Keeping out the foreigners

Saudi Arabia's crackdown on migrant workers continues to stir up racist sentiment, and the latest example is a column in Arab News headed "Say no to expats calling for Saudi citizenship".

The writer, Abdulrahman al-Zuhayyan, trots out a familiar collection of xenophobic prejudices: foreigners in Saudi Arabia don't speak proper Arabic, they don't mix with Saudis, they take jobs away from Saudis, they only want citizenship for the financial benefits, etc, etc.

For these reasons, Zuhayyan says, "it would be a grave mistake to grant foreigners Saudi citizenship on any basis".

Fortunately, many of the paper's readers seem to have recognised this as offensive nonsense. The discussion thread below the article contains more than 200 comments – and they are overwhelmingly critical.

The Arab Gulf states have always been reluctant to grant citizenship and in Saudi Arabia there is a particular problem with mixed marriages where the woman is a Saudi citizen and the husband is not. (Saudi women, incidentally, are not allowed to marry foreigners without government permission, but that's another story.)

Saudi expulsions crisis: full coverage

Before the rules were changed earlier this year, non-Saudi husbands and their children could not legally live in the kingdom without being sponsored by an employer. In February, however, the authorities announced that Saudi wives could now also act as "sponsor" for their husband and children.

That was a modest improvement but it's still a long way from actual citizenship.

For children of a Saudi mother and non-Saudi father who want to acquire citizenship, there's a points system, and they need at least seven points for an application to be considered. Here's how it works:

  • Child reaches puberty: One point

  • Child is educated to secondary school level or above: One point

  • Mother's father (but not grandfather) is Saudi: Two points

  • Mother’s father and grandfather are Saudi: Six points

  • Mother has Saudi brothers and sisters: Two points

Do the arithmetic and you'll see that it's impossible to accrue the necessary seven points unless the mother has a Saudi grandfather.

There has recently been talk of dropping the grandfather requirement but no decision appears to have been made yet.

"I am unable to comprehend why we, Arabs in general and Saudis in particular, tend to be too strict and too inflexible when it comes to granting nationality," Faiz Saleh Mohammed Jamal wrote in an article for Okaz last February. "Is it due to our feeling of superiority over others? Or is it because we feel that our country is a target for all those looking for quick wealth?"

Highlighting some of the iniquities and anomalies in this system, he continued:

I know a person who lived in this country and served the education and cultural sector for more than six decades. His children got the Saudi nationality because his wife was Saudi but he lived with a residency permit (iqama) until his death ...

I know another man whose father, mother and brothers were all Saudis except for him. The father passed away and for one reason or another Saudi nationality was lost so the son was not given a nationality or a passport. He is now living as a foreigner with a residency permit ...

I also know a girl whose father was a foreigner and mother a Saudi. Her brothers were given the nationality but she was not because she was unable to score the required points that would qualify her for the nationality since her father died before her application for the nationality was made ... "

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 26 November 2013