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Citizenship in the United Arab Emirates: A spectrum of categories


Crowd of people on the waterfront in Dubai. Picture by Christopher (qilin) on Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The Emirates is an interesting country to explore the limits and possibilities of citizenship. Citizenship in the UAE is not a dichotomy between those who have it and those who have not, but rather a spectrum ranging from full citizenship to state-sanctioned statelessness and withdrawal of nationality of dissidents.


The UAE is an exceptional country in terms of migration. Almost 90% of its inhabitants were born abroad. The 10% of the population born in the Emirates is not completely made up of nationals with full citizenship; in fact, only half of the people born in the country enjoy full citizenship rights.[1] The other half consists of a mix of second-class citizens who cannot enjoy the same range of benefits as full citizens: Emirati nationals who lack a certificate of ancestry, UAE-born children who do not have an Emirati father and cannot access nationality, and stateless people (referred to as bidoun or bedoon) of nomad origin.


Emirati nationals with full citizenship hold a document called khulasat al-qaid, a certificate issued by the government which proves that they had ancestry in the UAE prior to 1925. The date was chosen because oil had not yet been discovered by then, and thus the Emirati population at that moment would not include  those who immigrated later, attracted by the promises of wealth associated with petroleum extraction. Full citizens enjoy all the benefits associated with a rentier state: low or no taxation, free water and subsidised electricity, free healthcare and education, land and loans to build homes…[2]


Emiratis who do not hold a khulasat al-qaid certificate integrate a second category of citizens. They are nationals, as they own a passport issued by one of the seven emirates, but they are not recognised equally in all the UAE and they may only benefit from the services of the emirate their passport belongs to. 


The situation of the children of Emirati women and foreign men born before 2011 is more precarious. Citizenship in the UAE, as well as many other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, used to be patrilineal until a recent change in the laws and could not be passed from mothers to children. Their families need to apply for residence visas for them, even though they are born and raised in the Emirates. Even though some of them may appeal and obtain an Emirati passport, they still lack an ancestry certificate, and thus cannot enjoy full citizenship rights.


The fourth and most vulnerable category of Emirati natives are the bidoun, or stateless. Most of them belong to Bedouin and nomad groups who used to move within the borders of the UAE and its neighbouring countries. They were not issued citizenship documents or passports as the British administration during the 1950s found the process difficult and tedious. Once the UAE federation was established and gained independence in 1971, they could not demonstrate their citizenship. The government has not attempted to deport them, but the stateless have been unable to enjoy any citizen rights or access the public job market. In 2008 the government announced plans to register all the stateless citizens. However, their solution was not offering them citizenship, but giving them a passport from the Comoro Islands instead. This way, the stateless become citizens of a country where they were not born and whose language they do not speak, losing any possibility to further obtain UAE documents. At the same time, the UAE presents itself as actively involved in improving the situation of the bidoun, and the Comoros receives a substantial amount of money.


Citizenship has also been used as a tool by the authorities of the UAE to suppress and silence dissidents, especially after the Arab Spring. In 2012, seven Emiratis were stripped of their citizenship for ‘security reasons’.Most of them belonged to Al-Islah, an Islamist group in the Emirates with links to the Muslim Brotherhood, and some were given passports of the Comoros. In 2016, the children of one of the prisoners, who were already adults, were also deprived of their citizenship rights and became stateless.


Citizenship in the UAE, therefore, is not a permanent or fixed status granted to all people born in the country. It depends on the possession of certain legal documents. It can also be revoked, and until relatively recently it was not passed from mothers to children. In other words: full citizenship is a privilege that only a minority of the inhabitants in the UAE can enjoy. The spectrum ranges from full citizenship to statelessness, including some intermediate layers. Social mobility for people born in the Emirates is also conditional on the possession of certain documents. The minority who have them can enjoy the benefits of Emirati citizenship, which include the chance to own companies, work for State institutions and, most importantly, receive additional income by ‘sponsoring’ international migrants.[3]

Theories of citizenship and the UAE


Citizenship in the UAE challenges some of the classical theories of citizenship. In regards to Marshall's liberal citizenship model, it shows that social rights are not a consequence of the acquisition of political rights. In regards to Soysal's concept of postnational citizenship, the heavy restrictions to the naturalisation of foreigners in the Emirates show that the UAE is not willing to expand their citizenship rights to other groups. Besides, the economic benefits that the Kafala system brings to citizens would be jeopardised if more people had access to the Emirati nationality.

