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"Global Citizen" and the Dislocated Generation in the United Arab Emirates


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Collected Papers | Volume 2 | April 2015
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About the Middle East Centre
Overview: Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa
Region Post-2011
Karen E. Young
Gradations of Citizenship in the United Arab Emirates
Kevin W. Gray
Torn Citizenship in Kuwait: Commodication versus Rights-Based Approaches
Claire Beaugrand
Constitutionalism and Transitions in North Africa: Analysing Conicts
between Legal and Extra-Legal Sources of Constitutional Rights
James N. Sater
Concepts of Citizenship in Tunisia Following the Fall of Ben Ali
Thomas DeGeorges
‘Global Citizen’ and the Dislocated Generation in the United Arab Emirates
Yuting Wang
Cover Image: Tunisia Protest, 2011. Copyright Gwenael Piaser, source: 
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sarily represent those of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) or the Middle
East Centre. This document is issued on the understanding that if any extract is used, the author(s)
and the LSE Middle East Centre should be credited, with the date of the publication. While every ef-
fort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the material in this paper, the author(s) and/or the LSE
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Table of Contents
4 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Overview: Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East
and North Africa Region Post-2011
Karen E. Young
Dr Karen E. Young is Research Fellow at the LSE Middle East Centre. She was Assistant Professor
of Political Science at the American University of Sharjah, UAE from 2009 to 2014. In 2013-14, she
was an American Political Science Association MENA Fellow. She has held two Fulbright Fellowships,
to Ecuador (1997-99) and Bulgaria (2005-06), as well as fellowships from the American Council of
Learned Societies, the International Research and Exchange Board, among others. She was the recipient
of a grant from the US State Department Middle East Partnership Initiative in 2011-2012. Her book,
‘The Political Economy of Energy, Finance and Security in the UAE: Between the Majilis and the Market’
was published by Palgrave in July 2014.
On 24 January 2014, scholars from the American University of Sharjah and the London
School of Economics and Political Science convened a workshop on the question of ‘Chal-
lenges to Citizenship after the Arab Uprisings’. A selection of the working papers is now
available from the Middle East Centre, reecting a range of theoretical and empirical under-
standings of how belonging and political identity have evolved in juridical practice and social
life in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region after 2011. The cases reect the
diversity of experience from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula. The papers explore how,
even within non-revolutionary states, ideas about citizenship have been changing and as
citizens and non-citizens test those boundaries within law and society, the outcomes reveal
tensions and mounting pressures to reform along gender, class and ethnic lines.
In my own work on the United Arab Emirates (UAE), I have tried to uncover how nationalist
mobilisation occurs in moments of competing or emerging political identities. In the Gulf
states, efforts to consolidate national identity have coincided with a state-building project
that is troubled by extreme demographic pressures on a small citizen population surrounded
by a diverse and politically syncretic expatriate community. For most professional-class
expatriates, to live and work in the UAE is to keep politics private and to concentrate on
stability, nancial security and the education of one’s children. The Arab uprisings of 2011
pushed beliefs, afnities and practices of social belonging into a wider public sphere, con-
necting life in the UAE to life in the broader region.
The social contract between the UAE government and its citizens and many expatriate
residents had been peace and prosperity in exchange for no political activism. As the UAE
increases its foreign policy ambitions, its many foreign residents may nd it difcult to
reserve their political activism for holiday visits home. The military leaders who ordered
the crackdown on protesters in Cairo on 14 August 2013 had just received the promise
Overview 5
of nancial and political support from the federal government of the UAE on 9 August.1
Emblematic of the awkward positioning of Arab Gulf state interventionism after the Arab
uprisings, state–society relations within the UAE between citizens and guest residents are
reconguring. The making of the state and the nation, the people who contribute their work
and their minds to the UAE, is at a crisis point, a critical juncture.
Scholars of nationalist mobilisation and the construction of national identity have focused
on these critical moments and events that heighten contention between competing forms
of identity. These moments are erupting in the UAE, not in violent confrontations with
riot police, but within families, universities, businesses and social organisations. The iden-
tication as an Arab, Gulf Arab, emerging economy migrant, expat, religious sect member,
Emirati, Bedu, Northern Emirate Emirati or capital Emirati from Abu Dhabi is stratify-
ing. The list is long; as it grows, it is a contestation of the attempt by the UAE as a new
state to centralise and control national identity and, in times of increasing political tension,
to enforce loyalty. As Mark Beissinger, a noted scholar of nationalist mobilisation in the
post-Soviet states, has argued:
Like other modes of contestation, the disruptions engendered by nationalism have
tended to grow salient in the political arena in dened historical periods in the
context of waves and tides of nationalism in which states and those challenging states
openly vie over the boundedness of political communities. National politics is punc-
tuated by these spikes and parabolas of disruption, a periodic clustering of events
that emerge largely as a function of changing perceptions of the possibilities for chal-
lenge and the varying resonance of nationalist frames across space and over time.2
Beissinger’s work contemplates nationalist mobilisation in contests against an existing
(repressive) multi-ethnic state. His argument applies in the context of a burgeoning nation-
alism manipulated by a new state, but increasingly challenged by its citizens and by residents
of its extended domestic and regional political community. The temporal and geographical
element of the argument is essential, as moments of political upheaval and consideration of
identity are extremely sensitive to the events around them. This was true in the post-so-
cialist transitions of the 1990s, and perhaps even more so now in the age of social media and
hyper-migration of the post-Arab Spring.
The action of constructing a national identity in the UAE, and in many of the Gulf Coop-
eration Council (GCC) states, is very new and very unresolved, and operates in a volatile
context of regional (often sectarian) violence, increased militarisation and mounting pressure
to assert a unied national identity to the exclusion of non-citizens. As an outcome, a state
may attempt to ‘bind’ the political community to the exclusion of those who challenge its
authority. These challenges are stressing existing cleavages and sometimes creating new ones.
1 See Elizabeth Dickenson, ‘UAE, Saudi Arabia Express Support for Military Removal of Morsi’, National,
4 July 2013. Available at
port-for-egyptian-military-s-removal-of-morsi (accessed 6 March 2015). See also Reuters, ‘UAE Offers Egypt
$3 Billion Support, Saudi $5 Billion’, 9 July 2013. Available at
us-egypt-protests-loan-idUSBRE9680H020130709 (accessed 6 March 2015). The UAE offered $1 billion
in a cash grant, and $2 billion in the form of an interest-free loan to be deposited in the Egyptian central
bank. This cash injection surpassed the previous commitment (unrealised) the UAE made in 2011 to Egypt
under the Morsi administration.
2 Mark Beissinger, Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Cambridge: Cambridge Univer-
sity Press, 2002), p. 25.
6 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
The Working Papers
As the papers in this collection demonstrate, transitions after the Arab uprisings in 2011
have included novel state efforts to approximate the benets of citizenship, or to outsource
the responsibility. Kevin Gray, in his appraisal of the different visions and expectations
of citizenship in the UAE, discusses how a neoliberal understanding of citizenship might
focus on economic access, property rights and mobility, over more juridical understandings
of personhood and equality under law. Different normative frameworks and legal traditions
have challenged the Gulf states, in particular, to stretch their constitutional interpretations
of citizenship rights. The rights of women and interpretations of family law become sites of
contention, as female Emiratis have won the ability to transfer citizenship to their children
(with expatriate fathers), marking a milestone in political reform efforts in the UAE.
Claire Beaugrand uncovers a similar legal understanding of state responsibility to citizens in
the treatment of the bidun in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti government has created an outsourcing
of citizenship by providing an alternative passport to long-time residents petitioning for
citizenship on the basis of cultural and familial ties to the land. The option of a Comoros
Islands passport offers basic mobility, but little else in terms of personhood status or access
to social services for these unrecognised people of Kuwait. Beaugrand captures the strati-
cation of citizenship rights (and recognition of petitions for rights) along class lines, as more
prosperous merchant groups such as the hadhar have had more success in gaining full rights
than the bidun.
James Sater makes a comparative contribution to the study of constitutionalism across
North Africa. He examines the concept of trust and its differentiation between cognitive
and affective trust. He theorises that affective trust is based on an unconscious worldview
and emotions, while cognitive trust is based on rationalised experiences. He argues that
the success of any transition post-2011 should be analysed through an historical framework
of constitutional experience within state–society relations. His use of public opinion data
across Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt underlines differences in both formal and informal insti-
tutional processes in each state.
Thomas DeGeorges relies on his participant-observer status during the Tunisian revolution
to uncover how government institutions and leadership manipulate messages of citizenship
and rights during moments of contention and uprising. Using a discourse analysis of Ben
Ali’s speeches leading up to the revolution, DeGeorges seeks to explain how the state’s
response to citizen demands sought to diminish and absorb dissent.
Yuting Wang presents some compelling survey data among university students in the UAE
on conceptions of belonging and the enforcement of nationalism among expatriates. As
survey work is increasingly difcult to conduct in the GCC states, Wang’s contribution
provides some interesting ethnographic insights into youth and third culture experience in
the Gulf.
Though the cases selected here are not representative of the entire region after 2011, they
provide windows on some of the overlapping politics of demographic change, socioeconomic
disparity and securitisation prevalent in many states of the MENA region.
Gradations of Citizenship in the United Arab Emirates
Gradations of Citizenship in the United Arab Emirates
Kevin W. Gray
Dr Kevin W. Gray is Assistant Professor at the American University of Sharjah. His doctoral research
focused on the difculties of using systems theory in critical theory, and the implications posed by this
problem for Habermas’s philosophy. His past research has been published in PhaenEx, Philosophia, the
Journal of the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Dialogue, amongst other places. His current research and
teaching focuses on theories of the public sphere and civil society (particularly in the Middle East), critical
theory, existentialism, philosophy of law and western Marxism.
Social scientists are no longer content to explain citizenship in purely political or juridical
terms. The rights and obligations of citizens and the social capital that accompanies citizen-
ship lie in a complex web of social categories, including membership in social classes and
in linguistic and religious groups. The Gulf societies, including the United Arab Emirates
(UAE), provide an extreme example of this phenomenon: different categories of juridi-
cal citizenship exist alongside visa categories providing a temporary right of residence to
migrant groups, who enjoy what might be termed social but not juridical citizenship. As a
consequence, literature in political science and in anthropology treats the development of
citizenship inside the Gulf states as a transguration of basic categories of belonging in the
light of these societies’ own peculiar historical trajectories.1
The change in these basic categories has revealed, at least in part, what others have called in
different contexts the provincialised discourses which surround Western modernity.2 This
expansion and transguration of belonging has occurred either as a result of the increased
use of social markers of citizenship (e.g. in the post-oil generation, the quasi-universal adop-
tion of the 'abaya, the black dress worn by many Emirati women, as a social marker) or
through the lived experience of multiple types of social citizenship (including the extension
of quasi-citizenship to Indian diasporic communities, which have resided in Dubai for a
century or more in some cases).
I want to thank the participants in a symposium at LSE, particularly Dr Tom Degeorges and Dr Karen
Young, for their helpful comments, and my research assistants at AUS for their help with translating sec-
tions of the UAE civil code.
1 Frauke Heard-Bey, From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates (Dubai: Motivate Publishing, 2004), p. 18 et
passim. Neha Vora, Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).
2 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Prince-
ton University Press, 2007).
8 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
In this working paper, I will ask three interrelated questions. How have the two dimen-
sions of citizenship and civic belonging3 – the rights of citizens (including their access to
social services and institutions) and their obligations – been altered by variations within the
UAE legal structure of the basic criteria for membership in the political community? How
has the codication of legal categories of citizenship resulted from the interplay between
globalisation, modern notions of legalism and traditional categories of belonging? How has
that codication, itself a result of globalisation, been coupled to a retreat of de jure citizens
behind markers of nationality?
I will conclude that an examination of citizenship in the UAE reveals two key facts. First,
the manner in which the relationship between membership, rights and obligations has been
taken up by citizenship laws in the UAE reveals the inherent contingency (and provincial-
ity) of Western ideas of citizenship, and the all-or-nothing approach it assumes for the rights
of citizenship. Citizenship rules in the Arab states often include express provisions linking
citizenship to religious belief, creating a separation of rights between rst- and second-class
citizens (e.g. naturalised citizens), and reveal the importance of paternal jus sanguinis (line of
descent).4 Thus, a study of those laws in the UAE reveals, depending on your perspective,
either the broadening of the category of citizenship to include various social categories or
the contingency of Western legal categories of citizenship. Second, I will conclude that
much of what might be termed the reconguration of categories of citizenship in the UAE
has occurred against the backdrop of, and probably as a result of, the neoliberal drive to
privatise the state in the UAE (and particularly Dubai). The converse of the retreat of the
state behind neoliberal self-governance and the concomitant separation of the rights of cit-
izenship from one overarching juridical entitlement is the production of other markers of
citizenship. The uncertainties of globalisation produce, I shall argue, a retreat of citizens
behind the few remaining available normative structures of the nation-state.5 It is not the
case that the state has become increasingly irrelevant; instead, the locus of state construc-
tion of citizenship has moved from the political and economic spheres to the social sphere.
The state remains important as citizens, driven by the winds of capitalism, seek refuge in
the nation-state, and retreat behind its walls as the guarantor of culture.6 In the UAE, the
state has created a discourse stressing the relationship between culture and citizenship; it
has created a discourse of ‘Emiratiness’ which is not based on the participation of citizens in
the economic or in the (largely non-existent) formal political sphere, but instead disciplines
family life and the bodies of Emiratis themselves. This is particularly evident in the ability
to purchase aspects of what might be thought of as the traditional attributes of citizenship
on the open market.
3 David Owen, ‘Citizenship and the Marginalities of Migrants’, Critical Review of International Social and
Political Philosophy 16/3 (2013), pp. 344–65.
4 Gianluca Parolin, Citizenship in the Arab World: Kin, Religion and Nation-State (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Uni-
versity Press, 2008).
5 Bryan S. Turner, ‘Outline of a Theory of Citizenship’, Sociology 24 (1990), pp. 189–217.
6 Aihwa Ong, Flexible Citizenship (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), p. 111.
Gradations of Citizenship in the United Arab Emirates
The Construction of Colonial and Post-Colonial Categories of Citizenship
A complex set of parallel legal systems existed in many societies in the Middle East prior
to colonisation, or in the case of the UAE prior to the dissolution of the British protectorate
over the Trucial Coast. However, as Talal Asad has shown in the Egyptian context, the
writing of law in the colonial context entailed bringing together different, competing legal
systems into one as part of the general codication of law. In particular, various tribal or tra-
ditional (‘urf), national (milliya) and religious (shari’a) courts were brought together in a civil
code administered by so-called secular courts.7 As part of that process, traditional systems
were drawn into the purview of European legal codes (which certainly would never have
included traditional courts in the legal framework). In so doing, elements of what would
have, by the European eye, been seen as extraneous aspects of other social systems were
drawn into the legal framework.
In the UAE, the codication of citizenship law was coupled to the creation of a written legal
system more generally, and to the development of various mechanisms for its enforcement,
which led to the grafting of various different codes and procedures together.8 The early legal
system of the Trucial States was, like that of much of the rest of the Levant, drafted during
the process of decolonisation. In the specic case of the UAE, Egyptian and to a lesser
extent Jordanian jurists played an important role in drafting the legal code. They drew a
great deal on the French civil code; many of the original jurists in the Arab world studied in
France and held doctorates in the civil law.9
Prior to independence, there was no formal codication of law in the UAE, but rather a
series of individual decrees which were published as Queen’s Regulations, often derived
from decrees by the ruling sheikhs, and which only obtained force when promulgated by the
British Resident.10 The regulations often had a rather ad hoc character. The rst civil code
covering the UAE as a whole went into force on independence in 1971. The rst law regu-
lating citizenship (Federal Law 17/1972; substantially modied by Federal Law 10/1975)
dates to the period of independence. These laws have remained largely untouched since
that immediate post-independence period, with only slight amendments through subse-
quent decrees, most notably in 2011 to allow children of Emirati mothers and foreign fathers
access to citizenship upon attaining the age of majority.11
The original Emirati citizenship law codied the rules of paternal jus sanguinis, albeit with
some exceptions. In a formalistic sense, it provided for a uniform class of citizen. How-
ever, that uniformity, as I will discuss below, is belied both by laws regulating the welfare
state and by state practice. Broadly speaking, Emirati nationality may be acquired by birth
to an Emirati father (which the law refers to as hukum al qanun or sometimes as bil qanun),
7 Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
2003), pp. 210–11.
8 For instance, for the role of the military in creating the norms and procedure of law enforcement, see
Khalifa Rashid al Shaali and Neil Kibble, ‘Policing and Police Accountability in the UAE: The Case for
Reform’, Arab Law Quarterly 15/3 (2000), pp. 272–303.
9 Parolin, Citizenship in the Arab World.
10 Heard-Bey, From Trucial States, p. 317.
11 Wafa Issa, ‘Children of Emirati Mothers, Expatriate Fathers Offered Citizenship’, National, 30 November
2011. Available at
thers-offered-citizenship (accessed 16 March 2015).
10 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
by afliation or dependence (bil tabi‘ah) and by naturalisation (bil tajannus). Article 2 of Fed-
eral Law 17 of 1972 (including subsequent amendments) contemplates jus sanguinis as the
principle mechanism for the acquisition of Emirati nationality on independence (provided
that some minimal initial lex soli requirements are met).
In this respect, Emirati citizenship law mirrors the Kuwait civil code, which granted citi-
zenship to all males who had lived continuously in Kuwait from 1920 until the adoption of
the law, and to their descendants.12 The legal code in the UAE mirrors that of Kuwait in
that regard, but instead treats 1925 as the watershed year for Emirati citizenship. It grants
citizenship by birth to those individuals of Arab descent who resided in ‘any of the member
Emirates during or before year 1925, and who has maintained his regular residence until
the date of enforcement of this Law’, as well as to children born in the state or abroad to
Emirati fathers, or children born to Emirati mothers where it is impossible to establish the
nationality of the father, or where the father is unknown or stateless, or to children born in
the territory of the UAE to unknown parents, under Article 2, Federal Law 17/1972.
Two subordinate types of nationality are also provided by Federal Law 17/1972: nationality
by afliation and nationality by naturalisation, which may only be granted by an afrmative
act of the Minister of the Interior. Nationality by afliation refers primarily to the process
under which women may acquire citizenship through marriage: a woman may, upon mar-
riage to an Emirati national, acquire Emirati nationality after a period of three years and
upon approval of the Minister of the Interior. Nationality by naturalisation is provided for in
a series of different articles. Citizenship may be acquired: (1) by persons of Omani, Qatari
or Bahraini origin who have lived continuously in the UAE for a period of three years, and
individuals from Arab tribes who have immigrated to the UAE from neighbouring states and
have resided continuously in the UAE for a period of three years (Article 5); (2) by any other
Arab who has lived in the UAE for at least seven years prior to submitting naturalisation
application (Article 6); (3) by any person who has resided continuously in the UAE since or
before 1940 and is procient in the Arabic language (Article 7); (4) by any person who has
resided continuously in the Emirates for a period of twenty years after the promulgation of
the law (Article 8); and (5) by any person who has rendered honourable service to the state,
irrespective of period of residency (Article 9). In all cases, naturalisation is contingent upon
the approval of the Minister of the Interior, provided that the applicant has a source of
income, is well respected by the community and has not been convicted of a serious crime.
Nominally, the citizenship law does little to prejudice the rights of those who become cit-
izens through naturalisation or afliation. While it is true that such individuals may not be
appointed, under Article 13, to many public posts, in practice that section of the law seems
to have been largely ignored. Many of the early UAE ambassadors were either non-citizens
or naturalised citizens.13 Instead, the only signicant restriction appears to be that those
who are non-citizens by birth may lose their citizenship more easily. Whereas citizens by
birth may only lose citizenship by joining the military of another country or by making an
12 As modied by Kuwaiti Emiri decree 15/1959. See Parolin, Citizenship in the Arab World, p. 89. Paul Dresch,
‘Debates on Marriage and Nationality in the United Arab Emirates’, in Paul Dresch and James Piscatori,
Monarchies and Nations: Globalisation and Identity in the Arab States of the Gulf (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005). Cit-
izenship law in Kuwait, by virtue of Kuwait obtaining its independence before the other Gulf countries, is
by far the most studied of the law in all the Gulf countries.
13 Private ccommunication, November 2013, with journalist Sultan al Qassemi.
Gradations of Citizenship in the United Arab Emirates
afrmative declaration of loyalty to another state (Article 16), citizens by naturalisation or
acquisition may lose their citizenship for a broader variety of offences, including committing
acts harmful to the UAE’s security, committing moral crimes, residing outside the country
for an extended period (at least four years) or having fraudulently obtained citizenship in
the rst place (Article 16).
The loss of citizenship has served as a particularly powerful weapon for the state to use to
control dissent. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, several naturalised citizens have
been stripped of citizenship by the government of the UAE.14 To avoid rendering them
stateless, they were ordered to acquire foreign passports (in many cases, they purchased
passports from the Comoros Islands) and were threatened with incarceration if they did not.
One individual was subsequently deported to Thailand, with a tourist visa stamped in his
newly acquired Comoros Islands passport.15
However, beyond the need to toe the government line for those who have acquired citi-
zenship under Federal Law 17, in order to avoid loss of citizenship and deportation, the
denition of nationality is not applied uniformly across the legal system. This situation is
not unique to the UAE: in Egypt, the denition of an Egyptian differs between pieces of
legislation, creating a patchwork of rights and obligations.16 In the UAE, the dening feature
of this bifurcation lies in the difference between those rights granted by nationality (the
right to residence, employment, passport etc.) and those granted by possession of a UAE
family book (khulasat al qayd).
The journalist Sultan al Qassemi argues, in his provocatively titled article ‘The Book that
Proves Some Emiratis Are More Equal than Others’,17 that the right to a family book mat-
ters more than mere Emirati nationality. While that is probably an exaggeration, possession
of a family book entitles Emirati nationals to free health care, subsidised housing, free or
subsidised education and many of the other entitlement of the welfare state.18 Only upon
presentation of that book will those entitlements be granted. All natural-born Emiratis are,
at birth, written into their father’s (rabb al usrah) family book (or in very rare cases, their
mother’s).19 Upon marriage, every Emirati male is entitled to his own family book, starting
the process anew for the next generation.20
14 Jane Kinninmont, ‘Citizenship in the Gulf’, in Ana Echagüe (ed.), FRIDE Report: The Gulf States and
the Arab Uprisings (FRIDE, 2013), p. 54. Available at
and-the-arab-uprisings (accessed 16 March 2015).
15 Loveday Morris, ‘UAE Turns to Deportation to Silence Regime’s Critics’, Independent, 7 June 2012.
Available at
regimes-critics-7821155.html (accessed 16 March 2015).
16 Pacha A. Badawi, ‘Apperçu sur la question de la Nationalité Egyptienne’, foreword to A. Assabghy and
E. Colombani, Questions de nationalité en Egypte (Cairo: Misr, 1926), p. 12, cited in Parolin, Citizenship in the
Arab World, pp. 79–80.
17 Sultan Sooud al Qassemi, ‘The Book that Proves Some Emiratis Are More Equal than Others’, National,
7 February 2010. Available at
equal-than-others?pageCount=0 (accessed 16 March 2015).
18 The law surrounding family books is particularly murky in the UAE. Much of my argument in this sec-
tion, as opposed to the discussion of nationality, I draw from interviews with citizens.
19 Note that being written into the family book is different from the (largely ceremonial) process of being
written into a tribal book and being given a tribal name.
20 Every female is written into her husband’s family book upon marriage, or may in principle obtain her own
at the age of 30 if single, or at any age if married to a foreigner.
12 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
The process can prove particularly difcult for naturalised Emiratis and for foreign-born
wives of Emiratis (whose registration in the book is entirely controlled by the husband).
Naturalisation is only the rst step in obtaining a family book and begins upon the issuance
of a presidential decree (marsoom). The waiting period for a family book can be particularly
onerous, leaving families in limbo for quite some time.21 A foreign-born wife of an Emirati
may or may not, depending on the time of immigration, have been able to obtain a family
book for her offspring and the rights it entails.22
As a result, juridical citizenship is actually a stratication of different levels of citizenship,
which grants variable access to the welfare state and provides different protections against
revocation to individual citizens. In the next section, I will argue that the retreat of the state
from some of its core competences not only creates further stratication amongst citizens,
but also grants what appears to be quasi-citizenship to some residents of the UAE.
Social Citizenship, Economic Citizenship and the Rise of the
Expatriate Community
Emirati citizenship law mostly avoids questions of tribe and class, either relegating those
concerns to indirect mechanisms of access to power, or embedding them in questions of
access to the entitlements of the welfare state. A similar retreat is in evidence with respect
to the other rights accorded citizens in the social and economic spheres, creating differen-
tiated classes of citizens and non-citizens. In these spheres, substantial rights of the sort
normally reserved for citizens can, through the retreat of the state from the normal sphere
of governance, be granted to non-citizens. This is particularly evident in the rise of a class
of transnational citizens – a group termed, overly narrowly, expatriate workers or migrant
In one respect, the emergence of a transnational class reects the decline of the authority
of the nation-state over its citizens. On that view, state-imposed identity gives way, for a
small class of individuals, to the emergence of a personal identity embodied in participation
in the transnational late capitalist labour market characterised by exibility, contingency
and mobility.23 Citizenship is less about belonging to a particular community than about the
ability to labour in particular contexts. To quote Benedict Anderson, passports become ‘less
and less attestations of citizenship, let alone of loyalty to a protective state, than of claims
to participate in a labour market’.24 A passport tells us more about where an individual may
be able to work and reside (either by direct right or by ease of visa acquisition) than it does
about where an individual actually resides or the type of citizenship she possesses.
21 al Qassemi documents the difculty students will have in enrolling for university without a family book
(‘The Book that Proves’). It also appears that individuals without a family book may be able to obtain only
temporary passports.
22 Dresch, ‘Debates on Marriage’, p. 145.
23 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Black-
well, 1989). These individuals form what Guy Standing and others have labelled the procian class, a
class of (globalised) individuals who benet from exible conditions of employment. The ip side is the
growth of the precariat, a class of those individuals without the skills to prot from the new regime, for-
ever consigned to temporary employment. Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London:
Bloomsbury, 2011).
24 Benedict Anderson, ‘Exodus,’ Cultural Inquiry 20 (1994), pp. 314–27 at p. 323.
Gradations of Citizenship in the United Arab Emirates
What is missing from this structuralist account is how human meaning is produced by
individuals caught in this situation.25 The structuralist view has the effect of reducing the
subject to a victim of globalisation, forever condemning the migrant to drift between differ-
ent labour markets at the whim of global capitalism. As Aihwa Ong notes in her discussion of
the emergence of East Asian expat communities, embodied in the gure of the Hong Kong
entrepreneur, entrepreneurs migrating between different countries produce their own sub-
jectivities and modes of belonging, including types of quasi- or temporary citizenship, even
while moving between different national jurisdictions.26
Discussions of immigration to the UAE tend to begin by discussing the large expatriate
communities which exist in the Gulf, focusing either on the exceptionality of the states
comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), where, depending on the estimates and
the country, up to 80 or 90 per cent of the population are thought to be non-citizens, or on
contrasting the lives of wealthy citizens with the lives of a larger mass of mostly overworked,
mostly underpaid, mostly South Asian migrant labourers who come to work temporarily in
the UAE, and live a contingent, precarious existence, ready to return home at any moment.27
In such accounts, these workers are almost always assumed to be men working in low-skilled
jobs. This heteronormative conception of migration excludes the many single women who
come to the UAE to work, as well as the middle-class families living in the UAE, particularly
in the older sections of Dubai and Sharjah.
Moreover, it excludes the lived experiences of members of these expatriate communities,
some of whom have lived in the Gulf States for over a century and in many cases are third- or
fourth-generation members of their communities.28 These expat workers form the backbone
of many industries in the UAE and are often essential in providing government services in
the country. In that respect, the system of migration in the UAE permits migrants a great
deal of latitude to become de facto citizens. In so far as members of the expatriate middle
and upper classes are prepared to conform to the demands of neoliberal governmentality,29
by transforming themselves into the appropriate transnational neoliberal subjects,30 and are
willing to move in search of greater employment opportunities, to tolerate extended peri-
ods of separation from either nuclear or extended families and to obey the laws of their
host countries, they are free to stay in the UAE. In this way, they form the Middle Eastern
mirror image of the holders of Hong Kong passports described by Ong – neoliberal, self-en-
terprising subjects. What is certainly true of the older narrative of the presence of the expat
communities in the UAE is that, for the vast majority, there is no path towards juridical cit-
izenship. Instead, through a process of investment and the acquisition of short-term visas,
they are able to live in the UAE. In so far as they are willing participants in the rhetoric of a
free, open market they are able to stay.31
25 Ong, Flexible Citizenship, p. 3.
26 Ibid., p. 111.
27 Vora, Impossible Citizens, p. 2.
28 Ibid., p. 3.
29 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 2nd edn (New York: Vintage Books, 1995).
30 Christian Laval, L’homme économique: Essai sur les racines du néolibéralisme (Paris: Gallimard, 2007). Attiya
Ahmad, ‘Beyond Labor: Foreign Residents in the Persian Gulf States’, in Mehran Kamrava and Zahare
Babar (eds), Migrant Labor in the Persian Gulf (London: Hurst, 2012).
31 Vora, Impossible Citizens, p. 4.
14 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Nevertheless, juridical citizenship is neither the only available category of belonging nor,
arguably, the most important component of modern citizenship. Moreover, as in the case of
juridical citizenship in the country, there are actually multiple layers of social citizenship.
The boundary between citizens and non-citizens is actually quite porous.
