UAE’s New Foreign Citizenship Plan Triggers Rare Rights Debate

The United Arab Emirates’ new plan to offer citizenship to a select group of foreigners has generated some rare public discussion about rights, including from the wife of a ruling sheikh.

In a Twitter post on the same day as the announcement, Sheikha Jawaher Al Qasimi alluded to the fact that Emirati women don’t have the same right to automatically pass on citizenship to their children as Emirati men do. “Naturalization of the children of female citizens. That’s a demand,” she wrote. “Employment for Emirati citizens. That’s a demand.”

Her husband is the ruler of Sharjah, one of the UAE’s seven emirates, and she heads the Supreme Council for Family Affairs there. In a later tweet, she emphasized her remarks on various topics on Twitter were not meant to be taken as criticism of the government. Her office confirmed it was her personal Twitter account but declined to comment further on the topic.

Family stability and social cohesion are of utmost importance to the UAE leadership, a UAE government official said in response. The government is always keen to integrate individuals born to Emirati mothers and foreign fathers and see them contribute to the country’s development and prosperity, the official added.

In the UAE, children born to Emirati women and foreign men are allowed to seek citizenship but it’s not automatic. By contrast, children born to local men and foreign women receive citizenship at birth. The situation is similar in many Middle Eastern nations, where efforts to broaden citizenship rights have met resistance.

The UAE government allows children born to Emirati mothers and foreign fathers to apply for UAE citizenship when they turn 18, while their mothers are entitled to apply for citizenship on their behalf if the child has lived in the country for at least six years, the government official said. Thousands of people born under these circumstances have been granted UAE citizenship over the past few years, the official added.

The citizenship policy overhaul announced on Saturday is mainly aimed at attracting talent to boost economic growth that was hit hard last year by Covid-19 and lower crude prices. The lack of a social safety net forced many expatriates -- who make up nearly 90% of the population -- to return home after job losses reached record highs.

Analysts and other Emiratis commenting in local media and online viewed the change as a milestone that will allow further economic and financial gains. But while the UAE seeks to boost its economic recovery with citizenship and other initiatives, Sheikha Jawaher was not the only person to cautiously note that the changes might give expatriates a route to citizenship that is not automatically available to the children of Emirati women.

Some accused the government of selling the country’s birthright. Others said granting foreigners the same rights as locals puts Emiratis’ future at risk. Open criticism of government policy is rare in the UAE.

Citizenship is a fraught issue in Gulf nations where foreigners from all walks of life make up a large segment of the population and where nationals benefit from a generous welfare system. In neighboring Saudi Arabia, a recent decision to give citizenship to children of unknown parents also triggered pushback.

Even in Lebanon, which promotes itself as the Arab world’s most liberal country, citizenship isn’t matrilineal because some politicians worry that could upset the country’s already fragile sectarian balance.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.