Women's Rights: Gulf Crisis Shows How Discrimination in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar Tears Families Apart

“The Gulf is one country. My aunt is in Riyadh, my uncle is in the UAE, my children are from Bahrain.” —Dr. Wafa al-Yazeedi, Doha, June 19.

It was almost midnight on June 19 when I met Dr. al-Yazeedi, a 44-year-old divorced medical doctor  living in Qatar with her three children. It was deadline day, and her children had to leave the country.

Dr. al-Yazeedi is Qatari, but her children are Bahrainis—in the Gulf countries, children take the nationality of their father. Her three children, ages 17 to 22, are estranged from theirs. On June 5, Bahrain, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), announced that their nationals had to leave Qatar within 14 days, while ordering the expulsion of Qataris from their countries. But Dr. al-Yazeedi said her children were not leaving.  “People say their accent is Qatari,” she said of her children, with a tinge of pride. She is now one of many requesting that Qatar allows women, like men, to pass their nationality to their children.

My colleague and I spent the last week of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan listening to 50 Gulf citizens express their shock, anger, and confusion about the unfolding political crisis. While leaders highlighted long-standing political differences, the isolation of Qatar revealed instead how intertwined Gulf societies are.

Entire families stretched across four countries are now forcibly separated: parents from children, wives from husbands, sisters from brothers. In countries where family relations and lineages are of utmost importance, the political crisis appeared to be tearing apart the social fabric. And the timing could not have been worse. Many told us how they could not travel to meet their families for Eid al-Fitr (the celebration marking the end of Ramadan) on June 25 and 26. The Qatari National Human Rights Committee reported that by July 1 they had received 480 cases involving family separation, but we believe the number is higher.

As well as splitting families, the embargo has also shone a spotlight on the legal discrimination against women that predates the crisis. Though women do not have the same right as men to pass nationality to their children, this was a less visible problem—many families of mixed Gulf nationalities could come and go within the states with almost the same privileges as citizens. Now, they cannot.

In Qatar, children of Qatari fathers receive nationality automatically, and children of Qatari mothers and foreign fathers can apply for citizenship if they meet a set of strict conditions.

But even people who meet these criteria have faced difficulty. A 36-year-old man told us: “My mother is Qatari, my father is Bahraini. I am Bahraini. I was born here [in Qatar], studied here, and work here.” He said he applied for Qatari nationality six years ago, but still doesn’t have an answer. It is not known how many children of Qatari mothers have applied for or received citizenship in Qatar. But now, people born to Qatari mothers are clamoring for the same security as those born to Qatari fathers.

Both women and their children who suffer from this discrimination now face a threat of punishments by some Gulf states if they remain in Qatar. Saudis can face a three-year travel ban and a fine of 10,000 Saudi Riyals ($2,600). On June 13, Bahrain’s Interior Ministry threatened its citizens who remain in Qatar with passport withdrawal.

A 34-year-old Saudi woman who recently divorced a Qatari man said she risked punishment by her government if she remained in Qatar with her 3-year-old child—he holds Qatari citizenship through his father, as she cannot pass her nationality to him.

Dr. al-Yazeedi too expressed concern that her children will not be able to travel due to Bahrain’s order.

While Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE announced on June 12 that they would grant exceptions for “humanitarian cases of mixed families” and established hotlines, only two out of the 12 Gulf nationals who told us they tried to contact these hotlines managed to get permission to travel to and from Qatar.

Granting nationality in the Gulf is a thorny issue. Gulf states do not recognize dual nationality, and have unusual demographics: small citizen populations—often provided with generous state benefits—and a large migrant worker labor force. Some countries also have a sizable group of stateless people to whom they continue to deny nationality. The elusive 2014 Riyadh Agreement, intended to resolve the last round of political tensions with Qatar, stipulated that Qatar should not provide nationality to other Gulf citizens. Layered on top of all these tensions is the Gulf-wide problem of nationality laws and government implementation giving men greater rights than women.

Whatever happens now with the political wrangling, Gulf states should not continue to deprive women of the right to pass their nationality to their children in an equal manner to men. This violates their international human rights obligations, and harms children, individuals and families. Qatar should take the lead in reforming this law, and allow children of Qatari mothers the same security and legal rights as children of Qatari fathers.

Rothna Begum is the Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter @Rothna_Begum .

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