Beyond access to the welfare state, citizens are allocated extensive rights as part of the
retreat of government from its traditional functions and decision-making capacities. Of-
cially, only citizens have access to various other mechanisms of neoliberal governance, most
notably the exclusive right to open businesses in the country,32 the right to sponsor workers
and the right of residence. However, neither system actually functions as it would rst
appear to, as the juridical components of citizenship are modied by participation in social
and economic life.
Nominally, any business in the UAE must have a majority owner who is also an Emirati cit-
izen, under Federal Law 5/1985. For instance, to obtain a licence to open a limited liability
company in Dubai, a businessman must be able to produce a certicate showing both the
appropriate ownership structure and capital reserves of AED 150,000 in a bank account.33
However, actual practice differs in two important ways.
First, although these formal requirements do in fact exist, the judicial and economic systems
have allowed minority owners to place substantial checks on the powers of (citizen) majority
owners of businesses. Businessmen report that they have been able to secure memoranda of
understanding, apparently notarised by the Dubai government, stating that they as foreign
businessmen actually own 80 per cent of corporations (when they may ofcially own only
49 per cent). Others have obtained power of attorney over these corporations.34 Still others
have reached side agreements for full ownership over the corporations, in exchange for the
payment of an annual licensing fee. Second, there has been a continued proliferation of free
zones in the UAE (prominent free zones include the Dubai Multi-Commodities Center,
the Dubai International Financial Center, the Jebel Ali Free Zones and those located at
the airports in Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi). In free zones, the requirement for local
ownership is waived. Foreigners may wholly own businesses, corporations are guaranteed
tax exemptions for extended periods (often 50 years) and investors are given help secur-
ing licences and visas for employees. Third, some businessmen report that they have been
grandfathered into the old system, wherein local ownership was not required. Businessmen
with connections to the ruling family were allowed to continue to operate with 100 per cent
foreign ownership, outside of the free zones.35
32 An exclusive privilege which is gradually eroding, as I discuss below.
33 Embassy of the United Arab Emirates to the United Kingdom, ‘Establishing a Business’. Available at (accessed 16 March 2015). Vora appears to err,
giving a higher number of AED 300,000 (Impossible Citizens, p. 106).
34 Vora, Impossible Citizens, p. 106.
35 Ibid., citing Magnhanmnal J. Pancholia, Footprints: Memories of an Indian Patriarch (London: Motivate,
Gradations of Citizenship in the United Arab Emirates
Under the sponsorship (kafala) system, codied by Article 13, Federal Law 6/1973,36 only
citizens may sponsor individuals entering the country on work visas. Originally, the system
appears to have functioned as a way of hosting foreigners in the Gulf and vouching for their
conduct.37 It may also have functioned as a mechanism for insulating merchants from foreign
competition, by requiring all foreigners to pair off with citizens.38 Under the current system,
the sponsor (kafeel) takes legal and social responsibility for the worker, signing a declaration
with the Ministry of Labour certifying that the worker is employed by him or her, pledg-
ing to repatriate the worker at the sponsor’s expense and promising to notify the Ministry
promptly of any changes in residence or employment status. The sponsor system has the
effect of ofoading the traditional responsibility of the government to exercise control over
its borders onto individual citizens, who take on the governmental function, with minimal
oversight, of issuing permits to work and to reside in the country. Moreover, it opens the
extension of citizenship rights to those non-citizens who are able to acquire them in some
manner on the market.39
While nominally the right of sponsorship lies only with citizens, that right is both more
restrictive and more open than it would at rst appear. To sponsor an individual, a citizen
must possess the appropriate connections and appropriate wealth in order for the govern-
ment to issue a visa: obtaining the large number of visas necessary to run a business may
require a network of personal contacts, for both locals and foreigners.40 However, much of
the actual work of sponsorship, including the management of those individuals who are
sponsored, depends on ‘foreign resident managers and employers, who often act in the stead
of citizens to perform the day-to-day practices of migrant governance’.41 Some individuals
wishing to come to the UAE are able to ‘buy’ so-called free visas, where they are sponsored
for non-existent jobs, and are then free, upon arrival, to search for their own work, remit-
ting part of their income to the sponsor.42 Finally, the right of sponsorship does not depend
on the kafala system with respect to the sponsorship of wives (and to a lesser extent hus-
bands), parents and children. A foreign resident of Dubai may, given certain minimum salary
requirements, sponsor his wife (or to a lesser extent her husband) and children (boys until
they reach 18 or graduate from university; girls until they are married).43
36 Whereby foreigners may only be issued visas by a sponsor (kafeel) who lives in the country (Article 13(c)),
and who will provide a guarantee to pay the cost of bringing the worker to and return the individual from the
UAE (Article 14). In practice, this has been interpreted to require citizens to sponsor those coming to work.
37 A. M. Gardner, ‘Gulf Migration and the Family’, Journal of Arabian Studies 1 (2011), p. 8. Ahn Nga Longva,
‘Keeping Migrant Workers In Check: The Kafala System in the Gulf’, Middle East Report 211 (1999), pp. 20–2.
38 Sulayman Khalaf, ‘Gulf Societies and the Image of Unlimited Good’, Dialectical Anthropology 17 (1992),
pp. 53–84.
39 It also allows for government disavowal of abuses of workers by transferring state responsibility to indi-
viduals. David Mednicoff, ‘The Legal Regulation of Migrant Rights: Politics and Identity in Qatar and the
United Arab Emirates’, in Kamrava and Babar, Migrant Labor in the Persian Gulf, p. 202.
40 Vora, Impossible Citizens, p. 106.
41 Ibid., p. 93. The system allows for the exploitation of semi-skilled and unskilled workers, compelling
them to pay fees to brokers who arrange visas for them, sending them into debt. Gardner, ‘Gulf Migration
and the Family’, p. 9.
42 Ibid., p. 8.
43 Currently the minimum salary requirement is AED 4,500. Those regulations are set pursuant to Article
27 of Federal Law 6/1973.
16 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Finally, the right of residence, while granted to citizens, can also be purchased on the
market in somewhat modied form. While the exact mechanisms vary from emirate to emir-
ate, ownership of freehold property generally grants the owner and his family the right to a
multiple entry visa (renewable every six months), effectively granting the owner the right
of residence, though not the right to work.44
This newer regime supplants the older one which granted a right of residency to property
owners, under Ministerial Decision 281 of 2009.
Many of the rights often associated with citizenship (the right of residency, the right to open
a business and the right of sponsorship) are therefore available for purchase on the market.
The legal system permits the private regulation of citizenship and migration through law.
However, the role of the market in assigning many of the rights of citizenship reveals two
important components for any theory of citizenship: rst, in many places in the world, law
permits an expansion of the neoliberal agenda behind the retreat of the state; and second,
traditional (Western) theories of citizenship do not capture the potential complexity of
citizenship categories.
Social Markers of Citizenship
So far, this paper has discussed the rights of citizens. In this section, I will argue that global-
isation has led to the rise of what might be termed non-traditional obligations of citizenship
in the UAE. The consequence of the retreat of the state behind neoliberalism and the fact
that citizenship has become less a judicial than a social category is the production of other
markers of citizenship. The uncertainties of globalisation produce, I shall argue, a retreat of
citizens behind the few remaining available normative structures of the nation. Thus, it is not
that the state has become increasingly irrelevant, but that citizenship is no longer (solely) a
judicial attribute but increasingly a social one. Capitalism has caused citizens to seek refuge
in the state, as it is only the state which can guarantee the preservation of a national culture.
This has led, in the UAE, to the creation of a state-sponsored discourse of ‘Emiratiness’,
stressing the link between culture and citizenship. This new discourse stresses less the par-
ticipation of citizens in the economic or in the (largely non-existent) formal political sphere
than the disciplining of the family life and the bodies of Emiratis themselves.
Since at least the 1980s, the issue of marriage has become central to discussions of Emirati
identity, as more and more Emiratis have married non-citizens. Public discourse has seized on
the issue as one more instance of the loss of Emirati identity. The state has taken a view that
‘Emiratiness’ cannot be determined solely by patrilineality, thus departing at least in part
from more traditional conceptions of nationality. To the concerns that exogamy is leading to
the breakdown of the family, the state has responded with a carrot-and-stick approach.
44 Binesh Panicker, ‘Ask the Law: Property Queries’, Gulf News, 15 April 2011. Available at http://gulfnews.
com/business/property/uae/ask-the-law-property-queries-1.790407 (accessed 16 March 2015). WAM (waka-
lat inba’ al emarat), ‘Multiple-Entry Visas for Property Owners to Start from June’, 4 May 2009. Available at (accessed 16 March 2015).
Gradations of Citizenship in the United Arab Emirates
First, the government established, in 1992, the so-called Marriage Fund (sunduq al zawaj),
which was designed to encourage marriage between Emirati citizens, to provide nancial
support for expenses related to marriage, to curb the marriage of Emirati men to foreigners,
and to promote stable family life.45 The fund has offered seminars to young Emiratis on the
dangers of depending on foreign maids; young men are warned of the dangers of marriage
to foreign women46 – all cashed out in terms of the danger to Emirati society such actions
posed.47 The magazine put out by the Marriage Fund focuses not only on issues of child rear-
ing and schooling, but also on the disruptive effects of foreign wives.48 The president of the
Marriage Fund took to discussing the arrival in Dubai of marriage brokers, who offered to
arrange marriages for women to locals in order to obtain the right of residency in the country
and social benets, as a threat to identity and nationality.49
Funds were also made available to construct elaborate wedding halls, and to pay for wedding
expenses. For example, during the rst three years some AED 435 million was dispensed.50
Specic grants were made available to Emirati men who married Emirati women. The fund
has offered housing to those willing to oblige.51
Second, contrary to the provisions of the law on citizenship, new orders appear to have been
issued by the presidential diwan (court) in 1996, ordering the Ministry of Justice to regulate
the marriage of citizens to foreigners. Women were to be forbidden to marry foreign men
and would lose their citizenship if they went ahead and did it anyway.52 Although no such
proposal appears to have been ofcially gazetted and it appears never to have been enforced,
the winds of change were clearly blowing away from the previous, more permissive regime.
The government also drafted articles, again never entering into law, which would ban stu-
dents studying abroad and state functionaries from taking foreign wives.53 Men who were
not outright prevented under the law from taking foreign wives would still need permission
from the Marriage Fund before marrying.54
45 Dresch, ‘Debates on Marriage’, p. 147. Part 1, Paragraph 3 of Federal Law 47/1992.
46 The refrain has been continued by members of the government in the press. See Najla al Awadhi, ‘Why
Emirati Men Marry Foreign Women’, Gulf News, 16 May 2008. Available at
columnists/why-emirati-men-marry-foreign-women-1.105273 (accessed 16 March 215).
47 Dresch, ‘Debates on Marriage’, p. 147.
48 Ibid., p. 152.
49 Ibid., p. 154.
50 Ibid., p. 148.
51 Al-Ittihad, 10 March 2000, cited in Dresch, ‘Debates on Marriage’, p. 148.
52 Presidential Order, 19 December 1996, cited in Dresch, ‘Debates on Marriage’, p. 151. This was quickly
revised in an order of 25 January 1997 to judges from the Ministry of Justice that by ‘foreign men’ the Pres-
ident did not mean male citizens of GCC countries (Dresch, ‘Debates on Marriage’, p. 151).
53 Al-Ittihad, 24 April 1999, cited in Dresch, ‘Debates on Marriage’, p. 155.
54 Ibid.
18 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
In a similar manner, discourses around ‘Emiratiness’ focusing on dress have increasingly
occurred in the public arena. The launch, through Twitter, of the campaign #UAEDress-
Code drew on concerns that national or religious sensibilities were being swept aside by the
presence of foreigners. Started by two Emiratis, Hanan al Rayes and Asma al Muhairi, the
campaign aimed to create a discourse on religiously or culturally appropriate dress in the
Emirates.55 Although concern may have been expressed over the conduct of expatriates, the
relationship between dress and nationality is played out on the body of Emiratis, particularly
of Emirati women, and in national and transnational discourses on dress. While there is no
legal requirement in the UAE for women to wear the 'abaya or for men to wear the kandurah
(the white robe), this dress is prescribed for all citizens and operates within a national power
dynamic connecting citizens to the state.56 Citizens are expected to wear it as a marker
not only of religious but also of national belonging, separating them from the expatriates
who greatly outnumber them. In that respect, clothing operates as a signier of a nation’s
‘true identity’ in a nation face to face with a globalised world.57 The state has increasingly
encouraged discussions of appropriate attire for Emiratis, going so far in Abu Dhabi in 2005
as to promulgate a regulation (ta‘meem) requiring the wearing of so-called national dress
(the 'abaya and shaylah (black headscarf) for women and the kandurah for men) in places of
work for citizens. Both citizens and the state have turned, in the face of globalisation, to an
expansion of the social obligations of citizenship.
In this paper, I have tried to show how the study of the lived experience of the rights and
duties of citizenship in the UAE destabilises inherited notions of citizenship. While jurid-
ical citizenship grants broad (though not equal) rights to citizens, including ample welfare
state protections, the retreat of the state from many core areas of governance, and the mar-
ketisation of others, leads to graduated levels of citizenship, some of which are open to
non-passport holders. At the same time, the obligations of citizens are increasingly read out
in social terms – as obligations to choose appropriate wives and to raise children in a cultur-
ally appropriate way so as to preserve constructed ideas of Emirati culture.
More broadly, any attempt to hold on to Western theories of citizenship will necessarily
lead to the conclusion that some foreigners in the UAE hold weakened forms of citizenship;
any attempt to understand citizens in purely juridical terms will show the contingency of
theories of the rights and obligations of citizens.
55 Mishaal al Gergawi, ‘Dressing Down: UAE Dress Code Hashtag Sends Right Message’, Gulf News, 1 June
2012. Available at
right-message-1.1030688 (accessed 16 March 2015).
56 Noor al Qasimi, ‘Immodest Modesty’, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 6/1 (2010), pp. 49–50.
57 Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1993), cited in Al Qasimi, ‘Immodest Modesty’, p. 50.
Torn Citizenship in Kuwait: Commodication versus Rights-Based Approaches
Torn Citizenship in Kuwait: Commodication versus
Rights-Based Approaches
Claire Beaugrand
Claire Beaugrand is a Researcher at the Institut Français du Proche Orient (Ifpo) in Jerusalem. She has
previously worked as Gulf Senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, where she covered the Bah-
rain’s political deadlock. Since then, her researches focus on the Gulf investment policies, their rationale
and articulation with aid programs in Palestine. She is one of the core team members of the European
research Council-funded WAFAW (When Authoritarianism Fails in the Arab World) project. Having
worked and published on the trajectories of Bahraini exiles, she leads together with Vincent Geisser, the
WAFAW program on “Diasporas and Arab revolutions and transitions”.
Dening citizenship in a static way for example, as a bundle of rights and duties bind-
ing an individual to a sovereign state – corresponds to the state’s practical endeavours at
controlling people and borders but fails to grasp the essentially contentious and evolving
nature of the concept. Although shared by all sovereign states, citizenship is not a given,
but both time- and place-specic: from the outset and the seminal work of T. H. Marshall,1
it has often been argued in citizenship studies that citizenship differed in terms of content
(rights and duties granted) and extent (the dialectic of inclusion and exclusion)2 according
to the time period and international environment. The notion of citizenship, as expressed
in a set of laws peculiar to each state, is subject to evolution in particular as a result of the
ways people conceive of and practise citizenship. By formulating new claims or circumvent-
ing legal constraints or obstacles to take up new rights, people’s practice of citizenship and
struggle for rights have the power to make the denition of citizenship evolve in law. Turner
emphasises the dialectic character of citizenship:3 he argues that citizenship results from
the state’s reactions to social ‘struggle’ mobilisations. These state reactions, reecting (part
of) the existing citizenry, can also be ones of rejection and obstruction, that is, of restriction
on content, extent or rights.
Kuwait is no exception: on the part of the state, citizenship, reduced to nationality or the
dutiful possession of legal papers, is a given status that can be taken away. This was the
case in the summer and autumn of 2014 when the government, by cabinet decree, denatu-
ralised nearly a hundred people for constituting a threat to the country’s security or for using
The author wishes to thank Professor Isin for his comments on the text.
1 T. H. Marshall, Citizenship and Social Class and Other Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950).
2 See for instance the cross-national study in Europe by Ruud Koopmans, Paul Statham, Marco Giugni and
Florence Passy, Contested Citizenship: Immigration and Cultural Diversity in Europe (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 2005).
3 Bryan S. Turner, ‘Outline of a Theory of Citizenship’, Sociology 24 (1990), pp. 189–217.
20 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
forged documents in order to acquire Kuwaiti nationality.4 Although practised on an unprec-
edented scale in Kuwait,5 the phenomenon of citizenship revocation, inscribed in the legal
system of any state, is not peculiar to Kuwait: states, including democratic ones, use the
legal tool of citizenship deprivation to shape national identities.6 In Kuwait, as of July 2014,
the state reacted in a defensive manner to the mobilisation of the tribal-Islamist periphery
that had practically assumed new rights: these new rights were, in effect, the practice of
open critique of the ruler or transnational involvement in the Syrian regional conict. By the
same token, the state reasserted the prominence of the holders of the Kuwaiti rst degree
of nationality,7 since Kuwaitis by origin (bi-t’assîs) are immune to denaturalisation on the
basis of forgery in the process of acquiring nationality. The political gesture signied a clear
warning to the part of the Kuwaiti population of tribal origin that was integrated compara-
tively late – between 1965 and 1980 – into the Kuwaiti citizenry: the message delivered was
that these latecomers were less legitimate, if they were legitimate at all, in formulating new
claims to rights.
The situation of people who have been rendered stateless or bidun in Kuwait is a particularly
poignant illustration of the contentious and contested, and thus dynamic, nature of citizen-
ship. Bidun are people referred to as stateless and considered as illegal on Kuwaiti soil by the
State of Kuwait, which accordingly denies them any rights. They number 106,000 according
to the conservative estimate of the government body created to review their les in Novem-
ber 2010, that is, the Central System to Resolve Illegal Residents’ Status (hereafter ‘Central
System’). The contention between the State of Kuwait and part of its long-term resident
population revolves around the fact that although they have not been granted nationality
of the country in which they live, the bidun have developed a feeling of entitlement to it.
In this controversy, the State of Kuwait, through the Central System, seeks to document
and ascertain the national origins of the bidun, on the basis of material proofs and archival
4 Figures come from ‘The New Unpeople: Statelessness as Punishment against Political Dissent in the
Gulf’, The Economist, 15 November 2014. Available at
rica/21632640-statelessness-punishment-against-political-dissent-gulf-new-unpeople (accessed 28
November 2014). These people included Ahmed al Shammari, owner of the Al-Yum TV station and news-
paper, mouthpiece of the opposition; his denaturalisation was decided on the basis that his activities
undermined the country’s security and stability (tahdîd amn al qawmî). So too were the cases of former
MP Abdullah al Bargash, from the Emirate of Ajman and close to the scientic sala current, and Nabil
a Awadhi, a sala preacher whose case was ofcially related to his involvement in Syria. The remaining
people, all Bedouin from the Mutair and Shammar tribes, were denaturalised for having obtained their
naturalisation through false documents (tazwîr al tajnîss). Correspondence with a human rights activist, 12
August 2014.
5 Famous denaturalisations included those of the Shi’i scholar Ahmad al Muhri (whose Sunday lectures
were deemed potentially revolutionary) and his family, deported to Iran in 1979, and the Shi’i anti-Sunni
preacher Yasser Habib in 2010. Claire Beaugrand, Statelessness and Transnationalism in Northern Arabia: Biduns
and State Building in Kuwait, 1959–2009, PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2011,
p. 147.
6 Sandra Mantu, Contingent Citizenship: The Law and Practice of Citizenship Deprivation in International, European
and National Perspectives, PhD thesis, Centre for Migration Law, Radboud University, Nijmegen, 2014. Ben
Herzog, Revoking Citizenship: Expatriation in America from the Colonial Era to the War on Terror (New York: New
York University Press, 2015).
7 The holders of the rst degree of nationality (madat ûla), as per paragraph 1 of the 1959 Nationality Law,
are those who can prove their residency in Kuwait in 1920, and their descendants.
Torn Citizenship in Kuwait: Commodication versus Rights-Based Approaches
documents:8 the logic of checking the accuracy of historical claims belongs to debates
between historians and might seem somewhat anachronistic in a matter where the under-
standing of papers, loyalty and the implication for rights of a place of abode has drastically
altered over the course of a century. The government’s logic is challenged as ‘outdated’ by
the new generation of bidun that emerged in the 2011 protests and only holds for certain that
they were born, raised and discriminated against in the Emirate.9
The bidun issue in Kuwait, studied in a dialectic fashion, forms a nexus where different
interpretations of citizenship, stemming from far-distant perspectives, intersect, enter on
collision courses and presumably affect each other. These perspectives are embedded in var-
ious parts of Kuwaiti society that, according to their positions in the overall class structure,
lay different claims to rights on the state. In a particularly acute fashion in Kuwait, nation-
ality has acquired an economic and nancial value, from the early period of state-building
when political acquiescence was exchanged for exclusive economic privileges,10 through the
mechanisms of access to land ownership, cheap labour and compulsory partnership of for-
eign companies with a local rm (ensured by the kafala or sponsorship system), the granting
of exclusive dealership of imported products (the less well-known but equally fundamental
wikâla) and the awarding of massive public contracts. These privileges, although granted
to all, beneted only the closer allies of the ruling family, that is, the hadhar (urbanites) or
more precisely the merchant families among them. The hadhar, by contrast with the Bedu
or Bedouin, could boast a certain experience of trade and interaction with international
markets before oil discovery. Now these rights have become unquestionable entitlements. With
the rise of the middle classes, hitherto civil servants but now developing business ambitions
as well, the historical elite expects from the state, in defence of its interests, that it upholds
the elite’s privileged position in business.11 This elite sees citizenship as much as a political
enactment as an entitlement to benet from a protected position to do business – including
making investments abroad. At the other end of the spectrum, the less privileged articulate
claims for greater social justice while the bidun, at the very bottom, have rst redoubled their
8 In an interview in Kuwait (29 April 2014), Salih al Sa’idi, communication ofcer at the Central System,
explained, when asked about the demographic structure of the bidun group, that most of the bidun are from
Iraqi tribes (Muntaq and their Sa’dun sheikhly lineage). According to him, the tribes who were part of
Kuwait were paying a tax to trade there. ‘We have 1902 Ottoman documents covering the period before the
border’s establishment. Lorimer [John Gordon Lorimer, a British ofcial who wrote and compiled the Gaz-
etteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia (Calcutta 1915)] also listed the tribes of Kuwait. Moreover
in 1945, the government supplied people who had an established relationship with the Emir with papers
[our emphasis], particularly food cards during WWII [World War II]. In the modern period (1960–66) the
[nationality] committees [responsible for granting nationality according to the 1959 Nationality Law] went
to the Bedouins and looked for their tangible written documents.’
9 Revisiting history as well, a bidun, leader of the unregistered muwâtinûn (citizens) movement that not only
plays a core role in bidun mobilisation but also coordinates a unied response to Central System actions, said
‘over time, the criteria for tawtîn [here meaning settling as a citizen] have changed: in the 1960s, it was on
the basis of the nationality committees and references that people could provide. In the 1970s, it was on
the tribal basis; in the 1980s on the basis of exceptional services rendered to the state (khidmat jalila). Now
we think the citizenship is a right.’ Dr Abdul Hakim al Fadhli, Kuwait, 18 April 2014.
10 Jill Crystal, Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1990).
11 So far the nomination of ministers by the emir has ensured access to high political postings, since the
economic elite abandoned the idea of forming a majority at the parliament (majliss al Umma) at least from
the 1980s with the opening up of the position of MPs to new sociological classes.
22 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
efforts to demonstrate civic commitment and loyalty to the symbols of the Emirate and its
community, then gradually broken with the existing patrimonial model and formulated new
claims based on the idea that they were punished for a crime they did not commit.
This background is essential in order to understand the views that emerged with regard to
solving the riddle of the presence of stateless people in Kuwait: albeit untheorised by the
actors themselves, the practice of selling ‘faked nationality’ to bidun or, as some bidun would
feel, ‘selling them to other countries’ amounted to a gradual commodication and desubstan-
tialisation of the citizen bond. Yet, if essential, this national context is not the only factor:
Kuwait is surng on a larger, global trend that sees citizenship being commodied. If in
other cases people are willing to pay to acquire a more benecial nationality for tax haven,
residency visa exemptions and job opportunity purposes, in the case of Kuwait as well as the
United Arab Emirates (UAE), the state is arranging a nancial and economic transaction on
behalf of ‘unwanted’ residents. Finally, this trend towards commodication intersects with
a regional policy of counter-revolution, led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia since the fall of
Hosni Mubarak, their close ally in Egypt. While Kuwait had given up on the idea of enacting
a 2008 project of granting Comorian ‘economic citizenship’ to its bidun population, as was
done in the UAE,12 for fear of its vocal parliament or international disapproval, the conver-
gence of interests with the two above-mentioned Gulf states to combat domestic unrest
made at least part of the state apparatus change its mind; in May and then November 2014
the application of the new scheme was announced through the Ministry of Interior.
The year 2011 marks a real rupture as bidun organised a protest on their own for the rst
time. Bidun reclaimed agency, rst by setting at a distance the Kuwaiti-led organisations
that had initially promoted their case in the 2000s, and breaking with the victimisation
discourse of some of them.13 Second, the bidun reacted to the emptying out of meaning of
their bond to a territory and membership in the community by sparking a debate on this
very meaning and claiming rights through what Engin Isin calls ‘acts of citizenship’, that is,
political acts performed outside of the citizenry or from its excluded margins.14
Clearly there is a widening gap between a business-minded and commodied version of
citizenship enacted from on high, impregnated with patrimonialism, and a bottom-up con-
ception torn between a logic of loyalty to the place and a breaking away from the paternalist
logic of belonging.
The next section, depicting the historical background to citizenship understanding in
Kuwait, gives the original narrative: in this view, the hadhar, portrayed as state-builders,
hold a conception of citizenship close to the Western one (and its etymology as ‘city-zen’
community or city-membership), which marks an attachment to the city of Kuwait under-
stood in nationalist history as the walled city of 1920. In this vision the Bedouin understand
12 Noora.Lori, Unsettling State: Non-Citizens, State Power and Citizenship in the United Arab Emirates, PhD thesis,
Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 2013.
13 For literature on the creating of victims see Sandrine Lefranc,, Lilian Mathieu and Johanna Siméant,
‘Les victimes écrivent leur histoire’, Raisons Politiques, May (2008), pp. 5–20. Sandrine Lefranc and Lilian
Mathieu, Mobilisations des Victimes (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009).
14 Engin F. Isin, ‘Theorizing Acts of Citizenship’, in Engin F. Isin and Greg M. Nielsen (eds), Acts of Cit-
izenship (London: Zed Books, 2008), pp. 15–43 at p. 15. Engin F. Isin, ‘Enacting Citizenship’, in Engin F.
Isin, Citizens without Frontiers (London and New York: Continuum, 2012), pp. 108–46.
Torn Citizenship in Kuwait: Commodication versus Rights-Based Approaches
belonging as a link to a person, a leader. The period ushered in by oil discovery and export
(1948) drastically changed this initial deal, if it did not simply reverse it: as the hadhar
elite gradually integrated into global capitalism, including real estate investment abroad and
business travel, its physical tie to the city slackened, with interests vested in the perpetu-
ation of a system based on privileged access to the Emir and his close advisors. The former
Bedouin, turned middle classes, have for their part made theirs the nationalist narrative on
the homeland.
The rest of the paper analyses how the logics of class and paternalism intertwined in prac-
tice and led to the idea of monetising the nationality of bidun. Not only does the idea of
a Comorian ‘economic citizenship’ rid the country of unwanted residents, but its imple-
mentation also nancially benets the few among the business elite who engineered the
complex system of ‘economic nationality’, linking the granting of a Comorian legal status
to investment – later translated into development projects on the islands. On the other
hand, the bidun broke with the piecemeal approach to rights to adopt outright claims for full
The Myth of Kuwait’s Foundations and the Original Views on Citi-
zenship Turned Upside Down
The sociological and identity cleavage structuring Kuwait society matches clear-cut class
interests: the urbanites or hadhar – that is, those who lived within the limits of the 1920 city
wall – consider themselves state-builders on the basis that they occupied government posts
at the crucial time of creating a Western-type state administration. For the very reason that
this earned them a privileged economic position, they regard the once-nomadic Bedouin as
latecomers.15 To this identity divide there corresponded different endogenous narratives on
visions of citizenship:
Urban Kuwaitis, on the other hand, understand citizenship as jinsiyya, from the root
verb jns, meaning ‘to make alike, to assimilate, to naturalize’. […] There is an idea
of similarity and horizontal solidarity. […] [Jinsiyya] does not posit a priori an idea
of hierarchy and supreme authority. In this sense, it is much closer to the Western
concept of citizenship. […] the urban Kuwaitis relate this notion [jinsiyya] with a
territorialized community […] previously the town, today the nation-state, rather
than with a particular leadership.
The tribes in Kuwait understand nationality and citizenship in the sense of ta-
ba’iyya, which can be translated as the ‘following’ of or ‘allegiance’ to a leader, in this
case Kuwait’s ruling family. The root verb of taba’iyya means, among other things, to
walk behind someone, to be subordinate to, to be under someone’s command. The
concept is clearly built on an idea of hierarchy and vertical allegiance.16
15 Anh Nga Longva, ‘Nationalism in Pre-Modern Guise: The Discourse on Hadhar and Badu in Kuwait’,
International Journal of Middle East Studies 38 (2006), pp. 171–87.
