to create leaders that exclusively were able to define the movement and its direction. A good example of that is Manal Al Sharif.
What has the movement achieved so far? Nothing when it comes to legislation, but a lot when it comes to having more women getting involved and speaking up. King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz promised that in the coming municipal elections (that have no set date) women would be able to contest and vote. The decision did not state whether those who wished to run for election needed permission from their male guardians.

* Continue reading this column in Gulf News

عن نعيم أبو سبعة الذي بعبص التنين

تفتح الرواية، تبدأ بخطاب حب للسيد الرئيس حسني مبارك، ثم تقرأ 8 صفحات عن رجل اسمه نعيم. الصفحات الأولى تأتي مسرحية أو وصفية (يقول الراوي بأن اللغة العربية لغة وصف وليست لغة أفكار)، تشعر بالارتباك، هل تتورط في قراءة رواية لا تعرف طريقها بين السرد والمسرح؟ هل اضطر الروائي لخلق مفارقة فنتازية في شخصية البطل في الفصل الأول الذي أسماه "نفق"؟ كل هذه مجرد تساؤلات شرعية لقارئ يريد أن يضع خطة أولية لقصة نعيم أبو سبعة- تساؤلاتي أنا، إلا أنها اختفت مع الفصل الثاني.
في الحكي، لن يكون نعيم أكثر من رجل في دولة دكتاتورية يحاول التحايل على الدولة. في الحالة العامة، الصفحات الأولى تضع جملة تتكرر بصياغات مختلفة من حين إلى آخر طوال الرواية "هذا ما كان نعيم يخشاه، بعبصوه بعدما كتب كتابه على عطيات، بعبصوه وهو حي عدة مرات، بعبصوه بأشياء غير الأصابع، ويبيعبصونه اليوم وهو ميت". الرواية ليس لها ثيمة واحدة، هي عن الشخصية المصرية، عن البعابيص المصرية، عن البيروقراطية المصرية الشامخة، عن فنتازيا الفساد المصري الذي يغلب أي مخيلة، عن "الدولة العميقة"، وهي قبل كل شيء دليل قد يكون عنوانه "كيف تصبح ديكتاتوراً في 276 صفحة؟".
بعد فصلين قصيرين من الرواية، يعود الرجل المجهول لكتابة خطاباته لرجل الدولة "صلاح". كل الخطابات غير موقعة و"صلاح" غير معّرف. يبدأ كاتب الرسالة بتعريف القائد، صورة القائد، كيف أن القائد ينتهي إذا احتلت رأسه الصلعة. طوال الرواية، يتنقل في الأمثلة والمقارنات بين عبدالناصر والسادات ومبارك، مرات قليلة عن محمد علي. بشكل سريع، تبدأ الرسالة الثانية إلى صلاح بشرح مبسط لعهدي السادات وعبدالناصر، ومن ثم تسهب في الحديث عن مبارك وشعاره الأول والأخير "الاستقرار".
صاحب الرواية محمد ربيع كان قد قال بأنه بدأ العمل على روايته قبل سقوط مبارك، توقف عن العمل لستة أشهر بعد الثورة معتقداً أن لا معنى لنصه، ومن ثم عاد لاستكمال الكتابة. لا أعلم ما الذي كان يدور في عقل ربيع، إلا أنني فسرت الستة أشهر باعتبارها تلك الفترة التي اعتقد فيها المصري بأن مبارك وأطيافه قد رحلوا. قد يكون الروائي احتاج لستة أشهر ليستمع لاسطوانة "الاستقرار" مرة أخرى، ليرى "صلاح" في الوجوه القديمة- الجديدة: الدولة العميقة كتبت لنعيم أبو سبعة الحياة مرة أخرى!
يعمد الروائي على رسم خطين في الرواية، هنالك نعيم أبو سبعة زوج عطيات وأبو وليد والبنتين الذي يحاول تلفيق موته ومحاربة البيروقراطية المصرية للحصول على بوليصة التأمين. شخصية خلابة يطعمها الروائي بغرائبية من حين إلى آخر حتى لا تموت. أما الخط الثاني فيعتمد كلياً على المخاطبات المكتوبة لـ "صلاح" والتي تشرح لنا السياق السياسي والزمني للحكاية. بشكل طبيعي، يجد القارئ مواطناً مسحوقاً وآخر يعمل من أجل الدكتاتور.
فصل "دعارة" الذي لم يتجاوز عدة صفحات كان مبهراً، قصة سريعة عن انتشار الدعارة في مصر محمد علي، كيف أن مصر كانت (ومازالت) تعيش من أجل شيء واحد وهو "الجيش" ولذلك كان هنالك جيش من العاهرات. يترك الروائي الرجل الفتوة يكبر، يتركه ليصبح أباً للجميع، أسطورة شعب بلا أب، تتكرر وتتشابه الأسماء، يكون هو نقطة نهاية وبداية. حكاية نعيم في الفصول الأولى لم تكن مشبعة، تفاصيل جديدة متتالية يحتاج القارئ أن يتآلف معها، يكون فيها، ولذلك تنجح الخطابات الموجهة لصلاح في جذبك وجعلك تنتظر المزيد منها: تفكيك الديكتاتورية وشعور القارئ الديمقراطي بالرضا عن نفسه، بالذكاء، إيماناً منه بأن خًدع الدولة لم تنتصر عليه.
الأهم في تلك الخطابات أنها تبدأ قوية، تقول لمبارك (والرواية لا تشير إلى ثورة يناير) أن يتفادى الأخطاء الغبية: الوضوح، المباشرة، الإدعاء، بينما كل ما يحتاجه أن يبقى غامضاً وأن يضحم أعدائه ويتركهم بلا ملامح في مخيلة المصري. الخطابات تصبح أحياناً مكاناً لتفريغ النقد الاجتماعي: كيف يهرب المصري من مواجهة الدولة.. كيف يبحث بشغف عن أفخاخ السلطة ليقع فيها ويغمض عينيه مرتاحاً. الخطابات تؤكد بأن "لكل مواطن مصري ملف يحوي معلومات عنه، موجود في مكان ما في مصر" وبأن "الخوف يا عزيزي هو الحل".
بعد ثلث الرواية، يكتب ربيع فصلاً بعنوان "معرّص" يسرد فيه أصل هذه الكلمة المصرية الشهيرة، كيف كانت تعني "التشييد والبناء" وكيف تحولت منذ العصر الفاطمي لتصف اثنين هما "القواد ومؤيد الحكام". في الفيديو التالي، يقرأ محمد من روايته معنى كلمة "معرص":  

