Bahrain: discrimination and citizenship

Bahrain's decision to revoke the citizenship of 31 men – all of them reported to be Shia Muslims – is just one side of a discriminatory policy operated by the kingdom's Sunni rulers. The other side is that they readily grant citizenship to Sunni Muslims from a variety of countries.

This practice is known in Bahrain as al-tajnis al-siyasi – "political naturalisation". In an article for the Carnegie Endowment, Marina Ottaway explained:

"The population of Bahrain is predominantly Shia. Estimates range from as high as 75% in the past to about 65% at present – but these figures are imprecise. The decrease is the result of an extraordinary attempt to change the composition of the population in order to dilute the Shia presence. 

"While the government has never admitted the existence of such a programme, there is no doubt that the regime has granted Bahraini citizenship to thousands of Sunni immigrants – estimates vary widely, from about 60,000 people (according to Bahraini human rights sources), to as much as double that figure."

Considering that it is very difficult if not impossible to obtain citizenship in most Arab Gulf countries – the bidoun of Kuwait are one example – Bahrain's policy is certainly unusual. Even when the tiny population (thought to be around one million Bahraini nationals) is taken into account, it is unlikely to change the demographic balance overnight but its blatantly discriminatory character causes resentment.

In theory, there are strict requirements for obtaining Bahraini citizenship: Arabs should have lived there for 15 years, and non-Arabs for 25 years. But according to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), the reality is different:

"The authorities in Bahrain followed discriminatory policy, by secretly and exceptionally granting citizenship ... to thousands of individuals and families of Sunni tribal origins, though they already hold citizenships of other countries and residential conditions do not apply to them. 

"On the other hand, thousands of eligible people were denied citizenship although most of them had no other citizenship and did not live in any other country besides Bahrain. This denial created difficulties for 'stateless' people especially in owning properties, having jobs, and travelling or mobility."

This has been going on for almost 20 years. The BCHR cites one example where members of the Saudi al-Dawaser tribe were brought to Bahrain, and naturalised, for the specific purpose of taking part in elections to the Council of Representatives. The people involved had never lived in Bahrain, though the king later justified their naturalisation on the grounds that their ancestors had lived there in the 1920s.

More controversially still, many of Bahrain's new citizens – especially Pakistanis – work in the security forces and have thus become identified with repression.

Meanwhile some details have emerged about the 31 named yesterday as having been stripped of their citizenship – supposedly for posing a threat to state security. According to reports from theBBC, the New York Times and the Guardian, they include:

  • Jawad Fairuz, former MP and member of al-Wefaq, the largest opposition group. He is currently in London and faces a jail sentence on charges that include "illegal gathering" in Bahrain.

  • Jalal Fairuz, brother of Jawas, who is also a former MP and, according to the NYT, has never been charged with any crime.

  • Saeed al-Shehabi, a journalist and head of the Bahrain Freedom Movement, who has lived in London since the 1970s.

  • Ali Mushaima, son of the jailed al-Haqq leader, Hassan Mushaima. In April, Ali Mushaima staged a protest on the roof of Bahrain's embassy in London.

  • Three Shia clerics: Hussein Mirza, Khaled Mansour Sanad and Alawi Sharaf.

  • A university professor based in Sweden.

Noting that the Fairuz brothers are both in London, the Guardian says they "may now be forced to make high-profile asylum applications that will be awkward for the relationship between the British and Bahraini governments". 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 November 2012.