16 Mary Ann Tétreault, Stories of Democracy: Politics and Society in Contemporary Kuwait (New York: Columbia
University Press, 2000), p. 47. See also, for an analysis of citizenship in Kuwait, Anh Nga Longva, ‘Citizen-
ship in the Gulf States: Conceptualization and Practice’, in Niels A. Butenschon, Uri Davis and Manuel.
Hassassian (eds), Citizenship and the State in the Middle East: Approaches and Applications (Syracuse, NY: Syra-
cuse University Press, 2000), pp. 179–97.
24 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
These narratives are very tenacious, and all the more so because the hadhar, feeling under
demographic pressure from the Bedu,17 tend to cling to their civic and political legacy as
a legitimation for their privileged situation. During the early decades after independence
in 1961, the class of merchants, starting with only relative wealth but with habits of deal-
ing internationally through business networks, amassed fortunes domestically thanks to the
state policies that forced foreign enterprises to enter into business alliance with a local
partner and granted them most of the government contracts or exclusive sale of imported
goods (wikâla).
The situation, domestically and internationally, has evolved since the days of independence
and, as a consequence, the respective conceptions of citizenship need to be revisited.
On the one hand, the idea of jinsiyya as advocated by the hadhar has changed along with their
socioeconomic circumstances. Kuwaiti merchant families are not only recipients of state
contracts and benets, but have become global investors:18 their wealth, massively invested
abroad in real estate and securities, generated huge revenues at the time of ‘asset appre-
ciation in industrial countries, to the point that their wealth and earning abroad surpassed
their wealth and earnings at home. Consequently, their dependence on the goodwill of […]
[the] government was reduced.’19 This was all the more so in the case of Kuwaiti capitalists
as, in contrast to the bourgeoisie in other Gulf states, they were quite slow to invest back in
Kuwait when the economic liberalisation in the 1990s opened up new investment opportu-
nities at home. When they chose to invest in the Gulf region, Kuwaiti businessmen opted
for the UAE or Bahrain especially after 9/11 when sanctions and asset freezing incited
them to repatriate part of their capital from the West. This preference was largely explained
by the looming threat posed by the rule of Saddam Hussein until 2003, as well as the hin-
drances put in the way by the parliament, whose majority, representing civil servants, is
seen as prioritising the direct distribution of government revenues over their investment in
infrastructure projects, and also puts much efforts into exerting strong pressure to curb the
monopolies on the giving of public contracts to the great family businesses.20
The Kuwaiti globalised bourgeois class thus has ties outside of its country of origin. It could
be said to be part of ‘a network of connections and functional interdependencies which has
developed within certain important sectors of the “global market”, above all nance, tech-
nology, automation, the manufacturing industry and the service sector’, that Danilo Zolo
equates with what ‘western cosmopolitans call “global civil society”’.21
17 Interview in Kuwait, 30 August 2007, with Sheikha Fawzia, a pro-bidun member of the royal family. She
employed a very signicant vocabulary to describe the hadhar’s fear of being outnumbered by the Bedu,
referring to the urban historic distinction mirroring the socioeconomic divide: ‘yakhâf yushârikûn min nahîat
iqtisâdiyya dâkhil al sûr’ (‘They [hadhar] are afraid that they [bidun] come to share in the economy “within the
wall”’). Although there are no ofcial numbers, the Bedu/hadhar divide is estimated at 60/40.
18 Adam Hanieh, Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
19 Giacomo Luciani, ‘Linking Economic and Political Reform in the Middle East: The Role of the Bour-
geoisie’, in Oliver Schlumberger (ed.), Debating Arab Authoritarianism: Dynamics and Durability in Nondemocratic
Regimes (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), pp. 161–76 at p. 170.
20 Michael Herb, ‘A Nation of Bureaucrats: Political Participation and Economic Diversication in Kuwait
and the United Arab Emirates’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 41/3 (2009), pp. 375–95.
21 Danilo Zolo, Cosmopolis: Prospects for World Government (Cambridge: Polity, 1997), p. 137.
Torn Citizenship in Kuwait: Commodication versus Rights-Based Approaches
Yet Kuwaitis, more often than not, do not pretend to belong to this society, sticking to the
family line.22 Moreover, the Kuwaiti upper classes – like the rest of the Gulf’s, studied by
Luciani – remain structurally constrained to keep strong business links with the homeland:
Among businessmen in the Gulf, the desire to invest at home originates from the re-
alisation that, if they become alienated from their countries of origin, they will carry
no weight as major international business characters. Their international status is
contingent on their remaining closely associated with their countries of origin. Also
these countries offer by far the best opportunities for investment and growth, much
better than those offered by the industrial countries. The comparative advantage
of the Gulf bourgeoisie lies exactly in being the protagonist in the development of
the Gulf and of the Arab world more broadly rather than in the real estate market
in Mayfair, Knightsbridge, and Belgravia […] Hence the Gulf bourgeoisie is, on
the one hand, substantially autonomous from the state, but on the other hand, very
much committed to the development of their countries of origin – and to demands
from the state that it should vigorously promote it.23
In this sense, the initial understanding of jinsiyya attributed to the hadhar that relates to a
‘territorialized community […] rather than […] a particular leadership’ needs to be heavily
qualied, as the hadhar usually do not hold the Bedu as legitimate members of the national
community,24 and, albeit integrated globally, are still dependent upon their privileged situ-
ation in the homeland, itself highly embedded in the current interpersonal relations within
the monarchical system.
The business ties to Kuwait do not prevent an extreme mobility and very frequent and
extended sojourns abroad, in particular in the European capitals or in the USA. These multi-
level economic interests, coupled with multiple places of sojourn or abode, shed a new light
on the ofcial narrative, according to which the state-building hadhar have an interest in the
public good (as exemplied by the 1960–85 golden age) as opposed to the inux since the
1980s of Bedu who do not care about a land they have no or little perennial link with, but
are only interested in getting money from the state. Increased cross-border mobility is now
a feature of the globalised business elite, while Bedouin nomadism has come to an end.
22 See, as a matter of comparison, an article on Gulf youth on holiday in Europe that shows the strong
tendency exhibited by Gulf holiday makers to recreate the familiar environment of home, its sociability
networks and consumption patterns while abroad. Claire Beaugrand, ‘Les vacances en Europe: Univers
familial, univers familier des “Golen”’, in Laurent Bonnefoy and Myriam Catusse (eds), Jeunesses arabes du
Maroc au Yémen: Loisirs, cultures et politiques (Paris: La Découverte, 2013), pp. 210–14.
23 Luciani, ‘Linking Economic and Political Reform’, p. 171.
24 The anti-tribal rhetoric infused in the Kuwaiti media uctuates according to the electoral danger that
the tribes pose to the government and its ruling partners. After the 2008 tribal-Islamist victory, for instance,
the TV station Sour (‘Wall’, referring to the old wall of Kuwait, enclosing the exclusively hadhar population)
was diffusing anti-tribal themes, such as questioning the tribes’ loyalty to Kuwait, embodied in the sensi-
tive issue of their double nationality (al-muzdawijin).
26 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
In terms of citizenship, this has two main consequences. The rst is the relative weakening
of ‘horizontal solidarity’, which has become class-based, as this solidarity never really inte-
grated the salaried citizens as equally entitled to run the affairs of the country.25 The second
is a relative loosening of ties with the ‘territorialized community’, the state of Kuwait being
more of a core business provider than a ‘nation-state’. This trend and collusion between
the royal family (for as diverse as they might be, the royals do not behave signicantly
differently when it comes to business) and a high-ying class of businessmen offer the
background against which to pose the question: how is it that nationality, as a form of bond
to the state and as such unmarketable, could eventually be commodied?
On the other hand, the alleged Bedu allegiance to a leader rather than the territorial sover-
eign state should also be seriously revised. The now long-settled Bedouin populations have
obviously accepted the logic and legitimacy of the state system and the rules of the Kuwaiti
democratic game. Their absence of identication with and commitment to the national
community is attributed to their ‘backward’ traditions, coming from Saudi Arabia, as well as,
in the eyes of the more secular hadhar, to their Islamist orientation, particularly Sunni. The
derogatory discourse against tribes has crystallised in Kuwait on the question of dual nation-
ality, as Bedouin have been suspected of collecting passports from more than one country to
ensure their mobility and to maximise state advantages. However, Bedu and Islamist MPs
from the periphery of Kuwait raise demands that are closely associated with the concepts
integral to the nation-state model, such as social equality and democratic accountability.
Although they indulge in a certain populism tinged with Islam or tribal values to gather sup-
port on tribal and sectarian grounds, their demands reect less a ‘vertical allegiance’ and the
acceptance of the ‘hierarchy’ than pressure for economic redistribution. In the end, the only
ones who adhere to the tabi’iyya notion of citizenship (albeit a contradiction in terms) seem
to be the rulers, as part of their legitimacy is drawn from the patriarchal myth that portrays
the Emir as the father of his people and the polity as a family story.
To sum up, the different social classes’ conceptions of citizenship in Kuwait have evolved
together with their respective positions and their integration within the wider economic
global context. They seem even to be inverted, with a greater emphasis on territorial iden-
tity by the lower class that pushes towards a fairer distribution, and greater social equality
among the nationals. In contrast, the state-protected capitalist class, who are integrated
into some informal global networks and whose civic virtues are still celebrated, as opposed
to the Bedu culture being marked by proteering, lean towards an exclusive and elitist
notion of citizenship.
25 See for instance the opinion piece by Mona Kareem, ‘Anti-Racism in Kuwaiti Elections’, al Akhbar, 4 July
2013. Available at (accessed 10 December 2013). This evokes the
‘notion of politics as a privilege only suitable for “the old families” and the big tribes’.
Torn Citizenship in Kuwait: Commodication versus Rights-Based Approaches
The Commodication of Citizenship and the Counter-Revolution
After denying for a long time its intention to strike a deal with the Comoros Islands to grant
the bidun Comorian nationality,26 the government of Kuwait made an announcement on 9
November 2014: the Ministry of Interior assistant undersecretary for nationality, passports
and residency affairs, Major-General Mazen al-Jarrah al Sabah, stated that bidun would be
granted ‘special application forms for Comoros economic citizenship’, which would help
them regularise their status; that is, that they would be given free residency permits and an
incentive package including the recovery of rights to employment, free education and health
care.27 The statement came as a materialisation of a previous public announcement on 15
May 2014 when the Major-General said in a TV interview on al Watan that his country was
negotiating with an unnamed ‘Arab country’ to grant them its nationality in exchange for
economic benets.28 In this interview, Sheikh Mazen mentioned that the Central System,
headed by former MP Salih Fadhala, having studied the UAE–Comoros deal to naturalise
Emirati bidun, was in the process of nalising the agreement in a proper legal manner, with
the signatures of the heads of the ‘Arab country’ concerned.
Although Kuwait had until recently denied any involvement, Kuwait-based businesses were
among the initial actors who set up a policy of ‘nationality offshoring’, an expression coined
by Noora Lori to describe ‘a market solution to the “problem” of migrant incorporation’.29
If at rst the idea seemed to be unacceptable in Kuwait because of the vocal opposition of
some parliament members, who did not hesitate to denounce it as bringing shame on the
country’s reputation, the new geo-strategic situation resulting from the Arab uprisings that
reached the Gulf created new conditions for Kuwait to align with its more authoritarian,
more daring and less ashamed Gulf neighbours.
The practice of using dinar diplomacy to solve delicate social problems that require a political
approach, either a political decision on the part of the authorities or a political debate in the
society (if the authorities allow it), is an extreme form of denying the existence of ‘politics’
in exchange for a seemingly technical and economic but authoritarian approach.
26 The day following the Comorian Parliament’s refusal to pass the text on ‘economic citizenship’, the
Kuwaiti ambassador in Cairo and non-resident ambassador to the Comoros, Dr Rashid al Hamad, stated
that no Kuwaiti ofcial had discussed with Comorian counterparts the status of the Kuwaiti bidun. KUNA,
‘Stateless Issue Not Raised in Kuwait–Comoros Talks – Al-Hamad’, 27 July 2008. Available at www.kuna. (accessed 20 November 2014). During his visit to
the Gulf the same year, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Comoros, Ahmed Ben Said Jaffar, stated that
there had been no ‘ofcial’ demand on the part of the Kuwaiti government regarding the bidun le, yet he
was unofcially in touch with the Ministry of Interior via the UAE.
27 See Mohamed al Sharhan, ‘Al Jarrah to al Jarida: Bidun to the Comoros Islands’, al Jarida, 9 November
2014. Available at (accessed 12 March 2015).
28 See the interview: (accessed 12 March 2015).
29 At the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central
Asia Brown Bag Lunch, 23 April 2013. See also Lori, Unsettling State.
28 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
A Precursor: Forged African Passports in Order to Remain Residents
The rst endeavours at using money to reduce the number of bidun les date back to the
end of the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Kuwaiti Ministry of Interior30 tried to push bidun
to seek and buy (forged) foreign nationalities.
‘Outside the Executive Committee31 you nd persons selling forged passports for KD 2,000’,32
explained one bidun in June 2008.33 The trafc in forged passports is no secret:34 forged pass-
ports were sometimes purchased in order to leave the country, but most of the time they
were used to stay in Kuwait, with the ‘nationality’ of the Dominican Republic, Somalia,
Eritrea. Liberia or Yemen. It is no secret for the Ministry of Interior either; it is said it
even participates in the trafc.35 The researcher Faris al-Waqian, principal consultant of the
2006–8 parliamentary commission on the bidun, attested the phenomenon, describing, for
instance, the case of a bidun member of the armed forces who participated in the 1991 war of
liberation: ‘when he was sacked from the army, he was encouraged to change his civil status,
through special ofces designed to grant the nationality of Eritrea, Liberia, the Dominican
Republic and a few other African countries. He refused a sum of KD 4,000–5,000 offered to
him to purchase the passport.’36 According to the researcher, 4,000 bidun employed in the
Ministry of Defence did change their status with the Executive Committee by obtaining
the nationalities of foreign countries. The under-the-table dealings, although an open secret
in Kuwait, were kept unofcial and no country whose faked nationality was concerned ever
commented on the matter.
In contrast, the news of negotiations with the Comoros Islands broke in July 2008 with the
failure of the Parliament of the Comoros to pass the rst law granting economic citizenship.
30 The Ministry was then headed by Sheikh Mohamed Khalid al Hamad al Sabah (October 1996 to July
2003), the brother of the current minister of foreign affairs, Sabah Khalid Hamad al Sabaha, who replaced
Mohmad al Sabah when he resigned in October 2011. Bidun see behind the announcement of the upcoming
signing of a deal with the Comoros Islands the possible continuation of the policy of Sheikh Mohamed Khalid
al Hamad, who returned to the Interior portfolio in August 2014. Skype interview, 10 November 2014.
31 That is, the Executive Committee for the Affairs of Illegal Migrants. Special institutions to handle the
case of the bidun were established as of 1993: rst the Central Committee (1993–6), then the Executive
Committee, created in 1996. Both were afliated to the Ministry of Interior. The Emiri decree of Novem-
ber 2010 that set up the Central System, with a mandate to review bidun claims to nationality, established
an institution that was independent from any other ministries. Its decisions even prevail over other min-
istries’. While the Ministry of Interior, dealing in sovereign matters, is traditionally headed by a member
of the royal family (min abnâ’ al Sabah), Salih Fadhala, the head of the Central System, belongs to the core
hadhar: he is known for his tough stance on naturalisation, and his nomination was a sign directed at fellow
hadhar (interview, Kuwait, Salih Sa’idi, 29 April 2014).
32 One Kuwaiti Dinar (KD) was roughly equivalent to £2 at the time.
33 Interview, Kuwait.
34 Harrow Kuwaiti Community Association, ‘Open Letter to Mr David Blunkett, Head of the Home Ofce
of the United Kingdom: A False Passport is the Only Way to Become a Citizen’, reproduced in Kuwait
Community News 4 (May–June 2004), p. 5. A forged British or Canadian passport was reported to be valued
at £5,000 or KD 2,500.
35 Interview with Sheikha Fawzia, Kuwait, 30 August 2007.
36 Interview, Kuwait, 5 March 2007.
Torn Citizenship in Kuwait: Commodication versus Rights-Based Approaches
At the time, the bill that stated that any person residing in a foreign country bound by a
signed agreement with the Union of the Comoros was eligible for the Comorian nationality
was rejected by 19 votes out of 33 MPs, in a resounding press scandal.37
Comorian ‘Economic Citizenship’
The amended law was nevertheless approved on 27 November 2008 by the Parliament of
the Union of the Comoros (by 18 votes out of 33) and promulgated on 16 December 2008.38
It stipulated that:
Article 1 The acquisition of economic citizenship through the decision of the public
authority results from a decision made on the basis of an application led by a major
person holding the status of economic partner of the Comoros government. […]
Article 2 Any person interested in obtaining economic citizenship in the framework
of the economic investment programme in the Union of the Comoros should pres-
ent a written request to the Independent National Commission.39
The putting of the draft law on the Comorian government’s agenda came in the aftermath
of active visits by Kuwaiti businessmen.40 A private actor appears as pivotal in the bilat-
eral relation between Kuwait and the Union of the Comoros, ruled at the time by Ahmed
Abdallah Mohamed Sambi (May 2006 to May 2011), a graduate of Islamic studies from
both Saudi Arabia and Iran: this actor is Comoro Gulf Holding (CGH), afliated to Kuwait
Holdings. The Union of the Comoros is one of the poorest countries in the world: 44.8 per
cent of the 734,500 inhabitants are below the poverty line, 14 per cent of them being unem-
ployed.41 Against this background, the CGH appeared as the main country developer with a
long-term vision of the Comoros as a Gulf tourist destination: starting from the rehabilita-
tion and expansion of the Itsandra Hotel, one of two international-standard establishments
in Grande Comore, the CGH had obtained licences for investments to carry out projects
in infrastructure, tourism, nance, commerce, media and communication, in particular to
open a bank,42 extend the Port of Moroni, establish a mobile phone company and develop
37 ‘Still No Place to Call Home for Arab Bidoon’, AFP, 26 July 2008, according to which the deal was to nat-
uralise 4,000 Gulf bidun (from the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) for a sum of $100 million; ‘Human Rights
Body to Study the Plight of “Stateless” Tribes’, Arab News, 29 July 2008. In ‘Passeports comoriens en vente
libre pour les sans-papiers du Golfe’, Le Monde, 15 March 2009, the gures are 4,000 bidun from Kuwait with
the UAE already pledged to an immediate payment of $200 million. The deal included in addition a pledge
from Gulf countries to invest in the Comoros, with every applicant for nationality paying $2,800 to develop
the Comorian local economy.
38 See Annex I.
39 Translation by the author. A rst National Commission was created by a decree of 10 January 2009, but
never convened. It was replaced by a second one by a new abrogating decree in October 2011.
40 See the report of the visit by the then foreign affairs minister, Sheikh Mohamed Sabah al Salim, in a US
diplomatic cable: WikiLeaks, ‘Kuwait FM in Comoros to Discuss Investment’, 19 February 2008. Available
at (accessed 12 March 2015).
41 World Bank, ‘Comoros’. Available at (accessed 22 December
42 Federal Bank of Commerce, ‘Lettre du Président’. Available at
php (accessed 12 March 2015).
30 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
air routes.43 The economic inuence of CGH, which imposed itself as the main private
investor in the country, translated into political lobbying, whereby, according to a US cable,
the ‘CGH actively and openly lobbied for a controversial “economic citizenship law” that
appeared to be rejected, then was passed at the National Assembly’.44 In the complicated
arrangement struck between the Comorian presidency and certain Gulf states, the Kuwaiti
holding was to be in charge of managing the investment disbursed in return for granting
‘economic citizenship’.
Whether it is because of the publicity attracted by the scandal at the parliament or not,
no deal was agreed between the Comoros and Kuwait at rst. The deal was nevertheless
signed with the Emirati authorities:45 it involved the down payment of $200 million, which
represents slightly less than half of the pre-2008 GDP of the country;46 $25 million of this
was to be allocated to the government budget, $175 million to the realisation of big infra-
structure projects. According to international donors to the Comoros trying to evaluate the
amount and duration of this windfall and quoting the new vice-president, Mohamed Ali
Soihili,47 there had been a new bilateral agreement signed between Moroni and Abu Dhabi
in October 2011, designed to be temporary (for a period of 18 months) but possibly renew-
able. Its stated objective was to grant certain members of tribes qualied as ‘close to the
authorities’ a temporary passport with limited rights, for a sum of around $6,250, that would
enable the holders to apply eventually for Emirati nationality. In the case of Kuwait, no such
possibility has ever been put forward: the proposal entails no eventual granting of Kuwaiti
nationality; on the contrary, it states that the children of holders of ‘economic citizenship’
will get original (asli) Comorian passports.48
43 ‘Since its establishment in the Comoros in 2006, the holding has set up the Federal Bank of Commerce,
created the newspaper Albalad and bought the Itsandra Hotel, which it is refurbishing. CGH estimates
its current investments in the country at 35 million.’ Nations Unies, Guide de l’investissement aux Comores:
Opportunités et Conditions 2011, p. 13 (translation by the author). Available at
cb2011d4_fr.pdf (accessed 20 December 2013). The presentation brochure of the company, headed by
Sheikh Sabah al Jaber al Mubarak, presents a broader list of companies, including media activities (Al
Waseet, a classied newspaper; Concord Media, outdoor advertising; Layalina, a magazine that proved very
successful in Kuwait; and Quadri, a printing house); telecommunications (Tawama); and construction (the
Combined Group, a Kuwait-based enterprise that set up a Comorian subsidiary, the Comoro-Combined
Group, in June 2009). CGH, From Vision to Decision. Available at
File/cgh%20prole.pdf (accessed 20 December 2013).
44 WikiLeaks, ‘Gulf Investment Group Inuence in the Comoros’, 5 January 2009. Available at www. (accessed 12 March 2015).
45 The involvement of Saudi Arabia remains unknown though it is mentioned sometimes in the Comoros press.
46 According to the World Bank, the GDP was $595 million in 2012 and had been $465 million in 2007.
World Bank, ‘GDP (Current US$)’. Available at
CD?page=1 (accessed 20 December 2014).
47 Interview, Paris, January 2013. Concerns surrounding the massive payments arise from the fact that
they are not traceable: in a reply to parliamentary questions in June 2013, the nance minister, Mohamed
Ali Soilih, distinguished between two parts of the bilateral agreement, one being subject to parliament’s
scrutiny, the other being in the exclusive purview of the government, as the agreement included a con-
dentiality clause.
48 ‘The head of the household will receive a passport and nationality, both called “economic documents”
[ithbâtân iqtisâdiân], whereas the children will be granted an original Comorian passport and nationality.’
al Sharhan, ‘Al Jarrah to al Jarida’. This provision, together with the one that states that bidun committing
crimes could be deported, seems to be quite new in relation to the assurance usually given to the Comori-
ans, namely that the bidun would never be residents of the islands (and thus in contradiction of the spirit
of the law in Annex I).
Torn Citizenship in Kuwait: Commodication versus Rights-Based Approaches
The Broader Trend: Naturalisation for Investors
The announcement by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Interior, if implemented ‘when the Comoros
embassy opens in Kuwait’, ought to be understood in a double context. First, just as the
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries make use of sociological categories drawn from
migration studies, such as ‘illegal migrants’, that do not precisely match the reality of the
multi-generational stateless people in their societies, they also take part in an identied
wider trend by which granting nationality – rather than citizenship49and its advantages is
used as an incentive to further the investment in a given country.
‘Economic citizenship’ is not per se a creation out of nothing. Some precedents do exist,
especially in the scal havens of the Caribbean where invested money is exempt from taxes,
as in St Kitts and Nevis and the Dominican Republic.50 The latest cases at the time of writ-
ing belong to Europe: Cyprus, Malta, Austria51 and Bulgaria (see Annex II). For example,
cash-strapped Cyprus set up a ‘scheme for naturalisation of investors in Cyprus by excep-
tion’ on 24 May 2013.52 It mainly targets non-EU residents (read: Russian investors) on
the island, who would get, through the acquisition of EU citizenship, access to the Schen-
gen Area and visa facilitation around the world in addition to free access to 160 countries.53
Nationality has become a real business: private companies such as Henley & Partners or
101 Immigration Inc. (see Annex II) specialise in advising wealthy individuals on how to
obtain several passports to ease their life and their mobility, as well as governments on how
to attract high-net-worth individuals. The idea that nationality can be bought and sold is
gaining greater currency for the selected few who can afford it.
Yet the main difference from economic citizenship in the Comoros Islands lies in the fact
that, although the scheme is designed to develop the country, those concerned in the
scheme are not applying for it willingly. ‘What is certain, is that the beneciaries of this
49 A remark ought to be made at this point: the term ‘economic citizenship’ is in fact a misnomer, as citi-
zenship implies a certain bond to a political community. The more correct word would be ‘nationality’ (the
one used in Arabic jinisyya), which sometimes tends to be equated with ofcial documents, identication
or passports.
50 Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, ‘Special Report: Passports … for a Price’, Reuters, 12 February 2012. Available
at (accessed 26 November
2014). Since 1984, St Kitts has offered so-called ‘citizenship by investment’ for a price of $250,000 (a
cash donation for the pension of retired sugar workers) or $400,000 to buy approved real estate, while the
Dominican Republic set the price at $75,000. Atossa Araxia Abrahamian ‘Passports for Sale’, Dissent Mag-
azine, autumn 2014. Available at (accessed 12 March
51 Austria requires an investment of at least $10 million to grant citizenship.
52 Available at
Document&highlight=investment (accessed 20 December 2013). The link, which provided details of the
scheme, was later disabled by the Cypriot Ministry of the Interior.
53 The granting of Cypriot nationality is in return for mixed investments (2 million) and a donation to a
state fund (0.5 million), direct investment or bank deposits of at least 5 million, a combination of the
three, or 3-year-long business activities in Cyprus with the amount paid to the state fund or in business
services in the country reaching 500,000 annually. Special provision is made for those whose deposits
with the Bank of Cyprus and the Popular Bank were impaired during the nancial crisis of March 2013.
In any case, the ‘applicant must hold a permanent privately-owned residence in the Republic of Cyprus,
the market value of which must be at least EUR 500,000’. Available at
nsf/All/0DFC69BD46FBCB89C2257BF800238148?OpenDocument&highlight=investment (accessed 20
December 2013).
32 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
citizenship are not economic partners of the government of the Comoros, as stipulated in
the law, but rather individuals who appear sometimes in the “news in brief” section of the
Gulf press’, as a well-informed source on a Comorian blog sums it up.54 This is how the
‘commodication of citizenship’ differs from the ‘purchasing of passports’ for jet-setters: it
empties out any political bond. The desubstantiation and deterritorialisation of the citizen
bond rst, but then also of the national bond, is pushed to its extreme: it is the logical result
of two decades of dissociation between the right to nationality, on the one hand, and a
generation-long place of abode and anchorage in the national community, on the other. It is
also the next step in two decades of rights deprivation, when nationality has come to mean
nothing but papers, almost in their material dimension. Moreover, the commercialisation
of nationality to buy time ofcially to eradicate claims to naturalisation ought to be set in
the Gulf context, where migrant workers can be conceived of not only as labour – that is,
through the perception of their work utility/power – but as a sheer source of revenue by the
virtue of their presence (in particular in the most extreme case of ‘free visas’55).
Finally, the Kuwaiti decision takes place in the context of a closing of GCC ranks: years
of Kuwaiti and bidun mobilisation, though leading to no solutions, had contributed to pre-
vent a certain conception of nationality being imposed top-down on the bidun, as has been
the case in the UAE.56 With the bidun uprising and the threat of a protest contagion in the
region, Kuwait seems to have aligned its approach with the UAE’s and coordinated its policy
towards statelessness with that of other GCC countries: in April 2012, Salih Fadhala toured
the GCC countries, in particular the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and ‘exchanged views over
illegal residents’.57 Coincidentally, the 9 November announcement by Sheikh Mazen came
two days after the ofcial visit of the Emir of Kuwait to the UAE. The anti-tribal discourse
and the revoking of nationality affecting opponents and naturalised people illustrated that,
more than ever, if there is such a thing in Kuwait as citizenship understood as membership in
a political community, it applies preferentially to those in the circles of power, that is, pow-
erful hadhar businessmen and non-dissenting Bedu. The rest hold only a nationality, which is
an administrative document that can be disposed of.
54 Comores-Droit, ‘La gestion opaque des fonds de la citoyenneté économique’, 21 August 2013 (translation
by the author). Available at
toyennete-economique (accessed 6 January 2014).
55 ‘Free visas’ refer to foreign labourers who are brought into the country by a sponsor (or kafeel) without
a proper work contract and left to their own devices to nd employment (on the black market), usually in
exchange for a payment to the ctitious sponsor.
56 The conditions of the arrest of the bidun blogger Ahmed Abdul Khaleq on 22 May 2012, as he was
summoned to regularise his legal status and accept a Comorian passport in exchange for his current ID,
illustrated the same administrative ascribing of identity as the Kuwaiti bidun suffered from when they were
obliged to carry identity documents stating ‘illegal resident’. See Human Rights Watch, ‘UAE : Free Blog-
ger Activist’, 28 May 2012. Available at (accessed
12 March 2015).
57 KUNA, ‘Kuwaiti Ofcial in Charge of Illegal Residents Arrives in Dubai’, 3 April 2012. Available at www. (accessed 12 March 2015).
Torn Citizenship in Kuwait: Commodication versus Rights-Based Approaches
‘Acts of Citizenship’: Visions of Kuwaiti Citizenship from Below?
