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Statelessness in the Modern Middle East

Session III-03, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 8:30 am

RoundTable Description
In recent years the study of refugeedom has been gaining a foothold both across academia generally and in Middle East studies in particular – but its close corollary, the phenomenon of statelessness, remains underexplored. This roundtable opens up a conversation around iterations, experiences, and ramifications of statelessness in the modern Middle East, with an eye towards its profound relevance for the study and teaching of state-building, nationalism, and citizenship across the MENA region. Centering the conversation around different historical examples of statelessness across the modern Middle East highlights the phenomenon’s radically divergent historical and contemporary expressions, and challenges the often-assumed relationship between a “problem” or statelessness and a “solution” of citizenship. The Ottoman Commission on Refugees, for instance, resettled millions of refugees during the late nineteenth century without making citizenship central to its approach. In the late Ottoman and interwar periods, Kurds considered a wide variety of responses to their (not always self-perceived) “statelessness,” including absorption into any number of possible emerging nations. In the post-WWII era, efforts to provide citizenship to huge numbers of newly stateless peoples frequently met with resistance from individuals and communities who strongly objected to plans to “solve” their statelessness via the external imposition of a new nationality – including many European Jewish displaced persons forced to take citizenship in Israel after 1948, as well as some of the Palestinians they displaced who developed a profoundly ambivalent relationship with their new Jordanian citizenship. When citizenship did come to serve as an explicit “solution” to statelessness, in a more recent era, its provision was often intended to serve the economic and political interests of the host nation-state rather than the stateless individual – for instance in Kuwait today, whose government has forced a number of its stateless residents (bidun) to take the passport of the island nation of Comoros for reasons that benefit the state and further dispossess the stateless. In opening up a conversation around the many and varied permutations of statelessness across the Middle East’s past hundred and fifty years, this roundtable seeks to suggest the possibilities for a new field of MENA “statelessness studies” that understands and analyzes citizenship and statelessness as simultaneously produced and mutually reinforcing phenomena across the modern era.
International Relations/Affairs
Political Science
  • In 1918 upon the end of the First World War and even before, Ottoman Kurds found themselves scrambling to process and participate in the impending division of the empire. With most of the Balkans and Arab lands removed from the equation, what remained were the lands—populated mainly by Turks and Kurds after the decimation of Anatolia’s Christian population—that faced further division by the occupying Allied Powers. In the Armistice Period, Kurdish elites considered fighting for an independent Kurdish state or to retain what was left of the empire. Most Kurds appeared to opt for the latter, although as the movement to keep intact the remaining lands (mostly Anatolia and the Mosul province) shifted into a Turkish nationalist movement for an independent Turkey, a growing number of Kurdish elites began to abandon that ship. To the extent that mainstream histories of the Middle East consider the Kurds at all as major regional actors, the narrative is generally one that focuses on the loss of their “opportunity” of statehood, their incorporation as unwilling citizens in the new states/mandates that housed them, and their perpetual struggle (to the present day) for independence. Even in the sub-field of Kurdish Studies, scholars have tended to concentrate more on Kurdish nationalism and the Kurds’ “statelessness” and less on alternative movements Kurds often joined, sometimes along with their non-Kurdish co-citizens in the post-Ottoman states of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria (as well as Iran). These included advocating for administrative decentralization (a movement begun in the late-Ottoman period) as well as for a completely non-nationalist, democratic vision of citizenship in these states where Kurds (and other groups) were (and continue to be) treated as “marked citizens,” to use Pandey’s term. My contribution seeks to expand and nuance discussions of Kurdish statelessness by drawing on newer approaches offered by other panelists in this roundtable, as well as to offer the Kurdish case(s) as one example through which we might re-envision “statelessness studies” at large.
  • Focusing on the era of the two World Wars, this discussion considers the relationship between the Bedouin, the state, and statelessness in the modern Middle East. Bedouin efforts to navigate a partitioned Middle East challenge us to reflect on how historically mobile peoples enter into our conversations about statelessness today. Where do they fit in a nation-state order, with its territorial borders and assumed nationalities? How far have they been seen to challenge this order – or, indeed, the state itself? As we shall see, some Bedouin have faced discrimination and social exclusion, their credentials as 'citizens' cast into doubt even if they were not taken away. Many have been alienated from lands they had long used for grazing, when the state claimed great swathes of desert and steppe for itself. Others, unable to document their long-term settlement in a given national territory, have been denied nationality altogether. Still others, however, played a prominent part in the creation and development of the very same nation states. In this way, the history of Bedouin communities in the Middle East – communities whose self-identification reaches across and through national borders, and whose mobility has so often defied state authority and state definition – is a history of statelessness in a different sense: not necessarily as a lack of nationality, but sometimes as a challenge to it, and sometimes in an ambivalent co-existence with it.
  • Shortly after the 1948 war, Jordan became the first and only Arab country to offer citizenship to displaced Palestinians. This offer of Jordanian citizenship came about not as a result of refugee-led efforts, but rather because the Jordanian government was seeking to grow its workforce and demographic strength. For their part, expelled Palestinians in Arab states generally declined to advocate for local citizenship, which they feared would denude them of their claims to their lost property as well as to Palestinian nationality. Though many Palestinians did eventually accept Jordanian citizenship – some sixty percent of Jordan’s population today have Palestinian origins – it did not, in the minds of those newly minted citizens, solve the problem of Palestinian statelessness. Indeed, it did not even fully resolve the problem of residency – as was clearly seen in the early and mid-2000s when the Jordanian government stripped nearly three thousand Palestinians of their Jordanian citizenship, ostensibly to protect their right eventually to return to the occupied Palestinian territories. My comments will focus on how Jordanian citizenship for stateless Palestinians stood as a solution to the problems of host nations rather than those of stateless refugees, and investigate what this particular case study of Palestinian citizenship-cum-statelessness tells us about a regional political landscape in which political and economic rights reside more or less solely in national citizenships – from which many are excluded, but that are often insecure even for those who hold them.
  • Title: What not to do when creating passports for stateless persons: Experiments with special passports and the role of the private sector. Description: Are there ways of granting stateless populations mobility rights in the absence of full membership rights? A notable historical precedent of “special passports” occurred in the aftermath of World War I when the League of Nations issued Nansen passports to stateless persons and refugees. Another lesser-known contemporary case of special passports occurred in 2008 when a private company (the Comoros Gulf Holding) facilitated a bilateral agreement between the UAE’s federal government and the Presidency of the Union of Comoros. In this case, the UAE government funded infrastructural development in the Comoros Islands in exchange for the printing of Union of Comoros passports. These special passports were then issued to approximately 80,000-120,000 ethnic minorities and bidūn (stateless persons) in the UAE who, in some cases, were already in possession of Emirati passports that were subsequently revoked. This presentation will address several unintended consequences of this “market solution” to statelessness to explain how it has actually heightened the legal precarity of passport recipients. In the spirit of engaging with practical solutions instead of simply critiquing them, I first expand upon the UAE-Comoros Islands experiment to identify what not to do when designing mobility without membership. I then discuss whether there are opportunities to design mobility passports by linking citizenship-by-investment schemes to safe passage under duress. In so doing, I address the role of market actors and private companies that are not often overlooked in discussions of statelessness. I proceed with considerable hesitation, since market actors are most motivated by profit-maximization and least concerned with human rights. However, since the private sector already plays a key role in facilitating mobility without membership for high-net worth individuals by helping states sell passports for “wealth management” purposes, we should seriously consider how this sector might be engaged in efforts to expand mobility rights to vulnerable groups who do not have the financial means to partake in global mobility markets.
  • Teaching Modern Middle Eastern history to undergraduate students at universities in North America often, understandably, leads to narratives centered on the new nation-states that emerged after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In this roundtable discussion I consider undergraduate teaching that de-centers the nation from Middle Eastern history: in effect, what do stateless histories of the Middle East look like in the undergraduate classroom? One key challenge of de-centering the nation-state from course syllabi is that so many students arrive with only very vague notions of where the Middle East is, let alone anything about its history. In addition, students’ understanding of their own lives is usually deeply marked by experiences of national belonging or exclusion, meaning that teaching through the lens of statelessness requires students to disengage from some of their own most deeply-held assumptions. Despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, teaching stateless histories of the Middle East offers some notable opportunities. These include highlighting the roles of minority populations as central to the history of the region; drawing out connections between experiences of displaced persons in Europe and in the Middle East; offering alternative, non-Eurocentric, periodizations for the development of bureaucratic regimes for dealing with statelessness and refugeedom; and inviting consideration of the constraints and benefits of a global political order premised on the power of nation-states.