UAE: Citizenship with a Gag Order

Emiratis dance at the opening of the Sharjah Heritage Village, in Sharjah, the third largest emirate of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on 4 April 2012. (Photo: AFP - Karim Sahib)

By: Muhammad Salah

Published Saturday, April 14, 2012

Six activists were jailed after challenging the president of the UAE’s decision to revoke their citizenship for alleged terrorist links.

On April 9, the authorities in Abu Dhabi arrested six human rights activists whose UAE citizenship had earlier been revoked. This had been done on the grounds that they endangered the state and had links to “suspicious regional and international organizations and figures,” some allegedly listed by the UN as suspected of financing terrorism.

The six men – Sheikh Muhammad al-Sidiq, Ali al-Hussein al-Hamadi, Shaheen al-Hawsni, Hussein Munif al-Jaberi, Hassan Munif al-Jaberi, and Ibrahim al-Marzouqi – are all naturalised Emiratis. Five of them obtained UAE citizenship in the 1970s, one in the 1980s. Four of them had originally come to the country from Iran, and two from Yemen.

The group had mounted a legal challenge to the decision to strip them of their citizenship. They charged that they had been targeted for signing a petition in March 2011 addressed to Sheikh Khalifa bin-Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE federation and ruler of Abu Dhabi, calling for political reforms and the establishment of an elected legislature with full powers. The petition was signed by 130 Emirati figures.

The case had been kept largely out of the public eye since the decision to revoke the six men’s citizenship was made in January, largely due to the power of the compliant local media. But their arrest last week enabled rights groups and civil society activists in Abu Dhabi to attract new attention to their plight, both domestically and beyond the country’s borders.

The six were detained after being summoned to the immigration and nationality department and ordered to sign an undertaking to seek citizenship of another country, on the grounds that they were now aliens residing illegally in the UAE. When they refused, they were all jailed.

UAE officials have argued that as the men were originally nationals of other countries who became citizens by naturalization, the law allows for their citizenship to be withdrawn if they commit acts that threaten the safety and security of the country.

But activists charged that the action against them was arbitrary, excessive and illegal, not least because it was not ordered by the Federal High Court – the body legally empowered to make decisions on revoking citizenship – but decreed by the ruler. Critics said it was also socially divisive, smacking of the attitude that the UAE is a privately-owned corporation, whose rulers are proprietor-managers and citizens are mere employees.

The precise offenses they are supposed to have committed have not been made public. The Gulf Center for Human Rights said they were all reform advocates and members of the Social Reform and Guidance Society(as was a seventh man, Ahmad Ghaith al-Suwaidi, whose citizenship was also revoked), whose board was dissolved by the authorities.

Attempts were made at universities in the UAE to examine whether the revocations were constitutional, as they were clearly part of a broader policy of muzzling all pro-reform voices in the country. But these were blocked by regime loyalists and discussion of the issue was refused. Activists said some pro-regime students defended the move in line with the conservative religious doctrine that the ruler is owed absolute loyalty and obedience, and his decisions cannot be questioned by the people, so long as his rule is just.

Others have said that the six deserve to be stripped of their citizenship and expelled because they showed disrespect to the head of state, and because the country’s rulers deserve praise for ensuring their subjects high incomes and free education and healthcare.

“What these loyalists forget is that the financial bribe which the state pays to the people has taken them out of the job market and made it necessary to bring in foreigners to work,” remarked one activist. “The authorities treat the people as though they are doing them a financial favor, while the state earns massive oil revenues that go into the rulers’ pockets.”

Other countries have legislation providing for naturalized citizens to be stripped of their citizenship if they obtained it fraudulently, or committed some grave offense against their adopted country. But this invariably has to be done through the courts with due legal procedure. “For someone’s citizenship to be withdrawn on the personal orders of a ruler is unjustifiable, and comes under the definition of dictatorship,” according to another rights activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“These activists are known for their social work. They indeed signed a statement demanding constitutional reforms and parliamentary and municipal elections. This is the response they got,” he said. If demanding reform is grounds for such punishment, “I wonder how many Egyptians, Syrians or Libyans are going to be stripped of their citizenship,” he remarked.

Conversely, an Abu Dhabi-based lawyer said the UAE authorities were entitled to take such steps in light of regional tensions, amid fears that the country’s climate of openness is being exploited by some migrants to engage in clandestine political activities.

He said the authorities feared such activities would deter foreign investors and damage the country’s economic growth prospects. “If the government has to weigh politics against finance, it will definitely opt for finance. That is its natural right, like any state in the world that wants to preserve its interests,” he said.

The UAE ceased the practice of allowing migrants to apply for naturalization in the mid-1980s, in response to the massive influx of migrant workers into the then newly-emerging Gulf states, notably from Egypt, Iran, and Yemen.

The granting of residence permits often depends on the applicant’s country of origin, and is based on political considerations. Palestinians and Lebanese are among the least favored, along with workers from Egypt, Syria, and Libya. Yet, official statistics show that out of a total UAE population of about eight million, over seven million are foreigners. The majority hail from the Indian subcontinent, followed by Arabs and Europeans.

The latest case followed the conviction by an Abu Dhabi court in November of five Emirati bloggers on charges of insulting the UAE’s leaders. The ruler later annulled the three-year sentences they were given, though they had already spent seven months in custody prior to the trial. Attempts by rights groups to block the trial came to nothing, amid a rallying of tribal and popular support for their prosecution.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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