On 18 February 2011, in the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising, the bidun broke away from
the methods they had used hitherto to further their cause and claim their rights. First, they
started to stage demonstrations on their own territory, in Jahra, Taima and more precisely
the destitute areas of buyut sha’biayya (popular housing) where they live at the far periphery
of Kuwait.58 This contrasted with the events organised in front of the parliament in central
Kuwait before this. Second, their relations with Kuwaiti nationals who helped in the second
half of 2000 to bring their plight into the open, formulate rights demands and clean up their
reputation – smeared by government-spread accusations of treachery during the Iraqi inva-
sion – also evolved.
This is clear when observing the bidun movement. The rst organisation that set itself the
goal of providing a platform for bidun to react to ofcial measures and policies with testimo-
nies and counter-discourse was the Popular Committee for Bidun Issues (lajnat Sha’biyya
li Qadhâ-îâ al Bidûn). Created in 2006 by Sheikha al Awrad, it enabled the bidun to try to
oppose a united front to the government and the Executive Committee. In opposition to
what they felt was a paternalist approach, bidun members of this organisation then formed
bidun-run (unregistered) societies in 2008: the Kuwaiti Bidun Gathering (the Tajammu’ al
Kuwaytiyyûn (sic) al Bidûn) and the Kuwaiti Bidun Committee (Lajnat al Kuwaytiyyûn (sic) al
Bidûn), created in February and May 2008 respectively, both emphasised in their names the
term ‘Kuwaiti’ to hammer home their belonging to Kuwait. The two groups differed in the
way they saw the priorities of the bidun struggle: while the Committee thought the granting
of rights would follow from naturalisation, the Gathering laid stress on claiming rights rst
to stop bidun suffering, leaving the issue of naturalisation for later. Both groups took part
in the bidun demonstrations, and in February 2012 were severely repressed after the bidun
movement ignored the Ministry of Interior’s ban on demonstrations. A third movement that
emerged with a completely different approach was called Muwâtinûn (‘Citizens’).
The leaders of these movements, prominently the two Abdul Karim al Fadhli’s59 and Ahmad
Attiah, are bidun from a younger generation, born in the second half of the 1970s. They
emerged as charismatic gures, articulating a new discourse on citizenship; they fear no gov-
ernment threat and in particular they do not fear being sentenced to jail. Distanced from
the approach of the human rights discourse and also in disagreement with a new Kuwaiti-
run campaign, Group 29,60 which targets the gradual restitution of conscated rights through
the recognition of the stateless status of biduns, they aim at fully edged naturalisation for
all. They resent the role of intermediary between themselves and the international organisa-
tions that is played by Kuwaitis, who speak just enough human rights language both to satisfy
their international interlocutors and not to jeopardise the interests of their own government.61
58 Claire Beaugrand, ‘Urban Margins in Kuwait and Bahrain: Decay, Dispossession, and Politicization’, City
18/6 (2014), pp. 807–17.
59 The two hold the same name: both born in 1976, one is a dentist, trained in Ukraine, while the other
studies automotive engineering in a local institute for industry and is employed by Volvo.
60 Group 29 was formed by six Kuwaiti women from the middle and upper classes who, as part of the ght
against what they see as a ‘racist’ Kuwaiti society, want to improve the conditions of bidun. The number
‘29’ refers to the article of the 1962 Constitution that states: ‘All people are equal in human dignity, and in
public rights and duties before the law, without distinction as to race, origin, language or religion.’ Inter-
view, Kuwait, 16 April 2014.
61 Interview with Mona Kareem, 15 January 2014.
34 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
‘We operate underground, as intellectuals’, states Abdul Karim al Fadhli.62 The claims of
Muwâtinûn are non-negotiable: they articulate a new discourse that they know is a complete
rupture with the prevailing conception of citizenship in Kuwait. According to Dr Abdul
Karim al Fadhli, multilingual and possessing a dentist’s diploma: ‘nationality is different
from identity. I don’t need documents from the state to ascertain my identity; your real
identity is your competencies. Education is the element that will reverse the given order/
In that sense, Muwâtinûn performs ‘acts of citizenship’ as dened by Isin and Nielsen, who
distance themselves from the earlier focus on legal status and the practices that this status
enables, and concentrate on the ‘deed’ itself:
To investigate citizenship in a way that is irreducible to either status or practice,
while still valuing this distinction, requires a focus on those acts when, regardless of
status and substance, subjects constitute themselves as citizens or, better still, as
those to whom the right to have rights is due. But the focus shifts from subjects as
such to acts (or deeds) that produce such subjects.64
The new conception of citizenship constituted ‘acts of citizenship’ that broke with pas-
sive citizenship practices such as voting or participating in wealth allocation and asserted
itself outside of the multiple networks of authority. Among the few educated bidun activists,
debates are indeed going on about how to conceive of citizenship: the majority of the bidun
throughout the protests have, for instance, been exhibiting portraits of the Emir and symbols
of the Emirate, partly to prove their loyalty, partly to disarm criticism and suspicion of foreign
inuence. For some bidun, this illustrates the lack of multicultural understanding of citizen-
ship interiorised by the bidun themselves, who feel that even with their most radical claims to
outright naturalisation, they have to mould themselves into the model of the hadhar Kuwaitis,
look like them, behave like them and talk like them – that is, more Najdi than Iraqi. As a
matter of fact, the internalisation of a stigmatised origin in northern Arabia or, say, southern
Iraq is still very prevalent, and does not leave any room for a diversity of origin.65
By exploring different ways in which the solution to the conundrum of statelessness is being
thought about in Kuwait, this paper has identied irreconcilable conceptions of citizenship,
a fact inherent to the notion of citizenship itself. On the one hand, a mercantile approach
almost equates citizenship with a commercial value. Those sharing in the business with
the state’s blessing are the ones most entitled to participate in ruling the country’s affairs,
while those who are excluded from it and, in that sense, closer to foreign temporary labour
are seen through the prism of their economic utility. The engineering of an ‘economic cit-
izenship’ twisted the existing practice of providing naturalisation’s advantages in order to
attract foreign money to a country by providing tax exemptions and/or mobility and access:
in the case of Comorian nationality, the practice is tantamount to ascribing a national bond
62 Interview, Kuwait, 18 April 2014.
63 Ibid.
64 Engin F. Isin and Greg M. Nielsen, Introduction’, in Isin and Nielsen, Acts of Citizenship, pp. 1–12 at p. 2.
65 I am grateful to Mona Kareem for discussing this point with me in an early draft.
Torn Citizenship in Kuwait: Commodication versus Rights-Based Approaches
that desubstantiates and deterritorialises the citizenship bond to make it purely formal and
material (that is, a passport). In the face of the stalemate and the commodication process,
bidun reacted with an assertion of their own subjectivity and agency through acts that dra-
matically ruptured the state-imposed process of naturalisation in the hands of the Central
System. What emerges from the decades-long bidun stigmatisation process is the realisation,
albeit in its infancy, of the denial of the transnational foundations of the Kuwaiti population,
or in other words, an illusory narrative of urban origin mixed with noble Najdi human inputs.
In the gap, in between, some Kuwaiti activists, cutting across social groups, timidly join if
not necessarily in this awakening then in the rejection of the too business-minded concep-
tions of the elite, and hence themselves enact a different kind of citizenship.
36 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Dr James Sater is an Associate Professor in the Department of International Studies at the American
University of Sharjah. In 2012-13, he was Guest Professor at the Centre for Contemporary Middle East
Studies at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. Fluent in French, he has worked on state-civil
society relations in North Africa, women’s rights movements and parliamentarians, political parties, public
opinion and the process of democratisation. He now works on questions of citizenship, secularism, and
constitutionalism in North Africa.
Constitutionalism is commonly dened, following Carl Friedrich, as a principle of govern-
ment based on constraint in which liberal-democratic rules are applied using principles of
rule of law.1 In this sense, rule of law and constitutionalism can be used as synonyms. As
Michel Rosenfeld, editor of the International Journal of Constitutional Law, notes, ‘modern con-
stitutionalism requires imposing limits on the powers of government, adherence to the rule
of law, and the protection of fundamental rights’.2 The latter denition overlaps with T. H.
Marshall’s famous distinction of three types of citizenship rights, civil, political and positive,
that constitutional states set out to protect and, in the case of positive rights, to guarantee.3
Consequently, while citizenship is a much broader concept than constitutionalism, a legal
approach to citizenship rights as civil rights (corresponding to the German Staatsbürgerrecht)
corresponds to the practice of rule of law and constitutionalism.
Drawing on this analytical perspective, this paper aims to discuss the theory and practice
of constitutionalism in three North African countries: Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. This
paper addresses a common lacuna in Middle East citizenship studies. Many studies have
successfully uncovered substantive and legal mechanisms of exclusion within Middle East
populations according to gender, sect and ethnicity.4 In addition, the opposition of group
rights and individual rights has been thoroughly examined with regard to religion and
1 Carl J. Friedrich, Constitutional Government and Democracy: Theory and Practice in Europe and America (Boston:
Ginn, 1950), pp. 25–8.
2 Michel Rosenfeld, Constitutionalism, Identity, Difference, and Legitimacy: Theoretical Perspectives (Durham, NC:
Duke University Press, 1994), p. 3.
3 T. H. Marshall, Class, Citizenship and Social Development (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1950/1973).
4 Nils Butenschon, Uri Davis and Manuel Hassassian (eds), Citizenship and the State in the Middle East (Syra-
cuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000).
Constitutionalism and Transitions in North Africa: Analys-
ing Conicts between Legal and Extra-Legal Sources of
Constitutional Rights
James N. Sater
Constitutionalism and Transitions in North Africa
patriarchal Middle Eastern culture.5 The democratisation literature has in turn largely
focused on the political processes that enabled or challenged authoritarian rule since the
Yet what studies have failed to address is how trust (or the lack thereof) in the legal pro-
tection of citizenship rights qua constitutionalism has provided an important societal
perspective on why in North Africa constitutionalism appears to succeed in some countries,
yet not in others.
The core of this analytical perspective can be summarised in the following three points:
rst, the successful protection of rights through constitutionalism requires the existence of
people’s trust in the constitution to be a powerful institution and not just a piece of paper.
Second, such trust can be affective, cognitive or a combination of both.6 While affective trust
is based on an unconscious worldview and emotions, cognitive trust is based on rationalised
experiences. This means that the history of constitutionalism and people’s experience with
their system of government is an important factor to be analysed following a rational choice
model of trust. Clearly, though, affective trust plays an additional important role that can
also be examined through ethnographic or anthropological means.7 Third, while trust in
the constitution as an institution together with judicial independence can be considered
a judicial source of trust, there may be rival sources of both cognitive and affective origins
that can be considered extra-judicial and extra-constitutional and informed by traditional or
religious practices. As Thornhill points out with regard to the doctrine of constituent power,
in classical liberal theory it has been constituent power that ‘forms an original and pre-legal
wellspring for legitimate political order’.8 This means that in successful constitutionalism,
an extra-judicial, pre-legal source of trust is institutionalised in an assembly and legitimated
through universal suffrage. In short, constitutions themselves rely on pre-legal norms, worl-
dviews and stable patterns of behaviour that rival other pre-legal norms that have the ability
to render constitutionalism unstable.
Consequently, focusing on the recent constitutional transitions in Tunisia, Egypt and
Morocco, this paper attempts to examine such pre-legal trust in constitutional principles
and the institutions endowed with trust to control and protect citizenship rights, regardless
of political majorities and precise constitutional provisions. In analysing these beliefs and
these institutions, this paper will examine the following two interrelated hypotheses. First, I
will suggest that trust in constitutions to do what constitutionalism promises – that is, to pro-
tect individual rights – is in tension with trust in extra-constitutional institutions. Second,
considering the recent experiences of these countries with illiberal legality and a lack of
constitutionalism, there is little reason to believe that a belief in constitutionalism will at
any time soon replace mistrust in state elites and trust in extra-constitutional institutions.
5 Hisham Sharabi, Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
6 Frank B. Cross, ‘Law and Trust’, Georgetown Law Journal 83/5 (2005), pp. 1457–1546 at pp. 1463–71.
7 Hussein Ali Agrama, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt (Chicago
and London: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
8 Chris Thornhill, ‘Contemporary Constitutionalism and the Dialectic of Constituent Power’, Global Con-
stitutionalism 1/3 (2012), pp. 369–404 at p. 369.
38 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
These hypotheses are part of what can be called the transition literature and constitute
one of the core problems that O’Donnell and Schmitter emphasised with regard to political
transitions in Latin America in the 1980s. The uncertainties surrounding transitions from
authoritarian rule make it very difcult to predict which actors gain the upper hand. Accord-
ing to O’Donnel and Schmitter, this is because periods of ‘order’ which characterise the
high point of authoritarian rule are contrasted with the uncertainty and indirection implied
in movements away from such a state. Hence, the perceived ‘disorder’’ can easily lead to
feelings of nostalgia9 and thereby reinforce not only authoritarian tendencies, but also tradi-
tional identities. Adopting this perspective, I will argue that questions of constitutionalism
and citizenship are strongly rooted in the broader uncertainties inherent in these countries’
current transitions.
Comparing Egypt with Tunisia and Morocco for the purpose of extra-legal sources of (cog-
nitive and affective) trust poses particular challenges. The particular historical and political
contexts make the data-collection process for the purpose of exact comparisons difcult.
While I have been able to include one survey on trust in political institutions for Morocco,
the same data is not available for Egypt and Tunisia. As the paper focuses on the perceived
absence of credible institutions able to protect citizenship rights, an analysis of these insti-
tutions shows that they vary greatly.
The second problem occurs with respect to how to distinguish effectively between legal
and extra-legal sources of trust. Following Thornhill,10 the pre-legal constituent powers are
as extra-legal as, for example, religious doctrines or charisma. While the argument outlined
here does not attempt to solve this problem, it uses one criterion: number and expressed
consensus among actors that make reference to constitutional rule and secular laws. The
constitutional practices in Tunisia and Morocco since 2011 illustrate an increasing number
of actors and institutions that are perceived to be united and capable of ensuring citizenship
rights qua constitutional rule, while such actors have been remarkably divided in Egypt.
The reason for such divisions and differences will be traced back in the main body of the
paper, drawing on recent political history using the comparative method. Yet, given the con-
straints of space, this method runs the risk of overly simplifying some of the more complex
processes. To avoid some of these pitfalls, the paper emphasises the role of the judiciary.
The Limited Nature of Constitutionalism in North Africa
From the outset, it must be pointed out that constitutionalism as briey outlined in this
introduction has been very limited in North Africa. Post-independence regimes found their
legitimacy in part based on the legitimacy of independence movements (the National Lib-
eration Front (FLN) in Algeria, the Neo-Destour Party in Tunisia, the Istiqlal Party in
Morocco) and the charismatic and traditional-religious qualities of their leaders. Gamal Abdel
Nasser, Habib Bourguiba and King Mohamed V all serve as excellent examples in this respect.
9 Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions
about Uncertain Democracies (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), p. 4.
10 Thornhill, ‘Contemporary Constitutionalism’, p. 369.
Constitutionalism and Transitions in North Africa
In the case of Algeria, revolutionary ideology replaced constitutionalism so that the 1963
constitution only served to cement FLN single-party rule and disguise military rule.
Similarly, Morocco’s 1961 constitution cemented the traditional-religious and increasingly
authoritarian regime, rather than serving the purpose of constitutionalism as dened above.
For example, Article 24 of the post-1970 constitutions outlawed any criticism of the King.
Given the King’s religious character, this meant that any such criticism became both a
sacrilege and an anti-constitutional, secular offence. In Morocco, this change proved not
to be enough either in 1965, the same year that Houari Boumedienne suspended the
Algerian constitution, the King suspended Morocco’s constitution. The parliament was also
suspended and re-elected in 1970, leading to an increasingly docile political elite.11 The
new 1970 constitution further centralised and restricted citizenship rights and signicantly
diminished the prospects for constitutionalism.12
In Egypt, Nasser’s post-1952 single-party regime largely based its legitimacy on the army,
pan-Arabism and Arab socialism, all embodied by the charismatic young Gamal Abdel
Nasser. A 1952 executive decree annulled the constitution; 20 prominent members of
Majlis al Da’wa, Egypt’s supreme administrative court, were forced to retire or transferred
to non-judicial positions; and one of Egypt’s most prominent legal scholars, Abdel Raziq al
Sanhuri, was even physically beaten by pro-regime thugs in 1954. Law served as an instru-
ment to increase the power of the regime by creating extra-constitutional, ‘special’ courts
including the Mahkmat al Ghadr (‘Court of Treason’), Mahkmat al Thawra (‘Court of the
Revolution’) and Mahakim al Sha'b (‘People’s Courts’).13 This became even more important
when the legitimacy of the regime based on pan-Arabism and socialism faltered as a result
of Sadat’s intah policy,14 exemplied by the extensive use of the State Security Court and
parallel military courts.15
In Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba used the law extensively as a tool of social transformation and
for the promotion of citizenship, best illustrated in the 1956 Personal Status Code. His
successor Ben Ali used the constitution for a coup d’état in 1987. Both aspects illustrate the
use of laws for the promotion of citizenship and for the political manoeuvres of regime lead-
ers. In the case of Tunisia, it is worth pointing out that Tunisia prides itself on having the
region’s oldest constitution (Fundamental Pact of 1857), and that its independence move-
ment, quite signicantly, called for a reinstitution of its constitution as a way of obtaining
independence from French colonial rule, and consequently named itself Destour (‘Consti-
tution’) Party. Yet paralleling Nasserist Egypt, the rule of Bourguiba has most often been
equated with populism and affective trust – given his charismatic abilities.16
11 John Waterbury, The Commander of the Faithful: The Moroccan Political Elite (London: Weidenfeld and Nic-
olson, 1970).
12 James N. Sater, ‘Reforming the Rule of Law in Morocco: Multiple Meanings and Problematic Realities’,
Mediterranean Politics 13/2 (2009), pp. 181–93.
13 Tamir Moustafa, ‘Law versus the State: The Judicialization of Politics in Egypt’, Law and Social Inquiry
28/4 (2003), pp. 883–930 at p. 888.
14 Fouad Ajami, ‘The End of Pan-Arabism’, Foreign Policy 57/2 (1978–9), pp. 355–73.
15 Anoush Ehteshami and Emma Murphy, ‘Transformation of the Corporatist State in the Middle East,’
Third World Quarterly 17/4 (1996), pp. 753–72.
16 Nazih Ayubi, Over-Stating the Arab State (London: I.B. Tauris, 1995).
40 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Extra-Judicial Sources of Trust in North Africa
From this overview, it appears that belief in protection from the state by constitutional
principles (and the guarantee of rights through the state) has been negatively shaped by the
post-colonial experiences with constitutionalism. If anything, the region witnessed the rise
of what has been termed illiberal legality,17 which has been marked by the state’s use of the
concept of legality in order to legitimise authoritarian rule. Given this situation, these coun-
tries’ recent political history has witnessed the rise of political groups that made reference
to extra-judicial sources of trust in order to instil protection from state authorities couched
in moral and Islamic terms. As Brown points out, principles of shari’a law can be read, on that
telling, as a source mandating rm limits on state law, given that these enable individuals
to evaluate state practices from a religious perspective.18 The rise of Islamic groups since
the late 1970s that make reference to extra-juridical sources of legislation – such as those
derived from divine sources – has been particularly virulent in countries that made reference
to nationalist republicanism. During the same period, the Middle East has also seen the rise
of closed, military-national forms of republicanism based on esprit de corps and ‘asabiyya that
rely on extra-judicial sources trust that equally limit state power. Both tendencies pursued
a form of constitutionalism that emphasises group and group rights above the individual,
corresponding to strong community values prevalent in these tribal societies.19 Not related
to trust, yet another limitation on state power has been the rather radical option of leaving.
Leaving the territory was the most prevalent form of resisting the state’s intrusion in the
medieval Islamic world and continued with the mass migration movements of the twenti-
eth century.20 This has led to the mosaic of ethnic and sectarian groups prevalent in many
Middle Eastern states that has continued intra-regionally and across continents over the last
Apart from the radical form of exit, cognitive trust in the political system is the only source
for stable state–society relations and support for constitutionalism. Without it constitu-
tionalism can quickly become weak, as political majorities may always be suspected of
undermining the rights of political minorities, that is, using the instruments of the law
and the power of the majority against political minorities and political opponents. As Ayubi
points out, this has been a crucial ingredient of the politics of the Middle East due to the
importance of kin-ordered sources of power in capitalist systems of wealth creation respon-
sible for the establishment of neo-patrimonial state–society relations.21 In other words,
affective trust embedded in kin-ordered societal structures can quickly become a surrogate
if cognitive trust in institutions is absent, further undermining any potential for stable legal-
ity as a source of trust.22
17 Nathan Brown, Rule of Law in the Arab World: Courts in Egypt and the Gulf (London and New York: Cam-
bridge University Press, 1997), p. 10.
18 Ibid.
19 Frederic Volpi, ‘Pseudo-Democracy in the Muslim World’, Third World Quaterly 25/6 (2004), pp. 1061–78
at p. 1065.
20 Ellis Goldberg, ‘Private Goods, Public Wrongs, and Civil Society in Some Medieval Arab Theory and
Practice’, in Ellis Goldberg, Resat Kasaba and Joel S. Migda (eds), Rules and Rights in the Middle East (Seattle
and London: University of Washington Press, 1993), pp. 248–71.
21 Ayubi, Over-Stating the Arab State, pp. 164–255.
22 Sharabi, Neopatriarchy.
Constitutionalism and Transitions in North Africa
Finally, tied to the discussion of shari’a, another extra-juridical source of trust is religion.
The piety among Middle Eastern Muslims has translated in many countries into religious
leaders playing an unequivocal political role, from the Shi’a clerics in Lebanon and Iran to
the revolutionary imams in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. In the case of Morocco
and Algeria, religious leaders have traditionally been involved in founding brotherhoods and
tribal confederations, taraqa, that combined religious authority and secular rule.23 In modern
Morocco, religious leaders have often been strongly involved in the nationalist parties, such
as Allal al Fassi in the Istiqlal Party. In most Arab countries, religion provided an important
source of mobilisation in the anti-colonial struggle, combining ideas of jihad with martyrdom
in a variety of contexts.24 Even apparently secular regimes such as those of Tunisia and Syria
have often pursued policies of Islamisation that have moved them away from laicité25 and
secular Ba’thism respectively.26
Trust and Constitutionalism in Post-Independence Tunisia, Egypt
and Morocco
The prospects for constitutionalism are probably the best in Tunisia of all the countries in
the Middle East. There are some historical reasons that lead to this assessment. As men-
tioned above, Tunisia had its rst constitution drafted in 1857, and the belief in legality
and constitutionalism was such that it became a key mobiliser in the struggle for indepen-
dence from the French. In fact, as we have seen, the nationalist movement’s name derived
from ‘constitution’: the Destour Party. It drafted a platform consisting of nine demands,
which are all core demands of citizenship and constitutionalism and included, amongst
others, universal suffrage and representation, separation of powers, and equal legal rights
for all Tunisians (that is, French and native Tunisians) irrespective of national origins. The
Destour Party comprised the more secular young Tunisians’ movements together with the
religious-conservative Old Turban movement centred on the cleric Sheikh Abd-al Aziz
Taalbi, who wrote the famous pamphlet La Tunisie Martyre in 1920.27 During the struggle for
independence, the call for the inclusion and representation of all Tunisians was initiated by
step-by-step constitutional reforms from 1950 to 1955 that eventually led to the indepen-
dence of Tunisia in 1956.28 The leader of the independence movement, Habib Bourguiba,
was a French-trained lawyer and a keen moderniser who took advantage of the state’s legal
and constitutional powers.
Consequently, the social basis for trust in constitutional changes and their real impact on
the political sphere was very well developed, and continued under Habib Bourguiba in the
23 Rahma Bourquia and Susan G. Miller, In the Shadow of the Sultan: Culture, Power and Politics in Morocco (Cam-
bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
24 Thomas P. DeGeorges, ‘The Social Construction of the Tunisian Revolutionary Martyr in the Media and
Popular Perception’, Journal of North African Studies 18/3 (2013), pp. 484–6.
25 Rikke Hostrup Haugbølle and Francesco Cavatorta, ‘Beyond Ghannouchi: Islamism and Social Change
in Tunisia’, Middle East Report 262 (2013), pp. 20–5.
26 Line Khatib, Islamic Revivalism in Syria: The Rise and Fall of Ba’thist Secularism (Abingdon and New York:
Routledge, 2011).
27 Benjamin Rivlin, ‘The Tunisian Nationalist Movement: Four Decades of Evolution’, Middle East Journal
6/2 (1952), pp. 167–93 at p. 169.
28 Ibid., pp. 179–80.
42 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
famous 1956 Personal Status Code (CSP).29 Here, the law was used to make fundamental
changes in the way that Tunisian women became secular, legal citizens, primarily by outlaw-
ing polygamy and giving equal access to divorce and other administrative processes. While
Islam continued to be the religion of state, its judicial impact has been greatly reduced. The
abolition of religious family courts in favour of the CSP, as well as the abolition/integration
of the Islamic Zitouna University into the regular system of higher education under the
auspices of the state, all served this purpose. While such reforms were meant to strengthen
the primacy of law and therefore the state, Bourguiba’s personalised rule and increasingly
arbitrary decision-making with regard to his main challengers in the early 1980s, the rising
Islamic Tendency Movement led by Rached Ghannoushi, led to political instability.
In fact, while the underlying problems during that period were linked to the 1984 austerity
measures sponsored by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to demographic changes,
unemployment and persistently postponed political pluralism, the state’s legal system was
undermined by two rival sources of extra-juridical trust – personalised rule and religious
piety. This was evidenced by the precipitating cause of the 1987 coup that ended the Bour-
guiba era: this was Bourguiba’s ordering of a retrial of, and the imposition of the death
penalty on, a number of Islamists who were previously charged with planning to overthrow
the regime. He had done so because of his belief in the apparent leniency with which the
State Security Court had handed down prison sentences to the accused, as it failed to pro-
vide sufcient evidence for their subversive activities. Consequently, the political situation
became so unstable that Bourguiba’s prime minister, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, instigated the
7 November ‘constitutional coup’ in which he acted according to Article 57 by obtaining
from four independent medical doctors a certicate asserting the incumbent president’s
inability to full his ofcial duties. In line with the constitution, Ben Ali would act as an
interim president until 1989, when he stood for re-election.
In his rst presidential address, Ben Ali promised a revision of the constitution with regard
to the clause of lifetime presidency, whilst also strengthening the sanctity of legal proce-
dures in a direct response to Bourguiba’s recent arbitrary interventions in the legal system.30
In other words, Ben Ali promised and acted upon the idea of a revival of constitutionalism
– an important part of his legitimacy when he won the 1989 parliamentary and presidential
election by a landslide, something that observers referred to as ‘L’Effet Ben Ali’.31 In line
with such constitutional practices, it may also be pointed out that the interim president
after Ben Ali’s departure was designated in line with Article 57 of the Constitution – Fouad
Mebazaa, who held ofce until the rst free and fair election of October 2011. In fact,
Murphy optimistically asserts that Mebazaa’s appointment was a critical moment in Tuni-
sia’s transition: ‘Rather than succumbing to either a battle over the carcass of power by
senior regime gures, a military coup or revolutionary chaos, Tunisian politics had reverted
to what it has historically known best – constitutionalism.’32
29 Laurie A. Brand, Women, the State, and Political Liberalization: Middle Eastern and North African Experiences
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp. 177–201.
30 L. B. Ware, ‘Ben Ali’s Constitutional Coup in Tunisia’, Middle East Journal 42/4 (1988), pp. 587–601.
31 Emma C. Murphy, ‘Women in Tunisia: Between State Feminism and Economic Reform’, in Eleanor
Abdella Doumato and Marsha Pripstein Posusney (eds), Women and Globalization in the Arab Middle East
(Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2003), pp. 169–93. Emma C. Murphy, Economic and Political Change in Tunisia:
From Bourgiba to Ben Ali (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999).
32 Emma C. Murphy, ‘The Tunisian Elections of October 2011: A Democratic Consensus’, Journal of North
African Studies 18/2 (2013), pp. 231–47 at p. 232.
Constitutionalism and Transitions in North Africa
In spite of such positive assessments, the revolutionary pressure on the protagonists,
Mohamed Ghannoushi and Fouad Mebaaza, expressed a strong sense of mistrust: the fear
was that the political elite would reproduce the old political nomenclature from inside the
single-party regime that Ben Ali created. After all, the previous 20 years had seen a centrali-
sation of political power inside the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) and around the
Ben Ali clan, including his wife Leila Trabelsi, which Tunisians referred to as their royal
families. In addition, Ben Ali’s ruthless rule through the secret police after 1990 had left a
strong reminder that politicians may be easily tempted to use the coercive apparatus of the
state to secure their positions of power. Ben Ali had also used constitutionalism as a way of
cementing his own claims to leadership. After all, he organised the country’s only consti-
tutional referendum in 2002, which changed the presidential term limit to three terms, a
limitation that was ironically imposed by Ben Ali himself after his disposal of Bourguiba as
part of his 1988 National Pact.
Egypt’s post-1952 history may stand in strong contrast to that of Tunisia. In the revolution
that brought down King Farouk, the Free Ofcer Movement led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and
Mohamed Naguib ruled on the basis of their core objectives, which may be loosely described
as Egyptian nationalism: anti-colonialism, campaigns to free Egypt from (indirect) British
rule, and campaigns against the corruption that was characteristic of the ancien régime under
the monarchy. Constitutionalism was far from part of these objectives. Parliamentarianism
was blamed for the lack of the unity that was required to ght for Egyptian national objec-
tives.33 The early focus on independence, nationalism and redistribution through collective
army rule was perceived to be successful in the light of the outcome of the Suez crisis of
1956, making Nasser the undisputed leader of the Egyptian people and, arguably, the Arab
world towards the end of the 1950s.