British sociologist T. H. Marshall described the evolution of citizenship as a process in which civil rights led to political rights, and political rights led to social rights. The case of the UAE and other Gulf countries does not fit this model, as social rights predate political rights and, arguably, are used to prevent further demands for increased political participation. When locals have demanded more political rights they have been jailed and silenced.[4] Jane Kinninmont, a specialist on Middle Eastern affairs, sees the ‘legal, political and economic construction of citizenship by Gulf regimes’ as a tool to prevent the nationals from being ‘swayed by stronger pulls towards transnational Arab or Islamic identities’.


It could be argued that Marshall's model refers to the Western context, whereas Gulf States may have a different approach due to their traditions or religious customs. However, both Kinninmont and political science professor Manal A. Jalal show that the concept of citizenship in the Gulf is not the by-product of tribal or religious traditions, but rather the influence of the British imperial legacy.


A general trend in the academic literature on citizenship during the last decades has been to regard the extension of citizenship rights to migrant communities as the logic evolution of citizenship regimes.[5] One of the most optimistic visions is the notion of postnational citizenship by the Turkish sociologist Yasemin Soysal: she anticipates a world in which rights are not associated with nationality but with personhood, where all humans would have the same rights and obligations.[6]

However, the UAE offers evidence of the opposite. As the international relations professor James Sater argues, ‘migration and the lack of migrants' citizenship status substantially contributes to positive rights that official citizenship holders enjoy’. The lack of political rights in Gulf countries ‘is the primary factor that explains why migrants will continue to be denied citizenship rights’.[7] The extension of citizenship to non-nationals would endanger the political balance, which is why migrants are commonly referred to by Emirati authorities as a 'security risk'.

The Kafala system

The relationship between migrants and native employers in the Gulf states is mediated by the Kafala system. In theory,  foreign workers are protected by a citizen who acts as sponsor or kafeel and takes responsibility for their protection and well-being. They are not allowed to switch or quit jobs or even leave the country without the authorisation of the sponsor. Kafala has been sometimes described as an 'archaic law' and has been compared to slavery


In fact, the system is quite complex as there are many different practices and situations. While some nationals make money by becoming sponsors and connecting migrants to employers, others facilitate 'free visas' that link migrants to the kafeel but not the employer, thus allowing the migrants to switch employers. Some others sponsor the ventures of wealthy foreign investors, as access to property and business opportunities are very restricted for the non-citizens. The main consequence of the system is that, for citizens of the Gulf countries, ‘income is derived from citizenship rather than merit’. (See Khalaf, Al-Shehabi and Hanieh (eds.), Transit States, 52-54). 

The Kafala system is commonly described as a unique feature of the Gulf countries. However, it could also be argued that it is actually a product of capitalism and globalisation. For example, it has been compared to the work permit system in Singapore (see Charanpal Singh Bal, Production Politics and Migrant Labour Regimes: Guest Workers in Asia and the Gulf (Palgrave McMillan, 2016), 217),  and could also be correlated with the posting of workers in EU countries. See also Adam Hanieh, Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2011).

