Oral Statement to the UN Human Rights Council: Saudi Arabia

The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights and the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, requests member states to consider our remarks on Saudi Arabia’s UPR, regarding two main issues: discrimination against women in nationality legislation, and the protracted statelessness experienced by certain groups in the country.

On the outset it is important to note that in its state report before its previous UPR, Saudi Arabia did not comment on stateless communities in its territory, neither did it directly address gender discrimination in its nationality law.  Several countries made general recommendations to Saudi Arabia with regard to the promotion of gender equality and the elimination of gender discrimination, but none specifically mentioned gender discrimination in nationality laws. With regard to statelessness, Mexico recommended that Saudi Arabia should consider the ratification of the conventions on statelessness. Saudi Arabia did accept this recommendation, but has not yet acted on it.

Firstly with regard to gender discrimination:  According Saudi Arabian Citizenship System, children of Saudi fathers acquire Saudi nationality at birth, regardless of the child’s birthplace, but Saudi women cannot transmit their Saudi nationality automatically to their children.  Article 7 of the law states that, “Individuals born inside or outside the Kingdom from a Saudi father, or Saudi mother and unknown father, or born inside the Kingdom from unknown parents (foundling) are considered Saudis.” Alongside the discrimination that this is embedded in and the human rights impacts it has on the children, it also - in many cases - puts children at risk of statelessness when they cannot obtain the nationality of their father, or if their father is also stateless.

It is true that Article 8 of Saudi Arabian Citizenship System further goes onto allow children of Saudi mothers the option of applying for nationality at the age of majority, with conditions attached. This allows the option for children of Saudi women to naturalise, at the state’s discretion, after reaching the age of majority. This option falls far behind standards of gender equality and child rights. This provision does not provide mothers the same nationality rights as fathers, and denies children access to nationality and many other rights in their childhood.  

Secondly, with regard to stateless communities in Saudi Arabia:  One of the most prominent are the Bidoons.  Saudi Arabia hosts a sizable Bidoon population, reporting has suggested near to 250,000. Even UNHCR’s more conservative estimate of 70,000, places Saudi Arabia among the countries with the largest stateless populations in the world. This group mainly consists of descendants of nomadic tribes who failed to register for Saudi nationality in the past when the nation state was being formed.  This may have been as they did not know of the registration procedure, did not understand its importance and/or were travelling during the registration period.  Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is their home, Bidoons are considered "illegal residents" by the Saudi government and are not eligible for Saudi citizenship.  They are instead issued identity documents, known as "black cards" which are five year residency permits that the government began to issue in 2009. The procedure for obtaining these cards is unclear and their validity is often precarious.

Although these Bidoons have clear ties to the country and no option of obtaining nationality elsewhere in the world, the Saudi Arabian authority has made no attempts to resolve their situation of statelessness, nor ensure their access to other rights.  

It is of utmost importance to address the citizenship status of this population, as a matter of urgency. It has been noted that in 2020, the Bidoon will be asked to provide documentation establishing their origin. It is not clear what the consequences would be for those who cannot provide this documentation. Most fear they will be at risk of deportation, but they have nowhere to be removed to. 

Significantly, there is a large population of stateless Rohingya who reside in Saudi Arabia. The majority have lived there for decades and over generations (many since the 1950s), and again there are no official statistics for this population. However, estimates place the figure in the hundreds of thousands and possibly well over half a million.  Their status and protection has improved over the past few years during which Saudi Arabia has issued 190,000 free residency permits to them, which allows residency for four years. Under this process, applicants were also exempted from paying previous fines which resulted from non-renewal of their previous residency permits. Although this is a positive first step, it is not wholly adequate to resolve the legal status of stateless Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia. Short-term residency permits are not a permanent solution and the status of Rohingya continues to be at the discretion and goodwill of the state. Further, this initiative has not  covered the full population of Rohingya in the country, there are significant numbers who remain with no legal status. This status also does not ensure full access to rights; and perhaps most importantly, Rohingya children born in Saudi Arabia – who should be entitled to Saudi nationality in accordance with Article 7 of the CRC, are denied this right.

A large stateless Palestinian population also lives in Saudi Arabia, facing similar challenges in access to human rights and protection.

Impacts of statelessness: For all stateless persons, whether it is because of gender discrimination or being born into a stateless family, being stateless in Saudi Arabia can result in significant violations of rights, which has included lack of access to public education, healthcare and other services; inability to access employment, impeded family reunification; social alienation and psychological challenges.  What is often the most difficult consequence for these communities is that, alongside other non-nationals they are at the mercy of their sponsors to remain in the country. But unlike other non-nationals they would have nowhere to return to if subjected to deportation proceedings. 

The co-submitting organisations call on States to recommend the following to Saudi Arabia:

  1. Ensure that all necessary steps are taken to amend the Citizenship Law to enable Saudi women to transfer nationality to their children and spouses, on an equal basis as men.
  2. Take all necessary steps to facilitate the pathway to citizenship and the full rights associated with citizenship for those who have been determined stateless Bidoon in Saudi Arabia, and to ensure that no children of these communities are born stateless in the territory of Saudi Arabia.
  3. Take all necessary steps to implement comprehensive safeguards against statelessness of any child who is born in Saudi Arabia.
  4. Ensure that all stateless populations in Saudi Arabia with a refugee and migration background, such as the Palestinians and Rohingya, are ensured full access to rights and services and a secure and indefinite residency status. Ensure that all children born to these communities in Saudi Arabia, are granted Saudi nationality.
  5. Take all necessary steps to accede to and fully implement the 1954 and 1961 Statelessness Conventions.

Finally we would like to highlight the fact that the problem of statelessness is easily solvable in Saudi Arabia, and with only a few steps hundreds of thousands of individuals, who already live there, will be enable to better contribute and belong to society as equal citizens..