Moreover, Egypt was signicantly less secular than Tunisia – after all, the Muslim Brother-
hood was an important ally in the 1952 revolution and only turned against the Free Ofcer
Movement once its political ambitions were rejected by Nasser. Nasser’s Arab Socialism
was also inuenced by his anti-communism, due in part to communist emphasis on athe-
ism. Consequently, Islamic sources of legislation in family law were preserved, and Islamic
fatwa councils, together with shari’a-based family courts, remained bastions in which one
of Islam’s most prestigious centres of Islamic learning, the al Azhar Mosque, continued to
exercise inuence. Under Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian constitution ele-
vated shari’a to the principal source of legislation – a change from the more general phrase
that it was a principal source of legislation which was included in the 1971 constitution.
This change was a reection of the growing tide of Islamic conservatism across the Middle
East. Yet it was also a tactical move to pass a second constitutional change that was closer to
the president’s heart in 1980: abolishing term limitations on presidents.34
The manipulation of constitutional texts led to an increasing role for shari’a in jurispru-
dence, made possible through the rise of political Islam in all echelons of Egyptian
society throughout the 1980s. In Egypt, a blurring of the lines of secularism and Islamic
jurisprudence occurred, so that by 1995 a secular court used the shari’a obligation of hisba
33 Peter Manseld, ‘Nasser and Nasserism’, International Journal 28/4 (1973), pp. 670–88.
34 Mohamed Abdelaal, ‘Religious Constitutionalism in Egypt: A Case Study’, Fletcher Forum of World Affairs
37/1 (2013), pp. 35– 51 at pp. 36–7.
44 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
‘the commanding of the good when it is manifestly neglected; forbidding of the evil when its
practice is manifest’35 – in order to deny a University of Cairo university professor promotion
and annul his marriage on the basis of his academic writings, which allegedly amounted to
apostasy from Islam. With the legal profession increasingly counting more religious and Isla-
mist lawyers among its numbers, Agrama observed an increased ‘secularization of religious
concepts’ as well as ‘the subversion of secular legal precepts’.36
Consequently, extra-juridical sources of trust have been very strongly institutionalised in
the post-1952 Egyptian state in two rival camps. On one hand, the army has been a core
institution manifesting a strong esprit de corps that guaranteed Egypt’s independence from
Britain, and, arguably, from the expansionist tendencies of the Israeli state. On the other, a
rival, extra-juridical source of trust has taken hold, based on Islamic institutions. The con-
stitutional make-up of Egypt largely reected those two sources of trust. It may be added
that trust was not simply affective, but underpinned by socioeconomic patronage that both
the religious sector, through the Muslim Brotherhood’s charity activities that involve hos-
pitals and schools, and the military sector, through the army’s strong inuence over large
sectors of the economy, have been developing over the last decades. Given those two strong
inuences, trust in constitutionalism and the juridical institution to protect it can be con-
sidered low, in spite of the very apparent increasing constitutional review capacities that
the Egyptian judiciary, through the Supreme Constitutional Council (SCC), expressed.37
In fact, even if the SCC became an independent and quite vocal institution throughout
the 1980s and 1990s, leading to more electoral accountability, it appeared that it had only
been tolerated as long as it was economically useful for the state. Its fortunes signicantly
reversed when this was no longer the case in the 2000s. This tendency became clear when
in 2000 the new head of the SCC was no longer elected from within its own ranks, a tacit
understanding since its creation in 1979, but rather appointed by Mubarak. In fact, the
appointment of the hard-line minister of justice Fathi Naguib heralded a process of decreas-
ing the SCC’s independence in the constitutional review process.38
Morocco’s post-independence institutions are remarkably different from those of Egypt and
Tunisia. In contrast to both those countries, Morocco’s pre-eminent monarchical institution
has survived the turbulent post-independence period. This was partially because the inde-
pendence movement, organised primarily in the Istiqlal Party, used the return of the King’s
sovereign powers as a key mobiliser for Moroccan independence from French colonial rule.
The monarch’s extensive religious credentials as Amir al Muminin meant that trust in reli-
gious courts extended to the secular state, as the King oversaw the administration of justice
through juridical appointments and, if necessary, intervention. The country’s pre-eminent
religious institution, the Qarawiyyin of Fes, has continuously held an inuential position by
having its graduates recruited into the Ministry of Interior. In addition, its status has been
recognised as independent in 1962 after the Ministry of Education tried to incorporate it
into its system of higher education. The institution called League of Moroccan ulema has
been an important political organisation through which mainstream members of the ulema
were granted a privileged position in exchange for their support for the notion of a sacred
35 Cited in Agrama, Questioning Secularism, p. 19.
36 Ibid., p. 21.
37 Chibli Mallat, Introduction to Middle Eastern Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 196–210.
38 Moustafa, ‘Law versus the State’.
Constitutionalism and Transitions in North Africa
sultan-king. This doctrine, consecrated in the 1962 constitution and maintained ever since,
has been controversial among orthodox ulema, and more in line with traditional forms of
Islam in the Moroccan countryside.39
Consequently, the religious monopoly of the King has become institutionalised through the
state and embedded in traditional, popular practices, such as the slaughtering of the ram
during Eid el Kebir. This coincided with the pluralisation of the political elite into rival
political parties up until the late 1990s, organised around opposition parties that emanated
from the nationalist movement Istiqlal Party, and administrative and rural parties whose
creation the King’s advisors often encouraged. This partially reected regional and socioeco-
nomic conicts between cities and countryside, as well as tensions along Berber–Arab lines
and tribal lineage. In 1962 the King’s response to criticism concerning his large constitu-
tional prerogatives is indicative of the semantic strategy and the monarchy’s emotional and
cognitive trust–building exercise.
The constitution makes of Us an arbiter […] I am certain that many have said ‘The
powers of the King are enormous’ […] I would say to them, to take a very simple
example: ‘Imagine two football teams on a eld, take away from the referee the
power to whistle out and expulse a player, and then gentlemen, play.’ The problem
is very simple, and thus is it posed.40
Consequently, authoritarian structures were legitimised with reference to the centrifugal
forces inside the country that would otherwise threaten the very existence of the Moroccan
state. Multi-party politics and splits between political groups were therefore encouraged in
order to illustrate the monarchy’s unifying properties.
Throughout Morocco’s post-independence period, the monarchy’s unifying qualities have
been evident, as in its call for the Green March of 1975 that solidied Moroccan claims
to Western Sahara. When political opponents to Hassan II, the heir to the throne after
Mohamed V’s early death in 1960, accepted the monarch’s unquestionable position above
political squabbles, they were allowed to participate and form various governments.
Democratisation has therefore become synonymous with free and fair elections that led to
alternating governments and were distinctively different from the monarchical institution
that guaranteed national unity and Islamic supervision.
This view has constantly been reinforced by the idea of rule of law and constitutionalism.
In fact, in Moroccan parlance rule of law has had a particular authoritarian meaning derived
from siyadat al qanun, namely that nobody is above the law and everybody is the subject of
the King’s sovereign powers. Yet, given the King’s religious credentials, it has been particu-
larly important that his rule was being viewed as just – given the Islamic importance of the
concept of justice, ‘adala. Therefore the minister of justice had up until the 2002 election
been appointed not from any of the political parties, but rather from within the circle of
loyal monarchists, called the makhzen. Important legal reforms, such as that of reforming the
family code, moudawana, have been endorsed by the King with explicit reference to render-
39 James N. Sater , Morocco: Challenges to Tradition and Modernity (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2010),
pp. 44–6.
40 Cited in Waterbury, Commander of the Faithful, p. 146 n. 8.
46 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
ing more justice to women.41 Also, due to the King’s oversight and religious function, he has
repeatedly repealed particularly harsh prison sentences that the judges have handed out,
such as those of Ali Lmbrabet (editor of Demain) and Fouad Mourtada (who created a fake
Facebook prole of the King’s younger brother Moulay Rachid). This meant that the King’s
role has been that of rectifying the mistakes of the system of justice, creating a rule of law
à la marocaine.42 This has been all the more prominent due to the King’s enormous political
and legal reform agenda – especially in the area of human rights, which in 2005 saw North
Africa’s rst Equity and Reconciliation Commission.
The success of this paradigm of rule of law has been quite remarkable. In a survey in four
towns – Fes, Meknes, Rabat and Casablanca – among 1,114 randomly selected individuals,
conducted by al Akhawayn University in Ifrane in 2007 prior to the legislative elections,
trust in various institutions was measured (Table 1). While the precision of the measure-
ment indicated is not to be overestimated, a tendency to value those institutions with a
stronger connection to the King, such as the army and the religious institutions, is stronger
than the trust that political parties are endowed with.43 This distrust is not just based on
affective trust, as the monarch’s relationship to religion may indicate, but is also cognitive:
in an exit poll survey in 2007 in Casablanca, 44 per cent of voters reported having been
offered money in exchange for their vote. In turn, corruption charges are very well known at
the local level and often involve local politicians.44
Table 1 Trust in Moroccan political institutions
‘I am going to read you a list of institutions in our country. As I read each one, please tell me whether you
have a great deal of trust, a fair amount of trust, only a little trust, or no trust at all in the institution to deal
responsibly with the problem.’
Great deal
of trust
A fair
amount of
Total trust Only a little
No trust
at all
Total no
Army 58% 14% 72% 5% 11% 16%
Religious authorities 44% 23% 67% 8% 13% 21%
Police 33% 27% 60% 11% 23% 34%
Government 21% 31% 52% 14% 28% 42%
Courts 23% 27% 50% 14% 23% 37%
Tribes and clans 14% 19% 33% 15% 43% 58%
Political parties 7% 17% 24% 12% 49% 61%
Source: Cited in Sater, ‘Reforming the Rule of Law in Morocco’, p. 398 n. 43.
41 James N. Sater , ‘Reserve Seats, Patriarchy and Patronage in Morocco’, in Jennifer Piscopo and Mona L.
Krook (eds), The Impact of Gender Quotas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 72–87.
42 Sater, ‘Reforming the Rule of Law in Morocco’, p. 187.
43 James N. Sater , ‘Elections and Authoritarian Rule in Morocco’, Middle East Journal 63/3 (2009), pp.
44 Saloua Zerhouni and Abdelaziz Baboussa, ‘Le marketing politique face aux réalités électorales’, Economia:
La Revue Sociale Économique et Managériale 1 (November 2007–February 2008), , pp. 48–71 at p. 67.
Constitutionalism and Transitions in North Africa
The Moroccan case reveals interesting nuances in the way that extra-judicial trust is
expressed. First, as in Egypt, trust in extra-judicial institutions is quite high, and the
belief in constitutionalism understood as majoritarianism and the secular political process
is viewed with a lot of scepticism. In fact, it appears that neither political parties nor the
fragmented clan and tribal structures are trusted to protect the individual from the state.
In turn, religious authorities and the King’s personality are endowed with signicantly more
trust, based on his perceived position as a referee (arbitrator) that structures Moroccan plu-
ralism. Clearly, the semantics of the King’s position as a referee signicantly blurs the lines
between government, authority and the monarchical system.
Extra-Judicial Trust and Constitutionalism in Transition
While the mass demonstrations that brought down Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni
Mubarak may be viewed as opening a new chapter in the history of North Africa, it is
clear that from the perspective of trust and constitutionalism they amplied a substantial
problem of insecurity and distrust of what remained of the political elite and of the rising
political groups that have experienced some form of democratic empowerment. In Tunisia,
when the rst post-Ben Ali government under Mohamed Ghannoushi was announced on 17
January 2011, it still included 12 RCD politicians among the 23 government ministers, lead-
ing to mass and increasingly violent protests, such as the ‘liberation caravan’ that brought
thousands of protesters into Tunis from the provinces, defying a night-time curfew that the
government unsuccessfully tried to impose.45 After governmental readjustments, the res-
ignation of Mohamed Ghanoushi and promises of all-encompassing constitutional reforms
supported by non-RCD-afliated politicians, elections were held on 23 October 2011 to
bring the exiled Islamist Ennahda Party under Rached Ghannoushi to electoral victory with
40 per cent of the popular vote. While the assembly was primarily responsible for drawing
up a constitution, it also became the main legislature that would form a government led by
Ennahda, Ettakatol and Congress for the Republic (CPR). Ennahda’s success was partially
based on its diligent campaigning, its calls for a radical break with the past, and its emphasis
on constitutionalism and citizenship in its election manifesto:
The Republican system is the best guarantee of democracy and best use of the
country’s wealth for the benet of the people, as well as the essentials of a digni-
ed life, including employment, health, education, respect of human rights without
discrimination on the basis of sex, colour, belief or wealth, and the afrmation of
women’s rights to equality, education, employment and participation in public life.46
Its emphasis on women’s rights deserves special attention. It has been by accepting Tunisia’s
CSP that Ennahda has been able to project itself as a moderate Islamist party, not much dif-
ferent from Christian Democratic parties in Europe. Yet the weakness of parties which have
projected themselves as secular compared to Ennahda is also due to the crisis of secular con-
stitutionalism from which Tunisia suffered. After all, unlike Ennahda and its commitment
to democracy, which is often couched in religious terms, secular parties have had a history of
using secular laws against traditional Islamic practices, such as the wearing of the hijab and,
45 Murphy, ‘Tunisian Elections of October 2011’, p. 233 n. 30.
46 Ibid., p. 240.
48 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
since 2011, the full face cover, niqab, at Tunisian universities. In order to increase the level
of trust in secular constitutionalism, secular Tunisians have endorsed international law and
attempted to make it binding for Tunisian lawmakers and judges. Human Rights Watch
asserts in its criticism that ‘The constitution should state that treaties “duly approved and
ratied” by Tunisia without exception have a status superior to national law.’47 In a similar
vein, the Tunisian parliament, even before the October 2011 election, ratied in June 2011
the Rome Statute and became the rst Arab member state of the International Criminal
Court. While extra-juridical sources of trust, based on either Islam or international law, may
exist, it appears that the Tunisian public’s belief in the parties themselves, and the political
parties’ own acceptance of each other, have been at the heart of the more compromising
attitude of the different political currents – the salast Hizb al Tahrir and Ansar al Shari’a
groups’ marginal popularity notwithstanding. The reason for this may have been unique to
Tunisia’s recent history: Ettakatol, and especially CPR under Moncef Marzouki (who later
became Tunisia’s rst president), worked together uninterruptedly with Ennahda in the
18 October Collectif – an inclusive coalition of opposition parties from 2005 until the
January 2011 events.48 Consequently, Ennahda’s commitment to secular-liberal principles
such as its assertion of women’s equality, as well as these secularists’ willingness to address
cultural questions of Islam from the point of view of religious freedom and human rights,
enabled both groups to develop trust and coalition building and govern without resorting to
destabilising accusations and suspicion. This was in spite of the immense politicised issues,
such as the government’s dealings with salast violence, assassinations of prominent secular
politicians, and the use of courts to imprison journalists and others who were accused of
anti-Islamic behaviour, that have raised widespread suspicions among many secular Tuni-
sians with regard to Ennahda’s involvement and responsibility.
Egypt in this respect represents the counter-example. The Egyptian military’s overthrow of
Mubarak and the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) headed by Field
Marshal Mohamed Tantawi – amidst widespread protest against the president – resulted in
doubts over SCAF’s intentions and the ways in which it would try to protect its privileges.
Jockeying for power between the army and elected politicians on the one hand, and between
secular politicians and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other, often created violent con-
icts. These conicts became even more pronounced due to the result of the parliamentary
election. In November 2011 and January 2012, voters elected a two-thirds majority of Isla-
mists to parliament, electing members from both the Muslim Brotherhood under Mohamed
Morsi (Freedom and Justice Democratic Alliance) and a new sala party called al Nour, with
37.5 and 27.8 per cent of the popular vote respectively. In June 2012 Mohamed Morsi was
elected to the presidency. The subsequent election to the Constituent Assembly by the
parliament reected the Islamist-dominated political landscape and led to severe conicts.
A minority of secular and leftist individuals led by Mohamed Elbaradei, Amr Moussa and
Hamdeen Sabahi opposed the Islamist majority, fearing an incremental transition to, and
implementation of, Islamic-inspired law and legislation.49
47 Human Rights Watch, ‘Tunisia: Strengthen New Constitution’s Rights Protection’, 24 July 2013. Avail-
able at
(accessed 1 August 2014).
48 Andrea G. Brody-Barre, ‘The Impact of Political Parties and Coalition Building on Tunisia’s Democratic
Future’, Journal of North African Studies 18/2 (2013), pp. 211–30.
49 James N. Sater, ‘Egypt’s Dilemma: Democracy Without Democrats’, Odense: Centre for Contemporary
Middle East Studies, January 2013. Available atles//3/D/6/%7B3D64DFC7-
8160-4183-B721-0F60092202F7%7DJS0113.pdf (accessed 1 August 2014).
Constitutionalism and Transitions in North Africa
This conict was carried into the judicial system, which became a political player in its
own right. On two occasions the Constituent Assembly was challenged by the courts. The
rst dissolution of the Assembly in April 2012 was based on charges of lack of representa-
tion. The rst 100-member Assembly included only six women and ve Coptic Christians.
The second ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court on 2 June 2013 questioned the
rst dissolution, and thereby the second Constituent Assembly, six months after the new
Constitution had been approved by a referendum. This similarly created doubts over, and
diminished any trust in, the constitutional process, its legitimacy and consequently consti-
tutional protection. This has become all the more pronounced as secularists and Islamists
have been taking uncompromising positions in the Constituent Assembly. The minority
of secularists threatened to boycott the Assembly if no compromises were found on the
question of Islam and shari’a in the new constitutional text. Islamists in turn threatened to
approve the Constitution with their majority in the Assembly if the secularists were to aban-
don cooperation there. The articles in question of the now defunct Constitution referred to
Islamic rules and jurisprudence, as well as accepted sources among Sunni Muslims (Article
219), the outlawing of any ‘insults to the prophets or any other messenger’ (Article 44) and
the necessity of consulting al Azhar scholars on all questions pertaining to Islam (Article
4). Given the absence of any explicit mention of gender equality, the door was open for
a large variety of measures that, if approved by the Islamist-dominated parliament, could
easily change the secular character of the Egyptian state and lead to an accelerated pace
of Islamisation. Meantime, the role of the army became a side issue: pro-army politicians
secured the army’s superior status to the law by declaring it in Article 194 the property,
mulk, of the people, which pursues its mission under the National Defence Council, not the
Trust in Islamic beliefs and institutions such as al Azhar to protect Egyptian citizens appears
to be the result of the failure of laws and constitutions to do so since the mid-1950s. Yet it
is important to point out that the political majority of Islamists in parliament, government
and the Constituent Assembly, and its willingness to use its majority to impose itself on its
adversaries, further diminished the belief in constitutionalism and law to limit the major-
ity’s power effectively, giving rise to the trust in the country’s army expressed in Article
194. Clearly, some of President Mohamed Morsi’s actions were viewed as illiberal. The
above-mentioned articles were viewed as elevating Islamic principles to higher importance,
compared to the previous marginalisation of Islamic law to fatwa councils and family courts.
Yet the primary concern appears to be that little trust had developed between the different
political groups, so that it became questionable to what extent the text of the now defunct
Constitution, and its emphasis on individual rights and democratic procedures, would be
adhered to by the elected majorities. In other words, the issue of extra-juridical sources of
trust in constitutionalism has not been sufciently addressed in the transition period, and
such trust continued to be derived from the ranks of the army or the religious institutions.
Consequently, the military coup of 3 July 2013, which followed mass demonstrations
throughout Egypt against President Morsi, is signicant in that it symbolises the victory
of extra-judicial sources of trust over constitutionalism and electoral accountability. What
deserves special attention is the fact that Abdul Fatah al Sisi, the defence minister leading
50 Ellis Goldberg, ‘Constituting Generals’, Jadaliyya, 12 August 2013. Available at
pages/index/13528/constituting-generals-1 (accessed 1 August 2014).
50 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
the coup, also called upon al Azhar as the institution that would approve any new constitu-
tion that the new leaders wished to enact. al Sisi also included the grand imam of al Azhar,
Ahmed el Tayeb, together with the Coptic pope, Tawadros II, opposition leader Mohamed
El Baradei, ofcials from al Nour and ‘rebel’ al-Tamarrud leaders in the decision leading to,
and the announcement of, President Morsi’s removal.51 With this move, it appears that the
combination of esprit de corps and ofcial religious legitimacy has ultimately imposed itself as
the major source of trust, to the detriment of rule of law and protection of individual rights
qua constitutionalism, and of electoral bargaining.
Morocco’s starting point for the Arab Spring has been signicantly different. A mass move-
ment asking for a constitutional monarchy and more checks on the executive organised
itself into the February 20 Movement. While its calls for reforms did include the removal
of the King, the call to establish a stronger system of checks and balances to enhance con-
stitutionalism and electoral accountability touched a nerve among the political elite. Both
the ofcially recognised Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), and the
Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) had called for such a constitutional reform in
2006, mostly emphasising the King’s unfettered right to nominate a prime minister without
consideration for electoral majorities. In addition, in 2006 there had already been a very
widely published and debated list of recommendations by the kingdom’s Equity and Rec-
onciliation Commission. This Commission had organised public hearings into human rights
abuses and had awarded nancial compensation to the victims of state abuse, including the
relatives of the thousands of Moroccans who have disappeared. In this list of recommenda-
tions, a separation of powers and a constitutional reform appeared as the key to avoiding the
repetition of the serious human rights abuses.
Consequently, the February 20 Movement’s demands were quite compatible with what
the King had been quite comfortable with over the years since his accession to the throne
in 1999. After all, with a new constitution, the King could reinforce the image of a con-
stitutional and reform-minded monarchy. By using the King’s reputation as a liberal, yet
moderate reformer, the regime would proactively counter any potentially revolutionary
challenges that would result from blindly defending the status quo. As a result, the King
announced on 9 March 2011 the formation of a committee that would draft a new constitu-
tion subject to a referendum on 1 July 2011:
We are aware […] of the legitimacy of the aspirations and the necessity to preserve
what has been achieved [les aquis] […] It is still our rm intention to give a strong
impulse to the profound reform dynamic that is under way, of which the constitu-
tional, democratic framework constitutes the quintessential basis.
The sacred values of our constants are the basis of our national consensus. These
constants are Islam as the religion of the state and as the guarantor of the freedom
of religion, the function of the commander of the faithful, the monarchical regime,
national union, territorial integrity, and the democratic path. All of this gives us a
solid base in order to construct a historical compromise, which has the power of a
new pact between the throne and the people.52
51 ‘Egyptian Army Suspends Constitution and Removes President Morsi – As it Happened’, Guardian, 3
July 2013. Available at
army-deadline-live (accessed 1 August 2014).
52 Royal Speech, 9 March 2011. Available at (accessed 1 August 2014). Translated from
French by the author.
Constitutionalism and Transitions in North Africa
Careful not to alienate the moderate members of the February 20 Movement, the King
underlined the legitimacy of the protests and the opportunity they offered to continue the
monarchy’s path towards democratisation. Yet his emphasis on the ‘constants’ shows that
any accusation of his ‘giving in’ to the protesters’ demands were misplaced. Instead, the new
constitution would be a ‘historical compromise’ and a ‘new pact’.
The constitution has been extensively analysed elsewhere.53 For my purposes here, three
points are important:
1. Liberal principles including gender equality, minority rights, youth councils and the
electoral accountability of the prime minister gure prominently in the new Constitu-
tion. An independent constitutional court was created that was to limit governmental
interference in judicial decisions.
2. All senior appointments remain royal appointments. All legislation and appointments
can be vetoed by the King. The King heads a shadow, appointed and unaccountable
government (Council of Ministers) that is responsible for the government’s policy ori-
entation and that has exclusive authority over economic and scal policies. The Council
of Ministers therefore has more than just equal authority to the ofcial government.
3. The King remains not just the commander of the faithful, whose personality is ‘inalien-
able’ – a change from the use of ‘sacred’ in previous constitutions. In addition, he re-
mains the commander in chief of the Royal Armed Forces, giving him power to enforce
the constitution not just with his religious status, but also with the use of coercion.
The process’s purpose was to undermine the February 20 Movement, an objective it
achieved when the Constitution was approved with an overwhelming majority of 97.58 per
cent. The quiet nature of subsequent protests illustrates an important difference between
Morocco and its republican neighbours. The process illustrates that trust in the power of
constitutions exists, but it is superseded by trust in the extra-constitutional principles of
Amir al Muminin and the personality of the King. Effectively, as a result of the King’s rep-
utation as liberal and reform-minded, he personies the constitutional guarantee that the
Constitution will protect the rights of Moroccans, and that the government will not abuse
the rights of Moroccan citizens. In other words, he epitomises the idea of guaranteeing
Moroccan citizenship, understood as civil, political and social-religious rights.
It must be pointed out that this idea has been controlled and established through the mass
media since the mid-1950s. Any public criticism of his role and personality are outlawed
and persecuted by the courts. Yet in quite rare cases this image is broken. A convicted child
rapist, Daniel Galvan Vina, received a royal amnesty in June 2013. Normally, such decrees
are used by the King to ‘rectify’ unjust prison sentences. In this case, the King liberated
someone who clearly did not deserve such generosity in the eyes of average Moroccans. Yet
thousands of protesters who in July 2013 demonstrated against his release in the streets of
Rabat met the same violent reaction from the Moroccan security forces and riot police as the
more revolutionary February 20 Movement. Clearly, the King’s role was not just involved
but at the heart of the problem, even warranting an editorial in Le Monde.54 To escape from
this embarrassment, the King publicly claimed that he had been misinformed and that he
53 James N. Sater , ‘The Arab Spring and Democratization in Morocco’, Orient 53/1 (2012), pp. 30–7.
54 ‘Le dangereux faux pas du roi du Maroc’, Le Monde, 5 August 2013.
52 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
had not known about the crimes committed by Vina, thus raising other questions about royal
practices. To rectify and solidify the King’s claims, he ordered a comprehensive investiga-
tion into the process of Vina’s release, once again capturing his position of (1) safeguarding
individual Moroccans’ rights and (2) rectifying mistakes in which elected politicians and
ofcials are involved. In addition, the pardon was revoked – an unprecedented event in
Moroccan history – and Vina was again arrested by the Spanish authorities. Words were
followed by deeds, ensuring that emotional trust was underpinned by cognitive trust of
which the institution of monarchy is perceived to be a guarantee. Yet, as the Vina case
illustrates, the question of judicial independence and royal interference is occasionally chal-
lenged. Interestingly, recently this challenge was even expressed from within the ranks of
the judiciary, in the form of a Young Judges Movement that asked for more autonomy and
less oversight from within the Ministry of Justice.55
Table 2 Trust and constitutionalism in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco
Characteristics of
Trust in constitutions Extra-judicial sources
of trust
Tunisia Regularity of constitutional rule
high; rule by parallel institutions
High, regularity of CSP, consti-
tutional rule even in transitions
Low – charisma, Bourguibism
Egypt Regularity of constitutional rule
low; rule by parallel institutions
Low Divided and high – army,
religious courts
Morocco Regularity of constitutional rule
high; rule by parallel institutions
high but decreasing
Medium to high High – centred on King, repre-
senting both army and Islam
This paper has explored ideas of extra-juridical sources of trust in constitutionalism. It has
been suggested that the three cases of Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco illustrate important
differences in the way that institutions have been endowed with trust that serves as a guar-
antee for the constitutional protection of citizenship rights. The ndings are summarised
in Table 2. As I have argued, such a belief in constitutionalism has been best developed
in Tunisia, yet here also the trust in the viability of political compromise has been exper-
imented with inside the ruling coalition – the troika of Ennahda, Ettakatol and CPR for
many years prior to 2011. In other words, affective trust has been compounded by some
degree of cognitive trust among the political elite.
55 Anass Saadoun, ‘Judiciary Draft Laws in Morocco: Undercutting the Young Judges Movement’, Jadali-
yya, 1 February 2014. Available at
(accessed 1 August 2014).
Constitutionalism and Transitions in North Africa
In Egypt, extra-judicial sources of trust have for a long time dominated any concepts of
Egyptian constitutionalism. Islamic notions of trust rivalled those based on a military esprit
de corps, and have also been compounded by patron–client relations through welfare and
economic opportunities offered by the armed forces. These rival sources of extra-juridi-
cal trust have been further accentuated by the landslide electoral victory of the Muslim
Brotherhood-afliated Freedom and Justice Party, which together with the al Nour party
dominated the parliament, winning more than 60 per cent of the seats. This set the stage
for the military coup and the mass protests against President Morsi, and will continue to
weaken any prospects of constitutionalism for some time to come.
Morocco, in turn, has so far illustrated a unique ability to combine constitutionalism with
extra-judicial sources of trust in the person of the King. Quite signicantly, the February 20
Movement called for a new constitution, indirectly demonstrating a belief that there will
be an institution capable of overseeing the constitution’s application. While some of the
protagonists of the February 20 Movement may have believed that this would be an inde-
pendent supreme court or electoral alliances, a fairly large proportion of Moroccans believed
that the institution best capable of ensuring the viability of constitutionalism would be
the Moroccan King himself. Given the King’s supreme religious and military and increas-
ingly liberal credentials, Morocco has thereby bypassed the rivalry of religious and military
sources of trust that Egypt is experiencing.
54 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Concepts of Citizenship in Tunisia Following the Fall of
Ben Ali
Thomas DeGeorges
Dr Thomas DeGeorges is an independent scholar. Until June 2014, he was Assistant Professor of Interna-
tional Relations and Gulf Studies at the American University of Sharjah. His research interests include
modern Middle East history, North Africa, colonial history, and modern Europe. His research focuses on
understanding how colonial and post-colonial governments shaped social policy towards military veterans
in North Africa.