Indian-American anthropologist Neha Vora has observed an interesting phenomenon in Dubai and other Emirates during her anthropological fieldwork that also challenges Yasemin Soysal's theory of the expansion of citizenship. Wealthy migrants, she argues, are ‘unofficial citizens’ in the UAE. They are essential in the governance of less privileged migrants from their nations (mostly South Asians), and they enjoy the privileges associated with wealth. However, they do not claim equal rights, do not mix with the local population and, even though they may have children, they are not interested in obtaining citizenship. They portray Dubai as ‘a land of opportunity where anyone can reach his full potential’, a place full of freedoms which they prefer to their homeland. Vora concludes:

‘By relegating governance over laborers to wealthy elites, the state abdicates its responsibility over their well-being; by narrating belonging in neoliberal economic terms instead of through politicization or nationalism, elite expatriates mask their own practices of citizenship and governance.’

Citizenship theories, as we have seen, do not fully apply to the UAE. This is not due to the particularities of the local culture, but to the historical developments in the last century and the dynamics of global capitalism. Oil wealth allowed the Emirate authorities to consolidate their regime. It provided them with the means to expand the rights and privileges associated with citizenship, mostly through social services. The UAE is not moving towards a postnational model of citizenship as the social divisions draw by citizenship reinforce the hierarchies that structure the State's power. In a country where the vast majority of the population of the population is of foreign origin, social rights are a privilege that only a reduced minority enjoys.[8]  

Notes and references

[1] These figures are rough estimations based on crossing several sources. The government of the United Arab Emirates does not issue official statistics on the number and composition of the non-native population, and the latest national census was carried out in 2005. See Gulf Labour Market and Migration Program, ‘Evolution of Population Figures, Share of Non-Nationals and Demographic Growth Rates in GCC Countries since the 1970s (National Statistics 1970-2010)’, and United Nations, ‘World Population Prospects 2017’. 

[2] For more details, see Manal A. Jamal, ‘The “Tiering” of Citizenship and Residency and the “Hierarchization” of Migrant Communities: The United Arab Emirates in Historical Context’, International Migration Review 49, no. 3 (fall 2015): 606; and Jane Kinninmont, ‘Citizenship in the Gulf’, in The Gulf States and the Arab Uprisings, ed. Ana Echagüe, 51. (Madrid: FRIDE and Gulf Research Center, 2013).

[3] Abdulhadi Khalaf, Omar Al-Shehabi, and Adam Hanieh (eds.), Transit States: Labour, Migration and Citizenship in the Gulf (London: Pluto Press, 2015), 52-54.

[4] Striping dissidents from their nationality is a more exceptional measure. The most active opposition groups in the UAE are Islamist, so for the State it is easy to frame them as potential terrorists. However, there are also human rights activists in jail. See Amnesty International, ‘UAE: Surprise overnight raid leads to arrest of prominent human rights defender”, 20 March 2017. 

[5] Some examples are Rainer Bauböck, ‘Citizenship and migration – concepts and controversies’, in Migration and Citizenship: Legal Status, Rights and Political Participation, edited by Rainer Bauböck (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 15-31; and Saskia Sassen, ‘Towards post-national and denationalized citizenship’, in Handbook of Citizenship Studies, eds. Engin F. Isin and Bryan S. Turner (New York: Sage, 2003), 277-291.

[6] James Sater, ‘Citizenship and migration in Arab Gulf monarchies’, Citizenship Studies 18, no. 3-4 (2014): 292-302. 

[7] Yasemin Nuhoglu Soysal, Limits of Citizenship: Migrants and Postnational Membership in Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

[8] Neha Vora, ‘Business Elites, Unofficial Citizenship, and Privatized Governance in Dubai’, in Viewpoints: Migration and the Gulf (Washington DC: The Middle East Institute, 2010), 46-48. A more detailed account by the same author can be found in Khalaf, Al-Shehabi and Hanieh (eds.), Transit States, 170-197.

Alejandro Salamanca.jpg
Alejandro Salamanca Rodríguez

Alejandro Salamanca Rodríguez is a historian of migration. He holds a Master's degree in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies from the University of Edinburgh, as well as the European Master in Migration and Intercultural Relations. Currently he is the chief editor of the Spanish-language interdisciplinary journal Revista FUA.

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