بعدها مباشرة، يأتي خطاباً قوياً، هذه المرة عن المثقفين. باختصار شديد، عن المثقفين الذين عرف السادات تهمشيهم وجعل المصري ينظر لهم باحتقار. تلك الصورة النمطية التي نشاهدها في أفلام عادل إمام. السادات استغل طريقتين لإقصاء المثقف المصري: حب المصري للسخرية ورغبة المصري في عدم الشعور بتفوق الآخر عليه. "التريقة" الساداتية قتلت النخبة، النخبة التي كان بإمكانها أن تنقذ القليل، إلا أن الرغبة العامة بسقوط الهرمية الاجتماعية كانت الغالب. الروائي، بطبيعة الحال، لا يترك مصطلح المثقف فضفاضاً بل يشرحه ويمر سريعاً بقضية الرقابة التي لطالما سرقت المثقف من همه الأكبر: الصراع المباشر ضد الديكتاتورية. كان جديداً بالنسبة لي أن أرى نصاً يتطرق لقضية المثقف من هذه الزاوية خاصة وأن الحالة المسيطرة لا تملك سوى النقد والتهكم للمثقفين باعتبارهم سلبيين ومنفصلين عن الواقع.
بعد ذلك، لا يبذل كاتب الخطابات المزيد من الجهد، يستسلم لحالة العبودية السائدة، يشير لكلمة "العيش" والتي تعني الخبز باللهجة المصرية.. يتعجب "تخيل يا صلاح، أن يقرن الشعب أحد أصناف الطعام بالحياة ذاتها.. شعب كسول كهذا لن يختار الديمقراطية" ويضيف "رغيف الخبز هو مفتاح حكم المصريين.. فكرة الفرعون المعبود يجب أن تظل حاضرة في أذهان المصريين إلى الأبد".
بعد منتصف الرواية، يتغير الكثير. يدخل القارئ في شخصية نعيم أكثر، بعالمه الغرائبي، بحياته المسحوقة التي لا تثير تعاطفك، بتنقلاته المختلفة، بالخط الفاصل المبهم بين الواقع والخيال.. بعدها لا تريد أن تقرأ المزيد من الخطابات. تصبح مباشرة، مكررة، تخطفك مراراً إلى حوار سياسي مللته خاصة حينما يقوم الروائي (لأسباب تتضح في النهاية) بالتطرق لمحمد حسنين هيكل وفكرة الكاتب- الكاتب الشريك في السلطة وسحر الألفين كلمة! الخطابات تصبح متعبة فيما عدا الخطاب الذي يتحدث عن إضراب المحلة وقد يكون تفضيلي الشخصي لهذا الخطاب يعود لمعايشة جيلنا لتلك الأحداث التي أسميناها بلا تردد "ثورة". 

 تدريجياً، قصص نعيم تقل وتستبدل بأفكاره وهواجسه.. النهايات شارفت.. المزيد من الخطابات تُكتب.. شعرت باستفزاز. أردت أن لا تذهب القصة بذلك الاتجاه، أردت أن لا تكبر الخطابات عن كونها مجرد إطار تعريفي، أردت لنعيم أي يبقى "كبيرنا الذي علمنا السحر" وأردت فوق كل شيء أن لا أرى مبارك مباشرة، فهو في كل شيء ولا أحتاجه. الروائي أراد أن يصعد بسخطه من الشخصية المصرية وعبادتها للدكتاتور. التصاعد كان متعباً وسريعاً بالنسبة لي. لم يكن مهماً مبارك، لم يكن مهماً أن تظهر الحقيقة "كوضوح الشمس" كان يهمني حقاً أن أرى تجليات نعيم في ميتاته وحيواته. الفكرة السياسية لدى الروائي انتصرت على الفكرة السردية: الروائي غاضب، الروائي شعر بأنه عليه أن يقول للمصري بأن الصنم لم يسقط بعد الثورة، الروائي لم يستطع أن يراهن أكثر على نعيم. في الحقيقة، الروائي استخدم صورته كصورة لنعيم. الروائي قتل ذاته في النهاية.