Introduction: Citizenship and Constitutions – Tunisia’s Troubled Past
The astute historian recognises that while political revolutions often have clear ‘beginnings’
they rarely have tidy endings. Nevertheless, the ratication of the new Tunisian Constitu-
tion at the end of January 2014 would seem to mark a milestone in the revolutionary saga
that began three years earlier. Its predecessor, the Constitution of 1 June 1959, emerged
out of a three-year negotiation period following the formal transfer of power from the former
protectorate power, France. During that period, the hereditary monarchy had been abol-
ished and independent Tunisia was rmly set on the road of a presidential republic.
As it turned out, the term ‘presidential’ was to characterise Tunisia’s government during the
next half century more than the term ‘republic’. Habib Bourguiba (1903–2000), who led the
Neo-Destour Party’s nationalist movement, became Tunisia’s rst elected president, a post
he would hold until his deposition in 1987. While the text of the Constitution (like many
in the Arab world) promised equality and justice to the Tunisian people, the amendments
to this foundational text over the years indicated a drift towards authoritarianism and an
accumulation of executive power in the ofce of the presidency. Most seriously, the manip-
ulation of the ofce of the powerful presidency via constitutional amendments concerning
term limits and maximum age served to entrench its occupant, whether Bourguiba or Zine
al-Abidine Ben Ali (r. 1987–2011).
As the rights of one citizen (the president) were made paramount in the Constitution of
1959, the rights of the majority of Tunisians languished and contracted. Although the tech-
nical language ensuring a citizen’s basic human rights remained, in practice state authorities
often employed arbitrary arrest and detention to stie political opposition to the presi-
dency. Courageous human rights campaigners (often in exile), such as Moncef Marzouki1
and Taouk Ben Brik,2 criticised such tactics which were applied to both secular oppo-
nents and those adhering to various forms of political Islam. Once someone was detained or
imprisoned, the rights guaranteed for the basic dignity of a human being often disappeared
altogether in the depths of Tunisia’s penal system.
1 Moncef Marzouki was the interim president of Tunisia from 2011 to 2014.
2 Taouk Ben Brik is a journalist who was previously imprisoned by Ben Ali’s regime.
Concepts of Citizenship in Tunisia Following the Fall of Ben Ali
The new Tunisian Constitution is an attempt to place the country’s commitment to cit-
izenship on a more legitimate and unshakeable foundation than previously. However, the
decision to make such a clear break with the former regime was not evident in the early
months following the revolution. The rst transitional governments formed after the depar-
ture of Ben Ali relied heavily on the Constitution of 1959 for their transfer of power (and
legitimacy) to a government led by the former speaker of the parliament (following Article
57 of the 1959 Constitution). This decision, and subsequent promises to hold a presiden-
tial election in two months’ time, elicited a massive popular outcry that coalesced in the
so-called ‘Casbah protests’ of January and February 2011. At that point, average Tunisians
from around the country converged on the capital, Tunis, to demand the dissolution of the
pre-revolutionary Constitution and its relevant institutions. By early March, the Tunisian
political elite had embraced such a move, thus paving the way for national elections for a
Constituent Assembly, held on 23 October 2011.
Theoretical Framework: Negative and Positive Liberties
The discussion of Tunisian citizenship in this paper will be framed around the concepts of
negative and positive liberties.3 The concept of negative liberties is used by its defenders as
the best way to guarantee personal dignity and one’s person from abusive state authority. A
negative liberty (often associated with American constitutional law) prohibits the govern-
ment from infringing upon broad categories of citizens’ rights (speech, religion, property).
The other form of liberty is referred to as ‘positive’ in that the citizen is presumed to want
state intervention to guarantee such promises. Many European constitutions, for example,
often include wording enumerating specic rights to their citizens. The most important of
these include the right to employment, education and health care for each citizen. As Ian
Carter maintains, the category of negative liberties is often seen as favouring the individual
over the state, whereas positive liberties often mark the aspirations of a collectivity.4
The denitions of liberties and their uses in political formats is succinctly summarised by
Carter in the following quote:
Political liberalism tends to presuppose a negative denition of liberty: liberals gen-
erally claim that if one favors individual liberty one should place strong limitations
on the activities of the state. Critics of liberalism often contest this implication by
contesting the negative denition of liberty: they argue that the pursuit of liberty
understood as self-realisation or as self-determination (whether of the individual or
of the collectivity) can require state intervention of a kind not normally allowed by
These liberties are not only ‘codied’ by constitutional documents such as the one men-
tioned above, but also ‘lived’ by an average citizen who judges their validity or obsolescence
3 I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Dr Kevin Gray, whose discussions and suggestions introduced
me to the concepts of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ rights.
4 Ian Carter, ‘Positive and Negative Liberty’, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
winter 2012 edn. Available at
(accessed 8 March 2015).
5 Ibid.
56 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
on a daily basis. Thus, this paper will also examine the role that political parties and govern-
ment institutions play in upholding promises of citizens’ rights. Such decisions condition
a citizen’s expectations of the state and its capacity to improve their social condition.
However, these promises are often undermined by elite, authoritarian plans for its imple-
mentation which scholar James C. Scott calls ‘high modernism’: a belief that science and
technology can be harnessed by state bureaucracies to improve the lives of the average
citizen. In practice, Scott argues, such strategies often fail as they oversimplify the complex
nature of the societies they seek to tame.6 The interplay between citizens’ rights, high
modernism and constitutionalism determines the state’s ability to foster either loyalty or
alienation among its citizenry.
We will now focus our attention away from the broad theoretical outlines of a citizen’s
negative or positive rights and examine the role that positive liberties have had in shaping
citizens’ expectations of their governments in Tunisia. As in the case of other former French
protectorates in North Africa, the French ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the
Citizen’ (1789) and the rst French Constitution (1791) loom large as models throughout
North Africa.
Nathan J. Brown explains the importance of positive liberties in the introduction to his work
on constitutionalism in the Arab world:
The French constitution of 1791 empowered the central government. To be sure,
the document incorporated the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. But
the constitution not only forbade state authorities from infringing on some spheres,
it also required them to act in others. The state was instructed to provide for public
relief and education, establish national fetes, and provide a code of civil laws. The
authors of the document were concerned not simply with limiting state authority but also with
removing obstacles in its path.7
It is clear from Brown’s analysis of this early French Constitution that the need for the state
to guarantee positive liberties is paramount. The last sentence is indicative of what Scott
would call ‘high modernism’, in that the state (and its governing elites) decide what is best
to realise the various rights of each citizen.
Due to the long colonial experience of much of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)
region, most constitutions in the Arab world explicitly contain promises of positive liberties,
a prominent example of which is that national wealth will be used for the benet of a social
welfare network for its citizens instead of being diverted by colonial nancial interests. In
the case of the new Tunisian Constitution of 2014, Articles 38–41 guarantee citizens the
rights to health care, education and jobs respectively. Each article also contains a proviso
that the state will work to ensure the availability of such benets to the general populace.8
6 James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 4–5.
7 Nathan J. Brown, Constitutions in a Nonconstitutional World: Arab Basic Laws and the Prospects for Accountable
Government (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002), p. 98. Italics mine.
8 According to the wording of Article 38 (health care), the state assumes the cost of ‘free treatment’ for those
‘lacking support’ or ‘of limited income’. Likewise, the assurance of free education is guaranteed ‘at all levels’,
but children are only required to attend school until the age of 16. The right to work appears unrestricted, as
are the government’s responsibilities to guarantee this right to its citizens. Dustûr al-jumhûriyya al-tûnisiyya (‘The
Constitution of the Tunisian Republic’) (Tunis: Imprimerie Ofcielle de la Republique Tunisienne, 2014).
Concepts of Citizenship in Tunisia Following the Fall of Ben Ali
In the event, for our purposes in this paper, I would argue that the dominant concept of
citizenship expressed and supported by the governing elites of Tunisia (not necessarily all of
its people) is reective of positive liberties. Likewise, the constitution the Tunisian Constit-
uent Assembly approved in 2014 to implement this universalist vision of citizenship is one
heavily reliant on emphasising the positive liberties of its citizens, with the important excep-
tion of individual rights before the state security forces and the judiciary. In these cases, a
restrictive vision of state power emphasised by theorists of negative liberties prevails.
As mentioned earlier, most of the governing elite in Tunisia have employed political rheto-
ric emphasising the concept of positive liberties as the cornerstone of their relationship to
their fellow citizens. That is, the state must guarantee fundamental rights to the Tunisian
people so that they might prosper. Obviously, the actions needed to realise such promises
have often been lacking in an elite class that has been criticised as hypocritical and dis-
tant. Nevertheless, by tracing the rhetoric of ‘positive liberties’ back to the Ben Ali period,
we can better understand why such concepts remain embedded in the Tunisian political
psyche. This is important since the post-revolutionary environment has seen a plethora of
political claims based on positive liberties initiated by political actors across the ideological
Detecting the Demise of Tunisia’s ‘First Republic’ in Ben Ali’s ‘Three
Although most analysts rightly dismiss the Ben Ali era (1987–2011) as one of deepening cor-
ruption and mismanagement, the justication the former president gave for his continued
rule relied heavily on ensuring positive liberties for the Tunisian people. What follows is an
analysis of Ben Ali’s three nal speeches to the Tunisian people (26 December 2010, 10 and
13 January 2011) prior to his overthrow.9 What is important to keep in mind is that, although
Ben Ali has been absent from the political scene in Tunisia since 2011, former regime of-
cials (who consistently supported the rhetoric on ‘positive liberties’) made a remarkable
comeback in the legislative elections held on 23 October 2014. The political front known
as Nidaa’ Tunis (‘Call for Tunisia’) won the most seats in the parliament.10 Led by former
interim prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi, this group has received support from former Ben
Ali ofcials who view it as a way to confront and derail the ambitions of the major Islamist
party in the country, Ennahda.
Before delving into Ben Ali’s speeches, it will be useful to review briey the chronology of
the events leading up to his departure. Most people are now familiar with the broad outlines
of the events of December 2010 and January 2011 that led to the abdication of President
Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his current exile in Saudi Arabia. The desperate actions of the
fruit seller Mohammad Bouazizi resulted in a spectacular suicide that became a unifying
symbol of the isolation and poverty of Tunisia’s interior governorates. Progressively larger
9 Reproduced in ‘Azmi Bishara, al-thawra al-tûnisiyya al-majîda: buniyyat thawra wa şîrûratiha min khilal yûmiyyat-
iha (‘Tunisia: The Diary of a Resplendent Revolution in the Making’) (Doha: Arab Center for Research and
Policy Studies, 2012), pp. 361–72.
10 Ofcial election results tabulated by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) indi-
cates that Nidaa’ Tunis won 37.56 per cent of the vote and was apportioned 86 parliamentary seats as a
result. Available at (accessed 8 March 2015).
58 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
demonstrations in these areas (Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine) led to escalating confrontations
with the security forces. Ultimately, via a relatively uncensored internet and a large number
of average Tunisians who could practise ‘mass self-communication’ by sending texts, images
and video clips through mobile phones, the uprising spread to the wealthier coastal cities
of Sfax, Sousse, Monastir and ultimately the capital city of Tunis.11 By December 2010,
President Ben Ali himself took notice of the situation and, for the rst time, appeared to
understand that his long rule over the country was being seriously challenged.
To meet the challenge of this popular, if relatively unfocused, uprising, Ben Ali decided to
talk directly to the Tunisian people on 26 December 2010. It turned out that this initial
effort only fuelled the protestors’ indignation and, in an incredible bit of political theatre,
the head of state issued two more, increasingly desperate, appeals promising economic and
social reforms designed to meet citizens’ expectations for positive liberties such as jobs,
health care and education.
The most striking change over the three speeches has to be the use of language by the former
president. The link between common language and a sense of belonging to a nation has long
been acknowledged. In the Arab world, two languages are used interchangeably: Classical
or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA, reserved for formal situations and ofcial media) and
local dialects (used as the language of everyday, informal interactions). In recent years, the
boundaries between appropriate use of one or the other form of Arabic has become blurred.
In the case of Tunisia in particular, the radio airwaves (once the bastion of MSA broadcasts)
now share the broadcast band with stations such as Mosaique FM or Shems FM, which are
entirely composed of segments recorded in Tunisian dialect.12
In the rst address (26 December), MSA is used to indicate command and presidential
authority. Almost all public speeches delivered by Tunisia’s president up until the revolution
were crafted using MSA and not the local dialect. However, because of the unprecedented
nature of the speech, and its reception across the country in real time, the use of MSA
turned into a liability for the president. In addition, although the speech discusses the
‘events’ of Sidi Bouzid in its introduction, Ben Ali rapidly identies ‘foreign television chan-
nels’ (a clear reference to the Qatari television channel al Jazeera) working with various
‘parties’ (atraf) who do not have the country’s interests at heart.
As Ben Ali proceeds to outline his remedy to improve the ‘social condition’ responsible
for the outbreak of riots in Sidi Bouzid, his rst recommendation is instructive and will be
reproduced in full here:13
FIRST: We therefore understand the feelings that confront each unemployed per-
son and especially when his search for work is extended, while his social conditions
11 For a more detailed explanation of the concept of ‘mass self-communication’, please refer to the recent
work of Manuel Castells, Communication Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 63–71.
12 Both radio stations predate the Tunisian revolution and were at one time partly owned by members of
Ben Ali’s extended family. For further information, see Viviane Bettaieb (ed.), Dégage: La révolution tunisienne
(17 décembre 2010–14 janvier 2011) (Tunis: Editions du Layeur, 2011), p. 115.
13 The texts of Ben Ali’s speeches that I reproduce here were all published in Arabic in Bishara, al-thawra
al-tûnisiyya al-majîda. I have translated the relevant portions into English and take full responsibility for any
grammatical or stylistic errors.
Concepts of Citizenship in Tunisia Following the Fall of Ben Ali
are difcult. This creates an unfortunate self-perception that leads to unwise solu-
tions in order to distract the unemployed from his situation.14
The use of the royal ‘we’ in this case (although often embraced by Arab leaders in formal
speeches) entirely vanishes by the third speech. If we compare a similar statement regard-
ing the unemployed in the third and last speech, note the stark differences:
I understand you, yeah I understand you, all of you: the unemployed, the needy, the
political and those who call for more freedom. I understand you, I understand you
all. But the events that happened today in our country ain’t reective of us, looting
ain’t among Tunisian customs. A Tunisian is civilised, a Tunisian is peaceful.15
The third speech, delivered on 13 January 2011(a day before Ben Ali’s departure), could
not be more different in style and substance. The use of Tunisian dialect throughout the
speech is the most fascinating aspect given our earlier discussion of the role language plays
in dening citizenship. ‘I’m talkin’ to you today’ is how the rst phrase of the speech might
be effectively rendered into English:
I’m talkin’ to you today, I’m talkin’ to everyone in Tunisia and outside of Tunisia.
I’m talkin’ to you in the language of all Tunisians, I’m talkin’ to you because the
situation demands a change, a deep change […] yes, a deep and complete change.16
Although much ridicule has been heaped on these three now infamous speeches,17 to me
they represent the symbolic levelling of the Tunisian eld of public discourse. On the eve
of his own resignation and ight to Saudi Arabia, Ben Ali was unwittingly participating in
the ‘universalising’ of public discourse: a move from elite forms to a common tongue shared
by the angry residents of Sidi Bouzid and the desperate resident of the Carthage palace.
The speeches are also of continuing importance since the promises of positive liberties
with security clearly resonated with Tunisian voters, who gave Beji Caid Essebsi’s coalition,
Nidaa’ Tunis, an electoral victory over their rivals in the 2014 parliamentary elections.
High Modernism in Action: Representatives of Tunisia’s Political Elite
Speak Out
The departure of former President Ben Ali left a political vacuum in Tunisia following years
of authoritarianism, reinforced by an electoral process that was seen as neither free nor
fair. Yet Tunisian society during the reign of Ben Ali was not entirely the passive or willing
collaborator it is sometimes made out to be. In the immediate aftermath of the Tunisian
Revolution, scholars Laryssa Chomiak and John Entelis published an analysis of what they
called ‘North African intifadas’ in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Writing about Tunisia,
Chomiak and Entelis refer back to the decade of the 2000s to nd evidence for protest
movements among labour groups operating in the south of the country, as well as among
cybernauts based in Tunis.18
14 Ibid., p. 361.
15 Ibid., p. 369.
16 Ibid.
17 One of my Tunisian friends joked with me that, after Mubarak’s resignation later in January 2011, Arab
leaders’ speeches resembled an inning of American baseball: three strikes, and you are out!
18 Laryssa Chomiak and John Entelis, ‘The Making of North Africa’s Intifadas’, Middle East Report 259
(2011), pp. 8–15.
60 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Unlike the situation in Egypt after the 25 January revolution, there were no strong political
or institutional factions capable of monopolising debate or channelling power in post-revo-
lutionary Tunisia. The army, which was widely praised for its non-intervention during the
Tunisian revolution, is relatively small and apolitical. The commander of the army during
the revolution, General Rachid Ammar, recently retired quietly without much fanfare.
Much has been made of the electoral gains made by the formerly banned Islamist movement
and afliated political party, Ennadha, in the rst country-wide elections since Ben Ali’s
departure (23 October 2011). However, it is instructive to compare Ennahda’s beginnings
in the 1970s and 1980s with those of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (which dates back
to the 1930s).19 Under the rule of Habib Bourguiba and his successor, Islamist activists and
the movements they represented were harshly suppressed, whereas in Egypt, the Muslim
Brotherhood was given some latitude to build up social welfare programmes in certain areas.20
In the post-revolutionary environment, an astute political observer can detect two signif-
icant political blocs that came to dominate the political discourse by 2014: the Islamist
movement known as Ennahda, led by Rachid Ghannouchi, and their more secular rivals,
Nidaa’ Tunis, led by Beji Caid Essebsi. In 2014, the political parties agreed to dissolve the
Ennahda-led government of Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh in favour of a technocratic gov-
ernment led by Mehdi Jomaa. This government (whose members renounced standing for
ofce in the next nationwide elections) had a mandate to run the country until the next
elections under the new Constitution, held in October 2014.
Although the two groups are rivals, a comparison of their political programmes reveals
remarkable similarities in the values they profess and their goals for the country. As dis-
cussed above, some followers of Essebsi’s movement formerly worked for the Ben Ali regime
in various capacities and thus shared the rhetorical commitment to positive liberties seen
in the former president’s discourse. One of the goals the Ennahda movement endorses is
the ‘dedication to the principle of the sovereignty of the people [al-sha’b]21 in the construc-
tion of a democratic and civilized state [with] justice and work in order to achieve equality
among the citizens and construct a civil society’.22 Likewise, Essebsi’s movement proclaims
on its website that it seeks ‘justice and equality between all social classes and between
the regions, as well as between men and women’.23 Even among smaller political parties
19 For more on Ennahda’s origins, see the noted biography of its most famous founder, Rachid Ghannouchi.
Azzam Tamimi, Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
20 The period immediately after Ben Ali’s seizure of power (1987–90) represented a thaw of sorts in
the government’s relationship with the Islamists. The new president signed the ‘National Pact’, which
appeared to promote a pluralistic political system, and met with representatives of Ennahda. The growing
power of Islamists in neighbouring Algeria, as well as upcoming presidential elections in Tunisia in 1990,
saw a return to oppressive tactics employed against Ennadha and its supporters.
21 The shifting conceptions of the term al-sha’b analysed by Nadia Marzouki are relevant to ofcial and
popular discourse in Tunisia. She points out that although the term has been used disparagingly in the past
(notably under former Presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali), it has taken on new cadences in the aftermath
of the revolution. Using the example of Abdelfatah Mourou (an Islamist leader) and Beji Caid Essebsi,
Marzouki rightly points out that the term has been used by groups on all sides of the Tunisian political
spectrum, and that it has become a prerequisite of any serious policy proposal and thus a rhetorical tool
which allows various factions to seek compromise in their negotiations. Nadia Marzouki, ‘From People to
Citizens in Tunisia’, Middle East Report 259 (2011), pp. 16–19.
22 Ennadha, ‘The Political Program’. Available from (accessed 16 January 2014).
23 Nidaa’ Tunis, ‘Our Values’. Available from (accessed 16 January 2014).
Concepts of Citizenship in Tunisia Following the Fall of Ben Ali
and public intellectuals, we nd a remarkable rhetorical similarity. In January 2012, several
members of the Constituent Assembly, including Hamma Hammami (Parti Communiste
Ouvrier de Tunisie) and Mohamed Bennour (Ettakatol)24 supported an initiative modelled
on the OpenGov concept promoted by Barack Obama in 2009 to make transparent the func-
tions of government. According to Hammami, ‘The objective is to permit citizens to follow
what is occurring in the public sphere and get a clear idea about it. At the same time, this
permits citizens to play their regulatory role as individuals or members of parties, unions or
Political Islam and Citizenship in Tunisia’s ‘Second Republic’
Until now, we have not examined the diverse viewpoints of the broad spectrum of Tuni-
sia’s Islamist parties on citizenship and negative/positive liberties in depth. Before turning
to Ennahda and its salast competitors, it is important to examine the role the ulema have
played historically in the Middle East to shape an Islamic response to Western models of cit-
izenship and constitutionalism. From the beginning of constitutionalist movements in the
MENA region in the nineteenth century, many religious scholars or ulema debated the appro-
priateness of ‘representative democracy’ within the context of Islamic law. To a degree, this
debate reected the larger conversation about reform in general within Islamic societies:
are efforts at modernisation (namely working within an electoral framework that sees multi-
party contestation) ijtihad (approved interpretation) or bid’aa (unlawful ‘innovation’)? By
comparing and contrasting two prominent members of the ulema, Sheikh Fazl Allah Nuri of
Iran (1843–1909) and Muhammad Abduh of Egypt (1849–1905), we can understand how
current discourse in Tunisia about citizenship and negative/positive liberties has been inu-
Let us begin with a representative of the ulema who views Western-inspired constitution-
alism and notions of universal citizenship as unlawful ‘innovation’: Sheikh Fazl Allah Nuri,
who wrote to the Qajar ruler of Iran in 1906 opposing the then recently drafted constitution
and its promises of equality among citizens and freedom of the press. I reproduce here one
of his more memorable passages on the incompatibility of constitutionalism with Islamic
Oh, heretics! If this state law is in conformity with Islam, it is not possible to in-
clude equality in it, and if it is at variance with Islam, it would be against what is
written in the previous part of the constitution, that is: ‘whatever is against Islam
cannot be lawful’.26
How are Sheikh Nuri’s comments, made at the beginning of the twentieth century, relevant
to the views of Tunisian Islamists in the twenty-rst century?
24 Ettakatol shared power in the interim government with Ennahda (which appointed the interim prime
minister) and the Congress for the Republic party (whose leader, Moncef Marzouki, was interim presi-
dent). The leader of Ettakatol, Mustafa Ben Jaafar, served as head of the Constituent Assembly.
25 Hassine Bouazra, ‘Le concept d’Open Gov, introduit en Tunisie: Une garantie de totale transparence’,
Le Temps, 22January 2012.
26 ‘Shaykh Fazl Allah Nuri’s Refutation of the Idea of Constitutionalism’, in Lloyd Ridgeon, Religion and
Politics in Modern Iran: A Reader (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005), pp. 37–54.
62 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
At their core, his ideas represent the impossibility of replacing shari’a law with any man-
made constitution. Political liberalism, for many pious Muslims, is simply incompatible with
Muslim law (at best) or sacrilegious (at worst). Sheikh Nuri’s words, although written in
the early twentieth century, echo today in the speeches of Tunisian salasts from the Hizb
al-Tahrir or Ansar al-Sharia political organisations.27
In the case of Tunisia, the trial of Nabil Karaoui represents an example of how Nuri’s com-
plaints about constitutionalism echo today. Karaoui, the owner of the television channel
Nessma, permitted the Iranian lm Persepolis to air just prior to the October 2011 elections
for the Constituent Assembly. Enraged by what they perceived to be depictions of the
Prophet Muhammad in the lm, some Tunisian Islamists appeared daily outside the court
where Keraoui was being tried and demanded that he not only be charged with insulting
Islam, but also be put to death as an apostate.28
I want to emphasise here that the sala activists who espoused such radical views may or
may not have belonged to the Ennahda movement. Unlike in Egypt, where the initial elec-
tions for the Constituent Assembly saw the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood as well
as more radical sala parties, Ennahda was the only religious party permitted to take part in
similar elections in Tunisia in 2011. It is likely that future elections will see a more diverse
eld of Islamist parties vying for a share of the vote that Ennahda received in October 2011.
Where do such theological opinions t in our discussion of negative and positive liberties?
It is clear that a governmental system based on such a framework would no doubt espouse
positive liberties, albeit strictly derived from the Qur’an and the hadith. The state would
guarantee life, liberty and prosperity as the ulema saw t to interpret these concepts in the
corpus of relevant Islamic texts. In no small way, the current constitution of the Islamic
Republic of Iran is based upon the concepts of ‘positive Islamic liberties’ that Nuri espoused
at the beginning of the twentieth century. Likewise, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and
Syria (ISIS) in 2013–14, although more recent and amorphous, would also seem to t into
this pattern, as do the actions of the salasts protesting the screening of Persepolis.
If we can trace some of the contemporary salast critique of democracy and universal citi-
zenship to Nuri and his colleagues, the larger and more moderate party espousing political
Islam in Tunisia, Ennahda, pursues a more sympathetic approach to electoral politics and
broadly inclusive forms of citizenship. Leaders such as Rachid Ghannouchi, Hamadi Jebali
and Ali Laarayedh thus follow the thinking of prominent reformers such as Muhammad
Abduh of Egypt. In his famous work Risalat al-Tawhid (1897), Abduh rmly rejects the
narrow viewpoint of Nuri and his peers:
So the Qur’an directs us, enjoining rational procedure and intellectual enquiry into
the manifestations of the universe, and, as far as may be, into its particulars, so as
to come by certainty in respect of the things to which it guides. It forbids us to
be slavishly credulous and for our stimulus points the moral of people who simply
followed their fathers with complacent satisfaction and were nally involved in an
utter collapse of their beliefs and their own disappearance as a community.
27 Séverine Labat, Les islamistes tunisiens: Entre l’état et la mosquée (Paris: Editions Demopolis, 2013), esp. ch.
6, ‘En-Nahda et les salastes: entre connivence et confrontations’.
28 Mona al-Bou’aziz, ‘The “Nessma” Affair: The Trial in the Chamber … and the Sentence in the Street’,
al-Shurûq, 24 January 2012.
Concepts of Citizenship in Tunisia Following the Fall of Ben Ali
Islam encouraged men to move away from their clinging attachment to the world
of their fathers and their legacies, indicting as stupid and foolish the attitude that
always wants to know what the precedents say. Mere priority in time, it insisted, is
not one of the signs of perceptive knowledge, nor yet of superior intelligence and
What we see in Abduh’s writings, which would go on to inspire generations of Muslim
reformers, is a healthy suspicion of rulership, the abuse of which can lead to violations of
human rights. What is important about the following sentences is not so much their histori-
cal veracity (which is debatable) as the sentiment and commitment on Abduh’s part to use
reform to correct such abuses:
The early Abbasids knew the extent of their debt to the Persians for the successful
establishment of their power and the overthrow of the Umayyad state. They relied
strongly on Persian collaboration and brought them into high positions among their
ministers and retainers. Many of them thus came into authority without any part
or lot in Islam religiously […] They began to disseminate their opinions and by
attitude and utterance induced those to whom their views were congenial to accept
their direction.
As a consequence a complete intellectual confusion beset the Muslims under
their ignorant rulers […] Fostered by the general educational poverty, they gained
ground, aided too by the remoteness of men from the pristine sources of the faith.
They evicted intellect from its rightful place and dealt arbitrarily with the false and
the valid in thinking. They also went so far as to espouse the view of some in other nations who
alleged an enmity between knowledge and faith.30
How would Mohammad Abduh and his intellectual descendants in modern political Islamic
movements such as Ennahda compare the concepts of negative and positive liberties that
we have been discussing? It would appear that they would be sympathetic to key aspects of
Ian Carter’s denition of political liberalism which we encountered in the introduction to
this paper: ‘if one favors individual liberty one should place strong limitations on the activ-
ities of the state’.
29 Muhammad Abduh, The Theology of Unity, trans. Ishaq Musa’ad and Kenneth Cragg (London: George
Allen & Unwin, 1966), pp. 39, 127.
30 Ibid., pp. 35, 38–9.
64 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Law and Disorder: Relationships between the Security Forces and
Citizens in the Wake of the Revolution
In a reversal of the focus on positive liberties above, most Tunisians would probably agree
with the language in their new Constitution limiting or restricting the rights of the security
forces to infringe on personal liberties. Articles 27–31 of the second section of the Tunisian
Constitution limit state authorities from infringing upon the presumed innocence of a sus-
pect, upon personal dignity and upon freedom of thought.31
One of the most reviled gures to characterise the reactionary attitudes towards the Arab
Spring has been the policeman. The brutal authority exercised by the forces of order, seem-
ingly beyond the reach of the justice system, has been caricatured in the post-revolutionary
environment in Tunisia. As a result, the basic tenet of citizenship in which an individual
and the state have rights and responsibilities towards each other cannot be upheld in the
face of such repression.
While there is, no doubt, much that is true about such a characterisation, such stereotypes
also obscure the complex historical and legal contexts in which such law enforcement powers
evolved. As Susan Slyomovics argues in her book The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco,
much of the security apparatus (directed from the Ministry of the Interior) in Francophone
countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia has been directly inherited from and shaped
by the former colonial power. Speaking of Morocco in particular, Slyomovics argues that the
human rights abuses committed in the name of the state during the reign of King Hassan II
were partly the result of the French garde à vue legal principle, which permits security forces
to detain a person for longer than would be possible in the USA as charges are drawn up
against them. As she states:
Procedures that set no limits to police power – […] garde à vue in French – point to an
absence of a body of fundamental laws to protect the basic rights of defendants […] In
practice, garde à vue refers to the period during which [sic] the suspect spends in deten-
tion while a police inquiry is undertaken, but before he or she is charged with a crime and
brought to trial. In Morocco under the reign of Hassan II, garde à vue had been effectively
reversed from a person ‘kept in sight’ to one ‘out of sight’, as the monarchy within a newly
created post-independence political context maintained colonial legal mechanisms that
were repressive, arbitrary, and undemocratic.32
Under the ction of performing legitimate investigations against potential criminals, there-
fore, authoritarian states like Hassan II’s Morocco (or Bourguiba and Ben Ali’s Tunisia)
found a potent tool to silence political and labour dissent.33 The legacy of this concept of
police power and investigative practices cannot be overestimated. The Civilian Complaint
Review Board that exists in the city of New York to oversee the actions of the police has
no counterpart in North Africa. The idea of an ‘Internal Affairs Bureau’ which monitors
police ethics and procedure from within a specic department likewise seems to have been
31 Dustûr al-jumhûriyya al-tûnisiyya.
32 Susan Slyomovics, The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press, 2005), p. 14.
33 Ibid.
Concepts of Citizenship in Tunisia Following the Fall of Ben Ali
a foreign concept. As a result, much of the effort and time spent in police investigations was
dedicated to identifying political threats to the regime and neutralising them.
The overthrow of the authoritarian regime in Tunisia in January 2011 threw the law enforce-
ment system described above into disarray. As an eyewitness to the revolutionary period
from December 2010 to June 2011, I can attest that, although they may have been well
trained to track and root out political dissent prior to the Tunisian Revolution, the security
forces seemed singularly unable to track or prevent the acts of looting, vandalism and assault
that surged after January 2011. Journalists who covered the state and morale of the security
services after 2011 reported an atmosphere of confusion, dejection and self-absorption.34
The People Speak: Voices, Views and Demands of the Average Tu-
In our discussions of negative and positive liberties, it would be accurate to state that aver-
age Tunisians’ views on the subject reect a spectrum of beliefs that encompass calls for
greater government intervention to right social ills (positive liberties) as well as appeals for
the government to refrain from interference in an individual’s preferences (negative liber-
ties). One of the remarkable things that occurred in Tunisia after the revolution was the
journalistic coverage of its aftermath throughout the country. Every day since 14 January
2011, Arabic newspapers, such as the daily al-Shurûq,35 have contained at least one article
canvassing local opinion about a particular issue. Although this practice was also common
during Ben Ali’s rule, the topic of politics was always strictly off limits. A sampling of such
articles from 2012 will illuminate some of the ways that average citizens (of all ages) articu-
late their ideas of post-revolutionary citizenship.
One of the rst ofcial acts pursued by Tunisia’s interim leaders after the revolution was
to dismantle the Ministry of the Interior’s apparatus for pursuing political and religious
opposition gures, as well as to withdraw security forces from within the universities. By
2012, these trends emboldened young Islamist activists who challenged the secular estab-
lishment openly, precisely over the denition of freedom of expression and justice. One of
the most controversial campaigns in this regard was in support of female university students
who wished to wear the full niqab (veil) at Manouba University. The other was the trial of
Nabil Karaoui, who, as we have seen, was accused of insulting Islam by airing Persepolis on
his television channel.
In the case of the veil, the controversy erupted when fully veiled students attempted to
enter Manouba University to take their exams. Some refused to lift their veils to conrm
the picture of themselves on their identication cards. As one fully veiled woman explained
more fully:
I agreed with them [that I would lift my veil] on the condition that I would reveal
my face to a female teacher or administrator and conrm my identity at the col-
lege entrance and the door to the exam room. However, they [the administration]
34 Naji al-Za’iri, ‘Security Forces Find Themselves Far from Secure’, al-Shurûq, 26 January 2012.
35 Like the radio stations mentioned earlier, this newspaper also predates the revolution, having been
founded in 1984. For further information, see Bettaieb, Dégage, p. 115.
66 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
demanded that I remain unveiled for the duration of the exam […] I permitted them
to inspect me on the condition that they respect my well-being and my freedom.36
In response to this challenge, an assistant to the college dean gave a statement setting out
the university’s position: ‘We want the exams to be given in normal circumstances and
respecting the relevant laws for examinations [which mandate] the lifting of the veil during the
exam period.’37
I would argue that as the repressive authoritarian apparatus weakened and withdrew from
areas where the public interacted, people felt free to experiment with new articulations of
their rights as citizens vis-à-vis the state. The example I have provided demonstrates the
evolving contractual relationship, in the female student’s mind, towards representatives
of the state (professors and administrators). The conditions she attaches to proving her
identity to their satisfaction include the preservation of her ‘well-being’ and ‘freedom’. The
opposing position articulated by the college administration requests the application of exist-
ing laws governing the examination process.
Although we have considered examples of positive liberties accruing to the citizen (and
enforced by the state) in our discussion regarding certain aspects of Tunisian citizens’
expectations, let us consider another example of negative liberties in this case. Returning
to our discussion of positive versus negative liberties, let us examine Article 5 of the French
‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ (1789), which states:
The law has the right to prohibit only those actions harmful to society. All that is not
prohibited by the law cannot be hindered, and no one can be forced to do what it
does not order.38
I would argue that in the post-revolutionary society, Tunisians such as the veiled student
and the university administrator were engaging with concepts such as the one I have ital-
icised above, which in turn represent clear examples of negative liberties. Does a female
student who remains veiled throughout the exam constitute an ‘action harmful to society’
which demands state intervention to rectify? Referring back to the ‘high modernist’ princi-
ples articulated by the political elites earlier, we get no real guidance. The generic concepts
they claim to hold have no clarication, nor any clear denition. Rather, it appears that ‘jus-
tice’, ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ are concepts whose meaning remains in ux at the local level.
Political Islam was only one of the concerns that occupied the average citizen following the
revolution. Older Tunisians, not surprisingly, focused on more immediate economic issues
and unresolved problems. The newspaper al-Shurûq ran an article on 24 January 2012 enti-
tled ‘The People Ask for Their Share of Development.’39 Just after the rst anniversary of
the revolution, people in the rural town of Meknine (near Monastir) expressed their dis-
satisfaction at not having received what they thought they were owed for supporting the
revolution. One older man was quoted as saying that ‘the revolution occurred for bread and
36 Ismail al Jerbi, ‘Violence … Confrontation … and Exams’, al-Shurûq, 25 January 2012. Italics mine.
37 Ibid.
38 ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ (1789), reprinted in Alfred J. Andrea and James
H. Overeld (eds), The Human Record: Sources of Global History. Vol. II: Since 1500, 6th edn (New York:
Houghton Mifin, 2009), pp. 157–8.
39 Khalifa al-Mehdi, ‘The People Ask for Their Share of Development’, al-Shurûq, 24 January 2012.
Concepts of Citizenship in Tunisia Following the Fall of Ben Ali
respect’ and that he and his neighbours ‘as citizens participated in accomplishing it without
burning or looting or smashing buildings’. However, their children ‘who paid a high price
still complained of unemployment and no one has answered them’.40
As we have seen in the case of the Manouba University student who wished to take her
examinations fully veiled, the articulation of citizenship here is one of a ‘contract’ of sorts
between an individual and a government in which each party bears rights and responsibil-
ities towards the other. As we can see from the economic example above, the man from
Meknine believes that the non-violent actions taken in support of the revolution should be
rewarded by government efforts to lower unemployment.
It is clear that other, more popular concepts of Tunisian citizenship overlap with elite-driven
ones and share many of the same commitments to positive liberties. In an article published
in 2013, I explored how Tunisians articulated the multi-faceted concept of ‘martyrdom’
in the post-revolutionary environment.41 I found that although the concept of ‘martyr’ was
shared by almost all Tunisians to describe those who suffered under Ben Ali’s regime, ‘peo-
ple’s personal political and regional views [played a role] in determining how the martyr
should be dened and honored’.42 This multiplicity of views obscures a set of societal goals
shared by most who invoke the martyr’s sacrice: to activate the concept of ‘collective sac-
rice’ that martyrs represent as a means of extracting wealth and social benets from the
distributory state that has become the hallmark of Tunisia’s political economy since inde-
pendence.43 The danger with such popular interpretations of the state’s responsibilities
to its citizens is to privilege short-term, tangible gains over longer-term structural changes
to institutions and practices that shape political and economic behaviour. As I argue: ‘In
short, protest and martyrdom are interpreted as strategies to seize control over the distrib-
utory mechanisms of the state. The merits and efciencies of the developmentalist model
are rarely debated or opposed.’44 Recalling our previous discussion of the ‘positive’ rights
guaranteed to citizens in the Tunisian Constitution (enjoining an enforcement and nan-
cial commitment on the state), one can sense a potential conict if the state is scally or
politically too weak to ‘ensure’ its citizens an adequate job, health care or education, as the
citizenry’s sense of entitlement to such perquisites does not diminish.
How might these diverse views on post-revolutionary citizenship coalesce to advance
Tunisia’s progress towards stability? If the elites involved in shaping core principles and
institutions of the state can forge enough consensus over a common (if imperfect) vision
for the country, then political stability may be achieved long enough to encourage economic
growth. This would provide the state with the resources needed to ‘remove obstacles in the
path of providing positive liberties’ (to paraphrase Nathan Brown above).45
40 Ibid.
41 Thomas P. DeGeorges, ‘The Social Construction of the Tunisian Revolutionary Martyr in the Media and
Popular Perception’, Journal of North African Studies 18/3 (2013), pp. 482–93.
42 Ibid., p. 482.
43 A concept drawn from rentier economics, the notion of a ‘distributory state’ clearly reects positive
liberties as discussed above.
44 DeGeorges, ‘Social Construction’, p. 486.
45 Brown, Constitutions in a Nonconstitutional World, p. 98.
68 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Likewise, at a popular level, if people employ the concept of martyrdom as a form of collective
sacrice that demands increased transparency in state functions and a higher responsiveness
of state institutions to local and regional concerns, this may also help in creating a ‘public
sphere’ in which the best practices of state institutions are rened and improved. Such gains
would represent a victory for the ‘negative liberties’ we have explored in the case of freedom
from unauthorised state intrusions into a person’s private life or behaviour.
In any event, the immediate future looks unclear for Tunisia. The year 2013 deepened
the sense of crisis in the country with the two successive assassinations of opposition lead-
ers Chokri Belaid (6 February) and Mohamed Brahmi (25 July). As a result of these still
unsolved murders, disputes over the nalisation of a new constitution and a persistent eco-
nomic crisis, Tunisia’s political system has been thrown into turmoil.46 Two prime ministers
appointed from within Ennahda’s ranks, Hamadi Jebali and Ali Laarayedh, resigned within
11 months.
Despite these setbacks, the New York Times in 2014 published two articles that praise Tunisian
leaders in the Constituent Assembly for nearing the end of their arduous task of approving a
new constitution, under which formal elections for a permanent government may be held.47
When compared with the parallel process of approving a new constitution taking place in
Egypt, Tunisia’s certainly does seem like a success story. The two nationwide elections held
in 2014 for the legislature and presidency seem to conrm this optimistic political outlook.
The elections for the legislature and presidency in October and November 2014 respec-
tively provide interesting updates on Tunisians’ views on citizenship three years after the
fall of Ben Ali. As mentioned above, the Nidaa’ Tunis party of Beji Caid Essebsi won the
largest share of votes in the legislative elections (approximately 39.71 per cent), with the
Islamist party of Ennahda placing second with approximately 31.79 per cent.48 As a result,
Tunisia experienced a peaceful, democratic alternation of power from one political faction
to another for the rst time in its history. Essebsi enhanced his party’s grip on the state by
winning the presidency in a closely watched run-off election with the interim president,
Moncef Marzouki, in December 2014.49 The new government of Prime Minister Habib
Essid comprises a majority of ministers drawn from Nidaa’ Tunis with representation from
several other parties, including Ennahda.50
46 Although the investigation into the deaths of the two leftist leaders identied a key suspect, Kamal
Ghadghadi (who was killed in a raid on suspected terrorists in Tunis in February 2014), several others
suspected of masterminding the crime remain at large. Possible groups behind the attacks include radical
Islamists of the Ansar al-Sharia faction and organized crime. For more on the investigation, see the articles
available at (an over-
view of the murders) and
(a description of the main suspects) (both accessed 8 March 2015).
47 Carlotta Gall, ‘Tunisian Constitution, Praised for Balance, Nears Passage’, New York Times, 14 January
2014. David D. Kirkpatrick and Carlotta Gall, ‘Arab Neighbors Take Split Paths in Constitutions’, New York
Times, 14 January 2014.
48 These gures were reported by Carlotta Gall, ‘Secularist Win is Conrmed in Tunisia’, New York Times,
30 October 2014. Other parties winning lesser, yet still signicant, proportions of the vote include that of
businessman Slim Riahi and the Popular Front.
49 Carlotta Gall, ‘Ex-Cabinet Member Wins Tunisian Presidential Runoff’, New York Times, 22 December 2014.
50 Associated Press, ‘Tunisia: Premier Announces More Inclusive Cabinet’, New York Times, 2 February 2015.
Concepts of Citizenship in Tunisia Following the Fall of Ben Ali
However, it remains to be seen whether political optimism can provide solutions to the
perilous state of the Tunisian economy, whose outlook remains weak due to a combination
of internal and external challenges. While the latest report from the International Monetary
Fund lauds Tunisia’s scal discipline and tax policies, it warns that chaos in Libya coupled
with economic stagnation in the European Union are external challenges threatening the
country’s growth. Domestically, Tunisia is burdened by the persistent high unemployment
rates among youth and college graduates, as well as a crisis in bank capitalisation due to
non-performing loans.51
These indicators are potentially ominous given the high expectations the Tunisian elec-
torate brought with them to the polls in 2014. So what are the prospects for success for
Tunisia? Paradoxically, they may rest upon the country’s inhabitants applying the evolving
concepts of citizen–state relations to the global arena. In the increasingly globalised ‘net-
work’ society, as Manuel Castells characterises the world we live in today, nation-states are
being challenged to defend their local cultures, while simultaneously engaging with trans-
national nancial and industrial sectors which are vital to economic growth.52 Will the new
rights and responsibilities of both citizen and state currently under construction in post-rev-
olutionary Tunisia be transferable to the global marketplace? The promise of a better life for
future generations of Tunisians may depend on it.
51 International Monetary Fund, Tunisia: Fifth Review Under the Stand-By Arrangement, Request for Modication
of Performance Criteria, and Rephasing of Access-Staff Report; Press Release; and Statement by the Executive Director
for Tunisia (December 2014). Available at
(accessed 8 March 2015).
52 Castells, Communication Power.
70 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
‘Global Citizen’ and the Dislocated Generation in the
United Arab Emirates
Yuting Wang
Dr Yuting Wang is Assistant Professor of International Studies at the American University of Sharjah.
Her research mainly focuses on religion and minorities in the US and China. She is especially interested in
Muslims, both immigrant and indigenous, in these two societies.
Global migration continues to shape individual experiences and group behaviours. Alter-
native migratory routes and the expansion of social networks further erode boundaries and
challenge accepted beliefs and practices. Although North America remains the top recipient
of worldwide immigrants, a new direction of population movement began to emerge during
the twentieth century. From the 1930s onwards, a growing number of migrant workers began
to ow into the Arabian Gulf searching for a brighter future. The enormous wealth brought
by the soaring oil price in the 1970s triggered profound economic and social transformations.
Today, many of these small nation-states in the Gulf region are among the richest countries
in the world. Although there is a great level of uncertainty about the sustainability of such
an economy that largely relies on oil wealth,1 the strategic importance of the Gulf countries
is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. The ongoing social and cultural changes in
the region as the result of rapid economic development continue to attract public interest
and scholarly scrutiny.
Situated in the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, the United Arab Emirates
(UAE) covers just over 30,000 square miles and shares borders with Saudi Arabia to the
south, southeast and west, and Oman to the southeast and northeast. The rapid socioeco-
nomic development in the UAE since the 1970s creates an extremely unbalanced ratio of
native to foreign population. As of 2010, non-national residents in the UAE had reached 7.24
million or roughly 87.7 per cent of the total population, and made up a stunning 95.6 per
cent of the workforce.2 Today, the UAE maintains one of the highest net immigration rates
in the world.3 The exponential growth of foreign population in the UAE is deeply unsettling
to the indigenous population and is seen as the top challenge to UAE society.4
1 Christopher M. Davidson, Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
2 UAE Bureau of Statistics. Available at
mates%202006%20-%202010.pdf (accessed 22 December 2013).
3 ‘Middle East: United Arab Emirates’, in CIA, The World Factbook. Available at
publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ae.html (accessed 22 December 2013).
4 IPSOS, ‘UAE Demographics Survey’, 2007, cited in Ingo Forstenlechner and Emilie J. Rutledge, ‘The
GCC’s “Demographic Imbalance”: Perceptions, Realities, and Policy Options’, Middle East Policy 18/4
(2011), pp. 25–43.
‘Global Citizen’ and the Dislocated Generation in the United Arab Emirates
The UAE upholds one of the most closely controlled immigration systems, similar to those
implemented in other Gulf countries.5 By design, it creates a large, temporary, transnational
workforce instead of a more integrated immigrant population. The policy was rst rolled
out to respond quickly to the huge demand for manpower as the result of the UAE’s ambi-
tious economic development plans in the 1970s. The overriding importance attached to
infrastructural and institutional development, combined with a strong desire to maintain
the traditional political and social structures, legitimises the employment of a large number
of foreign workers on a contract basis. Many of these temporary workers are unskilled or
semi-skilled labourers working in low-paying jobs, are not nancially qualied to bring their
families to the country, and often return home once their contracts end. The highly skilled
professionals who are employed in the sectors of health care, education, service industries
and government tend to have a more stable employment status and are generally allowed to
bring their families to the UAE. A large number of self-employed businesspeople have also
been attracted to the country and operate under ‘sponsors’ in what is known as the kafala
system.6 Thus, in essence, all expatriates, regardless of their educational levels, occupations
and racial/ethnic backgrounds, are guests in the country. There is generally no naturalisation
procedure, except in rare cases granted by the rulers.
The benet of such immigration policies seems apparent. Admitting only temporary work-
ers minimises the economic cost of sustaining a growing number of immigrants, since many
cannot bring their families to the UAE and therefore make little use of public services and
little economic demand.7 In addition, maintaining a transient workforce also decreases the
political, social and cultural risks posed by immigrants. For the expatriates, this temporary
status creates a sense of insecurity. Even for those who have lived in the country for decades,
the UAE is still a place of transit and can never become ‘home’. Under such circumstances,
it is assumed that temporary workers are less likely to become attached to Emirati society.
Thus this policy prevents the social/cultural integration of immigrants that would inevitably
inuence the indigenous culture and possibly the traditional political system.
In reality, the migration process has become rather more enduring than temporary for prac-
tical reasons, especially in the case of skilled professionals who have unavoidably become
indispensable in many newly developed institutions. Many of them are allowed to renew
their contracts and continue to work until retirement. In fact, some have even managed to
stay beyond retirement. The difculties in providing a large number of qualied nationals
to meet the demand of an ever-expanding economy have led to some undesirable outcomes:
temporary workers turned into lifelong residents who have raised families in the country
and inevitably grown emotionally attached to the place.8 The phrase ‘permanent imperma-
nence’9 vividly captures expatriate experiences in the UAE.
5 Anh Nga Longva, Walls Built on Sand: Migration, Exclusion and Society in Kuwait (Boulder: Westview, 1997).
Andrzej Kapiszewski, Nationals and Expatriates: Population and Labor Dilemmas of the Gulf Cooperation Council
States (Reading: Ithaca Press, 2001). Sayed Ali, Dubai: Gilded City (London: Yale University Press, 2010).
6 Kafala is the sponsorship system implemented in the Gulf Arab countries to monitor temporary foreign
guest workers. Under this system, only UAE nationals or corporate entities can obtain legal visas and resi-
dency permits for foreign guest workers.
7 Myron Weiner, ‘Immigration: Perspectives from Receiving Countries’, Third World Quarterly 12/1 (1990),
pp. 140–65.
8 Neha Vora, Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).
9 Sayed Ali, ‘Going and Coming and Going Again: Second-Generation Migrants in Dubai’, Mobility 6/4
(2011), pp. 553–68.
72 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
The UAE poses an interesting case in the study of transnational migration. For the migrants
– generally referred to as expatriates – in the UAE, their temporariness requires them to
remain mobile or have the ability to be mobile at any point in time. Widely used ideal types
such as ‘sojourners’, ‘immigrants’ and ‘transnationals’ in the existing literature of migration
studies10 only inadequately capture such a form of mobility. The expatriates in the UAE are
generally legal residents on a temporary basis with no hope of ever becoming permanent.
There is a lack of incentive for them to assimilate into the host society, largely because
the host society has no intention of facilitating (in fact is generally against) assimilation or
acculturation. Such structural constraints have led the expatriates to become thoroughly
transnational. Since their residency in the UAE remains temporary, or a mere sojourn, they
are compelled to maintain close ties with their home countries, preparing for their future
return, or moving on to another destination that they may eventually call ‘home’.
Similarly affected by the rapid economic development and the immigration policies in the
UAE are the nationals who were uprooted not long ago from tribal communities and put into
a postmodern society. UAE nationals remain the privileged minority living in the midst of
an overwhelming number of highly diverse expatriate guest workers. Nevertheless, nation-
als’ sense of insecurity is mounting as well. Demographic imbalance has clearly become the
nexus of recent studies on the UAE. There has been a growing ‘anti-foreign’ sentiment in
the midst of rampant social protests and revolutions in the Middle East since December
2010.11 Emiratisation – the nationalisation of the workforce – gained greater momentum in
the years following the Arab Spring. Still, achieving a major correction of this demographic
imbalance is unrealistic in the near future.
It is, therefore, sociologically meaningful to study the generations that have spent either
most or all of their lives in the country, both nationals and non-nationals. How do the non-na-
tionals evaluate their experiences in a country where they are permanently temporary? For
the younger generation of expatriates born and/or raised in the UAE, how do they perceive
their national identities and political rights? As technological advancement and economic
globalisation continue to erode national boundaries, can we still use the existing conceptual
categories to understand the new generation’s experiences?
In this paper, I focus on college students in one of the leading higher educational institu-
tions in the Middle East, as they are in close contact with people of diverse backgrounds
and have been exposed to a wide range of activities and programmes that promote cul-
tural diversity and cosmopolitan ideas. I will draw on ndings from a questionnaire survey
and in-depth, face-to-face interviews to examine how transnational experiences and global
awareness among these young adults shape their understanding of UAE society, their sense
of belonging and their attitudes towards social and political issues. I will also evaluate the
concepts of ‘global citizen’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’. As the UAE makes its way to becoming
the new global economic hub and centre of the Arab world, the idea of educating a new gen-
eration of ‘global citizens’ is hugely appealing, and nds strong support in UAE-based global
university branches as well as many local universities. In my research, I found that striving
to become cosmopolitan ‘global citizens’ helps young people to reconcile their troubled
10 Peggy Levitt and B. Nadya Jaworsky, ‘Transnational Migration Studies: Past Development and Future
Trends’, Annual Review of Sociology 33/1 (2007), pp. 129–56.
11 Forstenlechner and Rutledge, ‘GCC’s “Demographic Imbalance”’.
‘Global Citizen’ and the Dislocated Generation in the United Arab Emirates
relationship with the rapidly changing society of the UAE. This case study sheds light on
various conceptual challenges facing scholars of immigration studies and globalisation in an
increasingly interconnected and uid world.
Data and Research Methods
This paper draws on relevant ndings from a questionnaire survey on the changing values
and worldviews among college students. It was conducted between 2010 and 2011 on 550
randomly selected college students at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), supple-
mented by 37 follow-up in-depth interviews with respondents identied from the initial
sample. A research team comprised of two sociologists and a research assistant with a Mas-
ter’s degree in Anthropology designed and carried out the study. Anonymous questionnaires
were distributed to students in randomly selected classes in the College of Arts and Sciences
and returned immediately to the research team after completion. The research assistant –
a non-AUS person conducted most interviews in order to reduce the possible inuence
of faculty members (the two sociologists, including the author) on students during the
interviews. Both survey and interviews were conducted in English. During the interviews,
however, respondents occasionally used Arabic, Hindi or Urdu words to describe their feel-
ings, or to refer to terms for which they could not nd comparable words in English. The
research assistant is uent in English, Arabic and Urdu, and therefore was able to record and
translate these words into English.
AUS is one of the leading comprehensive universities in the Gulf and the greater Middle
East region that adopt an American higher education model, with an emphasis on liberal
arts education. Its co-educational campus and residential college lifestyle further differ-
entiate AUS from other higher educational institutions in the region. Founded in 1997 by
the ruler of Sharjah, one of the seven emirates that form the federation, AUS is a not-
for-prot organisation operating on the model of private educational institutions. AUS
students tend to come from more liberal and nancially well-off families than those who
enrol in national universities that offer free education on gender-segregated campuses.
At the time of this study, more than 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students were
enrolled at AUS, including UAE nationals (20 per cent), Arabs from other countries (42
per cent), South Asians (12 per cent) and students of other ethnic backgrounds (26 per
cent).12 Since all AUS students are required to take courses in the College of Arts and
Sciences to full the general education requirements, the researchers were able to survey
students from a wide range of specialisations at all levels.13 A total number of 393 valid
and completed surveys were received. The response rate was 71.5 per cent. See Table 1.
12 Data obtained from the AUS Ofce of the Registrar.
13 We did consider conducting a campus-wide survey using online survey tools. However, on the basis of
our previous experiences with online surveys in the UAE, we decided to draw a smaller sampling frame
– students who are enrolled in courses offered by the College of Arts and Sciences. We distributed ques-
tionnaires in randomly selected classes to ensure more reliable responses and a higher rate of completion.
74 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Table 1 Descriptive statistics of survey respondents
Category Subcategory Number Percentage
Year in college Freshmen 84 21.3
Sophomore 123 31.2
Junior 67 17.1
Senior 119 30.4
Specialisation College of Arts and Sciences 118 30.0
College of Engineering 128 32.6
College of Architecture, Art and Design 25 6.4
School of Business Administration 122 31.0
Gender Female 216 55.0
Male 177 45.0
Ethnicity Arabs 254 64.6
South Asian 32 8.1
Mixed 34 8.7
All others 73 18.6
Status in the UAE UAE nationals 90 23.0
Expatriates 213 55.0
International students 90 23.0
Total 393 100
To enrich the quantitative data, students were also asked to provide their contact informa-
tion on a separate page if they were willing to participate in follow-up face-to-face interviews.
Out of 103 students who provided their contact methods, indicating their interest in fol-
low-up interviews, only 37 actually accepted the requests for face-to-face interviews. Eight
of them were UAE nationals, or approximately 22 per cent. About half (17, or 46 per cent)
were born/raised or mostly educated in the UAE.14 Certainly, this sampling method is not
free of the problem of self-selection. However, such problems are not unusual in survey
studies. The level of reluctance among students to participate in this study and the lack
of institutional support made data collection particularly challenging.15 In addition, the
volatile political environment in the Middle East in subsequent years made it almost impos-
sible for the researchers to gain permission to conduct surveys in other universities so as to
enable comparisons across institutions. Nevertheless, the fact that AUS students are clearly
exposed to diverse cultures offers a unique opportunity to study young adults whose iden-
tity matrices may be the most complex and dynamic.
14 In this paper, I consider respondents who received their primary education in the UAE as born/raised in
the UAE.
15 The Institutional Review Board approval process was delayed for almost six months. A number of ques-
tions in the survey were deemed inappropriate or sensitive in the context of UAE society.
‘Global Citizen’ and the Dislocated Generation in the United Arab Emirates
Delineating the Boundaries of UAE National Identity
Despite the UAE’s restrictive immigration policies, the growing middle and upper middle
class of professionals and business owners from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds have
become increasingly visible in the local and national communities, while maintaining strong
transnational ties. Throughout the years, they have established private ethnic schools, hos-
pitals, trade organisations, professional associations, religious fellowships etc. Some own
real-estate properties and other forms of investment in the UAE. These expatriates are
qualied to sponsor residence visas for direct family members. As their children grow up in
the UAE and temporary visas sometimes stretch into de facto permanent residence, their
status raises many questions, among which stands the issue of naturalisation and citizenship.
Mass naturalisation has never been an option to address the issue of labour shortage in the
UAE and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.16 As is the case for many other
countries, UAE nationality is based on the principle of jus sanguinis (line of descent). More
specically, UAE nationality is generally based on tribal lineage, except for the small number
of Ajam,17 who add a thin layer of ethnic diversity to the demography. Therefore, the term
‘Emirati’ can hardly be extended to include foreigners. However, it is important to note
that the UAE is a federation of seven emirates, each comprised of many tribes and clans. A
unied nation did not come into being until 1971. Until then, there was no such concept as
UAE national identity. People who have historically resided in the Gulf region are generally
referred to as Khaleeji, or people of the Gulf. Yet people were expected to be loyal to their
own tribes. The formation of the UAE and the independence of Bahrain and Qatar created
several distinctive nationalities that did not exist before. The Emirati identity was largely
constructed in the decades following the formation of the federation and in the process of
an economic development that has solidied the dualistic structure, with a clear line drawn
between nationals and non-nationals in almost every aspect of social life. The importance
of blood purity further creates subgroups among the UAE nationals, differentiating ‘pure’
Emiratis from ‘mixed’ ones.18
Visitors are often so fascinated by the racial/ethnic diversity in the UAE as to see it as a cos-
mopolitan place. To some degree, the UAE prides itself on being an open society that has
accommodated an overwhelmingly large number of foreigners who are both racially/ethni-
cally and religiously diverse. But this openness is more or less the inevitable consequence of a
small national population and the UAE’s ambitious economic development plans, rather than
an ideal social structure preferred by the ruling families. While being a ‘tolerant, open caring
society’, the UAE ‘cherishes its religious and traditional roots’.19 In order to ensure that the
traditional culture of Emirati society remains intact in the process of fast modernisation, the
expatriates have been accommodated on a temporary basis. Resistance among the indigenous
population lends further support to the current policies. Foreigners are seen as economically
oriented, unlikely to develop loyalty to the state and therefore not to be trusted.
16 Forstenlechner and Rutledge, ‘GCC’s “Demographic Imbalance”’.
17 The Ajam are the descendants of Persian, Indian African and Baluchi merchants settled prior to the era
of the ‘oil boom’. Fatema al Sayegh, ‘Domestic Politics in the United Arab Emirates: Social and Economic
Policies, 1990–2000’, in Joseph A. Kechichian (ed.), Iran, Iraq, and the Arab Gulf States (New York: Palgrave,
2001), pp. 161–75.
18 Ibid.
19 UAE Yearbook 2008, p. 213. Available at (accessed 25
December 2013).
76 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
For people who have lived in the UAE long enough, its multiculturalism is rather super-
cial. The immigration policy has created dualism, rather than pluralism, in various social
institutions. Reward is not always determined by merit. There is little meaningful social
interaction between the nationals and expatriates. The various social institutions, instead
of ameliorating social frictions, reinforce this pattern of dualism, which further generates
a compartmentalised society largely divided along racial/ethnic lines. As a result, there are
ample racial/ethnic stereotypes in society. The new expatriate communities are often mere
extension of social networks at home.20 The conictual status of indigenous and foreign
complicates individual identities and group relations.
In our interviews, almost all the respondents were able to describe the UAE’s demographic
characteristics and discuss intelligently the consequences of diversity and the existence of
an overwhelmingly large non-national population. Many of the respondents had personally
witnessed the amazing transformation of this desert nation through the 1990s and the rst
decade of the twenty-rst century. However, the feeling towards the growing racial/ethnic
diversity was much more mixed. When asked about the impact of racial/ethnic diversity in
the UAE, a Palestinian student shared her experience of living there:
There are different kinds of people, you learn from different kinds of people. If you
stick to one race, one nationality, you will be ignorant, you won’t know as much as
everyone does. In the UAE they make you learn about different cultures. For exam-
ple I am Muslim and I have a Christian friend who is Lebanese. I have learned a lot
of stuff that are in her culture but are not in my culture.
It may be exciting for a Palestinian to make friends with a Lebanese; yet the distance
between the nationals and expatriates has hardly narrowed despite the growing diversity in
the country. More than two-thirds of our respondents said that they did not have any real
Emirati friends. They found that the nationals tended to stay within their own small groups
and were not interested in mingling with the expatriates. Language barrier was one of the
factors that prevented meaningful social interactions between the nationals and non-na-
tionals. More importantly, according to the respondents, it was a sense of privilege and
fear that kept the nationals away from the expats. A Palestinian girl thought the distance
was natural because ‘[the locals] are really afraid [of] us [foreigners]. They think that we
are coming here to take everything from them.’ Mostly, respondents said that the lack of
interaction and integration intensied the dualistic nature that characterises UAE society,
which exacerbates mutual stereotyping and contributes to the growing anti-foreign senti-
ment among UAE nationals. Indeed, Emiratis have been depicted as uneducated, arrogant
and lazy. Fatima, a UAE national studying Biology who had maintained an almost perfect
grade point average, hoped to break the stereotype by being a diligent student and a dedi-
cated employee. Daughter of an Emirati father and an American mother, Fatima contends,
It’s frustrating when I sometimes hear all those negative comments about the lo-
cals, which makes me feel almost like an impostor. If I get a good job, people will
say that it is only because of my nationality. It is just like what the Afrmative Ac-
tion does to the African Americans in the States.
20 Vora, Impossible Citizens, p. 3.
‘Global Citizen’ and the Dislocated Generation in the United Arab Emirates
Fatima was exceptional in many ways. Although she was not afraid of competing in a gen-
uine merit system, others were far less enthusiastic about this idea. In fact, it seems that
excluding expatriates from the legal realm of ‘citizenship’ in the UAE did little to create a
sense of security among the nationals. In any case, under the shadow of the mushrooming
skyscrapers, the UAE’s political structure remains opaque, leaving little room for cultivating
meaningful citizenship among its local population. Given its political connotation, citizen-
ship is generally avoided in public discourses. Therefore, the imminent danger of losing
‘Emirati’ identity has little to do with the boundaries of citizenship with regard to rights
and responsibilities. It is, in fact, about the threats expatriates pose to family and marriage
structures, gender relations, traditional lifestyle and even the self-perception of Emiratis.
The diverse foreign cultures coexisting in UAE society continue to push the boundaries of
social norms and dilute the indigenous Khaleeji culture, which could result in the break-
down of social equilibrium.
Although the immigration policy successfully prevents expatriates from obtaining UAE cit-
izenship, it appears powerless to prevent foreign cultures from entering Emirati society.
Our study shows that the line between nationals and non-nationals has become increas-
ingly vague. A respondent of Russian and Syrian descent recounted her reaction when
Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al Maktoum, former vice president, prime minister and ruler
of Dubai, passed away in 2006. She recalled that her Christian friends of Indian descent
were extremely saddened by the news, ‘as if they had just lost their own father’. This senti-
ment expressed by non-Arab and non-Muslim expatriates in the UAE clearly challenges the
boundaries of national identity. If ‘national identity is to feel you belong to your homeland
and to feel zeal toward everything related to it’, as Khalfan Musabih, cultural advisor at the
Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Foundation, denes it,21 then we must ask whether we could
dene the presence of such ‘zeal’ among expatriates as a kind of national identity. The
dilemma of ‘belonging’ but ‘not being’ constantly reminds the expatriates of the transitory
nature of living in the UAE.
Although the rights and responsibilities of the UAE citizens are limited compared to those
in a democratic polity, the legal status of UAE citizenship does offer them protection and
delineates boundaries. It prevents the expatriates from becoming active participants in
public life and becoming attached to Emirati society. Citizenship also entails responsibili-
ties and duties. Not being a citizen excludes expatriates from consciously making positive
contributions to society. For many expatriates, the dualistic social structure prevents them
from becoming active members of the UAE. They lament that their purpose in living in the
UAE can only be economic, that there is nothing else and should not be anything else. Frus-
trated, some wish to move to other countries because their ‘love’ for the UAE is considered a
threat. Such frustration was felt clearly in our interview with a Palestinian student born and
raised in the UAE: ‘No, I don’t call [the UAE] home […] I don’t feel like its home although
I lived all my life here. I don’t know why. Maybe because of the way locals treat us, I think.’
21 Eman Mohammed, ‘The Debate on UAE National Identity’, Gulf News, 26 May 2008. Available at http:// (accessed 19 October
78 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Dislocated or Transnational: Anchoring Conicting Identities in a
Globalising UAE
The voluminous literature on immigration offers important insights into the process of
identity formation among immigrants, both legal and illegal, both sojourners and transna-
tionals, who maintain multiple social relationships that link their roots and new homes.22
Many of the discussions are coalesced around the problem of assimilation.23 Scholars who
examine immigrants in the USA nd the term ‘assimilation’ tarnished by white supremacy.
Both theoretical and empirical studies show that immigrants have developed varied ways
to cope with the challenges of living in a strange world. Some become acculturated, while
others achieve selective adaptation.24 The model of multiculturalism has also gained much
popularity. Yet the dark side of multiculturalism has led many to turn to pluralism.
The case of the UAE challenges some important assumptions and constituencies in immigra-
tion studies. The UAE’s immigration policies in reality create a group of ‘forced sojourners’,
who are not expected to seek assimilation or adaptation. The compulsory tie between
employment and residential status implants a sense of insecurity and consistently reminds
the expatriates of their temporary status in the UAE. They must be prepared to leave the
country like ‘sojourners’ in the traditional sense of the term. In practice, the UAE’s immigra-
tion policies are based on neoliberal principles facilitating rather than impeding economic
growth. Based on agreed social contracts between the rulers and local elites who have enthu-
siastically sponsored a large number of multinational corporations, the immigration policies
also seek to generate institutional stability rather than chaos. As a result, it is possible for
expatriates who have the desire to live in the country to achieve long-term stability.25 In this
context, the status of expatriates is indeed similar to that of immigrants. The idea of mul-
ticulturalism has enabled them to reconcile various challenges in everyday life. Like ethnic
minorities in other immigrant-receiving countries, expatriates in the UAE have also created
ethnic business associations, ethnic educational institutions, ethnic religious fellowships
etc.26 Adaptation or selective adaptation has occurred, although acculturation is generally
prevented due to the lack of interaction between the nationals and the expatriates.
Consequently, the absence of acculturation helps to maintain strong ties between expatri-
ates and their home countries. It is desirable for expatriates to continue cultivating their
social, economic and in some cases political ties at home in preparation for their return in
the future. These ties are transnational in nature, stressing the importance of blood lineage,
heritage and traditions at home. In addition, for many expatriates from other countries in
the Middle East and North Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, the UAE is also an ideal
place from which to continue their migration journeys. It is often a stepping-stone en route
to Europe, North America or Oceania. The neutrality the UAE maintains in its international
relations provides a safe haven for refugees and voluntary migrants alike to prepare for more
promising futures.
22 Levitt and Jaworsky, ‘Transnational Migration Studies’.
23 Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut, Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2001).
24 Margaret Gibson, ‘Immigration Adaptation and Patterns of Acculturation’, Human Development 44 (2001),
pp. 19–23.
25 Vora, Impossible Citizens.
26 Frauke Heard-Bey, ‘The United Arab Emirates: Statehood and Nation-Building in a Traditional Society’,
Middle East Journal 59/3 (2005), pp. 357–75.
‘Global Citizen’ and the Dislocated Generation in the United Arab Emirates
In our survey, more than 20 per cent of the respondents held passports issued by devel-
oped countries including the UK, France, Germany, the USA and Canada. More than 60
per cent had resided in two or more countries. Their transnational experiences need to be
understood in the broader process of globalisation. What makes the UAE more attractive
than other GCC countries, judging from the accounts of our respondents, is its enthusiasm
for building itself as ‘the new meeting place of East and West’, with Dubai as its anchoring
global city, where diversity is actively promoted and law enforcement is mostly unbiased.
One respondent applauded the achievement of the UAE:
I think the UAE is one of the most beautiful and developed countries in the world.
It’s the most stable, economically and politically and people even if they are not
happy because of their work conditions or life conditions regarding money or some-
thing, they prefer to be here because they have a lot of choices. […]
I love Dubai because it has everything, people with religion, no religion. I think it is
much better to live here because it is the city that involves everybody and you don’t
feel like you are discriminated by anything.
Others are more sober about the UAE and future prospects. Nevertheless, instead of being
resentful of the immigration policies in the UAE, the majority of the respondents felt that
the education they received in the UAE enabled them to develop a global mentality. They
tended to look beyond the restraints they faced due to their temporary status in the UAE
and draw on their transnational experiences to reconcile the conict.
More importantly, although the children of expatriates are often described as a ‘rootless’
generation that is deprived of meaningful citizenship in any country, they felt such ‘rootless-
ness’ transcended national boundaries and enabled them to embrace globalisation. Prepared
by their interactions with a diverse population in the UAE, combined with the liberal arts
education that exposed them to various social problems around the world, they were eager
to break away from tribalism, parochialism and nationalism, and to develop compassion
towards ‘others’. This was also true among young Emiratis. Born to an Emirati diplomat
father and a Syrian mother and having grown up in Europe, Sarah was not convinced that
there is an ‘Emirati culture’. She said:
The country is fairly new […] so I think it’s too early to say what true culture is or
what true traditions are because to be honest it is extremely multicultural. There
is no room for [the locals] to have their own culture. They are borrowing from other
places and especially Dubai, it is adapted for the foreigners. You have buildings
brought in from different countries, replicas of towers, supermarkets, [and] shop-
ping malls. They are all brought in from the West so you need to look at what lies
in the soil of the country but the soil is still, I mean the grass is green but its not
real. It’s a desert.
Her experiences of living in a number of countries in Europe had allowed her to develop a
strong awareness of social inequality:
When I came [back to the UAE] I was not impressed by the sort of segregation in
[social] class and how there was a hierarchy of the locals, upper classes, lower class-
es and it was so divided and the lack of meritocracy in this country was something
80 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
that I didn’t agree with. Its like if you were born in a good family then you have
good opportunities to get better jobs, paid better, especially if you are local and I
feel that is very unfair. Because what does it leave the other people to do? They
work just as hard and don’t get paid the same. […] The underpaid workers, the
Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi etc. I think it is extremely unfortunate because they
supply the country with the streets that we walk on, the buildings that we walk
into, and things like that. But they get treated unfairly.
These comments reect the changing mentality. Although these young adults were often
facing very different challenges and came from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds,
their visions of the world were clearly shaped by their experiences of rapid globalisation.
While feeling ‘dislocated’, they were also striving to stay connected. These connections
were cultivated through their transnational experiences, which ironically were facilitated
by UAE’s immigration policies. These young adults’ interpretations of the relationship
between global and local and the opportunities they enjoyed in the UAE rearranged the
coordinates on their identity matrices.
The Paradox of Being a Global Citizen: Developing Coping Strategies
In the existing literature, citizenship has been dened in many different ways.27 It often
acts as ‘a powerful instrument of social closure’.28 In a democratic polity, citizenship gives
the right to vote, to run for ofce and to participate freely in various civic organisations,
while requiring the citizen to full his or her obligations by paying taxes or serving in the
military etc. Although, in the era of globalisation, the association of citizenship with the
nation-state is under siege as the phenomenon of ‘world citizen’ or ‘global citizen’ emerges
as the result of mass transnational movements, scholars argue that citizenship is still very
important and relevant in today’s world.29 It delineates the boundaries of nation-states. The
concept of citizenship includes ‘us’ and excludes ‘them’. It offers protection and mandates
obligations. It is also an important measure by which either to alienate or to integrate immi-
grants. In the socio-political context of the UAE, citizenship carries a set of rights and duties
that are different from those under a typical democratic polity. Still, it undoubtedly creates
boundaries that differentiate citizens from foreign residents by associating privileges and
favourable treatments with national citizenship.
Living in a time of rapid economic development and social transformation, most of our inter-
viewees felt overwhelmed, powerless and anxious. They were eager to become independent
and assertive, yet the reality appeared gloomier than they had imagined. Out of the eight
UAE nationals we interviewed, all were fascinated by the diverse cultures brought to the
UAE by the expatriates. Several of them showed strong sympathy towards the poor and
condemned the dark side of globalisation. The expatriates expressed a similar appreciation
of diversity. Although they were obviously worried about their future, none of them made
clear their views of citizenship. Some of them did show a level of frustration, but mostly
27 Marc Morjé Howard, ‘Comparative Citizenship: An Agenda for Cross-National Research’, Perspectives on
Politics 4/3 (2006), pp. 443–55.
28 Rogers Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1992).
29 Howard, ‘Comparative Citizenship’.
‘Global Citizen’ and the Dislocated Generation in the United Arab Emirates
they chose to look beyond these structural limitations to describe their experiences in the
UAE as enriching and empowering. In response to the uncertainties about the future, the
contrasts between the rich and the poor and the ambivalence about traditional values, many
respondents connected their transnational experiences to the term ‘global citizen’ or ‘world
citizen’. To cope with various challenges at home, in university and at the workplace, they
had generally shifted their attention to ‘things that are much bigger’ than the immediate
concerns of everyday life.
The UAE is ambitious to improve its global status. Discourses on cultivating ‘world citizens’
or ‘global citizens’ in the cosmopolitan UAE cities have generated much interest. The term
‘world citizen’ has been mentioned frequently in the mass media. Moreover, Dubai has
successfully hosted a number of high-prole global events in the past few years, such as the
World Economic Forum, the Global Citizen Forum and more recently the World Islamic
Economic Forum, putting the city on a par with other global cities. Paralleling these devel-
opments is the growing effort to build civil society in the UAE.30 These public discourses
embody the ideal of inclusiveness.
Dubai, the most prominent city in the UAE, is often described as ‘cosmopolitan’. The
impression is usually based on the observation of the existence of diverse people and organ-
isations in its public space. However, in reality, this multicultural appearance contributes
to the compartmentalisation of society in which little social interaction exists across groups,
let alone the development of ‘a love of humanity’, as cosmopolitan scholars advocate. The
limited daily interactions between the nationals and expatriates help to maintain the rigid
status quo. Social inequalities based on national origins become institutionalised to a great
extent. Thus, Dubai hardly qualies as a ‘cosmopolitan’ city.
The concept of ‘cosmopolitan’ is probably little understood and therefore misused by the
public. In the contemporary rejuvenation of the Stoic idea of cosmopolitanism, it is under-
stood as the love of humanity as a whole, or as being about duties owed to every person
in the cosmos (world), without or beyond national, religious and ethnic differentiations.
Cosmopolitanism is a moral disposition; as Diogenes said, ‘I am a citizen of the world [kos-
mopolitês].’ Cosmopolitans are those who put right before country, and universal reason
before the symbols of national belonging.31 Such a disposition requires reasons to examine
one’s own customs and bonds critically, love of humanity beyond one’s local or group loy-
alty, and narrative imagination to think what it might be like in the shoes of others in terms
of personal stories, emotions, wishes and desires.32 A more relaxed version of Nussbaum’s
cosmopolitanism is based on common humanity – reason, love and duties – as well as her
insistence on developing moral capabilities through liberal education. Her exultation of cos-
mopolitanism has been met with criticism because it sacrices patriotism and other group
identities (from a multiculturalist perspective) and overemphasises the values of humanity
over individual rights or choices (from a liberal perspective).33
30 The UAE’s top research foundations, such as the Emirates Foundation, have dispatched various calls for
research on civil society in the UAE during the last several years.
31 Martha Nussbaum, ‘Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism’, Boston Review 19/5 (1994), pp. 3–34 at p. 8.
32 Ibid., p. 7. Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Boston:
Harvard University Press, 1997).
33 Samuel Schefer (ed.), Boundaries and Allegiances: Problems of Justice and Responsibility in Liberal Thought
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). Fred Dallmayr, Dialogue among Civilizations: Some Exemplary
Voices (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
82 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Certainly, others have also attempted to interpret the idea of cosmopolitanism. Jeremy Wal-
dron,34 for example, constructs a thicker theory of cosmopolitanism that requires people
living side by side to interact with each other, regardless of their differences. Habermas
and Benhabib et al.,35 representing another school of thought on cosmopolitanism, argue
that we already live in a ‘post-national constellation’ of transnational citizenship, in which
the ‘conventional model’ of a world of ‘nation states regarded as independent actors’ and
bounded forms of national citizenry is ‘less and less appropriate to the current situation’.36
For them, citizenship must be addressed through an expanded theory of transnational dis-
cursive democracy exactly because international migration and inclusion of aliens in political
processes have become connected to transnational economic and cultural enterprises. The
deliberation process in a global civil society implies that a global citizenship not only should
be extended as a universal human rights regime to all the people in the world, but also
involves inclusion of third-country nationals or other underprivileged immigrants in the
developing countries.37
The UAE’s ‘cosmopolitanism’ is skin deep, as the large number of foreigners and a much
smaller number of nationals clearly continue to live in different worlds with little overlap.
The limited interactions between nationals and expatriates prevent the development of
Waldron’s version of cosmopolitanism. Nevertheless, in some sense, the Nussbaum style
of cosmopolitanism may offer a way to integrate the young adults who have never had any
meaningful experiences with citizenship. Growing up in modern cities in the UAE, young
adults have relatively few connections with their parents’ ethnic culture. The transnational
lifestyle and frequent travel detach them from a particular locale and allow them to develop
genuine understanding of universal human rights regardless of ethnic or national boundar-
ies. Their transnational experiences make it easier to move across multiple boundaries and
to appreciate the post-national social structure, in which they nd citizenship of little use.
The experiences of living in the UAE could potentially encourage one to develop a sense of
global citizenship as a way to reconcile conicting identities.
Alongside the public discourses on the ‘global citizen’, scholars have also explored other
alternative concepts to understand life in diaspora. The concept of the citizen is not static.
Studies show that one becomes a citizen by claiming membership in a social body. This cit-
izen-making process is understood and regulated by other members of society.38 It could be
viewed as ‘a cultural process of “subjectication”’39 or a ‘negotiated relationship, one which
is subject […] to change, and acted upon collectively within social, political and economic
relations of conict’.40 Non-citizens negotiate citizenship rights in the process of developing
strategies to cope with their disadvantaged social status.
34 Jeremy Waldron, ‘What is Cosmopolitan?’, Journal of Political Philosophy 8/2 (2000), pp. 227–43.
35 Jürgen Habermas, Postnational Constellation: Political Essays, trans. Max Pensky (Boston: MIT Press, 2001).
Seyla Benhabib, Jeremy Waldron, Bonnie Honig and Will Kymlicka, Another Cosmopolitanism: Hospitality, Sov-
ereignty, and Democratic Interactions, ed. Robert Post (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
36 Sheldon Pollock, ‘Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History’, Public Culture 12/3 (2002), pp. 15–53 at p. 29.
37 Dallmayr, Dialogue among Civilizations.
38 Hae Yeon Choo, ‘Gendered Modernity and Ethnicized Citizenship: North Korea Settlers in Contempo-
rary South Korea’, Gender and Society 20/5 (2006), pp. 576–604.
39 Aihwa Ong, ‘Cultural Citizenship as Subject-Making: Immigrants Negotiate Racial and Cultural Bound-
aries in the United States’, Current Anthropology 37 (1996), pp. 737–62 at p. 737.
40 Daiva Stasiulis and Abigail B. Bakan, ‘Negotiating Citizenship: The Case of Foreign Domestic Workers
in Canada’, Feminist Review 57 (1997), pp. 112–39 at p. 112.
‘Global Citizen’ and the Dislocated Generation in the United Arab Emirates
The situation expatriates in the UAE face is peculiar in that their stay is always temporary
and they should always be prepared to leave the country. Although many of them have
developed a great deal of emotional attachment to the UAE, they are unlikely to be per-
ceived as ‘just like us’ by the UAE nationals. The differences are exaggerated and similarities
minimised due to the lack of interaction. Even Arabs who share many social, cultural and
religious traditions with the Emiratis are perceived as ‘others’. What connects the expatri-
ates and UAE society has been conned within the economic realm. In the city-states of the
UAE, this economic relationship deserves much attention. It is the primary reason for the
emirates to import immigrants as well as for the immigrants to remain in the emirates. When
asked about their opinions of UAE society, all of our 37 interviewees mentioned shopping
malls, festivals and luxury goods.
Without doubt, one of the important activities in the UAE is consumption. Neha Vora uses
‘consumer citizenship’ to explain the paradox of ‘belonging’ but ‘not being’ among the size-
able middle-class Indian expatriate population of Dubai. She argues:
Expatriate consumer citizenship, while seemingly a form of belonging that exceeds
and challenges the nation-state, was actually an integral part of the production of the
UAE nation-state as distinct from other states, and as distinct from the economy.
Indians in Dubai, even though they do not have formal access to citizenship and
are segregated from Emiratis and other expatriate groups, provide examples of new
subjectivities enabled by migration, and in so doing, challenge conceptions of be-
longing as based in liberal notions of rights, citizenship, and cultural assimilation.41
Vora’s concept of ‘consumer citizenship’ challenges the traditional boundaries of citizenship
that is strictly dened by the borders of nation-states. Becoming an active consumer in
the UAE has indeed been utilised as one of the coping strategies. The shopping malls are
important public spaces for social networking and group interaction. ‘Consumer citizenship’
reveals an important aspect of social life in the UAE. While consuming, expatriates enjoy
various social services and are granted the right to access various facilities.
This ‘consumer citizenship’ also indicates people’s indifference towards issues that are
often considered important in other societies, such as corruption, women’s rights, unem-
ployment and the environment. Judging from our survey, students have little interest in
politics, which was seen as just slightly more important than trafc problems on a list of 14
items.42 On the other hand, health, security and education were ranked as the three most
important social issues, followed by economic development and human rights.
There is still very little to be said about civil society in the UAE and it is obvious that there
is a sense of political apathy; however, there was clearly a growing level of civic engagement
among the young adults surveyed in our study. Despite the multiple barriers in society
41 Neha Vora, ‘Producing Diasporas and Globalization: Indian Middle-Class Migrants in Dubai’, Anthropo-
logical Quarterly 81/2 (2008), pp. 377–406 at p. 379.
42 We used a Likert scale to measure the importance of a total of 14 social and political issues: security,
health, women’s rights, national–expatriate relations, economic development, unemployment, corruption,
public morality, human rights, labour rights, trafc, education, environment and politics. We also asked
respondents to identify what they considered the three most important issues as well as the three least
84 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
preventing the expatriates from experiencing citizenship in a meaningful way, the liberal
education offered at AUS had encouraged the young adults to redene their status in UAE
society, through the formation of alumni associations, environmental preservation groups,
voluntary sports groups, religious clubs, community service clubs etc. These organisa-
tions create opportunities of civic participation for both nationals and expatriates. More
importantly, these associations provide a level playing eld for nationals and expatriates,
transcending the conventional dualistic social structure that gives preference to nationals
over non-nationals, and providing institutional support for more meaningful experiences of
‘citizenship’. Participants in these organisations deliver services to society through various
programmes, and subsequently learn to become globally responsible and ultimately cos-
mopolitan people. Originally from Kerala, India, but raised in Sharjah, a student studying
Journalism found opportunities to continue learning about Emirati culture:
People from the different nationalities do mix. The upcoming Global Day is an
example of how different cultures and nationalities mix. Even though there are
different cultural clubs. There is the Pakistani Cultural Club, [and] there is the
Emirati Cultural Club. Even though I am not an Emirati national, I did go and join
the club. I mean there are different people joining different clubs and participating
in different activities. There is a lot of mixing and integration.
The fast-growing economy of the UAE has only increased the UAE’s dependence on for-
eign workers during the last several decades. The expatriates have played signicant roles
in the social development and are the backbone of the economy. Although the UAE gov-
ernment has a clear goal of only using temporary or short-term immigrant workers to meet
the labour shortage, it has become evident that foreign guest workers have been ‘struc-
turally integrated into the economy’.43 The sheer formidable number of foreigners alone
has a profound impact on the indigenous population. Particularly, the growing number of
middle-class, high-income professionals and their increasing inuence in society present
a threat to the local lifestyle and raise concerns domestically over the social values of the
UAE. The dualistic characteristics of UAE society allow the state to control the distribu-
tion of wealth between its nationals and expatriates. Economically, it has probably worked
in the UAE government’s favour; however, socially and culturally it does more harm than
good. The current immigration policy in the UAE needs to address its apparent paradoxical
outcomes, since it not only fails to slow down the erosion of local culture, but also creates
mistrust within society.
In the case of the UAE, citizenship exists within the political structure of patriarchal
sheikhdoms, Khaleej tribal identity and the federation system. Although the rights and
responsibilities of UAE citizens are limited compared to those in a democratic polity, UAE
nationals have been actively participating in the governance of their country since the 1970s,
while the expatriates have largely been excluded from participating in public social life.44
The concept of citizenship as membership within a political structure discourages or even
43 Weiner, ‘Immigration’.
44 Heard-Bey, ‘United Arab Emirates’, p. 369.
‘Global Citizen’ and the Dislocated Generation in the United Arab Emirates
rejects the positive contribution of expatriates, for they are not citizens, are not granted any
citizen rights and therefore do not carry any responsibilities. The rhythm of the temporary
lives of foreign residents in the UAE is comprised of three essential steps: working hard,
saving money and departing. The purely economic relation between the expatriate com-
munities and UAE society is in every sense against the development of global citizenship.
However, as the UAE continues its neoliberal economic policies and becomes more inte-
grated into global society, its traditional cultures will not stay static. Various boundaries will
become more uid and so create space for individuals and groups to redene their social
roles. The concept of the ‘global citizen’ is still at the stage of conceptualisation. In some
cases, it contradicts patriotism, contests the dominant power structure and, more impor-
tantly, is practised by a small number of ‘transnationals’ who have been inspired by the
liberal arts education they receive and empowered by their migratory experiences to develop
a sense of global awareness. Nevertheless, the frustrations and hopes expressed by this gen-
eration of transnationals and their growing sense of responsibility towards humanity as a
whole will continue to enrich our understanding of the enduring effect of global migration.
86 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Annex I: Law Pertaining to ‘Economic Citizenship’ in the Union of the Comoros
88 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
90 Challenges to Citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa Region
Annex II: Advertisement for a For-Prot Company Helping to Obtain Citizenship
(Found in an On-Board Magazine)
Middle East Centre
London School of Economics
and Political Science
Houghton Street
London WC2A 2AE
... One needs to be reminded that even though the expatriate population in the UAE exceeds the national population by 90%, they are essentially considered as "guests" or "social citizens" because judicial citizenship is only a rare occasion granted by rulers (Wang, 2015). Hence, it is not unusual for the UAE government to aim at sustaining its remarkable economic growth and attaining its future goal to establish itself as a global actor in the knowledge-driven world with its own youth. ...
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... One needs to be reminded that even though the expatriate population in the UAE exceeds the national population by 90%, they are essentially considered as "guests" or "social citizens" because judicial citizenship is only a rare occasion granted by rulers (Wang, 2015). Hence, it is not unusual for the UAE government to aim at sustaining its remarkable economic growth and attaining its future goal to establish itself as a global actor in the knowledge-driven world with its own youth. ...
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