Bahrain: Innovation in The Political Technology Of Repression

Are the monarchies of the Arab Gulf nations at all, in any meaningful sense?

Huge populations of guest workers who vastly outnumber native citizens. States that are closed oligarchies of blood-related ‘princes’. And as Lebanon’s Al-Safir reveals, for even the native-born, citizenship in these countries is seen as a privilege to be handed out or stripped away by the king or emir based on personal loyalty and religious sectarian allegiance.

Bahrain is a nation of largely Shi’ite islanders ruled for the past two centuries by a Sunni family from the Arab mainland. But mass-importation of Sunnis from the Arab world and elsewhere is gradually shifting the island’s religious balance.

Arab regimes are nothing if not creative; they are sources of constant innovation in certain policy areas. For instance, they surpass the whole world in finding ingenious new methods for oppressing their own people. The latest innovation by regimes intent on grasping power eternally is a policy of stripping citizenship from their own people, to silence opposition and kill any attempt at denouncing oppressive political systems.

In Bahrain, King Hamad Bin Aissa has amended the 1963 citizenship law, introducing new grounds for deprivation of citizenship; among them, according to the amendment, “causing harm to the interests of the kingdom or acting in a way that is contrary to the duty of loyalty to the kingdom.”

The point of the amendment is to widen the range of offenses that lead to deprivation of citizenship. Once a legal sanction that could only be used in the case of ‘high treason,’ it has been turned into a tool of political repression to be used against anyone tempted to oppose the kingdom’s rulers, particularly in the last three years [since the Arab Spring unrest began].

This alarming development confirms once again how steadfastly these regimes are committed to the descent into repression. Commenting on this amendment, Bahrain Forum For Human Rights head Youssef Rabi’ told Al Safir that “withdrawing citizenship is against Bahrain’s 1963 law, which clearly states that citizens may be deprived of their citizenship only in the case of high treason and by order of the king.” He likewise underlined that the amendment is contrary to international laws and treaties which have been signed by Bahrain.

It is clear that the government of Bahrain now uses deprivation of citizenship primarily as a punishment for its political opponents, human rights activists and dissidents. And it is a punishment used with a heavy hand: Bahraini judges routinely slap prison sentences of between 5 and 15 years on political opponents of the regime, and then tack on a further sentence withdrawing citizenship.

“Furthermore, 42 Bahraini citizens – political activists, deputies, scholars and ordinary people, some living in the country and others abroad – were recently sentenced to citizenship deprivation,” Rabi’ says. “Is it a coincidence,” he asks, “that they all belong to the same religious sect?”

While Bahrain strips some of its citizens of their nationality, other people foreign to the country are being simultaneously naturalized as Bahrainis on an equally sectarian and illegal basis.

Bahraini law states that citizenship in the country may be awarded to Arab foreigners after they have resided in the country for at least 15 years, while non-Arab foreigners must wait 20 years to apply, in addition to learning to speak Arabic. In fact however, according to the president of the Forum for Human Rights, the government has been violating the citizenship law by awarding citizenship to foreigners who have lived as little as one day in the country.

Awarding citizenship for religious sectarian reasons is a dangerous, and indeed criminal practice. As for the royal family, it has never treated the indigenous people of this country as partners in a single nation. Instead, the royal family has always seen itself as superior to the original people of the country, treating them as objects of discrimination at best, if not as enemies from whom it is legitimate to pillage and appropriate.

This is the relationship on which the political structure of the present state is founded. And it is this relationship which permits the scheme of sectarian naturalization that the country has implemented over the past 30 years in particular.

The program of sectarian naturalization amounts to awarding Bahraini citizenship to groups of foreigners based on their religious sect, in order to change the country’s demographic balance. The primary beneficiaries are people from Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia; non-Arab Pakistanis, Baluchs, Bengalis and Indians are likewise given citizenship if they are of the right sect.

A plan aiming at a demographic change targeting the country’s indigenous people, and that violates international law [since it consists of the deliberate targeting of a group of people].

There are at present no accurate figures available for those who have been given Bahraini nationality; the government keeps them secret. But political opposition groups estimate that there have been between 95 and 120 thousand “sectarian naturalizations” – or as they call them “political naturalizations.”

The lack of real numbers for the newly naturalized can however be roughly filled in by using figures from the official population census. For example they suggest that in 2027 the population of Bahraini citizens will reach 2 million : an unnatural increase given the actual number of citizens and the country’s birth rate.

Sectarian naturalization is a very real attack on the rights of Bahrain’s indigenous people, a blow against their identity and their social and political rights. Their right to weigh in the country’s political and economic decisions is threatened by this policy, and equally their access to employment, education, health and housing.

That is why legal experts say that Bahrainis could well resort to taking their government before international courts; sectarian naturalizations are against international law, and apartheid has been considered a crime since 1973. Harming indigenous people in this manner could indeed be considered a type of ‘’ethnic cleansing.”

At present, some Bahrainis are also looking into building a legal case in international courts against their government on the related issue of citizenship deprivations.

There is growing fear among many political activists that the nationality, citizenship and identity for the peoples of the Gulf countries in general is becoming a mere card in the hands of their governments, to be played when politically convenient. They need only look at the United Arab Emirates, where several sentences of citizenship deprivation were meted out against citizens in retaliation for the political opinions and affiliations. Or to Saudi Arabia where the law permits deprivation of citizenship for anyone who does not pay allegiance to the royal family. Or Kuwait, where a new law deprives political dissenters of their citizenship. And finally there is Qatar, where back in 2005, more than five thousand subjects of the royal family lost their citizenship as a punishment for being affiliated with tribes that were aligned against the ruling family.

And now we find the Bahraini authorities snatching away the nationality of people they want to target, leaving them with three choices: look for a ‘sponsor’ whose patronage will allow them to remain in Bahrain, or go to prison, or indeed be deported-since they are illegally present on the country’s soil.

As one [former]Bahraini now facing this choice says: “When you’ve taken away my citizenship, I will find myself a sponsor among one of these newly minted [Sunni] Bahrainis from Pakistan.”

Ali Shuqair Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard