Over the last two decades, scholarship on the Arabian Peninsula has inched toward a more accurate representation of citizenship as lived and experienced on the ground. Once defined as merely ‘a contractual relationship’ (Butenschøn 2000, 11), scholars today have embraced a broader understanding of citizenship and belonging that captures its ‘multiple shades and hues’ and shuns ‘absolutes’ (Okruhlik 2020, 719). As a contribution to the effort to decouple citizenship from narrow conceptions limited to participation in state-organised elections (see e.g. Kymlicka 1998), this panel investigates the emergence and evolution of the category of citizenship on the Arabian Peninsula. It seeks to ‘provincialize’ (Chakrabarty 2000) citizenship as a spatially and temporally specific cultural formation that defies indebtedness to Eurocentric juridico-political constructs.
This multidisciplinary panel tackles the direct and indirect meanings of citizenship on the Arabian Peninsula through the double lens of pragmatics, denoting both an emphasis on practical considerations over ideals, and an attention to the implicit, the unsaid, and the contexts of citizenship discourse. Drawing on archival research, ethnography, and discourse and legal analysis, the panelists trace how the category of citizenship has developed historically, and what local, regional, and international factors have contributed to its formation in present-day Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. In particular, they investigate past and present invocations of the language of citizenship and explore the divergent aims of its speakers, ranging from 8th century Muslim jurists and 19th century sheikhs, slaves, and shopkeepers to 20th century human rights activists and 21st century expatriates in the region. Taken together, the four papers offer new insights that upset formulations of citizenship on the Arabian Peninsula as merely derivative or less-than; and draw attention to region-specific genealogies.
On a final note, in an effort to foster inclusivity in Middle Eastern studies, this panel features first-time presenters at MESA, graduate students, and early-career scholars.
Cultural Paradigm of National Belonging:
“If a pregnant woman comes from the land of the enemy and gives birth in Arab land then he is considered to be her child. He inherits from her if she dies, and she inherits from him if he dies, by the Book of Allah.”
With this hypothetical, Imam Mālik (d. 179/795), the renowned Madinan jurist and founder of a school of law in Islam, granted not only asylum but also a form of naturalization to non-Arab/non-native women and their progeny who sought refuge in the Muslim community during wartime. Although the comprehensive legal manual al-Muwatta dispensed the ruling, the statement extended beyond legislative decision-making. Through literary imagery, it introduced symbolic values and criteria by which a native group, both within and without the political realm, elects to accept or welcome an outsider. Since medieval caliphates did not constitute political states, this historical artifact from the Peninsula’s Islamic period introduces a cultural proposition. Because it addresses how to cultivate the social norms that knit a community together, this early literary conception invokes a universal symbolic language to ground nation-building and citizenship.
Today, Saudi Arabia bases national unity on an Islamic identity (“Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”) around which disparate tribal groups cohere. This paper analyzes an alternate cultural paradigm of citizenship--theorizing rights for disenfranchised groups--developed by a line of Muslim jurists following Mālik. Such a model is neither European in origin nor un-Islamic, and it does not root national belonging in genetics or biology. Because these interventions embedded Islam’s cultural, economic, and social rights in literary imagery, they have been obscured in the formidable shadow of Orientalist opinion on Islamic law as a bastion of orthodoxy and authoritarianism. As a result, the prevailing argument about the emergence of nationhood centers it in Europe. Despite that opinion, Islam’s legal history invites a cultural-historical reappraisal. The erudite founder of legal methodology, al-Shāfi’ī (d. 204/820), developed Mālik’s paradigm further in Egypt. At the time, the region was politically semi-autonomous and had experienced long bouts of social unrest. The proposed paper argues that Muslim jurists were able to define national belonging universally by drawing on the plight of those groups in the local geography whose non-political rights were most vulnerable.
This paper explores the ways in which claims to citizenship, or lack thereof, shaped how social movements used law to frame their demands on the Kuwaiti state in the 1980s and 1990s. This was a formative time for Kuwaiti mobilization, particularly on behalf of two disenfranchised populations—women and Bedoon (stateless Kuwaiti residents). Bedoon were excluded from many entitlement programs available to citizens, and, like Kuwait women, could not fully participate in Kuwait’s increasingly participatory parliamentary system. Women’s activism centered heavily on voting rights, while Bedoon advocates focused primarily on the economic and social elements of citizenship.
Women’s and human rights NGOs often worked together to accomplish overlapping pragmatic goals, however, their ability to invoke citizenship status generated two different visions of the political future: one that expanded political rights of citizenship to women while largely preserving the economic status quo, and one that challenged the foundations of the relationships of economic entitlement between the state and its residents. Women's NGOs, acutely aware of their citizenship privilege, primarily drew on domestic constitutional law to make legal claims for voting and full political participation. They often distanced themselves from international law, instead articulating a version of gender equality that drew on Kuwaiti national identity. In contrast, Kuwaiti human rights organizations embraced the universal claims of international human rights law to promote a broader vision of equality. Women’s organizations were more confrontational and ultimately more successful, despite the more expansive concept of social change within human rights law. This paper argues that law served a flexible tool in constituting complementary but distinct visions of citizenship that went beyond voting rights and encompassed the economic and social relationships between individuals and the state.
This paper explores the longue durée of Kuwaiti citizenship from 1896 to the contemporary era by weaving together socio-political, imperial, legal and maritime history. While most scholars concentrate on the promulgation of nationality laws in the post-oil era, this paper departs from convention by tracing the historical development of citizenship avant la lettre. In doing so, it sheds light on the ad hoc invention of Kuwaiti citizenship on the sea and in borderlands during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, decades before its formal codification in 1948, 1959 and onwards.
Using archival data collected in Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Kingdom, this paper approaches the pragmatics of citizenship by assembling micro-histories of “proto-citizenship,” interrogating how macro-level conflicts over borders, jurisdictions, and territorial sovereignties shaped emergent ideas of nationhood and belonging in the Gulf. It similarly demonstrates how these processes were animated by the quotidian struggles of agents in shops, ships, plantations and ports and reveals how heterogeneous actors –including migrants and merchants, Sheikhs and slaves, shopkeepers and sailors, smugglers and customs officials– conceived of, coopted and contested Kuwaiti citizenship.
In the early twentieth century, regularized border control and customs regimes policed maritime trade and detained Kuwaiti nakhudas, Arab sailors, Persian and Baluchi migrants, and African divers suspected of smuggling. As customs interpolated regional sovereignties, British, Iraqi and Persian officials demanded legal clarification of Kuwaiti citizenship for those found to be of “dubious nationality.” To dispute foreign jurisdiction, those detained wrote back to the merchants they worked for, asking the Ruler whether the British could intervene on their behalf. In these extended chains of correspondences, elite and subaltern subjects all had to “verify” and define national belonging in order to affirm or dispute citizenship claims, resorting to genealogical, communal, jurisdictional, and other forms of “evidence” to support their arguments.
Examining this evolving language of nationality from the perspective of situated actors, this paper scrutinizes these shifting rubrics of Kuwaiti citizenship. It analyzes the regional phenomena that gave rise to, and the power structures that eventually fixed, nationality and governed its attribution. In examining how diverse subjects enacted and expanded citizenship in daily practice, this paper historicizes the genesis of Kuwaiti nationality and reveals the contingency of this category and its historic malleability. In addition to recognizing the agency of marginal actors, analyzing these iterative exchanges denaturalizes current exclusivist citizenship regimes and revitalizes conceptions of citizenship beyond legal or electoral frameworks.
In an article published by The New Statesman in February, 2018, the author asked when he would get to call Abu Dhabi home. As the child of expatriates and having spent his childhood and adolescent years in Abu Dhabi, the author considered himself an “Abu Dhabian” yet lamented the fact that the UAE government did not offer expatriates the choice to become an Emirati citizen, no matter the length of their stay in the country. These and many other stories by expatriates such as Deepak Unnikrishnan, explore the theme of unattainability of Emirati citizenship. Much of the literature on the UAE tends to veer toward the notions of transience, forms of political governance and treatment of migrant workers. Not offering citizenship to the expatriate population in the Gulf states, has become a topic of contention both in Western academia and media.
What this discourse does not take into consideration, is the context behind why the expatriate population of the Gulf states are not offered citizenship in these nations. Using a case study approach, this paper examines how citizenship in the United Arab Emirates developed and what historical local and international factors contributed to its formation. The paper posits that the arrival of the expatriates was not simply due to the discovery of oil in the UAE but their presence and relationship with the federation was transactional and reciprocal, based on economics.
The first part will begin by providing a brief historical background of the Trucial States (as the UAE was then known), from the early-1900s to its formation as a federation in 1971, using archival sources to trace the trajectory of its demographic. With a focus on the policies of the British who oversaw the development of the Trucial States, the second part will detail the arrival of the expatriates to the country during this time and how their presence was never viewed as being a permanent one. In conclusion, the paper will analyze how this context has changed from 1971, how it has defined and shaped Emirati citizenship and the impact this has had on how citizenship is viewed by the expatriates in relation to the Emiratis themselves.
Keywords: citizenship, Emirati, expatriates, belonging, identity